Musician Medema to bring improvisation, rock beats to Sacred Song Service

Ken Medema counts Bach, Sting and the Police, Bartók, Peter Gabriel and Beyoncé among his musical influences, but for part of Sunday’s Sacred Song Service, a few Chautauquans will be added to the list.

“One of the things we’ll do is we’ll ask people in the congregation to tell us a story about a meaningful musical experience, maybe a hymn that they have loved, and then I will create a song on the spot based on the story that they told me,” Medema said.

Composer, singer and songwriter Medema will join the Chautauqua Choir for this and other musical explorations at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Amphitheater.

“It’s going to be one of the most interesting [Sacred Song Services] of the summer,” said Institution organist Jared Jacobsen. “He comes in, he sits down at a piano, and he starts to play and he starts to sing and you’re mesmerized. It’s not overly simplistic. There’s something that he does — even if it’s a brand-new piece that he’s made up on the spot. It sticks in your head. He has a gentle way of inviting you into the process.”

In addition to the hymn-inspired improvisation, Medema will perform a song called “Music in My Mouth” with the Chautauqua Choir.

“It’s a piece that kind of revels in the joy of music,” he said. “It’s all about simply the wonder of music and the power that music has in our lives.”

Also on the program is a variation on the classic hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” that involves pipe organ, synthesizer and drum machine to create “a really heavy rock beat.”

“It really ought to cook,” Medema said.

Medema has been creating sacred music for a living since the 1970s, when his job as a music therapist at a hospital was terminated as a result of budget cuts. Because he had already been singing in churches for several years, he and his wife decided to take the loss of his job as a sign to switch careers.

“We haven’t looked back,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy.”

Since then, Medema has recorded dozens of albums and musical arrangements. He describes his music as “progressive,” and explores themes of inclusion, social justice, new language for God and the interface between interfaith communities.

Though Medema is largely running the show for the evening, Jacobsen said he is looking forward to seeing how the program will evolve.

“Mostly, I’m just going to install him on the stage and say, ‘All this is yours. This is your empire for the evening, and just do with us what you want to do,’ ” Jacobsen said. “I have really no idea where it’s going to go. I just know it’s going to be amazing, because he’s amazing.”