09.25.2008

"Thy Mercy," Sandra McCracken

Posted by AJ Harbison at 8:03 pm

Sandra McCracken wrote the song “Thy Mercy” (or “Thy Mercy My God”) as part of a movement to revive old hymn texts and set them to new music for the church. The lyrics were written by John Stocker in 1776, and the music was written by Sandra McCracken in 2001.

I want to focus primarily on the form of the song in this post. To my knowledge, the song has been recorded three times: once by Caedmon’s Call on their album In The Company Of Angels in 2001; once by the Indelible Grace project on their album Pilgrim Days: Indelible Grace II, also in 2001; and once by Sandra herself on her terrific album The Builder And The Architect in 2005.

The song is strophic, that is, it consists of four verses with the same music for each and no chorus. Simple enough, right? The question of form that prompted this post, though, has to do with a musical interlude and its placement. In a song with four verses of the same music and no chorus, an interlude seems a wise choice to break up the form and lend some variety. The interesting thing is that these three recorded versions do three different things with the interlude.

The Indelible Grace version places the interlude between verses two and three, so the form goes like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Interlude
Verse 3
Verse 4

You can listen to the IG version (sung by Sandra) here; “Thy Mercy” is the first track on the CD, so it should start playing when you load the page. The clip is (I think) two minutes long, so you can hear the first two verses, the interlude, verse three, and part of verse four.

The Caedmon’s Call version, which is sung by my favorite songwriter Derek Webb, places the interlude between verses three and four, so the form looks like this:

Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Interlude
Verse 4

iLike.com, which I’ve grown to appreciate more and more on this blog, has a video here where you can listen to the whole song (the video is just a still shot of the title and the band’s name).

And Sandra’s version on The Builder And The Architect, the most musically original of the three, also places the interlude between verses three and four. It develops a vocal idea that was presented in the introduction to the song, and thus is the most musically coherent of the three versions of the interlude. Our good friend Last.fm pulls through for us again, and offers the full track here for your listening pleasure.

If you glance back for a moment at the form charts I listed above, you’ll notice that the IG version is symmetrical, whereas the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions are asymmetrical since the interlude separates three verses from one at the end. Which form is better from a musical standpoint? One could of course argue that both are good in their own ways, and one is not “better” than the other; but I maintain that one is, and for the following reason.

The IG version is not particularly inventive musically, and the “riff” played between the verses is, to be frank, pretty boring. So the general feel of the song becomes static: not much is happening, and we return to the same riff every time between the verses. Thus we have the sequence: riff in the intro, verse one, the riff, verse two, and then an interlude that’s slightly different; then verse three, and then the same riff again. The riff between verses three and four kills any hope we might have had for an overarching dynamic form for the song, because instead of moving on to new or different material to drive the momentum of the song forward, we instead return to the exact same pretty boring riff we’ve heard before, with no variation whatsoever. And therefore the song almost stops dead at this point in terms of form.

Contrast the other two versions–we’ll focus on Sandra’s. To begin with, the instrumentation and style of this arrangement is much more original than the IG version, so we’re more interested from the start. We hear three verses with the same music, although the third verse has a different texture (variations in volume and instrumentation). Then comes the interlude, which is not the same thing we’ve been hearing in between the verses but is a developed and extended version of it–a good balance of repetition and contrast. That propels the momentum of the song forward. Then there is one last verse, returning to the music of the verses, and then the song ends. This form is much more effective because it doesn’t remain static but changes, evolves, through the course of the song, and reflects (in a way) the dramatic topography of the lyrics.

One of the most helpful things I learned in college was that form–in any art but particularly in music–is the balance of repetition and contrast: we need enough repetition to create a coherent song with things we recognize as the song progresses, but enough contrast to create an interesting song that does in fact progress instead of repeating the same material too much. The IG version doesn’t seem to understand this principle; but the Caedmon’s Call and Sandra versions do.

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Comments

  1. Gravatar

    ryan fleming on 09.26.2008

    I took a listen to all three versions and Sandra’s version was definitely my favorite. The instrumentations and themes throughout the song make it very intriguing. My only complaint is that the dynamic of the song does not grow enough. I could of used some percussion on the second verse or some greater volume changes to help build up the song.

    With regards to the placement of the interlude, I think that it should definitely go between versus three and four. A song like this with reptition of the versus needs something to break up the repetition and surprise the listener. Putting the interlude smack dab in the center of the song only adds to the symetry and does not break up the repetition enough. My personal taste would have the interlude be put between versus three and four while the song grows dynamically in versus one, two and three. After the song climaxes at verse three the interlude allows for variety without the need for more growth.

    Also, this interlude idea could work well in your song “Just As I Am” because of the same song structure. Just a thought.

  2. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 09.26.2008

    Hi Fleming,
    I agree! Sandra’s version could use a bit of dynamic variation, but apart from that it’s clearly the most original of the three versions.

    And in regards to “Just As I Am,” when we performed it in Redlands last weekend, we actually did put an interlude in there (an electric guitar solo, actually) between verses three and four (of five)–also asymmetrical. And it worked very well.

    AJ Harbison

  3. Gravatar

    ryan fleming on 09.26.2008

    Very nice! Also, I’m glad to hear that your song was a hit.

  4. Gravatar

    Jeff Mercer on 10.02.2008

    INTERESTING MUSIC OVER ORDER

    I don't know if this was posted before or after our conversation on an interlude for "Just as I am" but I agree that a contrast between ideas is important.

    I would like to propose a thought…

    EXAMPLE 1
    In Christ Alone on the CD –
    Left Behind Worship –
    God Is With Us –

    The artist uses an interlude between versus 2 and 3, but add to the concept by creating that phrasing as an intro, and brings it back again between verse 3 and verse 4, and then ends with it. So, essentially, the interlude becomes very repetitious.

    Introduction
    Verse 1
    Verse 2
    Interlude
    Verse 3
    Interlude
    Verse 4
    Interlude

    I think you would agree that it does NOT seem to be repetitious despite how it looks, in fact, the interlude is my favorite piece to the structure of this song (if done right as this version does). In the case of this specific version, there is fantastic instrumentation and percussion which brings an interesting texture and musicality.

    EXAMPLE 2
    Before The Throne of God –
    Sonicpraise (Live) –

    This hymn arrangement starts with an introduction that is repetitive and placed between every verse, but adds a guitar solo between verses 2 and 3.

    It repeats verse 1 so essentially we can assume that it is a 5 verse sequence set up as follows

    Introduction
    Verse 1
    Interlude
    Verse 1
    Interlude
    Verse 2
    interlude
    Verse Guitar Solo
    Interlude
    Verse 3
    Interlude

    It seems extremely repetitious, even though it is placed between versus 4 and 5 in the sequence…

    So the real discussion should be…
    (which I think you hit on quite well)
    …that the musical differences and new ideas make the song work, not necessarily where you place it…

    In Christ Alone makes the middle section break work with bringing verse 3 to a quite point and verse 4 big and expressive
    (Shane and Shane take In Christ Alone and do some incredible differences in Dynamics and phrasing that work contrasting vocal dynamics against instrumentation)

    Where as Sonic Flood (in my humble opinion) does not make the musical structure work for me, even though it was placed between later verses.

    So, my point is INTERESTING MUSIC OVER ORDER
    JEff <><

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