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Musicians Steve Jordan and David Giles come together to create holiday-based cantatas
Some friends get together to watch sports or talk over dinner. But for Steve Jordan and David Giles, their purpose is music exploring the untold story in familiar Christian narratives through a collection of songs called a cantata.
Their partnership started about 10 years ago, Jordan says, when he attended a service at Abbey Road Christian Church with his mother-in-law and saw Giles performing.
"I thought, 'I know that guy up there,'" Jordan says, and they connected from there.
Giles says they formed a group shortly after and began exploring music, though for the most part they stayed on safe ground.
"I had written a Christmas song called 'Joseph's Prayer,'" Jordan says. "It was a minor hit in very small circles."
By the next Christmas season, Jordan had written one or two more songs, and so had Giles.
"We began talking -- we didn't really intend for these songs to go together, but why not put them together and tell the Christmas story in a different way?" Jordan says.
Their first performance came in 2010.
By then, the group membership had swelled to five, Giles says.
"David wrote a number of songs added to mine and we really drilled down deeply into the various Christmas stories," Jordan says.
Giles says they really wanted to give Joseph a voice.
The Easter cantata came about after a Christmas performance when they wondered what they could do with the Easter story.
"For both of our cantatas, we wanted to tell the stories as if it's happening right now, to me as an individual," Jordan says. "We intentionally looked at the people involved and tried to interpret how they were psychologically reacting to these events that were unfolding."
Jordan adds both cantatas are very intimate, with wrought emotions.
Where the Christmas cantata is a fun, happy story, Giles says, the Easter cantata is more challenging to the listener.
Jordan says the Easter cantata allowed them to walk people through intense sadness, ending with the women at Jesus' tomb.
"We emphasize the men in the Christmas story and emphasize women in the Easter story," Jordan says.
"The unvoiced characters, we got to tell their perspective," Giles says. "One is the man on the cross not wanting to be forgotten."
Then, of course, there's the story of Judas.
"If I can get through the song without crying, it's a miracle," Giles says of the song focused on Judas' story of betraying Jesus to the town guards for 30 pieces of silver.
"It's the human empathy you have to have about a fellow put in a hard place," Giles says.
Jordan says the first year he and Giles performed the Easter cantata, "we did not cut anybody any slack. We left it with the women at the tomb." People left confused and sad, he says.
"Next year, we couldn't do that," Jordan says, and instead, they elected to end on a set of marching orders for the listener.
Jordan says their cantatas are different from, for instance, Handel's "Messiah."
"Handel's letting you off the hook with his pipe organ and orchestra," Jordan says. "With our guitars and mandolins, it's a little more intimate, a direct in-your-face experience."
Jordan says he and Giles aren't trying to compete with Handel's operatic, grandiose style.
"If anything, we're kind of the anti-Handel because that's big and beautiful, a gloriously distant perspective 500 years after the fact, and what we're trying to do is go back and put people in the bedroom with Mary when the angel comes in with 'I have some news you may or may not want to hear.'"
"It's hard to see the dirt in Handel," Giles adds.
Both styles of cantata are beautiful and wonderful, Giles says, but their choice is to convey contemporaneous events and feelings.
"If I woke in the middle of the night and the room was shining and someone told me 'Hie thee to Egypt,' would I just get up and go? What would that look like?" Jordan says. Jordan and Giles perform their cantatas in the Abbey Road sanctuary with an audio/visual show on the screen nearby, with the songs' lyrics and art befitting the story.
Jordan says they would almost rather be behind a curtain than be the focus of attention.
"We really want lyrics and message to be center, not us as performers," he says.
The Christmas cantata is available on CD at the Cape Girardeau County History Center in Jackson and at the Lutheran Heritage Center in Altenburg, Missouri. The Easter cantata wrapped recording in early May and should be available soon, Jordan says.