The Trees Community
The Christ Tree
ndrew Beaujon’s recent book, Body Piercing Saved My Life, is a great primer for exploring some of the major players in the contemporary Christian music scene. Coming away from it, however, I was struck by how many of the groups mentioned in passing during the introductory chapter that I wanted to hear. The development of Christian music into a big-business with its own set of rules and constraints is an endlessly interesting topic, but even more sonically compelling are the outliers—the groups that fell through the cracks and followed their own private muse before those rules were in place.
I’d wager that the Trees Community is probably the most interesting example you’ll ever find. Their origin story could be a cliché: a TV production consultant and his friend move from their upper East Side digs into an semi-abandoned loft in 1970, dropping out of normal society in a search for truth. Their living space eventually becomes a meeting place for like-minded people—and, voila, a commune is born. The members, all Christian, focused on the idea of service and bringing the word to others—this soon took on the form of musical performances.
Which would be completely ordinary, if not for the fact that the music was informed by things like “Balinese chant, American folk music, Indian raga, African rhythm, Tibetan ritual gong, Scottish bagpipe, and Mexican bell wheel Sanctus.” While you’ll find a lot of press releases these days that makes claims to eclecticism that go unfulfilled, the preceding description is actually spot-on. In the only widely-released piece of work from the group, 1975’s The Christ Tree, “The Parable of the Mustard Seed”’s vocals are shouted above a Balinese chant underneath shaking and heaving percussion. It’s immediately followed by “Psalm 45” and its winding eight minutes of harp, flute, bagpipe, tabla, and guitar (among other instruments thrown into the mix). It, like much of The Christ Tree, is what freak folk should be (i.e. truly freaky).
Timothy Renner is the man behind the recent reissue of The Christ Tree in a box set that includes the group’s earlier (and even more rare) cassette release A Portrait of Jesus Christ in Music, as well as two CD’s of a live show that the group put on in 1973. He spent more than five years tracking down the members of the group to secure their consent for its release. In his quest to re-release The Christ Tree, he found the aforementioned treasure trove of extra material, and soon realized that a box set would be necessary. Credit is due to him and former Trees member David Karasek, who have put together beautiful package that contains extensive liner notes and will still fit neatly into most CD shelving units.
The bonus material is helpful, of course, in finding out how the Trees eventually got to The Christ Tree. A Portrait and the live material show the group finding out how best to incorporate the huge amount of influences that are percolating among its 14 members (the number of members often shifted; 14 bios are included in the notes). The liner notes don’t often make it explicit as to who brought what to the table, but it’s clear that Katheryn Krupa and David Lynch were two of the major composers of the group’s work. Krupa would often write on her “Venezuelan folk harp,” while Lynch brought musical chops honed in “the Mushroom theatrical company.” The ambiguity is frustrating, but the music isn’t. Renner calls The Christ Tree his favorite album. And, for me, it ranks up there as well. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.