Tom Lennie asked ALEX ROBERTSON the questions.
Tom: Alex, can you fill in a bit more detail on your musical past?
Alex: A year after leaving the Brodsky Quartet and finishing my studies at the Royal Northern College of Music I was offered a teaching post at the college, and taught violin and viola there and at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester for seven years. Meanwhile I worked as a freelance classical violin and viola player in orchestras and chamber music groups around Manchester. I'm still occasionally to be heard on the BBC Radio 4 Daily Service when they ask for me. I often worked with Nigel Swinford and the New English Orchestra and I was a founder member of the worship group Wellspring. I've maintained close ties with Wellspring, most recently working with them on Adrian Snell's forthcoming project 'The Cry' for which I did the string arrangements. In my post-student days I also met Maurice and Joanna Barratt, who were shortly to found Barratt Ministries, and as they were producing albums at that time I began to do string arrangements for them.
Tom: What does your work with Barratt Ministries involve?
Alex: I came to live with Maurice and Joanna Barratt's family in 1985, and the following year Barratt Ministries began, and since then we have slowly developed in all areas of media production - we publish books, we have a 24-track digital recording studio on the premises, we produce teaching tapes as well as music, and we have a digital video editing suite, for the production of teaching and music videos. (Some of our video material is due for broadcast on the new satellite Christian TV Vision Channel.) We're basically self-taught in all these areas, we've just had to pick it up as we go along in obedience to what we felt God was telling us to do. There are only a few of us, so we've had to learn to be multi-skilled, so my day-to-day work varies greatly: it may be preaching or teaching in a church, ministering in music at a prison, writing material for a book, working on music arrangements or recordings (which could be anything from a new album to some theme music for a series of teaching videos), updating our website, designing graphics for a publicity poster or a video programme, putting together our bi-monthly newsletter "Challenge"... Aside from that we have things like the upkeep of the house and garden... No shortage of variety, in other words!
Tom: You wrote a fascinating book entitled Playing With Fire on the use and abuse of music a few years ago (reviewed CR51). What are your general thoughts on Christian music and the Christian music industry?
Alex: My views haven't changed since writing Playing With Fire: I believe there is great potential for music to be a tool for ministry (otherwise I wouldn't be doing it!), but I also see much that disappoints me. I fear there is more obsession with music in Christian circles than with God; or to put it another way, I often feel that the god of Christian musicians is actually music rather than God. The New Testament has virtually nothing to say with regard to music; yes, culture may be different today, but I think we tend to give music a higher priority than it deserves, and we tend to give it unreserved respect when we ought sometimes to treat it with caution. But I see many good things too, and I respect artists like Matt Redman, who constantly stresses the importance of godliness and integrity in lifestyle, and for whom the message speaks louder than the music. That's the way it should be.
Tom: What was the motive behind your new album, and would you describe yourself as a sombre person, creating an album called 'Lamentations' which focuses on trials and pain?
Alex: 'Lamentations' is a strange title and it obviously explores darker areas than 'Spirit To Spirit'. But sorrow, grief, suffering are all part of life, and no less so if we are Christians. In fact, for thousands of Christians in many parts of the world it is a recurring note in their daily lives as they endure persecution, rejection and hostility. These themes are also a major focus of the Bible. To read some of the psalms and prophets, and enter into the spirit behind the words, can be a painful experience. The central character of the New Testament is "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief", we have Paul talking of "the fellowship of his sufferings", Peter talking about Christ's sufferings and us "arming ourselves with the same mind" ... suffering, betrayal, pain, disappointment are never far away in the New Testament. Of course there is joy, there is abundant blessing, but it has been remarked that the word "joy" in the New Testament very often appears connected with suffering. I wouldn't call myself morose or sombre, and the album, I sincerely hope, won't come across as depressing. The whole point is that when God is there in our trials and pain, there is hope, there are promises, there is healing and sometimes it is only in our moments of greatest pain that we come to know the intimate, personal touch of the Lord as he comes very close and ministers to us with words of tender love and comfort. I hope that side of things is reflected in the music. The many people in churches who are lonely, hurting, bereaved, sorrowful or depressed can too easily feel sidelined or even ostracised by a happy "smile, Jesus loves you" culture in Christianity. They need to know that there is a God who understands, who cares, who identifies with their grief and pain, and who comforts, heals and restores.
Tom: What are the things that inspire you as you write and perform your music?
Alex: 'Lamentations' was written as a kind of "commission" from God. He told me to do it and he told me the title. So the first inspiration was obedience! It also came out of a time of personal pain and trial for me, through which my relationship with God deepened greatly, and I spent hours in the studio just "playing out" my feelings and experiences on the keyboard or violin, recording it as I went along. The music came out of that situation, and as I listened back to the stuff I had recorded in those sessions, there were moments that were, to me, a real and powerful expression of my experiences - sometimes the pain, sometimes the healing - moments that touched me and "resonated" with me. Music comes from depths that are deeper than we can often fathom. I don't know what it's all "about", and I can't always "translate" it; but I know when it touches something deep inside.
Tom: What are your own personal hopes and ambitions for the next few years?
Alex: I suppose God has hopes and ambitions for me - he sees my potential and my potential destiny and more than anything else I want to fulfil that. I put my personal ambitions to rest a long time ago and although there is an ever-present danger of them rising up again, I've found that I've had nothing but contentment in doing "not my will". I don't think there's any greater freedom. In one way I'm very satisfied with things as they are, but I recognise that nothing is permanent with God! I want to learn to always embrace change willingly. Doors have opened recently for me to minister in France, Italy, Holland and Canada, both in music and in Bible teaching, and I would love to do more in those countries. Music is a wonderful door-opener and I see that as a sort of "strategy" the Lord has used to get me into places where I would perhaps otherwise not have been accepted. Perhaps most importantly, I want to continue working with and supporting the ministry of Maurice and Joanna Barratt, because I think they have an essential message for the Church today.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.