By Walter Saul
October 17, 2020
The Third Concert – The Music of Jack Ballard and Larry Mumford
Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers has explored many avenues and diverse ways of creating music, and, if you attend a conference such as this one, you will be enriched in so many different directions that, frankly, it would take you seven months to debrief about your experiences. At least, it has taken me that long, and I don’t mind confessing that to you, dear reader, because there is so much to say about all the many different roads we composers have taken within the CFAMC.
The CFAMC’s love affair with film composition is one such direction. In our 27-year history, we started early and several of us have continued to collaborate with filmmakers to the present day. I remember J. A. C. Redford’s residency early in those years as he shared with us his extensive experience in the movie and TV music industry and own a signed copy of his book, Welcome All Wonders: A Composer’s Journey. In 2007, Mark Hijleh, our founder and first president, scored a delightful film, Prairie Pirates, directed by Jamey Durham, using only the playback of Finale 2005 and a really tinny piano for the flashback scenes to create the soundtrack.
In a similar manner, Jack Ballard demonstrates his versatility as composer by collaborating with Brandon Truscott and the graphic and visual arts program at Utah Valley University in a six-minute film entitled Bound. Truscott describes the short movie this way: “A man finds himself in front of a fire in a deep wood. He is startled by the glimpse of another presence and follows in pursuit. The chase leads him to a mountain lake and into the water. As he swims down he relives the trauma of a car accident. Before he can save the victim he loses consciousness and becomes the one needing rescue. With the help of another he makes it out alive – or, does he?” As one watches the imagery of the movie, it is evident that the Symbolist movement of Claude Debussy’s era leaves its mark on the plot. The darkness of the movie, where all appearances of light from car headlights to fire are disruptive on the screen, mirrors well the darkness and mystery of the screenplay. Ballard’s score masterfully fits its musical role by starting out with random sounds involving glass: as Ballard puts it in his program notes: “breaking and shattering, cracks, wineglass resonances, and tapping.” He then digitally sculpts the sounds into new experiences, as it evolves from seemingly haphazard initial noises into a slow movement of a chamber string ensemble fashioned in the Baroque style. I have found his love of combining different styles and musical languages similar to my own and also my mentor, George Rochberg, who first unveiled that possibility to me in his own music as he moved out of his atonal lockdown into a new world of music that could be anywhere or everywhere on the tonal continuum, from traditional tonality to the most astringent atonality. Ballard transitions in and out of his channeling of the Baroque language masterfully and seamlessly and serves this film very well. You may view the movie at https://vimeo.com/391727859. For a very interesting contrasting experience, try viewing the film as presented, then listen only to the soundtrack. My understanding is that the movie was developed to fit Ballard’s previously existing work Entropy Retrograde, and it is easy to see why this fine collaboration happened. By the way, Entropy Retrograde is a fixed media work, not merely notated by the composer for others to perform, but recorded and processed electronically by the composer and “performed” by playback of the finished recording.
Another CFAMC composer influenced by film music is Lawrence Mumford. The history of his Adagio: Of Times and Season PAINTINGS is unfortunately congruent with many excellent works birthed and intended for live performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. CFAMC had chosen this work for its world première for the conference to be held in October 2020 live at Biola University, but, when we had to scrap our plans, Mumford serendipitously took advantage of an offer by the Czech-based Janáček Philharmonic to record the work in August 2020. The orchestra, under conductor Stanislav Vavřínek, has produced a magnificent recording of this lovely, caressing, yet larger-than-life Adagio which unveils several delightful aspects to Mumford’s artistry and craftsmanship.
Mumford says of his work: “It owes its inspiration to several great 20th-century symphonic adagios, and to the mildly syncopated language of recent dramatic film scores.” There are certainly the two or three rich climaxes that to me are “Hollywood moments,” especially in the company of the paintings that are on display in this presentation. And there is a wonderfully syncopated lilt to the music which comes off as a gentle, yet powerful barcarolle throughout its ten-minute length. I am always a sucker for music in 12/8 and 6/8 time because I relish compound time which is used surprisingly seldom in art music. And, as I contemplate the inspiration of this music, I certainly see it taking its place among the great adagios of both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Ludwig van Beethoven was similarly inspired, I believe, in the second movement of his Pastorale Symphony (Symphony No. 6), a musical canopy of nature’s richest pleasures of singing birds and flowing brooks, also in 12/8 time and, like this video, very much incorporating water into its palette.
Mumford here achieves a difficult objective. He has balanced the importance of the visual artwork and his music. There is no sense that the music is subservient to the displayed art, nor more important than it. I find myself enchantingly equally engaged, going back and forth in a satisfying way between the music and the art. Therefore, it seems appropriate to spend a little time on the paintings themselves. He cites two sources: California Plein-air art and other Western art paintings. It turns out that the Impressionist art movement in France was particularly welcomed and engaged in California, whose artists, including a cousin of mine, Jim Caldwell, found its love of light and nature, especially clouds, water, and richly colored landscapes, ideal for portraying the breathtaking scenery all over the state. The Plein-air canvases certainly contrast with the other Western artwork, which show more people and scenes of harsher reality, such as the sunbaked explorers looking worried about scant water around the five-minute mark, or the lone Native American on horseback in the grueling hot sun four minutes in, or the pioneering couple at 5:55 (including the only woman in the artwork). Probably my favorite painting is the dark-blue river and its well-watered, vibrantly alive valley at 3:30 which is a high contrast to the following Native American. There is another striking image at 6:15 of a full moon breaking through the clouds at night, at the point where Mumford introduces his quieter theme.
And here is one other aspect of Mumford’s score to explore: this quiet place, right where others might instead reach a dramatic climax, by its introverted nature becomes the climactic point of the work. Further reflection confirms Mumford’s observation that both the extroverted opening theme and this reflective theme are essentially the same theme. So, much in the matter of Franz Liszt, Mumford has transformed this theme into a remarkably contrasting theme and further solidified the organic unity of this work, which you may experience now at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HvQHU47UXU.
There is a part of me that would appreciate a listing of the artwork displayed during this Adagio. Part of my desire here is to see if my cousin Jim Caldwell is represented, but also this multi-media presentation has made me much more curious about the gallery of art Mumford has skillfully curated for this presentation.
In a week or two, I will conclude the Stanbery Chronicles by reviewing the music of Heather Niemi Savage and, of course, our dear departed friend Paul Stanbery, whose music, we instantly realized, had to end this concert and our Virtual Conference. Please join us again to discover why.