You could hear every foot shuffle resonate last night in the sanctuary of Church of the Holy Cross. An obligatory solemnity managed to overtake the audience and everyone but Doug Burr was wary of breaking the delicate silence. Burr was performing his album The Shawl in its supposed entirety; although, I failed to absolutely confirm this. The Shawl, as I’ve written previously, is the simplest musical collection of Biblical Psalms, unmodified in their meticulous English translation* save for a multiple refrain here and there. Burr has apparently been soliciting area churches for space to perform the album and Father Will Brown, Rector of Church of the Holy Cross, was eager to accommodate.
Church of the Holy Cross is an Episcopalian church; moreover, an "Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Parish" by emphasis, which could explain the accidental quiescence. There are traditions of worship – I am intimately familiar with one – in which clapping is a frightful experience. Anglicanism is frequently one of them and their architecture, along with their cultural heritage of punctiliousness, reinforces propriety, solemnity. The results are often beautifully weighty, as was largely the case last night. Doug Burr was flanked by two accompanying musicians, all three standing just beyond the altar gate. His characteristic white shock of hair stood up, as if he were one peculiarly marked by God. A candle representative of creation’s eternal light, the uninterrupted announcement, flickered behind him.
Burr’s voice is precarious. His song often comes out more a cautious pace than a reckless sprint. The methodical words are not always entirely understood and, if you’re in a crowded din, the experience is frustrating. The case here was different. There are those who are compelled, and I am reasonably sure Burr is similarly compelled, that the words of The Shawl are uniquely efficacious. Christ-haunted, Doug Burr plays something of the ghost himself. Not a note The Shawl is very sharp, but its gravity is already beyond the norm, so all of it is imbued with an ineffable collision. In some ways, The Shawl feels like one long prelude to Burr’s most multiplied and unmistakable refrain: “surely there is a God who judges.” A strange comfort; a bloody grace.
The Psalms are a long tradition, not only in Judaism, but in Christianity too, where they are interpreted in the light of the Christians’ dawn. They’ve gone largely neglected in Christendom, where a troublingly many compose music in the undignified hubris that they have created something sacred. Burr’s approach evokes something, I think, closer to the original. A dusty-footed Palestinian of the first century, standing in the dim light of his or her old synagogue, singing aloud the fifty eighth of an ancient book of songs, bewildered with the newness of every word, strangely and fearfully assured.
*New American Standard