Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Organ
Mormon Music after the “Mormon Moment”

Mormon Music after the “Mormon Moment”

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Organ

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (Public domain photo via Wikimedia.)

The lead-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election seemed to be the apex of what some called the “Mormon Moment,” with story after story in the news about various aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons). But even outside of the national electoral spotlight, Mormon politicians and entrepreneurs and thinkers (as well as crooks and crackpots) continue to make headlines. Furthermore, Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn, a former Mormon missionary, recently came out of the closet in the pages of Rolling Stone, convert Gladys Knight is on Broadway, and married Mormon Jeff Zausch recently ventured into the wild, in the buff (and with a woman not his wife) on Naked and Afraid – to name just a few. “Mormon Studies” has emerged as a serious academic discipline on university campuses and even the Mormon share of the teen lit market continues to expand. Maybe it wasn’t a moment; we’ve just reached critical mass. I’m old enough to remember when even a passing reference to Mormons in the media became fodder for breathless foyer chat in my own LDS congregation on Sundays; now it’s weird if there’s not a Mormon on So You Think You Can Dance.

CD cover for Gladys Knight's Another Journey

Gladys Knight’s most recent album, Another Journey was released in 2013.

So then, with LDS names popping up everywhere else, where, in this enduring Mormon Moment, are the Mormon composers? That’s a tricky question. Eminent composer and historian Michael Hicks identifies a number of the most prominent figures, at least through the 1980s, in his authoritative history of music in the LDS Church. Glen Nelson, a polymath LDS impresario/publisher/librettist who runs Mormon Artists Group in New York, keeps tabs on current Mormon composers internationally and actively promotes their work. In other words, such a thing exists.

Cover of book Mormonism and Music

It’s been over a decade since the University of Illinois Press published Michael Hicks’s book, Mormonism and Music.

But until fairly recently, the Mormon composers who were known as such weren’t, frankly, all that known outside of Mormon circles. Conversely, those who were more well-known as composers weren’t readily identified with their native religion. Who were these composers whose music (and/or whose Mormonism) had gone unrecognized? And who were the Mormon composers today whose work warranted attention from the wider musical world?

So interested was I in answering this question that I actually undertook a years-long fieldwork project, going so far as to secure employment in the School of Music of the church’s flagship university. (No, that wasn’t really the impetus for my relocation to Utah and Brigham Young University, but it did nonetheless put me in the position of the ethnomusicological “participant-observer”: I hear Mormon composers making or talking about music all day long—quite often, through the walls of my office.)

But before considering the music of my colleagues and their contemporaries, a brief history is in order.

Mormon Composers?

Mormonism is a relatively young religion, which means questions of literal, proximate historicity dominate notions of belief and identity for most Mormons; whereas adherents of other religions are somewhat insulated from the seeming outlandishness of their faiths’ miraculous claims by expanses of time and layers of accumulated history and myth, Mormons’ supernatural stories are less than two centuries old. It’s one thing to believe (or “believe,” in whatever way suits) that God appeared to Moses on a distant mountain thousands of years ago; quite another believe that he also appeared in 1820 to a fourteen-year-old boy in the woods four miles north of I-90 in western New York. As a result, many who were raised in the faith but have become doubtful or agnostic about its claims or disenchanted with it organizationally seem less inclined to maintain an explicit sense of Mormon identity than do, say, less-observant Jews. (Hollywood, for example, is lousy with lapsed Mormon actors, but you don’t hear Ryan Gosling or Amy Adams talking about their Mormon pasts nearly as much as Jon Stewart or Sarah Silverman talk about Judaism.)

Sacred Grove Entrance

Palmyra, New York, site of Mormonism’s origins. (Photo CC by Jake from Flickr via Wikimedia.)

Mormonism has produced a handful of notable composers who have worn their religion on their sleeves, as it were. Several of the most important Mormon composers of the 20th century worked for church institutions, answered commissions for church productions, and composed works that conveyed explicit religious messages or drew on scriptural or church-historical narratives. But despite some fleeting bursts of notoriety, most of these composers did not have a profound and lasting impact on the wider musical world. On the other hand, a few other composers from Mormon backgrounds have garnered greater attention and exercised significant influence, but that influence hasn’t been perceived as being particularly Mormon because they have not presented themselves to the world as “Mormon composers” per se.

Curiously, though, it seems to me that some of the composers least connected with the institutional church and least interested in explicitly articulating anything particularly Mormon through their music are those who have incorporated, on the molecular level of compositional practice, certain techniques and aesthetic mindsets most resonant with the more mystical strands of Mormon imagination. Conversely, those composers who have enlisted music most explicitly in the articulation of Mormon identity—who draw on Mormon historical and scriptural themes, such as Leroy Robertson, Crawford Gates, and Merrill Bradshaw—seem to have adopted musical languages without any sonic devices particularly identifiable as Mormon. As the musical proselytizers of their faith, they have tended to employ neoromantic tonality as a musical lingua franca.

Mormons, Music, and the Quest for Normalcy

Mormonism in the 19th century was marked by its strangeness. Joseph Smith’s followers fled persecution in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before establishing their secluded Zion in the Salt Lake Valley. Their additional books of scripture, their unorthodox cosmology, and their practice of polygamy until around the turn of the 20th century all reinforced their outcast status. However, in the 20th century, Mormonism made a dramatic and concerted effort to establish itself as part of the American mainstream, and music played an enormous role in this effort. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, an outsized version of the traditional church choir, was eventually heard on millions of radios and television sets. A generational succession of Mormon family musical groups rose to fame, including the Kings, the Osmonds, the Jets, and several family shows in Branson, Missouri. This echoed Mormons’ increasing presence in politics and industry. An image of Mormonism emerged that not only was compatible with the prototypically “normal” American nuclear family, but in fact exemplary of it. (Indeed, some argued that Romney’s electoral prospects were diminished by his projection of a seemingly caricaturistic—and caricaturistically Mormon—midcentury, white, American hypernormalcy.)

Osmonds in 1973

The Osmonds in 1973. (From a CC photo album by Heinrich Klaffs on Flickr.)

Mormons have always zealously sought to embrace the identity of the “peculiar people” described in scripture—a chosen group destined and designed to remain apart from the rest of society to some degree. But at the same time, the church’s proselytizing aspirations and sophisticated media efforts try to establish an outward identity that resonates with the lives of potential converts. Mormonism simultaneously seeks both to fit into and to distinguish itself from the world. “Mormons want to be totally different and also totally normal,” my friend Jacob Baker, a Mormon philosopher, once quipped. “We’re the teenagers of religions.” This dual identity can be discerned in the musical works of Mormonism’s favorite sons (and the wayward ones, too).

Music was central to the Mormons’ effort to “make the desert blossom as a rose” during their settlement of Utah and nearby regions in the second half of the 19th century. Stories abound of pioneers taking great pains to transport musical instruments across the plains while leaving so many other belongings behind.  (My own family tree includes a great-great uncle, John Grimshaw, a multi-instrumentalist who took a liking to the xylophone but, unable to find or afford one in rural southern Utah, used his perfect pitch to carve one out of wagon wheel spokes.) Converts from abroad were encouraged to bring music with them when they emigrated, and a handful of second- and third-generation Mormons made a reverse trek for conservatory training in Europe or the eastern U.S., several of them at the New England Conservatory. Early efforts at cultural cultivation produced a number of local legends in the early 1900s. Evan Stephens (1854-1930), an early director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, penned dozens of hymns and other works. B. Cecil Gates, a grandson of Brigham Young, composed several choral and orchestral works, including an oratorio on the story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith titled The Restoration and a Christmas cantata, The Shepherd’s Vision.

Evan Stephens

Evan Stephens, hymn composer and early Tabernacle Choir conductor. (Photo in the public domain.)

Despite provincial notoriety, however, LDS composers struggled to attain a degree of recognition beyond Mormondom. One exception was Leigh Harline (1907-1969), a Utah native who more or less circumvented local validation by leaving Utah directly after college and establishing a career as one of Hollywood’s prolific composers; he scored dozens of films, including Snow White and Pinocchio for Disney. His authorship of “When You Wish Upon a Star” alone likely guarantees his status as the most-heard Mormon composer, even thoughfor the most part he operated outside of Mormon musical circles. Arthur Shepherd (1880-1958) likewise transcended local acclaim. After his studies at the New England Conservatory, he was coaxed back west to establish an orchestra in Salt Lake City. He composed a number of ambitious works while in Utah, including piano sonatas, concertos, symphonies, and the Overture Joyeuse, which garnered praise and landed performances in prominent national and international venues. But Shepherd’s general avoidance of explicitly Mormon themes in his music drew some criticism at home; eventually, after leaving Utah once again to become the assistant conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, he left Mormonism altogether. He maintained some connections with Mormon musical circles, however, which guarded his place on the internal cultural roster of prominent Mormon artists even after he left Utah to seek his artistic fortunes elsewhere.

Another Mormon trained at the New England Conservatory, Leroy Robertson (1896-1971), managed to gain a degree of international attention, albeit short-lived, for an explicitly religious work, the Oratorio from the Book of Mormon. Robertson’s completion of the work coincided roughly with the arrival in Salt Lake City of conductor Maurice Abravanel, who encouraged Robertson to put the finishing touches on it so he could program it. Having established a successful conducting career in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera, Abravanel had ambitions to elevate the Utah Symphony from the community group it was at the time—an admirable but still amateur result of Arthur Shepherd’s earlier efforts—to a world-class orchestra. The cultivation of local music, and local good will, was part of his strategy. The Utah Symphony, along with a choir from the University of Utah, premiered Robertson’s Book of Mormon Oratorio in 1953 for an enthusiastic crowd. And as the symphony and Abravanel’s stock rose during the ensuing years, their increasingly impressive discography came to include two critically acclaimed recordings of Robertson’s oratorio, one for Vanguard (1961), the other for Columbia Masterworks (1978). Despite a few performances outside of Utah, however, the work did not find a wide and enduring audience.

Book of Mormon Oratorio LP cover

In 1978 Columbia Masterworks released an LP recording of Leroy Robertson’s Oratorio from the Book of Mormon performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel.

Robertson wrote in a generally tonal style, but with dramatic chromaticism, heavy doses of exoticist modality, and a Wagnerian modulatory and thematic flow–a sound that embodied his serious ambitions and modern training, but that also fell within the aesthetic reach of his co-congregants. This general sensibility was adopted and further developed by one of Robertson’s pupils, Crawford Gates, best known for his score to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, an enormous spectacle based on stories from the Book of Mormon and staged near the church’s birthplace in Palmyra, New York. While pursuing his doctoral degree at the Eastman School of Music in nearby Rochester, Gates was enlisted in 1953 to create a new, original score to accompany a reworkedscript for the production (and to replace the old soundtrack, which had been cobbled together from recorded excerpts of Wagner and Tchaikovsky). The result was a colorful and bombastic 78-minute orchestral and choral work, pre-recorded with dialogue overdub (lip-synced and pantomimed by the cast of hundreds) and played through loudspeakers for thousands of viewers. Gates was enlisted to update the production again when the script was reconceived in 1987.

This has made Gates one of Mormonism’s most-heard composers (probably second only to Harline’s Disney work). Upwards of 100,000 people see the show during the pageant’s week-long run each summer. Moreover, one of Gates’s most iconic leitmotifs has found an unexpected life beyond the pageant’s seasonal run. As part of their research for the hit Broadway show Book of Mormon, creators Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Bobby Lopez attended the pageant, which explains the moment in the song “I Believe” when, on the words “I am a Mormon,” the melody mirrors almost exactly the brass fanfare that opens the pageant, listed here as Prelude No. 2 in the concert version of the piece. (This was pointed out to me both by my BYU colleague Michael Hicks, who reviewed the musical (see p. 233), and by my wife, who heard the theme hundreds of times during the seven years we lived near Palmyra.)

A subsequent generation of LDS composers, many of them musical descendants of the New England Conservatory Mormons, have composed works in a generally similar neoromantic vein. Merrill Bradshaw, a student of Gates, penned The Restoration, an oratorio on Mormonism’s founding. A number of others, including Sam Cardon, Kurt Bestor, and Merrill Jenson, have prolifically applied their cinematic, neoromantic styles to music for film and television, and many younger LDS composers create music for various media and video games.  Even as pulpit sermons warn against the questionable morals proliferating in entertainment media, Mormonism seems to produce more than its share of media-makers.

Still, most of these composers comprising what we might call the “Mormon mainstream,” though known among Mormons and, to an extent, within the commercial music industry, are for the most part neither well-known among the general public nor much-discussed in the wider art music world. I suspect that a centuries-long collective yearning for normalcy produces music that is likewise “normal.” This works well in the commercial realm, or for devotional music meant for believers, or for in-house media or proselytizing purposes, but it’s difficult to simultaneously blend in with a crowd and stand out from it. One might say about musicians what Mormon feminist historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said about women: well-behaved composers seldom make history.

Music and the Mormon Mystical

While mainstream Mormons primarily made music for Mormon audiences (or what they saw as potentially Mormon audiences) or found footing in the commercial music industries, a number of 20th century composers from Mormon backgrounds who left the church’s orbit went on to develop more distinctive musical voices. Furthermore, certain exploratory conceptual interests shared among a handful of these composers suggest that they each gathered certain creative seeds from their early lives and developed those ideas musically, long after leaving behind the religious observances, ritual culture, and other trappings of their childhood religion. The fact that these ideas did not emerge from any actual dialogue between these composers suggests a deep and primarily unconscious influence that took root in their formative headspace.

Several years ago during my graduate studies I attempted to contact the composer La Monte Young in hopes of interviewing him for a term paper I was writing. While conducting research for a seminar on music and cosmology, I discovered that Young had been born into a Mormon family in southern Idaho; I had also come across comments in interviews and liner notes suggesting that his native religious background had informed the eclectic spirituality of his music. My own Mormon-corridor provenance, coupled with my keen interest in minimalism and the relative dearth of scholarship on Young, made his life and music an appealing research topic.

 La Monte Young. Photo by Betty Freeman. (From NewMusicBox’s Betty Freeman Photo Gallery.)

La Monte Young. Photo by Betty Freeman. (From NewMusicBox’s Betty Freeman Photo Gallery.)

Getting him on the phone proved to be a challenge. (For all his focus on stasis, drones, and repetition, anyone who has called him knows that his voicemail message is an extended exercise in through-composition.) Finally, after several messages and attempts over the course of a few weeks, someone answered the phone. (I would realize later it was Young’s life partner and collaborator, the visual artist Marian Zazeela.) She recalled from my voicemail message that I was interested in Young’s Mormon background and wanted to know how serious I was about the topic. “What do you know about Mormons?” she asked. When I divulged that I was actually Mormon myself, her voice changed registers. “Oh, that makes things interesting,” she said. “Let me get him on the line.”

Thus began a decade-long dialogue about music, minimalism, and Mormonism, eventually leading to my doctoral dissertation and a monograph on Young’s life and works. My initial interest in Young’s Mormonism arose from his reference, in a handful of writings and interviews, to the Mormon cosmological emphasis on eternity and infinity—an interest echoed in the immense scope and cosmic patience of his works, as well as the mystical titles with which he labeled and described them. This early influence, he said, laid the foundation for his later mystical and musical explorations, particularly his intensive study of North Indian music. He affirmed this at the outset of our very first in-person interview, speaking about himself in the third person:

There’s no question in my mind … principles of Mormonism did play an enormous influential role in the shaping of La Monte Young and his music.

[…]

These concepts of eternity, that souls would be able to reunite, these kinds of concepts were especially intriguing to me. And so there’s no doubt in my mind for even a milli-nothing that they didn’t influence my first work with long-sustained tones and certainly my ideas that things could last for a long time. And sure, I was also gradually becoming acquainted with Eastern thought, but this probably began in the mid-’50s sometime, with reading haiku, and reading the Tao. But it was like something that was an old friend because of the way it had already been introduced to me in Mormonism.

As I examined his music more closely, particularly his magnum opus, The Well-Tuned Piano, and his and Zazeela’s ongoing sound and light installation, the Dream House, I discovered that another arguably Mormon element was at work in them, even though Young had not explicitly identified it as such. Young believed that his intense focus on musical materials at the most granular, fundamentally acoustical level allowed him to use sound to achieve a kind of psychoacoustic transcendence. The pathways that he described between the physical and metaphysical worlds traced a route that, I believed, hearkened back to one particular but utterly pervasive aspects of the Mormon worldview: the idea that there’s an ontological continuum between the mortal and spiritual worlds, and that glimpsing the divine meant to discern the inherent materiality of spirit and the inherent spirituality of matter. (In my book, I explore how this notion has influenced various figures in Mormon culture, from apostle and amateur astronomer Orson Pratt to preeminent acoustical innovator Harvey Fletcher, to a slew of LDS science fiction writers.) For Young, that meant transcending the symbolic or associative nature of musical gesture and, through highly esoteric tunings and other psychoacoustical methods, seek to embody divinity in a more direct way through sound. As I pursued this line of thought, Young pointed me in the direction of a couple of other composers that used related approaches to tuning and acoustics, both of whom, he had learned only a short time before, were also raised Mormon.

James Tenney came from a long line of Mormons, and, like Young, explored the subtle and entirely uncharted creative potential in highly specialized acoustical explorations. Works such as For Ann Rising and Critical Band became pillars of an approach I came to call “Acoustical Positivism.” Though Tenney spoke of his music in far less cosmic terms than Young did, he nonetheless recognized a certain poetic transcendence in the scientifically precise manipulation of sound—and, in my limited communication with him, expressed intrigue at the possibility of its connection to long-latent religious ideas. Another figure, Erv Wilson, descended from Mormons who settled in northern Mexico. He never became a well-known composer in his own right, but remains a highly influential and innovative tuning theorist and instrument builder. He’s reported to have imposed some of his musical ideas upon the LDS missionaries who would occasionally visit to try to coax him back to church. The longer I pursued this line of research the more I would hear from friends, colleagues, and composers about other Mormons (mostly lapsed or former ones), whose musical explorations took them into the realms of microtonality, alternate tunings, and psychoacoustics.

Surprisingly, after a decade of research on Young and his fellow ex-Mormon acoustical positivists, Young stridently distanced himself from the frontier mysticism of his childhood Mormonism, and began recasting his autobiography almost exclusively in terms of his relationship with his longtime guru of North Indian singing, Pandit Pran Nath. He withdrew support for the publication of my book, even going so far as to enumerate his complaints on a website, drawastraightlineandfollowit.com. (Lesson to young musicologists writing about living composers: reserve your domain names.) As I’ve outlined in my responses to his complaints here and here, Mormonism’s public perception changed dramatically during the gestation of my book on Young: the mystical aspects that I believe sparked Young’s early imagination became overshadowed by its increasing association in the public eye with American social and political conservatism. In other words, Young’s autobiographical retreat from Mormonism was a response to the nature of its public arrival.

Mormon Music Post-Mormon-Moment

Perhaps the plateau of the Mormon Moment means that LDS musicians may have transcended the century-long quest for normalcy. Pop star and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers has become famous for his outlandish couture and commanding stage presence, even while dropping subtle lyrical and on-screen shout-outs to his religion (such as the obvious Joseph Smith pose, based on a familiar Sunday school illustration, at the climax of the “Only the Young” video). The Duluth band Low, formed by Mormon husband-and-wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, present a twist on the Mormon family band model. Their version of domestic “normalcy” is not cosmetically flawless and clean-scrubbed in the Osmond mold, but gritty and unglamorously cool. Parker even seems to offer a critique of stereotypical Mormon female domesticity: she sometimes plays the drums standing up, as if stirring pots in a kitchen.

Photo of band Low inside church

Low (left to right): Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Steve Garrington.

Mormon pop musicians seem inclined not only to subvert their faith’s homogenous cultural stereotypes, but to likewise challenge pop music’s libertine clichés. In recent years, Provo, Utah, has become an unusually successful incubator for bands—many of which have launched careers from Velour, an all-ages venue with so relaxed and reverent a vibe that the rowdiest crowd member might well be a toddler in footy pajamas. Velour also recently recognized the significant overlap between Provo’s art music and pop music scenes by hosting a performance by Gavin Ryan (full disclosure: a former student) of John Luther Adams’s 70-minute solo percussion piece, The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies.

Percussionist Gavin Ryan in performance

Gavin Ryan performing The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies for solo percussion by John Luther Adams at Velour, Provo, Utah, June 30, 2014. Photo by Mindy Burton. Used with permission.

Mormon composers in the art music world today also seem to have entered into an era of post-normalcy. In 2004, Mormon Artists Group (MAG) produced an eclectic piano suite titled Mormoniana, consisting of individual pieces by sixteen different LDS composers, each inspired by a different piece of visual art by an LDS painter or photographer. The collection included pieces by the formerly “mainstream” and traditionally devotional neoromantics, such as Crawford Gates and Robert Cundick, alongside rather more experimental contributions, such as a pointillistic rumination by composer/punk rocker/skateboarder Lansing McLoskey and an electroacoustic work by Todd Coleman. In an essay accompanying the collection “Toward (and Away From) The Mormonistic,” Michael Hicks suggested that if there’s a “Mormon style,” it is to resist identifying any particular style as such. “What is most delightfully Mormonistic about the visual and musical art presented here is that it is all over the aesthetic map.” He suggests that this is not a new, revolutionary type of Mormon culture, in rebellion against a century of assimilation, but rather a return to an older, less acquiescent Mormonistic attitude. He cited as his authority what was known in the 19th century as the “Mormon Creed,” a saying that appeared regularly in print, and, in one case, in stained glass in a temple: “Mind your own business. Saints will observe this. All others ought to.”

McLoskey in front of an elevator

Lansing McLoskey. (Photo by Raniero Tazzi, used with permission.)

I read Hicks’s essay years before returning to Utah, and wondered at the time if his claim, and Nelson’s project, was less a reflection of actual culture than an exercise in wishful thinking—a well-intentioned but overly optimistic effort to imagine an artistic climate more eclectic and diverse and accepting of difference than could reasonably be expected from a culture in which wearing a blue Oxford to Sunday services, instead of a white one, carries a hint of rebellion. I still wondered when we made the move west.Shortly after our arrival, I received an invitation to one of the regular house concerts hosted by one of my new colleagues, Christian Asplund, a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and tireless champion of experimental music and free improvisation. I was astonished to discover the ambitious and innovative music being made there by faculty, students, and visiting artists, in a living room in one of Provo’s quietest neighborhoods, for a shoulder-to-shoulder audience eating potluck from paper plates. By the end of the evening, Asplund was singing madly and passionately into the open grand piano while alternately playing the keyboard, manipulating children’s toys arrayed atop the strings, throwing ping-pong balls into the instrument’s interior, and noisily dropping handfuls of ball bearings onto the concrete floor.

Christian Asplund, part II of Let it Spin (2007)


launch gallery

In my new job I ended up in an office across the hall from Neil Thornock, whose soft-spoken demeanor veiled his capacity for creating utterly ferocious sounds with the least-soft-spoken of instruments. I became acquainted with the newest electroacoustic works of Steven Ricks, which draw variously on Mormon history, Thomas Pynchon, and Buddhist mysticism. (Full disclosure: I ended up writing the notes for these pieces on his Bridge release, Mild Violence.) I discovered Michael Hicks’s own music, having previously known him primarily for his prodigious music-historical work. And I was almost immediately befriended by David Sargent, the composer who, perhaps as much as any other, might be considered the grandfather of this new eclectic phase in Mormon art music. A student of Merrill Bradshaw at BYU during the 1960s, Sargent went on to complete graduate studies at the University of Illinois, then returned to BYU as a professor and mentored subsequent generations of composers (including most of the current faculty).

CD cover for Steven Ricks's Mild Violence

In 2008, Bridge Records released an all-Steven Ricks CD, Mild Violence.

It turns out Mormons have had a hand in contemporary music in other ways as well. Another colleague, Tom Durham, oversees the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, which commissions numerous works and sponsors one of the major annual composition contests in the United States. Biotech entrepreneur and arts advocate Glenn Cornett, a BYU alum, runs Spectrum, which has become one of New York’s cutting-edge new music venues.

Karl Gottfried Brunotte

Karl Gottfried Brunotte

Some of the most interesting developments in Mormon music, however, will be the ones brewing far from the Mormon Corridor and completely apart from the church’s musical institutions. An Australian-American music advocate, Glenn Gordon, organizes and promotes events and publications. Glen Nelson (yes, the Glens of Mormon music become tricky to track) has identified and networked with several LDS composers from Europe, most of whom are as yet unknown in American circles. From a friend who regularly attends the Stockhausen summer courses, I learned about the German LDS composer Karl Gottfried Brunotte, an eccentric regular there.

Leilei Tian

Leilei Tian

Another composer poised to take the music world by storm (and Mormons by surprise) is Leilei Tian. She studied at the Beijing Conservatory, continued her training in Sweden, and converted to Mormonism after moving to Paris to work at IRCAM. She has remained in Paris, and has worked steadily to fulfill an impressive string of commissions for major ensembles. Tian’s works are haltingly visceral and overtly spiritual, with echoes of Crumb, Messiaen, Varèse, and spectralism. Although her discussions of her music generally don’t address her Mormonism specifically or directly, she does speak about her music with an air of quiet premonition and humble but matter-of-fact transcendence, with unapologetic confidence in the sympathetic resonance between sound and spirit. Her vision even flirts with a rather Mormon sense of millennial utopia: post-temporal, post-cultural, post-mortal. As her website bio states:

In Leilei Tian’s music… there is no more conflict between tradition and modernity, occident and orient, masculine and feminine, drama and poetry, imagery and abstraction. For her, musical creation is not just a composition of sounds with various techniques, nor a mere esthetical product of a particular culture, but far beyond is the intuitive manifestation of one’s inner experience and content, namely one’s profound philosophical and spiritual expression that is universal and timeless in nature. Her pursuit for transcendental spirituality is the essential source that provides her inspiration, creativity, dynamic and meaning to her artistic works.

There’s Mormonism to be found there, certainly, but more universal than provincial, rendered in new language, and refreshingly and completely unencumbered by any Mormon musical history or Mormon-American cultural accumulation.

Sâdhana (2000) for grand orchestra. © by Leilei Tian. Streamed with permission of the composer.

For all the frontier patriarchs in the Mormon pantheon, for all the local-boys-made-good who returned from the New England Conservatory to write hymns and oratorios and soundtracks, and for all the effort to arrive at the typical, American, nuclear normal, wouldn’t it be something if the first person to embrace the role of Mormon musical mystic turned out to be a Parisian woman from China?


Some Recent Releases of Music by Mormons

Michael Hicks: Felt Hammers—The Complete Solo Piano Works 1982-2010, Keith Kirchoff, piano (Tantara TCD0314FHM)

Felt Hammers CD Cover

 
Michael Hicks is well-known as a prolific music historian, having authored books on Mormonism and music, psychedelic rock, Henry Cowell, and Christian Wolff. But he is also an active and influential composer. In this volume of solo piano works Hicks demonstrates an idiomatic diversity and nuanced tactility that pianist Keith Kirchoff, in his extensive and eloquent performer’s notes, describes as “music… about gesture.”

Here is Kirchoff’s live performance of one of the pieces featured on the disc, The Idea of Domes:

Lansing McLoskey: Specific Gravity—Chamber Music of Lansing McLoskey
(Albany Records TROY 1443)

Specific Gravity CD Cover

The titular piece in this collection makes reference to the scientific term for the relative density of physical materials. Aptly, the works here seem to explore particularities of sonic materials with an unusual combination of spontaneity and method: the exact feelings of distinctive textures, thicknesses, articulations, and timbres.

In addition to the newEar Ensemble’s live performance of the first movement of Specific Gravity with synchronized score below, the entire CD can be streamed on Lansing McLoskey’s website.

Stephen Anderson: Isaiah (Mormon Artists Group)

Deluxe packaging of flash drive containing Isaiah

Composer and jazz pianist Stephen Anderson composed this ambitious 49-minute oratorical treatment of the writings of the Old Testament prophet (a favorite of Mormons, since their eponymous book quotes him extensively). As is typical of MAG projects (a previous one of which, in the interest of full disclosure, was mine), this piece comes in unusual packaging: the score, audio and video, and documentary writings and essays, all come loaded on a flash drive embedded in a mockup of an ancient Mesopotamian clay press.

Below is the Carolina Choir’s video trailer of excerpts from the oratorio.



Grimshaw

Jeremy Grimshaw is the author of Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young (Oxford University Press) and The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers (Mormon Artists Group), as well as articles and reviews in numerous publications. He teaches at Brigham Young University’s School of Music, where he also directs the Balinese gamelan and serves as Associate Director for Undergraduate Studies. His current projects include a collaborative paper with Ali Colleen Neff on music, race, and Mormonism in digital media, as well as a libretto/screenplay based on the bizarre story of the Dream Mine, which is located just a few miles from his home in Payson, Utah.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Mormon Music after the “Mormon Moment”

  1. Eugene Chapus

    This is an extremely interesting article with a clever and creative argument at its heart. The historical background is fascinating and the fact that mainstream Mormon composers, who overtly identify as such, tend to follow general established composition trends is convincing. I would like the author to enumerate, though, what he considers to be the Mormon influence in the compositions by not overtly Mormon artists he cites. Is there a Mormon scale or chord preference? A specific modality or use of tempo that can be considered Mormon? I think the case of Brandon Flowers is clear thanks to the videos and lyrics. But I don’t know what one might point to as specifically Mormon in the music itself (and not just the backstory) of Tian or Young, for example.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimshaw

      Thanks for the comment, Eugene. There’s nothing so particular as a “Mormon scale”; there’s no particular school of Mormon musical thought within which anything that specific could incubate. However, in my book on La Monte Young I do propose a connection between the “acoustical positivism” of Young, James Tenney, and Erv Wilson, and a particular relationship between matter and spirit proposed by the Mormon cosmology to which they would have had early exposure. It’s not an influence that produces a particular musical language, but one that, I believe, fostered an acute interest in acoustics and psychoacoustics. This kind of “scientism,” incidentally, manifests itself in other ways in Mormon culture as well–for example, the overrepresentation of Mormons working in both science and science fiction.

      Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimshaw

      Thanks, PWT. Alas, one of several inevitable omissions. You’ll be interested to know that Glen Nelson of Mormon Artists Group is working on an exhaustive catalogue of works by LDS composers.

      Reply
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  5. bob

    Very interesting article! Thanks a lot!

    To the list of talented Mormon musicians not mentioned above, I would also add Lindsey Stirling!

    Reply

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