The Christian Chronicle interview with Konstantin Zhigulin
by Lynn McMillon
They are not my songs; they are the church’s
Believers from Russia to the U.S. sing the musical compositions of
Christian composer Konstantin Zhigulin
1) How did you become interested in composing church music?
When I first turned to the Lord and believed, the song "Remembrance" came to me.
Many congregations started singing it connected with the Lord's Supper.
After a few more songs were written, they also were being used during worship services.
The music I wrote was becoming the sole expression of my faith in God and a
welcome expression of faith for many who came to the Lord in Russia in the 1990s.
A preacher named Jeff Matteson was a big help to me. He worked with me and
mentored me at the very beginning of this path. Many people have had a part
in these songs coming to be. In congregations in Russia, lots know these songs
by memory and they are sung like they've already been around for ages.
So, I can't really call them my songs anymore; they are the Church's songs.
2) Who uses your music? Is it published in a book?
This music is used by congregations and also by performing groups, including small ensembles and choirs at various Christian colleges, universities, and churches, too. A number of songs are translated in English, German, Estonian, French, Albanian, and Greek – which makes them useable all over the world. Most important to me is that these songs are finding their place within the congregational singing segment of the worship service.
Sheet-music for all these songs is made available on the website of the vocal ensemble "Psalom". Many of these songs have been included in the Russian-language songbook "Music of the Heart" published by Eastern European Mission for the church in Russia and Ukraine. Some songs in English are published in the USA, as part of the project "Timeless – Ancient Psalms for the Church Today." Two songs appear in "Psalms for all seasons – A Complete Psalter for Worship." Also, there is a multi-volume set of songbooks compiling only my music, which James Tackett (Austin Christian Acappella Music) has made possible. Information about how to acquire these is on the website www.psalom.org.
3) What are the musical characteristics of the type of music that Russian Christians prefer?
Christians in Russia – hmm… – that's pretty broad. Just like in other countries, there is a lot going on that is producing many different styles. Church music should express our faith and testify to God as presented in the Bible – proclaim God's forgiveness, his mercy, his love, his majesty, his might and his judgement. Often, in place of this, the selections in a song service depend on popularity and musical appeal. We easily like those songs that "just sound good" to us. But in this, we discard the process of searching and of self-directed consideration of a composition. The role of worship leaders is extremely important in this, for they must not only select meaningful songs, but also through these songs connect the congregation to the experience of worship, all the while leading them well, and both teaching and inspiring the congregation. In addition to this, the song leader needs to clearly understand the church assembly and what part the song service has in it. The right relationship of form and content creates room for worship for the congregation, a space for bowing down before God. The Church will always prefer songs of conscious worship over those that momentarily entertain with a pretty melody or that are hurriedly provided a flashy translation. The Church wants songs that proclaim the truth about God, that speak of his will and our desire to accept and fulfill it. The problem often is that a congregation doesn't have someone able to really dig into this, or that we haven't understood that the search is needed and that it will bring good fruit.
4) What raised the need for Russian hymnology?
Within the topic of spiritual music, the concept of "congregational singing" often gets absorbed into the idea of "church music." It would be better not to let these terms be interchanged. "Church music" is for the listener, but church songs are for the singer, for the congregation. The music of the Orthodox Church, for example, is beautiful church music. The problem here is that this music was never meant for the congregation to sing. In the course of the liturgical service, this music is instead sung by a choir. Beyond that, these songs use Old Church Slavonic language, which modern Russian-speaking listeners can only understand bits and pieces of. This contrasts strongly with what I heard after a presentation by the ensemble "Psalom" when a woman came up to me saying, "You know, it's amazing. I've finally understood what is being sung about here in church." People must understand a song's text and capture its deeper meanings, not just generally sense its emotional shadings.
Modern evangelical churches often use protestant hymns, the majority of which were translated from English, many inaccurately. Lots of churches use popular Christian music, but most of these songs come from an instrumental tradition. Young people can tell how effective these are in videos or in a big concert hall, with nice amplification and performance lighting in front of a crowded audience. They think, "We want that, too," not always understanding the nuance of technological details that go into creating that result. Trying to recreate this experience at their own worship service, where there are just 25 people in a small room rather than a huge crowd packed into an arena, the effect gets lost somewhere along the way. Probably in their own mind they can link back into that other experience, but for everyone else it doesn't come off well. These songs just weren't designed for singing as a congregation.
The Church of Christ in Russia is practically the only movement where the practice of a cappella congregational singing can still be found. Songs written in modern-day Russian, with the original medium being for a group of amateur voices a cappella, are very, very few in number. So, we have some work to do.
5) What themes do you develop in the lyrics of your songs?
Basically, these are songs on biblical themes and subjects. Many are settings of psalms. The lyrics for some songs are just taken straight from the biblical text.
6) Do Russian Christians need training in singing?
"A person who sings is a person who is free." Do you recall how Paul and Silas were singing while imprisoned? They had greater freedom than those who were guarding them! And, they were singing! Mass culture today is a culture of listening, not of singing. We no longer sing at wedding receptions, preferring to hear something pumped out of speakers. We don't sing at the graveside; instead we are silent, as though having lost our voice. All of this, of course, has an influence on the life of the church, too. Still, for many who visit us during worship services for the first time, communal singing is a revelation.
Over the course of many years we have held an annual singing school, where we teach basic music skills and strive to develop in each student a love for congregational singing. Ideally, developing these skills occurs continually in their local church, too; only then is growth stable. Sadly, few congregations have someone who would take such a ministry on for themselves. Still we aren't discouraged, believing that the Lord will bless and place people in these roles.
7) What yet needs to be done to keep improving Russian church music?
Christians need to preserve and develop the practice of communal a cappella singing. This will be difficult if we are singing like this solely in Sunday morning worship. These songs must be part of our family life, of mid-week small group meetings, of our daily life. Each congregation must see to it that time is allotted for learning new songs and helping everyone develop the skills of singing. We have to bring to others the importance of this practice and of feeling comfortable participating in it, or else the church will fall silent. Right now, I am putting effort specifically into these areas. We are composing new songs; we are creating resources for learning the basics of music and singing. In the past few years we have been giving seminars and workshops in Russia and in other countries, including Estonia, Germany, and the USA. We plan on continuing this work.
8) What are the favorite songs that you have written? Describe them?
Every song is special to me in its own way. I think one of the most important songs I've written is "Lament for the Innocents." My friend Jeff Matteson wrote the lyrics in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass-shooting in December 2012. The Lord says we are to "mourn with those who are mourning." It's in these moments we become who we are to be. Especially when it is children we mourn, we discard nationality, ethnicity, and language. All conventions are torn away, and all that remains is, "Where are you, God?" Regrettably, these things keep happening and we pray that we Lord will comfort us. Also, we have the hope that one day he will come and take away this pain.
I know that many congregations in the USA love the song "My God and King." The text for this song was written by brother Mark Shipp from Austin on the themes of Psalm 84. Specifically for the "Timeless" project, Mark and I have worked on a number of good songs, like "Return, O Lord" (Ps. 6), "O praise the Lord, my soul" (Ps. 146), and many others.
A few songs are unique in how their lyrics are practically unchanged from the biblical text: "The Lord's Prayer," "The Lord is Risen from the Grave," and "You are the Light of the World." The English versions of these songs were worked on by Brad Cawyer, a wonderful musician from Dallas with whom I've collaborated for many years now.
9) How is your wife, Lina, involved in your ministry?
Lina has always been a part of the ensemble "Psalom." She has an amazing gift in her voice. For a number of years Lina has been the choir director at Saint-Petersburg Christian University, and she trains the choir for a Baptist church in nearby Pavlovsk. She teaches in the Annual Singing School, too. And, what Lina does supporting me is no small thing.
10) What are your favorite American hymns, and are they popular in Russia?
Many traditional hymns that are sung by in American churches were written in Europe; this is true even of "As the Deer Pants for the Water." One of my favorite American hymns would have to be "It is well with my soul." It is great that the Church of Christ in America has such talented authors like Keith Lancaster (A Capella) and Ken Young (Hallal). I have translated into Russian a few of Randy Gill's wonderful songs: "Closer" and "Shout Hallelujah." I also really love Randy's "Deep Calls to Deep". The last song I translated into Russian was "Wonderful, Merciful Savior" by Dawn Rodgers and Eric Wyse. I also think M. W. Bassford and C. E. Couchman's "Exalted." Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting with the excellent American composer Shawn Kirchner. I am confident that there are many more talented authors I have yet to meet in the Lord's Church who have dedicated themselves to praising of God's Holy Name and to developing of a Church which worships in spirit and truth.
The Church in Russia is always looking for new songs. Looking back on our experience visiting American churches with "Psalom" in years past, I see that you also are open to accepting Christian songs from other cultures to use in your own times of worship.
I would like to thank those people and congregations who support our ministry and recognize its value. You understand that the songs which the Church sings today were all at one time new. You understand that in order for congregational singing to be preserved, it must be nurtured and developed. We are grateful to all who wish to support what we are doing: http://psalom.org/home/main_donate.html
A few more words about our workshops: these have been held at the Bellevue church of Christ (Nashville, TN), the Northside church of Christ (Temple, TX), and the Memorial Road Church of Christ (Edmond, OK), receiving a great response. If you or your congregation is interested in knowing more, please write to me and we'll work on planning a workshop with you!