When Morten Lauridsen was growing up in Beaverton in the 1950s, students commonly headed out to the Tillamook Burn to plant trees. A few years ago, the composer returned to the once-barren site to see it now covered by towering firs.
Lauridsen’s musical career has sprouted proportionately over that half century. Now the dean of American choral composers, his works are performed by choirs all over the world. He received the 2007 National Medal of Arts at the White House, and his works have appeared on more than 100 CDs.
That’s how I opened the short Willamette Week profile I wrote about one of Oregon’s most prominent composers when he returned last year for performances of his music by Portland State University choirs led by Lauridsen’s former student, Ethan Sperry. Lauridsen returns to Portland Thursday night for the Oregon premiere of a new film documentary about him called Shining Night. The first production by filmmaker Michael Stillwater has already earned honors from film festivals in Los Angeles and Washington DC. At the Portland screening, Sperry’s Portland State Chamber Choir and other local singers will perform some of Lauridsen’s music live, and the composer and filmmaker will participate in a post screening question and answer session.
Thursday’s screening is only the latest in a long line of continuing connections between Lauridsen and his origins. Like the title of his recent CD Northwest Journey, Lauridsen’s bushy beard and calm, decidedly un-LA manner suggest that, as I wrote in WWeek last year:
[a]lthough he’s lived in Southern California since the ’60s, in a sense Lauridsen has never left the Northwest. One set of ancestors helped settle Bainbridge Island, while another pioneered eastern Washington, where he was born in 1943. Lauridsen graduated in the first class at Sunset High (’61), played in the band and sang in choirs, and considers himself a native Portlander….
He’s returned often to lecture at local universities, hear and participate in performances of his music. The first of 11 all-Lauridsen CDs was recorded by Portland’s Choral Cross-Ties, who premiered his major cycle Les Chansons des Roses, inspired by the City of Roses.Listeners cherish the lush, often soothing harmonies and rich inner lines of Lauridsen’s music. Choirs admire it because “he really does understand the voice,” says Sperry, who cites Lauridsen’s deft use of jazz harmonies and fresh treatment of seemingly simple classical music devices as key to his music’s appeal.
Stillwater’s film grew out of an interview recorded for the San Francisco chorus Volti’s Great Song series, but the novice director quickly realized that his subject merited a full length treatment. He wound up filming the composer in his Los Angeles home, in Scotland (while Lauridsen worked with one of many choirs performing his work), but mostly on Waldron Island here in the Pacific Northwest, where Lauridsen spends his summers in two rustic cabins — one he converted in 1975 form ancient general store on the island’s western shore, facing the Pacific, the other an octagonal cabin in the woods. Neither has electricity or running water. That’s where the composer annually re-connects with nature, especially the calls of eagles and seagulls, with other residents of the tiny island (several interviewed in the film), and with his childhood roots in the San Juans. There, by light from candles and kerosene lanterns, he created some of the most poignant choral music of the last century on a battered $50 1890 piano.
“The Northwest has drawn out of me some of my finest music,” Lauridsen says. “You can hear that its serenity, calmness and beauty have crept into my music.”
The film doesn’t delve deeply into Lauridsen’s compositional process, though it does acknowledge his influences, which range from classical masters stretching back to the Renaissance and midcentury musical theater songwriters, jazz artists even a few folk rockers. Unfortunately avoiding some of the composer’s more adventurous music, it understandably focuses on the warm, soothing sounds that have made Lauridsen the country’s most performed choral composer and one of the biggest sellers of his sheet music. It contains contains lilting live and recorded performances by Volti, Polyphony, the Dale Warland Singers, and other choruses, and shows Lauridsen working deftly with choirs, as he does often, which helps explain why his music is performed so often.
As the film notes, he also intentionally writes music that’s performable by (though not always easy for) amateur as well as professional singers, knows how to give singers music that’s comfortable to sing, makes his scores easy to conduct by making his instructions crystal clear, and reaches audiences by making his music immediately accessible, conservative though not superficial.
As I discovered in 2003, when I was lucky to spend a couple of days with the composer in Los Angeles while I was reporting a longer profile on Lauridsen for the Wall Street Journal, the warm, personable Lauridsen is in fact a persuasive advocate for his own music, not only by virtue of his willingness to cultivate relationships with choirs and conductors, but also through his steady voice, calm demeanor, and obvious sincerity, unalloyed by irony. Although he’s not conventionally religious, Lauridsen’s music frequently evokes mentions of spirituality, and speaks to millions of listeners on those terms.
Shining Night features effusive praise from such admirers — singers, conductors, island residents, former NEA chairman Dana Gioia — but no critics, nor any sources who can help listeners locate Lauridsen on the spectrum of contemporary composers. Occasional dramatic lighting and frequent shots of its greatest visual asset — the San Juans’ spectacular beauty — effectively convey the composer’s richly creative summer environment. Nor does it delve into his personal or family life, beyond how his mother’s death influenced the composition of his breakthrough work, the radiant Lux Aeterna.
Most of the film consists of Lauridsen speaking eloquently about his life and music. An especially enchanting sequence intercuts Lauridsen’s recitation of poetry that he’d set to music with musical performances and spectacular sunlit shots of the San Juans. In its measured pace, reverent air, and sincere, comforting tone, as warm and fuzzy as the composer’s rumpled beige sweater and grey beard, Shining Night resembles nothing so much as its sincere subject and his emotionally direct, soothing music.
Michael Stillwater’s Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen screens at 7:30 pm Thursday, at Eliot Chapel, in Portland’s First Unitarian Church,1011 SW 12th Avenue.