New Music Review: Known Unknowns

Known Unknowns: 100 Contemporary Texts to Common Tunes

John L. Bell and Graham Maule. Glasgow, Scotland: Wild Goose Resource Group/Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2018. Pages, 215. Spiral-bound, $24.99. ISBN: 978-1-62277-259-9.

As a parish pastoral musician I am always looking for ways to introduce new repertoire without causing too much discomfort for members of our assembly. (Some unease is always healthy!) With this, Known Unknowns: 100 Contemporary Texts to Common Tunes by John L. Bell and Graham Maule is a welcome resource for fostering congregational song. Bell and Maule pair new text with easily recognizable melodies, wrapping fresh in the familiar.

Bell and Maule do not shirk away from the unsettling realities of the Gospel of Jesus, one of the true gifts of this collection. With topics ranging from economics to ecology, the hymns address real-world topics that must be brought to our common prayer. Consider the following excerpts:

We sing for those whose lives were mangled
When friendship turned to vile abuse,
As those they trusted traded kindness
For cruelty beyond excuse.
God, in whose image all were made,
Feel for the ones who’ve been betrayed.

from We Sing for Those Whose Song is Silent
John L. Bell

God’s is a world of beauty
In creatures and in kind;
Diversity and contrast
Reveal God’s lively mind.
In intellect and language,
In gender and in race,
Our diff’rences bear witness
To variegated grace.

from God’s Is a World of Beauty
John L. Bell

The strength of these texts lie in their ability to connect the incredible, creative and restorative powers of God with our human response, however inadequate it may seem. We are challenged to grow as disciples and turn Gospel faith into Gospel action. 

In addition to hymns based on the Gospel, there are also seventeen psalms paraphrased in metered form. A detailed index that contains both liturgical and topical listing allows for ease and accessibility when searching for the perfect text. A metrical index, tune index, and title index allow easy pairing of word and song. 

Bell and Maule’s introduction to the collection clearly articulates a unique vision for their work: “We want to encourage…churches where the praise of God has been kept separate from the concerns of the world.” Understandably, Known Unknowns should find itself on the shelf of every liturgist and liturgical musician committed to fostering accessible and relevant common prayer.

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