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Synthesizing Old Message in New Music : Composer's Avant-Garde Pieces Celebrate His Faith

November 17, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

It was Pentecost at the Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Ventura and composer Jeff Kaiser was getting ready to break the liturgical sound barrier.

Suddenly, a stream of computer-generated sounds pierced the still church air. The whooshing noises and strange beats danced over the heads of parishioners, evoking the tongues of fire that the Bible says flickered above the apostles on that first Pentecost, filling them with the Holy Ghost and allowing them to speak in tongues.

"Anyone who was more traditional struggled a bit," recalled Eastminster's pastor, the Rev. Dan Stevens. "But it's good for us and the church to allow Jeff to push us in some of our musical thinking."

Gregorian chants and swelling pipe organ music, this is not. But Kaiser, 26, is no orthodox composer. He belongs to a growing group of Christian artists who spread their sometimes avant-garde religious messages in churches and concert halls nationwide.

"Artists with a Christian world view are working in every style you can imagine," said Scott Dwinell of Contemporary Christian Music, a Nashville-based magazine.

They include Amy Grant, the country's leading Christian pop singer, and heavy metal band Stryper. They helped make Christian music a $400-million-a-year industry. They include liturgical dance troupes on Christian college campuses who choreograph works based on the Scriptures. And they include Kaiser, who hasn't released any records yet but last week performed two compositions at an American Music Week concert at Ventura College that drew about 40 people.

Liturgical music "doesn't have to be 'Jesus, I love you Jesus,' " said Kaiser, who infuses his compositions with the same optimism present in his life. "There's a whole range of colors God created . . . of other musical things we can do. But for centuries, we've played choral music for organs," he said.

Kaiser--who isn't an ordained minister but is considering entering a doctorate of divinity program--wants to change all that. While earning a bachelor's degree in music composition from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, he played guitar with a hard-driving "post-punk Christian band" called Blind Hooky.

In 1987, he earned a master's degree in choral and orchestral conducting from Azusa Pacific College. Today, he teaches high school at John Jenkins Christian Academy in Santa Paula and directs a 50-member choir at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Westlake Village (he left Eastminster in June).

In between, he composes electronic "art music" on his Macintosh computer, inspired by his religious beliefs and his goal of pushing the guitar, clarinet, trumpet and synthesizer to their technological limits.

Wrote Sound Track

Using jazzy trumpets, gurgling synthesizers and computer-generated blips and galumphing noises not found in nature, Kaiser weaves evocative, free-form rhythms. Last May, he was commissioned to compose a piece for the opening of the Ventura Arts Council Momentum Gallery. For some film-maker friends in Ventura, he wrote the sound track to "Night of the Doll," a Stephen King-like movie spoof that features a Cabbage Patch doll which comes to life and wreaks revenge on poker players who terrorized it. And he is a member of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music of the United States (SEAMUS), which promotes new electronic music.

But Kaiser has a deeply religious side. One of his favorite compositions is the choral music he wrote for John Milton's poem "Hymn," whose words--"Ring out ye crystal spheres"--have become his personal anthem:

"The whole purpose of my job is to lead people to worship," Kaiser said. "If I thought my music was offensive to anyone in the church I would be less inclined to use it in the worship service."

But he confided gleefully that "some of the little old ladies really get into the modern stuff."

Like "Mom! She Ruined My Alien Footprints," a 5-minute composition for electronics with trombone and percussion-like sounds he debuted recently at Ventura College.

"Mom" is at times sonorous, light, quirky and always funny, with varied sounds reminiscent of a 1930s cartoon to something like cricket chirps.

Title From Real Life

The title came to him when Kaiser saw a little girl sculpting rows of geometric shapes in the sand. Her sister sneaked up behind her, jumped up and stomped on the design.

"The little sculptor ran to her mother screaming the future title of my latest electronic work," Kaiser said.

He composes in his Ventura hills home, which has a stunning ocean view. His study is lined with books and musical equipment, from mixing board and equalizer to four-track reel-to-reel, drum machine, two synthesizers and reams of sheet music.

For musical influences, he cites American avant-garde composer John Cage, British surrealistic rock band Pink Floyd, free-form art-rock group King Crimson, Hungarian composer Bela Bartok and jazz great Miles Davis.

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