Mormoniana, a coffee-table book and companion piano suite pairing composers and visual artists who share LDS roots, defies expectations with its diversity of styles. Hymn settings and travelogues by "old guard" composers such as Robert Cundick and Crawford Gates are nestled among avant-garde works by the likes of Christian Asplund, co-founder of the Seattle Experimental Opera, and a jazz-influenced piece by Lisa DeSpain.
The eminent pianist Grant Johannesen, a native of Salt Lake City, arranged the 16 compositions in sequence and recorded them. "Each of these men and women were brilliant," Johannesen, who has championed new music throughout his 60-year career, says of the composers, who each chose a work by an LDS visual artist and responded to it musically.
"It's kind of a collage of different styles and techniques," he says of the suite. "If you just listen to the whole of it, you will come away with decided ideas of what music is for you."
"New music is always scary for people," says writer Glen Nelson, director of the New York City-based Mormon Artists Group and editor of Mormoniana. "Conflict is scary; we want to avoid conflict and tension." Consequently, composers often are not challenged to stretch. "In popular culture, if you don't sell 100,000 [books or CDs], it's a dismal failure," Nelson says, noting that self-publishing allowed for more risk-taking. "We don't have to make any money; we don't have to do any pop-culture compromise."
Nelson recruited the 16 composers, who range in age from their 20s to 80s and live all over the United States. He instructed them to choose "any visual artwork by any LDS artist and just react to it."
"Some of the pairings are quite close," he says. For example, in Reid Nibley's "Hill Cumorah," which is paired with Alfred Lambourne's landscape, and Gates' "Winter Radiance - Lake Powell," which accompanies a painting by V. Douglas Snow, "It's clear the listener is looking at the same painting as the composer. Other times, the composer took an atmospheric approach that is less rigorously connected."
David Fletcher took the charge literally. His "The Swirling World of Ersatz Earth" uses Lane Twitchell's multimedia work - which incorporates cut paper, acrylics, collage, plastic and Plexiglas - as a road map. "That's really, really reacting," Nelson notes.
Johannesen plays all but two of the tracks on the CD; he asked Asplund to perform his own tremolo-heavy "Vision" and Todd Coleman to perform his "Exquisite Corpse," which incorporates digital audio among piano quotations from such sources as the Brahms Lullaby and the well-known chorale from Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
"The rest I worked enthusiastically at," Johannesen says. Among the many editions of Mormoniana, "the only thing I'm waiting for is a [spiral-bound] copy I can put on the piano and have it stay open."
Nelson says the music in Mormoniana is "a pretty representative selection of what's happening in LDS [classical] music today. . . . The best thing about the music is it's all over the map." The art is not as wide-ranging, though it includes a mix of representational and abstract styles, some photography and even an architect's rendering of the Nauvoo Temple. Valerie Atkisson also created two artworks for the project, using musical notation as her jumping-off point.
Mormoniana (mor-MO-ni-AH-na) raises the question of what Mormon music is - if there is such a thing. An accompanying essay by composer Michael Hicks argues that " 'Mormon' is a noun posing as an adjective."
"What is most delightfully Mormonistic about the visual and musical art presented here is that it is all over the aesthetic map," Hicks writes. "It wanders from one frontier or trail to another, confident in a love of the senses and a belief in beauty as a corollary of truth but mistrustful of any attempt to say that it is what it should be, according to some commonly held orthodoxy of art or Mormon-ness."
Nelson and Johannesen believe there is an audience for challenging fare like Mormoniana. Johannesen illustrated with an anecdote:
Thirty or 40 years ago, he performed Aaron Copland's notoriously spiky Piano Variations in recital in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. LDS Church general authority George Q. Morris told him afterward that the piece "seemed so relevant in the Tabernacle atmosphere, something like a cry from the mountain and the burning bush. . . . Even if I don't know what the idiom is, it seems like very strong harmonic music, but without the harmonies I'm used to."
Morris got it, Johannesen says, and so will others who are looking for music that "goes beyond elementary harmonic systems."
"What we have so often in music in church is . . . well, it isn't rudimentary, but . . . it's designed to be enjoyable and not tax people too much. It's a shame."
The 'Mormoniana' experience
'Mormoniana' is available in several formats; see http://www.mormoniana.com for ordering information:
A deluxe edition, hand-sewn and full-bound with embroidered silk covers, with the full musical score, reproductions of the 16 artworks, a CD recording, Valerie Atkisson's original limited-edition print, and Michael Hicks' essay, is $500. It is autographed by all the collaborators.
A limited edition, identical to the deluxe edition, minus the Atkisson pring and autographs, is $150.
A paperback edition, including the piano score, artwork, CD and essay, is $50.
The CD on Tantara Records is $15.95.