– A Conversation with John Schreiner
When producer, composer and creative catalyst John Schreiner originally envisioned updating the First Century Odes of Solomon into a modern musical setting, this soft-spoken Seattle native brought a wealth of experience to the challenge.
The son of a minister, Schreiner began picking out tunes on the piano at age three and by his early teen years was regularly playing keyboards at his father’s church. In a national talent contest, he was award a Presidential Prize and subsequently found himself much in demand as a session artist, producer and arranger. He would go on to build an impressive resume, including collaborations with both Christian and mainstream artists ranging from Fernando Ortega and Brian Duncan to Aretha Franklin and Donna Summer.
Yet Schreiner, for all his experience, is hardly a journeyman. A songwriter, composer and recording artist in his own right, he has dedicated his career to discovering, nurturing and creating music that authentically expresses faith without regard to prevailing fads and fashion. “I appreciate the intention behind a lot a contemporary Christian music,” he explains. “But I also feel that there is a depth and dimension that has yet to be fully explored. That’s what attracted me to The Odes Project in the first place.”
It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of these masterpieces of early Christian devotion to an artist who has always striven for a genuine musical language to convey timeless truth. Yet Schreiner himself admits to the struggle he encountered in recasting this ancient poetry for modern ears. “Over a period of two years I met with Dr. Chuck Fromm, who has extensively studied the music of the first church,” he reveals. “We met regularly to discuss the best approach the project. Initially, I had difficulty in imagining these lyrics in a modern context and the reason, I think, is because we have come to rely today on making music that is accessible to the head rather than the heart. Since the time that the Odes were written, we have lost touch with the ecstatic, mystical expressions of faith that were so much a part of the early church. There was such a rich use of metaphor and imagery that evokes a whole different experience of praising God. It’s as if I had to learn that vocabulary all over again.”
For Schreiner that learning curve involved actively imagining himself in the historical context in which the Odes were written. “I tried to put myself into the situation of the poet himself and interpret that experience musically. When you get that kind of window into the hearts of ancient people, especially in the midst of persecution and hardship, it gives you a whole new appreciation for the joy and reverence of their worship. That became my primary focus in bringing this poetry into a modern musical setting.”
But Schreiner’s quest for authenticity didn’t stop there. “I went to Princeton University,” he explains, “where I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Dr. Hugh Old, who is an acknowledged authority on the Odes and gave me incredible insights into the early church at the time that they were written. But even with all that historical background my approach to writing new music for the Odes was one of fear and trembling. I wanted, more than anything, to capture the heart of the writer and the sense of devotion that bound that community together. It was as if I had been given a great gift and it was my responsibility to pass it along in all its truth and beauty.”
Once that intent was established, Schreiner found himself in the flow of the intuitive artistry of the Odes. “I didn’t overly concern myself with trying to reproduce the ancient instrumentation or even the musical style of that time,” he continues. “I felt free to utilize whatever best fit the emotional content, whether it was a hundred voice choir, an electronic keyboard or percussion sounds directly from the Middle East. I tried to let the spirit of the Odes express themselves in whatever production and arrangement was appropriate. In a very real way, I felt as if I were in collaboration with that poet over a distance of millennia. It was an intensely moving experience and I often found myself weeping as I wrote music to accompany his majestic words.”
The Odes Project, Schreiner concludes, was one of the most resonant and revealing creative ventures of his long career. “There was a sense of awe and wonder to these words that came alive for me,” he says. “If I’ve been able to bring that to life for others, than I feel as if I’ve done justice to a writing partner whose name I’ll never know.”