I’ve spent the last couple of weeks, off and on, singing with Jenny Moore-Koslowsky. Not in person, of course — Jenny is in London, studying with her husband Conrad. And when I say “singing with,” of course I mean quietly, along with a CD safely playing at a louder volume. In the interest of not creating an auditory nuisance under some local bylaw, I don’t really do so much actual singing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up, as it helps to know a little something about this project.
Jenny Moore-Koslowsky is a part of the talented pool of musicians from St. Benedict’s Table, and the community has sung along with many of her songs, a few of which appear on the previous CD release, We Will Not Be Silent (also on iTunes). When she and her husband Conrad left for London to study for a few years, Jamie Howison (Priest at SBT) had a chat with her about how they might keep the community from losing the richness of her music while she was away. With a little help from a local recording studio, Jenny sat down for a couple of evenings — mainly just her and her guitar, but Conrad Koslowsky plays guitar on two tracks. A few months later, a 7-song EP is the result. There are some specific conditions attached to this release, which helps to explain a little about Jenny, about St. Ben’s, and about the relationships within the community. The single two-sided card of liner notes thanks both Steve Bell and Jamie Howison for “their relentless kindness.”
This EP is a limited release, and only 250 copies will be made, and unlike the previous release from St. Ben’s, it will not appear on iTunes. Despite being a student, Jenny receives no revenue from this project, which is entirely geared toward a break-even point — no more, and no less. The CD cover appears above, and despite what may appear to some as an amateur run on the basement press, this is not the case here. The disc is professionally mixed and mastered in a proper recording studio. The cover art was supplied by Jenny herself, depicting a childlike line drawing of All Saint’s Church in Winnipeg, where SBT meets. The envelope is 100% recycled material in fulfillment of another of Jenny’s criteria for the project, and the drawing is silkscreened by hand onto the cover. The CD itself is imprinted with a simple “JMK for SBT” in handwritten script, reflecting the fact that the effort is in fact a labour of love from Jenny to the community at St. Ben’s. The liner notes read, in part, “made with love for: the community at saint benedict’s table – full of grace, query, melodies, metaphors, good wine, and dark coffee.”
Now we come to the title of the CD, which may be hard to discern from the image above: “Songs for listening to on the train with an excellent set of headphones and an ambivalent heart.” Just in case there was any doubt about how to approach the music on the CD… and to be doubly-certain, a final quote from the liner notes:
(i have often felt like it is insane that i offer music or ideas to such a monumental liturgy but, i don’t feel as though i make the words or form the songs. you make the songs we all bring the music; i just ask you to sing it out with me — to sing what is already in us, what we have already discovered, survived, kept hidden and become. it has changed me forever to write for such a generous community.)
Context is important for a release like this one, but this is not to imply it is necessary to have been a part of the SBT community to enjoy the music. On the contrary, the music is itself a means of inviting the participation of others in an intimate community setting. With the introductory material laid out to set the context, we can now turn to the actual content of the CD, an acoustic-folksy-contemplative blend of gentle lyrics sung with the voice of longing.
The disc opens with “The Long Road,” a title that conveys much of its theme… “You took the long road around getting us out” and “Now I’m on the long road around myself.” We’ve all felt as though we’re on a “long road” at some point, and the song expresses hope for some of the necessary traits for the road… devotion, wisdom, and patience. The hopeful view is expressed in the recurring lyric, “It can’t be too long now.” This track is a grow-on-you one… the first time through this one (live) didn’t strike me personally, but I walked away with the theme in my head nonetheless, and have enjoyed and participated in the song ever since.
“There’s a Time” follows, with it’s penetrating lyrics… penetrating in that they need to stick and foster reflection. “There’s a time for an empty soul / With a dark and broken heart, we can be held” and “There’s a time for the body to ache / With poverty in one hand freedom’s in the other.” The listener is struck by the lyrics, “Blessed are the merciful, I am not one of them / blessed are the pure in heart / for they will show me God.” The recurring line, “There’s a chance to lay down our guard” and its variations lodges in you, awakening a hope for something you didn’t necessarily realize, a calling to community. “Is this the chance to lay down our guard?”
“Have Mercy” is the third track, speaking directly to the soul and asking like the psalmist, “Why are you downcast?” and countering with the words of Peter, “Only he has the words of life.” The lyrics offer the metaphor of long night, waiting for the dawn of the sun and calling out to God for mercy. It’s a quiet anthem for those who wait in silence, struggling to maintain faith in the coming day… a state most of us know only too well.
“Bound Up” is my favorite cut on the EP. I’ve written on this song before, about Being Found and the “Hound of Heaven”, and I later referred to these lyrics as representing peregrinatio, or the cry that sends us such a journey. The song opens saying, “This flock is groaning something bad” and carries on to state the hope of being bound up, strengthened, fed, and found. “We’re wandering out in this barren land / Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah / We’ll be found,” Jenny sings, and the energy of the live performance seeps into my consciousness, with the congregation at St. Ben’s singing out with her.
The words for “Mary’s Song” are by Timothy Dudley-Smith, and features the recurring line that addresses one’s inner self again, “Tell out, my soul, the glory of the Lord God” and goes on to list some of his acts and attributes as examples of his glories. The song has a nice gentle rhythm as Jenny sings it, with a slightly more upbeat tone than some of the other selections.
“You have Redeemed my Soul” is a song by Don Chaffer and stands as a testimony of God’s work in redeeming a soul “from the pit of emptiness” and death. Metaphors of being a hungry child, a dried up river, and a burned out forest ring out, answered by God’s redemption, as for him “nothing is impossible.” This is a song of thanksgiving, of further testimony to God’s great acts.
“Pried Open” closed out the EP. “I am pried open / I am pried open / You are far and near / Here and gone at once.” These are the sum total of the lyrics, but the quiet guitar melody and Jenny’s voice cast in haunting tones gives the track a fully — well, haunting overtone. As it resounds in your ears and heart, the lyrics can begin to unfold as a strong example of some of the power of metaphor that recurs in Jenny’s music.
The songs on this EP are essentially “songs for a journey” — and I’m speaking metaphorically rather than of a trip by train or any other mode “with an excellent set of headphones and an ambivalent heart.” They collectively speak of hope and longing, of endurance, and of remembering the glories of God, the telling of which sustain us in “A Long Obedience (In the Same Direction).” These are the songs and stories we tell to assure one another that the God upon whom we wait is faithful… they are the songs of peregrinatio, saturated with Remembrances for Living in Exile.
This is a limited release, but like the earlier release, it can be obtained now via post from St. Benedict’s Table. A difficulty in reviewing something about which I have no real critique, but I love the music at St. Ben’s and the way in which it touches my soul without the permission of my guarded mind. Jenny is a true artist, and her lyrics have a penetrating quality, conveying a depth of wisdom well beyond her years. I wonder at times if music like this can be as meaningful outside of the community in which it was written. During my conversations with Jenny about my use of two of her songs in my Advent prayer book, I became aware of just how keenly aware she is of the fact that these songs were written in and for a community. They are, I believe, the richest in such an intimate context, but as the songs spin round and round (and repeating again) in my CD player, I am aware too that they will nourish any soul set on peregrinatio. In this sense, I have the impression that they will resonate strongly with those in need of the reminder that they too will be bound up, fed, and found.