In Alumni, Commercial Music

Video Compilation of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” Breaks New Ground in Virtual Performance

One of the many shared disappointments of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the cancellation of in-person musical events. We miss the swell of sound filling a concert hall, the intimacy between audience members and performers. To help fill this void, musician and composer James Stevens has released a new video in partnership with BYU’s nine-man a cappella group  Vocal Point

The video, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” is a 3D virtual experience that aims to replicate the feeling of a live performance. It is an undertaking of unusual size and scope, involving more than 800 musicians from all across the world. The piece is based on Stevens’ popular arrangement of the hymn for a cappella choir, which was first made available online for free in 2007. The sheet music has since been downloaded in more than 130 countries. 

“The arrangement is arguably one of the most recognizable pieces written by a BYU graduate,” said BYU record and music video producer Ben Fales. “James is an amazing talent and he’s always such a pleasure to work with.”

Stevens’ musical background made him uniquely suited for his role in compiling the video. He sang with Vocal Point for two years while majoring in media music (now commercial music) at BYU. He then served as director of the group from 2004 to 2012.

“My fondest memories of my experience at BYU as a student and as the director of Vocal Point are always centered around creation and working with other passionate musicians,” Stevens said. “I like to study and learn, but I especially like putting what I’ve learned to the test by turning it into action, by creating something out of nothing, something that’s never existed before — or at least something we’ve never experienced before.”

The initial genesis of the project began in 2018 when Kayson Brown, director of the Lyceum Philharmonic, reached out to ask if Stevens would consider adapting his arrangement of  “Nearer, My God, To Thee” for the orchestra’s upcoming concert with Vocal Point.

“I agreed, and it was well received by the audience,” Stevens said. “We knew that someday that version of the song needed to be recorded and shared. Then, as the world closed its doors to concerts and live events, and as virtual projects started popping up, I couldn’t help but think of all the thousands of talented people who had performed this arrangement over the past 13 years. I thought it would be a super inspiring virtual collaboration to have people from all over the world share this hopeful message at this time. I had no idea what to expect, but Ben Fales at BYU Music Group and McKay Crockett with BYU Vocal Point seconded the motion and we got the project rolling.”

In April 2020, BYU Music Group and Vocal Point put out a call for participants through social media and email, inviting participation from vocalists and instrumentalists of all ages and levels of experience. Musicians were provided with links to videos that they could play or sing along to. Stevens also incorporated recordings from members of Vocal Point to anchor the project.

As submissions began pouring in, the huge undertaking became a study in patience, innovation and inspiration. “It was so fun and humbling to preview the videos, to hear the passion in their voices and the incredible skills of the instrumentalists,” Stevens said. “This isn’t a simple song, and everyone did so well while jumping through major hoops during this time to make it happen, breaking through language barriers, some obviously having very little resources to even make a video and yet they still found a way.”

Stevens also found hope in the love of music shared by so many. “The variety of people that participated makes my heart happy and gives me the sense that we are more alike than we are different in the world. I just hope that the people who see and hear this project will feel that deep sense of urgency that I feel each of the performers exhibited in their videos to draw nearer to God and find hope in knowing that ‘God helping, nothing should be feared forever.’”

One distinctive facet of the arrangement is the inclusion of Latin phrases, which translate as follows:

In articulo mortis/At the moment of death

Caelitus mihi vires/My Strength is from heaven

Deo adjuvante non timendum In perpetuum/God helping, nothing should be feared forever

Dirige nos domine/Direct us, O Lord

Ad augusta per angusta/To high places by narrow roads

Sic itur ad astra/Such is the path to the stars

Excelsior/Ever upward

Now that the video is completed, Stevens has turned his attention to other projects. He recently released a new video in response to the struggles that so many have faced in recent months, including mental health issues, illness, racial injustice and joblessness.

“It was just so heartbreaking to see so many people suffering in all the different ways and so unable to find peace,” he said. “So I felt inspired to create an arrangement of ‘Where Can I Turn For Peace?,’ and this is what came from it.”

He and his family are also in the process of starting an entertainment company, hoping it will help them “fulfill our dreams of creating and sharing music, as well as helping others to do the same while maintaining a balance of what really matters in life.”

In the end, the video project served as a source of inspiration and positivity for the participants, and Stevens hopes that positivity will extend to all those who view it.

“My greatest hope for this project is that it helps people feel a real closeness to God in these uncertain times,” he said. “Over the years I’ve gotten the sense that this arrangement reaches people deeply because it speaks to the struggle to find God in trying times. It’s about having fierce faith even though the storm is raging around you; it’s about trusting that even if the world around you crumbles, you know that He is there and that in the end it will be okay.”

Find James Stevens on social media:

  • Facebook: facebook.com/imjstevens
  • Instagram: @james_stevens_1
  • Family band on Facebook: facebook.com/aberdeenlanemusic 
  • Family band on Instagram: @aberdeen_lane

Watch the original a cappella performance of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” by BYU Vocal Point and BYU Men’s Chorus.

Watch the virtual choir and orchestra video below:

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