“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.


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

We Must Exit the Stage

Every now and again, I’ve enjoyed listening to This American Life from Chicago Public Media. About a month ago, I heard a story that really saddened me. The episode was called “Fear of Sleep” which originally aired August 8, 2008. For the last act, “A Small Taste Of The Big Sleep,” several people were interviewed about their ultimate fear (which only seems compounded by sleep)—death. Here are a few of their recalled experiences:

“You’re cornered. You’re a trapped animal who’s like sweating and waiting for its head to be chopped off.”

“I can feel time whizzing by. And I’m trying to hold on to something generally. So I usually start grabbing the walls or like clinging to the pillow. And I’m like this isn’t going to go away. I need to hold this. I need to hold on to time. I need to stand in this river and just not move.”

“…it’s a kind of very primitive feeling. You have to just, like, flee from this totally horrible thing that’s happening to you. But there is nowhere you can flee. And understanding at the same time that what you’re fleeing and trying to run away from is the complete cessation of you.”

“When this wakes me up in the middle of the night it’s because I’m right…it’s going to happen. That’s why. Because that’s reality. And just for some reason I can see it.”

“I cry. And I just get really sad…I try to breath really deeply. And I just think…there’s nothing I can do. Like the terror is overtaken by just sadness. I just want it to not be true.”

I’m not making light of these experiences. I’m genuinely saddened because no one need fear death! The show ended with part of a poem. I longed for some word here that would comfort these people or give them the answer to their fears. But this was the only wisdom and comfort that was offered (taken from “Aubade” by Philip Larkin published in his Collected Poems):

“…the total emptiness forever, the sure extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always. Not to be here, not to be anywhere, and soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

“This is a special way of being afraid no trick dispels. Religion used to try, that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die, and specious stuff that says no rational being can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing that this is what we fear– no sight, no sound, no touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, nothing to love or link with, the anesthetic from which none come round.”

These poor souls will find no comfort here. But they might take comfort in the fact that Larkin couldn’t be more wrong. Enter a worldview with a purposeful Creator God, and feel the pure, raw hope it brings (taken from Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl by N. D. Wilson):

“There was a time when men and women understood death more fully, when mortality was never ignored. Men and women executed their endings better then….They, like Solomon, knew that we are but vapor, that we are here for but a little while. We must exit the stage, down through traps, and let others traipse and sing, love and lose, fight and struggle above us.

“When we die, wherever or whenever that might be…God is also there, shaping the story, off the stage and on the stage….To His eyes, you never leave the stage. You do not cease to exist. It is a chapter ending, an act, not the play itself. Look to Him. Walk toward Him. The cocoon is a death, but not a final death. The coffin can be a tragedy, but not for long. There will be butterflies.

I will die, and when I do—whether it be in my bed as age creeps over me, or struck by lightning, a meteor, or a UPS truck—when my body and soul find their divorce, His hand will be the one that cuts the thread and shows me the path He [Jesus] blazed through tragedy. His finger will point to the parade.”

True religion does not try to pretend we never die. Rather it tries to point us to (and prepare us for) the greater reality which death unveils. The question then is whom will you believe: those who pretend that there is no God and that this earth-bound existence is the greatest reality we can experience (i.e. Philip Pullman in The Amber Spyglass), or those who point us away from these “shadowlands” to the real God and the very real and substantial life that He holds and offers (i.e. C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce)? Your answer will have grave consequences for how well you execute your stage exit…and your quality of sleep in the meantime.

If you want to make a death-defying exit, then listen to the One who tasted death and conquered it for all who will follow Him:

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me….For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jesus in John 6:38, 40).