“Wand’ring Pilgrim”: An Interview with Joe Tyrpak about the Song

IMG_0145.JPG - Version 3I thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with Joe Tyrpak (of Churchworksmedia.com) on our recently released single “Wand’ring Pilgrim.” I asked Joe a few questions about the song from his perspective.

PK: At what point did you decide the poems in David Brainerd’s biography should be turned into a song?

JT: I’ve been considering the musical possibility of these two Brainerd poems since late 2011. I was reading through the Life of Brainerd during that season, and several facets of his example—his longings for holiness, his sufferings for the gospel, his passionate intercession for the lost—were challenging me. Because Brainerd was inspiring me (and because I’ve written some poetry for congregational singing), I desired to put these poems to music. It wasn’t until February 2014 that I considered combining the two poems into one song.

What kind of song did you envision for Brainerd’s words–not necessarily style, but feeling or mood? Did you have any inspiration to which you looked?

My priority concern with the music for “Wand’ring Pilgrim” was that churches could use it. Churchworksmedia.com is all about making freely available music that’s congregationally accessible. Going further, my initial target for the Brainerd song was a sober and meditative piece. It needed to feel like a prayer of “pining”—like the cry of a longing heart. I initially envisioned that it’d probably be in a minor key. When I first sent my ideas to Paul, I told him that I’d like for it to have a folk sound. I suggested the simple sound of Fernando Ortega’s “Just As I Am” (which shifts from minor to major) and the folk classic “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” As we worked through the first few versions, I specified my concept. I told Paul, “We need to make sure the folk feel is more sophisticated.” I pointed him to R. Vaughan Williams’ tune for “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” as an example of what I meant by that “more sophisticated” folk sound.

Why Watchsong?

I asked Watchsong to consider this project because I wanted it to have Paul’s distinctive sound. For the past several years the congregation I pastor has enjoyed singing some of Paul’s hymns. We love “O God My Joy.” We’ve sung his meditation on 1 Peter 1-2: “Chosen As His Children.” And, his version of Psalm 66, “Shout Out for Joy,” has become one of our church’s all-time favorites. It’s hard for me to enunciate what exactly comprises Paul’s style, but I know that each of those hymns has the sort of musical emotion I envisioned for “Wand’ring Pilgrim.” Finally, for Christmas a few years ago I was given a copy of Paul’s Broadway-like musical, A Christmas Carol. I think the emotion of a few songs on that CD further compelled me to ask him.

As the song began taking shape in someone else’s mind, how did your view of the song change?

Starting any creative project is a bit strange because, at one and the same moment, you have a pretty solid idea of what you want it to sound like, and yet you realize that within those parameters the project could go in a thousand (very) different directions. Between June and August of 2014 the Brainerd song went through about a dozen variations. So, while the song experienced significant development over those two months, looking back I’m not sure that my vision for the song changed all that much. Rather, certain ideas would get closer to the target, so those are the ones we’d further develop.

What do you like about the final version of “Wand’ring Pilgrim”?

I love that the final version of “Wand’ring Pilgrim” is expressive. I love that it feels authentic, even primitive. I love that it pairs substantive text and a sophisticated sound with the old words, “This world is not my home.” I love how the strings and voices synergize in the end to bring the song to its climactic expression. I love that “Wand’ring Pilgrim” somehow captures Brainerd’s experience of, what he called, “pleasing pain.” It captures his holy, yet unsatisfied cravings. And, it captures the message and (I think) the feel of Psalm 73:25 and Hebrews 11.


Remembering “Dr. Gus”

Dwight Gustafson conducting in Rodeheaver Auditorium, 2010

Dwight Gustafson (better known to us as “Dr. Gus”) passed away a few weeks ago on January 28. He served as dean of the School of Fine Arts at Bob Jones University for 43 years and had a profound influence on thousands of lives, including mine.

Bju.edu has a beautiful tribute page to Dr. Gus. What follows is the personal tribute that I shared:

“I attended BJU after Dr. Gus had ‘retired,’ but he still did a lot of conducting. I feel so fortunate to have learned under his direction for many concerts and operas. I think my favorite memories are from our evening opera understudy rehearsals with just him, the piano, and the other soloists. His immense scholarship combined with his personal warmth were inspiring. He once took the time to ‘lean over me’ [he was a very tall man] with a personal word of encouragement that helped keep me in grad school at a time of great personal struggle. I will never forget that.

“To his family: you have always treated me like a son and brother. I have seldom felt more welcomed than in your presence. Dr. Gus always made me feel that way, too. His warmth and wit survive in you. Praying for you all. Dr. Gus will be missed…and remembered.”

[Dr. Gus is the grandfather of Brian Pinner, my good friend and musical collaborator. Together we wrote “O God My Joy” and “See the Christ.”]

The Tree

I ran across some poetical musings of mine from years ago that I thought might be interesting to share. (Just for future reference, I try to archive some of my inspirations on the Music Page of the main site). This is just a kind of free verse poetry. I wanted to focus on description and story without the confines of meter or rhyme. In fact, I originally wrote it in paragraph form. But I like how the poetic form highlights the descriptive phrases. I hope you find it a blessing!


The Tree [2009]

As I emerged into the clearing,
my gaze was first fixed
upon the silvery stream.
Clear and crystalline,
a stone-toss in width,
it wound its way,
winking a thousand little suns,
through the verdant valley.

And then, the tree.
Sage and serene,
wise and weathered,
it gripped the ground near the water’s edge,
immovably rooted by the life-giving vein—
its lush, leafy canopy letting only a few
jagged patterns of light
dance under its shelter.

As I looked, scenes like phantoms
faded in and out before my view:
a little girl reading her favorite book,
wiry legs swinging happily
on a low branch near the bank;
a group of whooping boys
launching boldly out into the stream
from a knotted rope fixed
to a sturdy upper limb;
a pair of picnicking young lovers
lying in the shade, pointing,
laughing at menageries of animals
floating by in the clouds above;
a stray mare, taking refuge from a fierce storm,
calmly mowing the dry grasses underneath;
an old man perched on a root,
pulling on his pipe
before resuming his afternoon walk;
a family grave-side gathering
over a small, solitary headstone.

And I remembered wise words,
ancient words from the Scriptures:
“Blessed is the man who walks not
in the counsel of the wicked…
but his delight is in the law of the Lord…
He is like a tree planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.” 1
“In the fear of the Lord
one has strong confidence,
and his children will have a refuge.” 2
“Whoever abides in me and I in him,
he it is that bears much fruit,
for apart from me you can do nothing.” 3

This tree, rough and wrinkled,
suddenly seemed to me more beautiful
than the smoothest skin—
its earthy fragrance more intoxicating
than the sweetest perfume.
I longed with all my life
to be like this tree:
deeply, desperately rooted
by the living streams of God’s Word;
to be to my family and to all
who wandered into my shadow
a life-long safe-haven of love—
a sage, sturdy refuge of truth—
a life heavy with the fruit of the Spirit.

1 Psalm 1:1-3
2 Proverbs 14:26
3 John 15:5