A brief excursion into the creative world of JOHN PURIFOY
By Jonathan Martin
To sustain a career in music that spans 5 decades it takes commitment, knowledge, and talent. Composer John Purifoy has proven time and time again that he has all three of these attributes in abundance. A pioneer in contemporary publishing, his journey has taken him on some interesting twists and turns along the way. Still he remains as energized today as ever writing music for schools, community choirs, churches, and concert venues.
Stylistically his work runs the gamut, from elegantly crafted ballads, to driving affirmations of praise, from delicate folk song settings to complex cantatas and multi-movement concert works. His endless diversity has endeared him to many performing groups along the way, and his publications have found both critical and commercial success.
In this brief Q and A with John we explore some of his background, his current work, and ask him some of his dreams for the future.
What was the music of your youth?
It was quite eclectic as I studied classical piano, performed in a 60’s rock band, accompanied a liturgical folk choir, and was active in marching band, concert band, madrigal and concert choir in high school – for all of which I am most grateful. Growing up in a small town in Arkansas, it is amazing how truly wonderful the music programs were and how gifted my teachers were. So the influences stretched from Rachmaninoff to Simon and Garfunkel and beyond. In addition, I was extremely enamored with the film music of the French composer, Michel Legrand, and to this day I believe he influenced any gift I have for melody and harmonic structure.
What music do you listen to now?
Everything from classical, jazz, film scores, choral works, sacred music – traditional, spirituals, contemporary, a cappella, anything which might capture and enrich and widen my scope of listening. I don’t buy albums or subscribe to streaming music channels, mostly it is music in the moment such as public radio in the car or YouTube at home. If I’m working on a particular project or interested in a specific event, I’ll seek out music which might relate to the moment.
Tell us about your faith journey and how it influences your musical choices.
A: My story is rather interesting as I had no plans or desire to enter church music or Christian music as a young person. I was raised in a very liturgical church, which I value greatly, but my passion at the time was becoming a film composer. As a teenager I wrote to every college and university in the country who offered curriculums for film composing, which in 1968 consisted of UCLA and USC. My father told me I was going to the University of Arkansas, and that was it. So the plan then became graduate school at UCLA or USC and good-bye Arkansas. Then a very talented young girl came into my life who was “the” pianist at the U of A. She accompanied the University Show Choir of which I became a member, and we started dating. One day she invited me to hear her college church choir, which she also accompanied, performing a half-time show at a Razorback Basketball game. When I saw 80 + auditioned singers take the risers on the court and heard the music of Andrae Crouch, Ralph Carmichael and other 70s Christian choral music waft over the arena, something new and powerful became very evident. These kids were not singing to entertain, but they truly believed and wanted to share what they were singing about, a faith in God which was keenly evident in their voices and spirit. It was electric, transforming, totally new to my varied experiences as a musician. And this was the true beginning of my faith journey, the catalyst which opened my heart and mind to God through Christ, and continues to this day. Vicki and I married a year later when I was only a Junior and continued to work with youth choirs in our various churches.
Name three things about yourself that would surprise people.
- In my forties I acted in TV commercials and did some theatre work, including working with Dolly Parton as a visiting Dad with my pretend family at Dollywood. Lots of free roller coaster rides.
- In the 90s I worked on a musical for theatre based on Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize recipient. His only daughter, Rhena, stayed in our home twice and shared many personal details about their work together in Africa. It received a staged reading in 1991 at the state theatre of NJ, but never made it to the main stage. A difficult process, fraught with many obstacles. But a rewarding journey nonetheless.
- I grew up in the restaurant business and know my way around a commercial kitchen, we’re talking 50s style deep fried chicken, corn dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, milk shakes, sundaes, the works. It was called the COW BELL and is famous on Face Book to this day (though it is no longer in operation.)
What projects are currently on your horizon?
Fortunately, my contract deadlines with Hal Leonard keep me occupied with fresh ideas, many of them from Joseph Martin, Creative Director of Church Music Publications. Also I do commission type projects and special liturgical works for the church year. One particular project I have enjoyed involves setting all of the psalm readings appointed for Lent for all three cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary. These settings have been presented by a mass choir of various denominations in the nearby city of Oak Ridge, TN. Next spring will complete the three-year cycle. I also recently collaborated in a service for Pentecost Sunday, which was very rewarding and interesting. The reading from Acts 2 was read in nine different languages, and we incorporated different languages into the singing of the hymns as well. It is summertime right now, so that means Lent, Holy Week and Easter are on my creative docket and mind.
When are you most creative?
Mornings and afternoon these days, never in the evening. I rise very early before daybreak, have coffee alone before my wife is up, and look at the stars thinking, meditating, not writing, just absorbing and abiding in the places where the Holy Spirit takes me. Then gently picking up where those ideas may take form musically. Some materialize quickly, and the arranging process is a joy. Others take time and patience to allow them to grow organically.
What’s your sacred space?
Anywhere in nature where there is beauty. My home studio looks out into a large common woodsy area with large trees, birds, a peaceful stream, and I stare a lot. Also, I take long bike rides by the Tennessee River on pretty mornings, fulfilling that desire for natural beauty which always inspires creativity in the composing process.
Which composers inspire you?
Choral composers who inspire me are Morten Lauridsen and John Rutter, plus I am a huge Rachmaninoff fan from playing his piano music as a student. His concerti, symphonies and choral works are also extremely inspirational to me. Another choral composer I admire and who recently passed away is Stephen Paulus. I wish I could have known him. We are close to the same age, and I love his a cappella choral writing of sacred texts.
What do you do when you’re not composing?
I love biking, and I used to be an avid runner participating in races with a local track club. Our paved greenway system in Knoxville is quite amazing, running along creeks, rivers and beautiful natural passageways, so now I bike on the greenways where I have been running for over 30 years. My wife and I both love sports and enjoy attending UT ballgames and, of course, basketball and soccer games of our three grandsons.
What is your #1 tip for aspiring writers?
Listen …. listen … listen to everything for inspiration, listen critically and openly, developing the inner ear will help you listen for your own voice when it comes. Study in detail the writers you love. What is it in their craft which makes you gravitate toward their music? Be patient in your own process, and allow your own creative soul to guide you in making choices. It is a science, but it is also a gift, an art. Develop and nurture the artist within yourself, loving beauty and goodness as you see it in all things. Then your own artistic spirit will create its own beauty. Be thankful to God, the Creator of all Beauty and Giver of all Gifts. Then share that incredible gift.
To “Look and Listen” to some of John’s music check out the links below! (Clicking a selection will take you to our exclusive SCOREPLAY site where you can hear full recordings and view full scores).
NEW PUBLICATIONS BY JOHN PURIFOY (John latest and greatest):
BEST-SELLERS BY JOHN PURIFOY:
LAMENTATIONS OF THE LAMB (Holy Week Cantata with Pamela Stewart)
“Pamela Stewart’s introspective and beautifully poetic language brings out music in me which would not exist otherwise. Very grateful for our collaborations together.”
CREDO with Ragan Courtney
“Very honored to finally collaborate with Ragan Courtney, lyricist of CELEBRATE LIFE which was a pivotal work influencing my early journey in Christian choral music.”
OH, HOW HE LOVES YOU AND ME by Kurt Kaiser, arrangement Purifoy.
“Working closely with Kurt Kaiser in my first job as editor in the 70s not only taught me great lessons in musical craft but the example of a true Christian gentleman sharing his incredible gifts for God.”
WHAT IS THIS BRIGHTNESS SHINING, lyrics by Pamela Stewart.
TRIPTYCH FOR HOLY WEEK, lyrics by Pamela Stewart