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Mormoniana Book
"The Swirling World of Ersatz Earth" by Lane Twitchell serves as inspiration for part of the new "Mormoniana" cultural musical project.

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.

DeSpain, a self-described "rebel without a cause" who graduated from Orem High School, the Manhattan School of Music and is now working on a jazz symphony and a Broadway show, said she's spent the past 25 years "just kind of doing my own thing. . . . You grow up in the environment and they expect a certain thing out of a white blond woman."

As a child, she loved music and recalls walking down the block in her neighborhood hearing hymns and Mozart coming out of various homes. "You get to my house and hear Earth, Wind and Fire." After playing for cruise ships, nightclubs, piano bars and in New Orleans' French Quarter, she finally found her niche in New York and has never looked back.

Like many of the composers included in Mormoniana, she was honored to be asked to use her skills in a project that most agree will not become a commercial success, but helps broaden the understanding of the diversity that is "Mormon music."

As a jazz musician, she hasn't had the chance to play in church — until this month.

"I went to the Harlem branch last Sunday and played there," she said, adding the response to the "full-out gospel music" she and an African American artist performed there was applauded out loud — a rarity at LDS sacrament meetings.

"We did 'Go Tell it on the Mountain' with clapping and full gospel — what other LDS community could you do that with? I just do my thing and I'm honored when people ask me to. I generally don't fit into the status quo."

That's OK with Crawford Gates, who is most familiar to LDS audiences through his compositions for "Promised Valley" and the annual "Mormon Miracle Pageant" in Palmyra, N.Y.

Though his style is, by admission, much different than most of the composers who worked on the project, he saw it as an interesting and valid concept. He chose a painting by his second cousin, Douglas Snow, of a scene at Lake Powell called "Winter Radiance." The result was a three-part composition interpreting the white and gray of the clouds, the blue lake and the brownness of the sandstone cliffs

Though his romantic style is often seen by younger musicians as "backward," he said, he doesn't apologize. "I am what I am." Mormoniana has a "21st century quality to much of it that I suppose that would be a surprise to some LDS people who might feel that much of that music is pretty far out."

Even so, he said, he was pleased that he and a couple of older colleagues were included. "I'm probably the most conservative of the ones there."

New York graphic designer David Fletcher, who is a trained composer, said he didn't ever expect any type of personal reward for agreeing to participate but hoped it might become a "ticket into a larger art sphere of some kind."

"I did think it would be kind of a high-profile thing for the church and maybe it will get into a more high-profile arena."

DeSpain is excited about the diversity and reach of the project that she believes has the potential to expand the vision of some in the LDS community who tend to wait for something to be "labeled as 'LDS approved.' "

She believes there's a perception within the faith "that there are a small percentage of approved LDS artists — but there are really so many more. I go to church with some amazing people who sing at the Met, who are world-class authors. They're all here just striving to do their art as best they can, yet I don't think (Latter-day Saints) know who these people are."

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One of her new ventures includes a nonprofit organization — www.ephraimsharp.org — that is working on American folk hymns, some of which are tied to her LDS heritage, but go beyond what many think LDS music sounds like. "We're not interested in going to Deseret Book. We want to go beyond that world, but I'd like to bring the LDS community along in the journey. We're just trying to get good stuff out to the world."

As the LDS Church grows and appreciation for fine art increases, she's hoping people "will embrace all kinds of these great composers and just stretch a little bit."

For more information, see www.mormoniana.com or www.mormonartistsgroup.com.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com