Song/Cycles Roundtable excerpt

For the publication of Song/Cycles in the summer of 2010, Mormon Artists Group invited the project’s composers to participate in an informal roundtable discussion of their music. They described the creative process, the poets with whom they collaborated, the innerworkings from a section of each score, and their place in a larger community of musicians in LDS culture. The following is an excerpt of the discussion.

The composers and their compositions were Murray Boren (Seven Sisters), Daniel Bradshaw (The Dead Praying for Me), Harriet Petherick Bushman (Mary Keeps All These Things), Charis Bean Duke (Töchterliebe), Lansing McLoskey (Sudden Music), and David H. Sargent (Notes). The moderator was Glen Nelson.

Is there a Mormon school of composition? I suspect you'll say no, and I wince a little even asking the question for the fear it is overly simplistic or that it brings unwanted associations. And yet there are two things that keep bringing me back to it:

1) our communal language of hymns, which has to be something of a shared vocabulary. I've heard professionals describe the hymns as our folk music, maybe as strong or stronger than a national folk music; and

2) the unusual number of teacher/student—and in Daniel's case, parent/child—relationships of so many of our composers. It's almost like a family tree: Schreiner/Manookin, Robertson/ Gates/Cundick/Campbell, M. Bradshaw/Boren/ Coleman, etc.

I can't imagine an independent scholar not trying to connect the dots given all the overlap of you folks. Is there a Mormon sound?

Charis: Wow this is a thought-provoking question. At BYU I studied with Dr. Hicks, Dr. Bradshaw, and Dr. Sargent. Then I went to the U of I where there was a huge composition faculty, and we could chose our private teachers. My first teacher was Paul Zonn. He asked me, “So, did you study with Michael Hicks? He was one of my finest students!” Then I chose to study with Morgan Powell. He said, “Did you study with David Sargent? He was one of my finest students!” Then I chose to study with Thomas Frederickson who said, “Did you ever study with Merrill Bradshaw? He was one of my finest students!” I couldn’t believe that out of all the teachers there, I somehow naturally gravitated to the ones who had taught my former professors, and in reverse chronological order to boot!

Harriet: Having not been to a Mormon music school, nor been taught nor in anyway influenced by a Mormon composer, I think I am on very precarious ground here. I am unable to say whether there exists a Mormon school of composition despite the fact that there are some highly talented LDS composers about.

What I do think however is that there are possibly two “camps” of Mormon composers: there are the worship ballad writers, also widely prevalent in the Christian music world today, and the resolutely not worship ballad writers who compose in the classical contemporary style.  Whether there is a particularly Mormon flavor to this style, I am unable to say.  In my own work I can say for sure that there is not.

For me the true folk music of the Mormon world is found in the Primary songs which speak of daily living practices, legends and pioneer heritage as well as sacred things where the hymns are pretty well exclusively expressions of faith.

David: I am not sure how I feel about a “Mormon sound.” I just want to be me and write me, as it were. If others think it is Mormon or not isn’t anything I really endorse or care about. This kind of thing makes me feel I should be writing a certain way, and that it really doesn’t represent me or my creative life. I just want to be Dave Sargent. I only want people to know me as Dave Sargent. Yes, I am a Mormon, a composer and I love the Church and my Savior with all my heart.

But it seems as though I am losing my desire to continue doing some of the things I have cherished the most—composing being one of them. I can’t explain it. I have been trying my best to do what I can with my compositional life. But the satisfaction of doing it, for whatever reason/s, has changed. 

Charis: If there is a Mormon sound, I am unaware of it. I sincerely liked all my professors’ music, yet I don’t think my music is like their music at all. I also don’t feel that I’ve been influenced by any sort of “Mormon experience” or hymnody. Bernard Rands told me once that my music sounded like it was composed by a European man, so perhaps I missed out on any type of Mormon sound. 

Murray: Teachers can suggest processes or guidelines or rules that can provide a structural support for a student’s expression. Consistency of expression, if you will. They can even teach tricks, but I don’t think their best students sound much like them. Connections, sure, if you want. But real composers have their own sounds in their heads, their own things to say. They may need guidance in how to express, but not what. Haydn/Mozart is an example. They both spoke the musical language of the day, but who would ever mistake a Haydn keyboard work for a Mozart one? And Haydn was wrong only once, Mozart never surpassed him. Mozart was simply different.

David: To me, the composer composes the music, people respond as they do. If there is a Mormon serious sound, it won’t happen overnight and hasn’t really been determined as such to date. It is something that will not be determined by us, but those who listen will determine it and it just takes time.

This situation seems similar to me as when Joseph Schwantner, non-member, Pulitzer Prize winner, said when asked—at a BYU Composition Seminar some time ago, “How does one prepare him/herself to write a Pulitzer Prize winning piece?” Joe was dissappointed in the question and told them that writing a Pulitzer Prize winning piece is not a proper goal. He then said the main reason he composes is to hear his work performed and for others to hear it as well, not to win prizes. He said that any piece winning any kind of prize should be an outgrowth of a lot of hard work. He then pointed out that the composer isn’t the one to make such a determination. The composer also doesn’t make the submission of his music to the Pulitzer committee. He explained how the process works and that the composer is the last person to know. etc. Anyway, for what it is worth.

Daniel: One of the things I realized after I had chosen to study music is that the influence of my father, Merrill Bradshaw, was there whether I chose to admit it or not. I could try to run away from it, to pretend it wasn’t there, or simply to accept it. I think at first, I may have chosen to pretend it wasn’t there. I wanted to be my own person, to be appreciated for my own work and not for who my father was, but as I became more secure with my own abilities and musicianship, I chose to embrace his influence, which has proven to be a very liberating and productive decision.

Regarding influence, one danger is that on the surface, I can come across as a sort of clone, the son who simply follows in his father’s footsteps. I don’t think this is the case. I love my father, but I didn’t ever (at least consciously) want to be just like him, and I didn’t decide to be a composer until after my LDS mission, when I was mature enough to realize who I was and what I really wanted to do. Furthermore, I never felt any pressure from Dad to be a musician. He was a proud father whether cheering for me at a recital or at a football game, and I knew he wanted me to do whatever would make me happy. In the end, that’s what I did.

I missed out on much of my dad’s career (I am the youngest in my family, born when Dad was forty-four), but I have come to know most of the music he wrote. I started an archive of his works in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU and, in the process of organizing his works, I was able to listen to all of the extant recordings of his music and to peruse many of his scores, some never published. Looking back at this time, I think it was a touchstone experience for me. Most of the work I did there was after he had passed away, and it was a gift for me to come to know him better through his music and words. I had been too young to appreciate or even ask for his advice in musical matters while he was alive; now that I really thirsted for it, he was gone. Yet, because of his absence, his music and writings became especially valuable to me, and I continue to draw on them as a reserve of musical and philosophical ideas.

If you know Merrill Bradshaw’s music well and listen to my music, you will certainly notice some similarities. On occasion, I have noticed sounds, harmonies, and melodies in my music that can trace their genealogy to a specific piece of Dad’s. I have also quoted his music directly, or used it to energize my own creative process. One example is my single movement piano trio, Synapse, in which I took his Primary song, “Praise,” a simple song written for children, and used the melody as a backbone for the piano trio, which is fast and shifty, quite difficult for the players, but lots of fun and full of love for the gospel, I hope, as is the original.

My music also often shares ideas and “meanings” with the music of my father. An example of this sort of influence (much less obvious) is in my song cycle, The Dead Praying for Me. While I was writing the cycle, I remembered a time I heard him talking about his choral-orchestral work, Christ Metaphors, in which each movement highlights different aspects of Christ’s character (“The Lamb” is quiet and intimate while “The Lion” has some huge and powerful moments). As I listened to Christ Metaphors, I expected “The Fire” to offer plenty of raging brass and percussion, but it was just the opposite: fast, quiet strings in an almost ethereal texture. I don’t recall his exact words, but I remember how Dad took great delight in that movement (his favorite moments in music were often the quiet climaxes or the intimate moments).

That memory came back to me as I was writing The Dead Praying for Me, and I can see its influence most clearly in the way “The Shapes Sadness Can Take” ends. The text there is “like God thinking,” which might want to be set as a grandiose climax, given the superlative nature of the text. I have written a high note there for the singer, but have asked for a lot of restraint in the way it is sung, consciously avoiding the huge climax for an ending that scintillates and slowly vanishes.

Perhaps my father’s most pervasive influence is at a level even less apparent, his general philosophy of what music is and what it should be, his reasons for composing, his passion for the arts. I think often of a quote by Neal A. Maxwell that hung on his office wall: “The Lord is never offended by excellence.” The arts were a form of worship for him. I have also found plentiful food for thought in his Letters to a Young Mormon Composer, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to think about why we make music in the Church, or even more broadly, about why we create art. I also think that watching him struggle with (and often resolve) many of these issues in his own life has helped me to be a little more steady through the ups and downs of my own early career, to understand and appreciate my own position as an artist, and as an artist in the Church.

Charis: However, I am very aware of being influenced strongly in one particular aspect of composition, and that is the concept that musical ideas are inspired. I remember clearly Dr. Sargent talking about how he felt his ideas were inspired, and how little motives would pop into his head while he sat on the stand with the Bishopric in Sacrament Meeting. I remember Dr. Hicks telling me how important it is to hone the craft because the musical ideas are a gift. I especially remember Dr. Bradshaw telling me that all music is inspiration and as composers we need to be worthy of receiving it. I never heard these ideas anywhere else, as you can imagine! So perhaps instead of a Mormon sound, I would suggest that there is a Mormon understanding of the source.