There’s a noise off in the distance. it’s soft now, but soon it will be loud enough for everyone to hear. What is it? “The gospel train’s a-coming. She’s coming ’round the curve and straining every nerve.”
So, at least, proclaims the famous African-American spiritual, “Get on Board.” If the train mentioned in the song arrives in central Ohio, Raymond Wise most likely will be its conductor. That’s because Wise, an assistant professor, composer, and choral director at Denison, is leading the charge to incorporate spirituals into the mainstream.
His latest creation, a concert sheet music collection called 21 Spirituals for the 21st Century, may be his most effective salvo yet. The songs are meant to satisfy novices and expert singers alike, gospel aficionados and musicians of all other sorts.
That may not sound revolutionary, but it is. Spiritual music has long operated in a world of its own, separate from the classical academy. (It is actually the slave-era predecessor of 20th-century gospel music, known for its unaccompanied style and its search for hope in the afterlife, as opposed to gospel music’s hope in the here and now.) 21 Spirituals seeks to broaden the base. Wise envisions the collection, accompanied by the CD and companion book that he also produced, on the podium of every choir director across the country.
“Mostly I just want to get it in people’s hands,” Wise says. “These pieces are arranged to be accessible to everyone. I was just trying to take as many songs as possible and create a new vision for each one, a vision with new music but with the spirit intact.”
Wise’s vision for the spiritual is all about adaptation. While the original tunes, handed down through generations, occupy front and center in his arrangements and are recognizable immediately, his refined, precise, expressive versions of songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” definitely bear his personal artistic imprint. On the CD, the songs are performed by Wise’s privately run Raise Chorale, which includes performers from across central Ohio, including several from the Denison community.
Ironically, Wise’s grand musical plan for the world has never budged. Now 43, he has spent his entire life on a mission to bridge the gap that separates gospel music from other branches of the musical establishment.
His determination stems mostly from his personal experience. “I came through a time when gospel music did not fit into the academy. There was always a sense it was inferior. But I wasn’t willing to leave one for the other. So I decided to make it a science that can be taught, not just an ethnic art form. My goal has been to develop a pedagogical, academic element for gospel. People are more apt to do it now because I can talk about it in their terms and make a bridge between those two worlds.”
The gap between those two worlds is large at certain points. Gospel music is rooted in the African tradition and follows aesthetic principles that are quite different from classical European singing. While the latter value purity of tone, accuracy, and disciplined emotion, the former prizes coarse, loud, raucous, even hoarse singing. There also is the perception that gospel music doesn’t possess an academic foundation.
“People are just using the wrong lens to evaluate it,” Wise says. “Anything not based on the curriculum is not always welcome. Also, it’s popular, and that makes [classical traditionalists] a little nervous. But it shouldn’t. My feeling is, it might pull in people new to music as a whole and feed them into other forms of music later. Gospel meets them where they are and takes them where you want them to go.”
Wise is certainly acting the part of the bridge, spanning the educational and spiritual communities. Besides Denison, he teaches part-time at Ohio State University and at the Columbus-based Center for the Gospel Arts, which he founded in 1985. In addition, he directs Raise Productions (producer of “21 Spirituals”), preaches at Faith Ministries Church in Columbus, serves occasionally as master of choruses for Opera Columbus, and appears regularly as a freelance choral conductor around the nation. He also composes music in his free time.
“There are about a zillion different hats I wear,” Wise says. “And because I work in so many areas, the students who come to me are literally from all over. I’ve always believed in the total musical experience, in meeting the tastes of a large audience.”
At Denison, where Wise has taught since 2000, he leads the 130-member university Gospel Choir. It’s a much larger version of the same group he founded two decades earlier as a Denison student. He also teaches courses on gospel performance and gospel music history. He’s gained permission to introduce gospel music into the collegiate classroom because he treats it as a form of music for study and not—or at least not exclusively—a means of religious expression.
Performing gospel music entails three levels, Wise explains. Level one encompasses only the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the music. Level two aims for a “polished” performance, suitable for a concert. His goal when teaching is to train everyone to sing as if they’d been raised in the gospel tradition. “All the extra elements needed to perform gospel music, is often scored right there on the page,” Wise says. “There’s no excuse for why a classically-trained musician can’t do it, too. I show them to that middle place that lets them have the best of both worlds.”
Level three in his classroom is more rarified. Wise calls this the “anointed” level because it involves communicating and genuinely feeling the spirit that led to the creation of the music in the first place. “I can only demand levels one and two of anyone at a [secular] institution, but I don’t mind hearing level three. I just suggest that students take whatever they can out of it. I think that’s why I’ve been successful in moving into academic arenas.”
One of Wise’s role models is the late Moses Hogan, the well-known arranger and conductor Wise believes “generated a whole revival of the concert spiritual.” Imagine Wise’s reaction, then, when someone told Wise that God “provided him to stand in his [Hogan’s] place” after his death in 2003.
“I guess what I’m doing is kind of a continuation of that, and a connection back to the original spiritual…But what really draws me to it is that it encourages me, and it’s something I can share with others. I view myself as a sort of minister of healing.
“We are a singing people, but today so many people are facing struggles and not singing. I think there’s faith and light in this music, and that it can help. This is music for our times. These songs are so relevant to right now.”
Zachary Lewis is an arts and entertainment journalist from Cleveland. He wrote about Joy Rose ’79 and her band Housewives on Prozac in the Fall 2005 Denison Magazine.