Ken J. Nafziger (longtime distinguished professor of music at EMU)
FREE RANGE HYMNS is a collection of ten hymns from Hymnal: A Worship Book arranged and improvised by three superb musicians who can sing, and/or play, and/or imagine in myriad and delightful ways. The three are Nathan Bontrager, Frances Crowhill Miller and Daryl Snider. I know two of the three very well; they majored in thinking outside the box!
These arrangements ask for intentional, rather than easy, listening. They carry the ear along on thoughtful, reflective wings, sometimes with surprises and surprising results. The world of music is at the trio’s beck and call, at times returning a tune to the culture from which it came, at other times taking a tune to a culture it may never have dreamed of. “My life flows on” is an example of the former, with its “porch swing on a summer night” style; the journey that “O sacred head” is sent on a lively example of the later, from the tune’s early rhythmic style through “a Balkan-inspired rhapsody borrowing from Klezmer and Bulgarian folk music.”
It doesn't matter if you think you know the hymn that will be played next, you’ll likely be surprised anyway! This was a joyous aspect of a first hearing, that, when the next hymn started, it always prompted a “wow, listen to this one!” response. On second and consecutive listenings, the elements of surprise and delight do not lessen.
It’s clear in this reviewer’s mind that there is at the foundation of this music a love for and an incredible respect for the hymns themselves, and beyond that, a love for and an incredible respect for the act of singing these hymns with others. What Bontrager, Miller and Snider have done is to create a freshness that is derived from their congregational experiences, their understandings of what music can do to/for singers and players and listeners, and their broad experiences in the musics of the world. They have not so much made new coats of many colors for these hymns as they have reached deeply into these ten hymns and the layers of experience represented, imagined new and other directions that the hymns have led them, and rewarded us all with a new appreciation of all that a hymn can be. It’s striking that the last hymn on the CD ends with an unaccompanied unison sung tone, reminding us, in the event we had forgotten, that at the heart of all these hymns is the gracious gift of singing.