Songs for the living
Angelus News Feb. 27, 2015
“People want to sing, there is a deep need to celebrate with others,” declares musician/composer David Haas, who will once again participate in this year’s Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, March 13-15 in Anaheim.
Known as one of the preeminent liturgical composers of the day, he’s been present at every Congress since 1985, offering his talents at workshops and celebrations for prayer, education and reflection.
In addition to facilitating three Congress workshops, Haas will be performing a Sunday lunchtime concert presenting selections from his latest album, “I Will Live On” — songs that were inspired by the death of his mother last year.
“Everyone is probably grieving over the loss of someone in their lives,” he tells The Tidings from his current home in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where he is on the campus ministry team at Cretin-Derham Hall High School. “These songs are not mainly for memorial services, they are for the living. Music helps us nurture that Christian friendship of compassion. After all, we are all called to ‘suffer with’ one another.”
The album title comes from Psalm 18:17 “I will not die, but live on.” As always, Haas’ songs have a way of being leveraged in a multitude of settings, whether it’s a grand arena hall, shared in small groups or heard through personal earbuds; this album contains songs that can be used for liturgies, individual prayer or other group prayer experiences, says Haas.
Indeed, since Haas started his liturgical music career back in the 1980s, he has seen how his music has been embraced in numerous ways by Catholics — and other Christian denominations — everywhere. Alone and in partnership with fellow musicians Michael Joncas and Marty Haugen, Haas greatly influenced the direction of liturgical music that was the result of the Second Vatican Council; his gentle and flowing melodies, joyful proclamations and personal spirituality became touchstones for Catholics seeking a renewed, faith-filled vision of the power of music.
Haas has composed and produced more than 50 collections and recordings of original liturgical music — open any hymnal or music anthology in any place of worship around the world and you will probably see his name and well-known and beloved songs: “We Are Called,” “You are Mine,” “Blest are They,” “We Have Been Told,” and many more.
You might not recognize the official song titles, but the tunes are instantaneously memorable and will make you hum them for hours after hearing.
Haas admits that he doesn’t write songs for a cantor or choir. “These are songs for a musically untrained assembly,” he says about composing for the masses. His method: create easy to follow chords, simple but effective melodies that are accessible, use lyrics that are not cheap or cheesy in sentiment, but have heartfelt and authentic emotions.
Scripture passages make up about 98 percent of the inspiration for Haas’ songs; he’ll especially pull from Sunday liturgical responsorial psalms when composing. The other two percent? Those come from outside inspiration and from personal experiences.
“Especially when you are the most vulnerable,” he explains, pointing to “You are Mine” as an example of a song he composed during “an incredibly dark and painful place. It took about 10 minutes to write. Afterward, I put it away and didn’t play it for a year. I was thinking, ‘No one else can feel like this,’ but when I eventually took it out of hiding, it’s a song that everyone relates to wherever I go.”
In addition to writing out of need, Haas says he composes songs that also come out of a place of gratitude. “When we feel grateful, we are out best selves,” he says. “We come to that place of thanksgiving and we tend to be more authentic and with more integrity in our lives.”
Haas’ deep understanding of the human psyche and spirituality is matched with his musicality, which was honed at an early age. Growing up in Michigan, his father was a professional music educator
who taught piano and his mother was a voice instructor.
On Sundays, his mother led the choir while his father played the organ. Haas fondly remembers sing-alongs at his house where guests and family would gather around two grand pianos and sing for hours.
“It was very clear to me at any early age that music was something to participate in and not just listen to,” he says.
Today, Haas continues to invite participation with his songs. He also sees new trends in liturgical music, namely how cultural diversity in the Church is shaping not necessarily the specific language of songs, but how different cultures and traditions will add dimension in new tunes and lyrics.
Perhaps the best accolade Haas receives for his music is when he hears others perform it. At one Youth Day, he was pleasantly surprised to hear “You Are Mine” done like a rock song, with a big back beat that gave the gentle, almost romantic tune a more joyful and youthful touch.
“That was completely not how I envisioned it, but as a composer, you have to set your songs free,” he says. “Those songs are now for others now. You just have to get out of the way.”