LDS composers engrossed in writing pieces set to art

Project involves 16 artists in 'Mormoniana' collaboration

Published: Saturday, Jan. 1 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

In what is believed to be the first project of its kind within the membership ranks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, composers and artists have come together to create a new collection of "high art" music.

And in the process, they've discovered what they believe is a virtually unknown "treasure trove" of classical music — some 300 symphonies produced by LDS composers but never before gathered together in one archive.

While the vast array of previous compositions are still scattered in various locales, a set of 16 newly minted piano scores have just been compiled into one volume.

"Mormoniana" was recently compiled and published by Glen Nelson, the director of a diverse collection of musicians, writers, choreographers, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers and other professional artists in New York City known as the Mormon Artists Group.

Nelson sought out 16 LDS composers living in the United States, representing a wide variety of styles, ages, and musical tastes, and asked them each to choose a painting by an LDS artist, then compose a piano score based on the piece. In the process, he surveyed the LDS landscape for composers and found a rich variety of talent, not only in the United States, but in far-flung locales like Asia, South America and Europe.

He said while that shouldn't be surprising, considering the growth of the LDS Church — now at 12 million members worldwide. But because those who produce classical music — as opposed to "Mormon pop" — tend less toward publicity than art, few people understand the rich diversity and professionalism represented within the ranks of the church, he said.

With "Mormoniana," he's hoping to change that.

The project was an attempt to help determine "what is the highest achievement an artist who is spiritual can produce, and how does spirituality come together with art." Nelson believes the answer isn't as simple as it may appear.

While hymns are innately spiritual, is there a modern audience for "high art" that incorporates the artists' religious feelings?

Michael Hicks, a professor of music theory and composition at Brigham Young University, said he sees Mormoniana as "a news flash — a 'wish you were here' kind of thing that says maybe you aren't aware of the diversity of LDS voices because there is such a quasi-official devotional music, a k a Mormon pop."

Hicks, who wrote an essay exploring the term "Mormon music" for Mormoniana, said it's one of the first attempts to introduce not only Latter-day Saints, but the wider musical world, to the fact that there is a growing group of highly accomplished composers who happen to be LDS.

Those included in the new volume run the gamut from recognized romantic composers like Crawford Gates and Robert Cundick on the conservative end, to Lisa DeSpain, an award-winning freelance jazz composer and musician, and Christian Asplund, co-founder and musical director of the avant garde Seattle Experimental Opera.

The artwork that inspired their creations is as varied as the music, and reproductions of the art works are included in Mormoniana.

Pieces range from the original architectural rendering for the front of the Nauvoo Temple, by William Weeks, to a three-section photographic composition called "Exquisite Corpse" featuring a broken-tooth human skull atop photos of a human torso in an overcoat and scarf, and another of a baby's legs. The work was produced by Thomas Epting, Matthew Day and Natasha Brien.

Original artwork was created for the volume by Mormon Artists Group member Valerie Atkisson, and appears on the cover and frontispiece of Mormoniana as limited edition prints.

World-renowned concert pianist Grant Johannesen performed most of the compositions for the score's accompanying CD, which was recorded at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in September 2003.

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