Let us bow our heads in po­etry

The Dallas Morning News - - ARTS & LIFE - By EL­IZ­A­BETH HAMIL­TON Spe­cial Contributo­r

Amonth into his new job as mu­sic di­rec­tor of All Saints Dal­las, an Angli­can church in Oak Lawn, Ryan Flani­gan re­ceived an email from a parish­ioner with the sub­ject “Re­quest.” At first, he did not want to open it. “If you’ve ever been in church lead­er­ship, you don’t like get­ting emails that say, ‘re­quest,’ ” jokes Flani­gan.

But the email did not con­tain any de­mands. In­stead, it con­tained a poem writ­ten by a re­tired Angli­can priest named Nel­son Koscheski. Flani­gan du­ti­fully read it. “It was gor­geous,” he says.

He picked up his gui­tar, set the poem to a short folk tune, and sent the song to an as­ton­ished Koscheski. “I was tick­led pink,” says Koscheski. “This guy can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!”

So be­gan Litur­gi­cal Folk, a mu­sic project that cen­ters around Koscheski’s re­li­gious po­ems set to Flani­gan’s folk tunes. Since writ­ing that first hymn in early 2015, Litur­gi­cal Folk has gained the sup­port of pro­ducer Isaac Wardell, who has worked with many spir­i­tu­ally minded song­writ­ers, in­clud­ing Suf­jan Stevens, San­dra McCracken and Josh Gar­rels. Wardell pro­duced Litur­gi­cal Folk’s first two al­bums, which de­but Feb. 1.

The hymns range from mourn­ful lamenta-

tions to spir­ited car­ols. Many in­clude lan­guage in­flu­enced by Koscheski’s child­hood spent on Texas ranches. Most wres­tle with sub­stan­tial themes such as sor­row and hope. The col­lab­o­ra­tion of Flani­gan, 37, and Koscheski, 75, is also a unique cross­gen­er­a­tional pair­ing of two men united by a be­lief that when mu­sic is hon­est and re­fined it can be a cred­i­ble, pos­i­tive wit­ness for the church.

Not only has Litur­gi­cal Folk caught the eye of in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the mu­sic in­dus­try such as Wardell, but the project also gained the sup­port of the Angli­can Mis­sion in the Americas, a mis­sion­ary or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Dal­las that plants churches across North Amer­ica and is partly fi­nanc­ing the oth­er­wise self-fi­nanced project. While Flani­gan started by play­ing Litur­gi­cal Folk songs in small house con­certs across Dal­las, in De­cem­ber he and sev­eral other lo­cal mu­si­cians per­formed the hymns, and Koscheski read more of his po­ems at Can­ter­bury House at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity.

Nei­ther Flani­gan nor Koscheski thought the cre­ative work would evolve into a project larger than their orig­i­nal col­lab­o­ra­tions by email.

“I have writ­ten po­etry all my life,” says Koscheski, “but I was loath, em­bar­rassed, to share it.”

Koscheski, the son of an Air Force of­fi­cer, grew up trav­el­ing be­tween his fa­ther’s posts abroad and his fam­ily’s home in the Texas Pan­han­dle. As a boy, he loved po­etry, but his fa­ther en­cour­aged him to par­tic­i­pate in man­lier ac­tiv­i­ties, like fight­ing in the Golden Gloves, he says. When Koscheski re­ceived a Na­tional Merit Schol­ar­ship, he told his fa­ther he wanted to study po­etry. In re­sponse, his fa­ther called him a fool. Koscheski stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing at the U.S. Coast Guard Acad­emy in­stead.

Still, Koscheski con­tin­ued to write po­etry while serv­ing as an engi­neer in the Coast Guard and a priest at sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing the U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­emy and Church of the In­car­na­tion in Dal­las be­fore he re­tired re­cently.

“My heart is not in good shape,” he says. “So I draw, I paint icons and I write po­etry.”

Koscheski says many of his po­ems orig­i­nate in prayer. When he sits in si­lence, ques­tions emerge, like: “There’s a bil­lion peo­ple in China and they’ve never asked my opin­ion once. … If half the world’s pop­u­la­tion gets by with­out con­sult­ing you, who are you?”

Po­etry is a way to ad­dress ques­tions about mean­ing, which sci­ence and rea­son can­not al­ways an­swer ad­e­quately, says Koscheski. As an ex­am­ple, he points to a poem he wrote for his grand­son, who asked him how a good God could al­low evil.

“Of course, there’s no ra­tio­nal an­swer,” says Koscheski. “There’s a cute lit­tle way of say­ing, ‘Well, God knows. It will all come out in the end.’ And that’s true. But it’s not very mean­ing­ful.” In “How Long, O Lord?” Koscheski re­it­er­ates his grand­son’s ques­tion in a lyri­cal lament:

“‘How long, O Lord?’ your Mar­tyrs ask / Be­neath your al­tar stone. / While vic­tory is clear in heav’n, / Here evil claims the throne.”

Koscheski is quick to at­tribute the for­ma­tion of Litur­gi­cal Folk to Flani­gan. “This is Ryan’s cre­ation,” he says.

Flani­gan be­gan writ­ing mu­sic in mid­dle school while grow­ing up in Illi­nois. He first wrote in­stru­men­tal pi­ano mu­sic, then moved on to writ­ing Chris­tian wor­ship songs in high school. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he worked as a mu­sic di­rec­tor for two churches in the Mid­west, all while hop­ing to write a hit wor­ship song.

When Flani­gan be­gan at­tend­ing sem­i­nary at Trin­ity Evan­gel­i­cal Divin­ity School in Chicago, how­ever, he took a class from the the­olo­gian Robert Web­ber, who ex­posed Flani­gan to his­tor­i­cal folk mu­sic and African-Amer­i­can spir­i­tual songs. These struck him as more hon­est about the joys and sor­rows of the hu­man con­di­tion than any­thing he’d heard be­fore, says Flani­gan, and he be­gan writ­ing melodic hymns in­stead.

In 2015, Flani­gan moved to Dal­las with his wife, Melissa, and their three young chil­dren. Around that time, he also be­gan at­tend­ing song­writ­ing camps in Nashville, where he even­tu­ally met Mal­colm du Plessis, a mu­sic con­sul­tant from South Africa.

When du Plessis heard Flani­gan’s mu­sic, he was cap­ti­vated.

“Ryan’s an el­e­gant artist,” says du Plessis in a call from Nashville. “He’s thought­ful. He’s mu­si­cal.” There aren’t many great song­writ­ers in the world, he says, but Flani­gan is one of them.

Du Plessis in­tro­duced Flani­gan to Wardell be­cause he thought the two shared aes­thetic tastes. Af­ter hear­ing a sam­ple of Flani­gan and Koscheski’s hymns, Wardell im­me­di­ately asked when they were avail­able to record.

Wardell was drawn to the lan­guage, sound and in­ter­gen­er­a­tional el­e­ment of Litur­gi­cal Folk, he says.

“One of the things we’ve lost in the last 30 or 40 years of art is multi­gen­er­a­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion,” says Wardell in a call from Char­lottesvill­e, Va.

This has im­pov­er­ished both the younger and older gen­er­a­tions, who no longer of­fer each other wis­dom and en­ergy, he says.

In Oc­to­ber, Koscheski, Flani­gan and Melissa, who of­ten sings with her hus­band, met Wardell at a stu­dio in Char­lottesvill­e to record Vol­umes One and Two of Litur­gi­cal Folk. The first vol­ume is a se­ries of his­toric prayers set to folk tunes; the sec­ond, Koscheski and Flani­gan’s hymns. If the al­bums are well-re­ceived, they plan to record more.

Flani­gan and Koscheski have a ra­zor-sharp vi­sion for their hymns.

“Litur­gi­cal Folk ex­ists to make be­liev­able and beau­ti­ful sa­cred folk mu­sic for the sake of the world,” says Flani­gan.

In­deed, Flani­gan sees Litur­gi­cal Folk as a com­mu­nal project.

It was one of his parish­ioners who orig­i­nally sug­gested that he and Koscheski cre­ate an al­bum. Mu­si­cians of all ages, in­clud­ing the Flani­gans’ own chil­dren, recorded the hymns. He and Melissa raised money and aware­ness for the project by per­form­ing small con­certs in liv­ing rooms and a chapel in Dal­las. The melodic choices are in­flu­enced by African-Amer­i­can spir­i­tual songs, an el­e­ment that Flani­gan hopes will set Litur­gi­cal Folk on a tra­jec­tory to­ward racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

When Flani­gan sings Koscheski’s po­ems, he no­tices that men and women of all gen­er­a­tions sit up straighter, smile and nod along.

“Peo­ple are drawn to Litur­gi­cal Folk be­cause it’s a new sound for peo­ple who are tired of the same old thing,” he says. “Litur­gi­cal Folk is the mu­sic in the bones.”

El­iz­a­beth Hamil­ton is a free­lance writer in Dal­las. She blogs at eliz­a­bethanne hamil­ton.com. Fol­low her on Twitter @hamil­toneliz and In­sta­gram @eliz­a­bethamil­ton.

Photos by Smi­ley N. Pool/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Justin Brooks, Tif­fany Tay­lor Brooks and Flani­gan per­formed at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity’s Can­ter­bury House in early De­cem­ber.

Litur­gi­cal Folk, with Ryan Flani­gan (left) and Nel­son Koscheski, be­gan when Koscheski asked Flani­gan to set a poem to mu­sic.

Photos by Smi­ley N. Pool/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Justin Brooks (from left), Tif­fany Tay­lor Brooks, Melissa Flani­gan and Ryan Flani­gan per­formed at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity last month. Litur­gi­cal Folk has caught the eye of in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the mu­sic in­dus­try.

“Litur­gi­cal Folk ex­ists to make be­liev­able and beau­ti­ful sa­cred folk mu­sic,” Flani­gan says.

A woman in the au­di­ence reads a poem by Nel­son Koscheski. “I have writ­ten po­etry all my life,” he says, “but I was loath, em­bar­rassed, to share it.”

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