Music to soothe the souls of the suffering

Published January 1, 2006

The end stages of this mortal life are filled with deep emotions, many of which struggle to come to the surface in an honest and useful manner. This is true for both the dying person and for family and loved ones who are part of this journey. There is an increasing sense that the universal language of music can break down some of these walls and speak an unspoken language which touches the soul in a deep way.
Two exciting Canadian audio projects came out recently. Both display an obvious awareness of this truth. They are different in approach, but what they have in common is the view that this music “speaks to the deep places of the soul, especially those places attendant to seasons of suffering” in the words of one of the artists.

The Room 217 series was conceived by Toronto musician Bev Foster and named after the palliative care room where her father died. Completely universal in their spiritual application, they include the totally instrumental Gentle Waters made up of piano and cello renditions of a blend of material (pop, folk, spiritual, classical) and two voice / instrumental CDs. Spirit Wings blends Ms. Foster’s voice and piano with oboe and English horn on a range of traditional and contemporary covers, while Celtic Whisperings is made up of traditional Irish, Scottish, and Welsh songs and includes harp and Celtic whistles blended with Ms. Foster’s vocals.
All of them are continuous flow albums. On the one hand, they are the ultimate background music. On the other, they are filled with hope. They all accomplish the stated goal of Ms. Foster, who says in her artistic vision, “Music can facilitate an opportunity to tell someone they’re cherished. I want Room 217 to be soothing and peaceful, a help through sleepless nights.”
Steve Bell, by contrast, has had a full-time Christian music ministry for the better part of two decades. A two-time Juno Award winner, he has released 10 albums and sold some 200,000 units worldwide. He straddles two musical idioms – Christian music by virtue of lyrical gifts that are unique and folk/pop/roots secular music  with a signature, evocative tenor voice, a great knack for a timeless hook, and lovely acoustic guitar picking skills.
Inspired by the wish of a dying friend and fan, Mr. Bell has released a new album made up of a cross-section of his career canon. This album expresses the hope and faith of the Christian religion for people facing end-of-life issues. Even long-time fans will have a new experience, as the songs on Solace are simply recorded with Mr. Bell’s voice and guitar rather than with a full band.
Mr. Bell has a unique ability to paraphrase Scripture in a way which transcends boundaries and barriers, and the psalter is a long-loved source of material for a great many of Mr. Bell’s compositions.
Other tracks see Mr. Bell as a thinking Christian addressing this life and the next in the context of his faith. Throughout, the Bell trademarks are there – the voice, licks, and hooks serving as powerful vehicles for paraphrases of Scripture and a thinking man’s reflections on love and life. His tasty acoustic guitar picking and licks are at the core of the construction of most songs and the execution of all of them.
Just as every person’s spiritual walk is unique, so too will these albums speak to different people in different ways. Both are significant contributions to any person who is seeking to address these issues personally or professionally. Wilfred Langmaid is student advocate and lecturer in biology at the University of New Brunswick, and a priest in the diocese of Fredericton. He regularly writes on popular music and religion for The Daily Gleaner and has written about music and popular culture for the Anglican Journal since 1993.


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