MormonianaContemporary-classical, Collaborative, Cutting Edge?

By Rose Datoc Dall

What Is Mormoniana?

The name Mormoniana refers to the newly released book published by Mormon Artist Group Press (collector’s edition available, soon available in paperback) containing the following: original piano scores by 16 concert composers; artwork of 18 visual artists; a frontispiece by visual artist Valerie Atkisson; an essay by composer and theorist Michael Hicks; and a Music CD recording of all the original concert pieces performed by concert pianist Grant Johannsen. All involved in this collaboration are LDS. Each composer was commissioned to select a piece of visual art as inspiration for an original composition for inclusion in Mormoniana. But collectively, the body was “conceived and developed as a single, concert work rather than a collection of separate compositions [to be performed] … in order, complete.” (Glen Nelson, “Forward,” Mormoniana, Mormon Artist Group Press, 2004.)

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

Originally, Mormoniana was conceived as “Latter-Day Pictures at an Exhibition.” Anyone familiar with Pictures at an Exhibition by 19th century composer Modeste Mussorgsky can appreciate this analogy. (Mussorgsky used images from an exhibition by visual artist and friend Victor Alexandrovich Hartmann as the source of inspiration for Pictures at an Exhibition.) But this original idea gave way to Mormoniana as the project took on a life of its own. It became the great experiment to put serious Latter-day Saint classical composers together with the work of LDS visual artists while an LDS essayist/ composer/theorist explains the driving forces and pulls all the elements together.

Refreshingly well done! Grant Johannsen’s performance is superb, leaving only the desire to see the live performance of the work. Everything about the piece speaks of something truly fine; Mormoniana falls into a league all its own and audiences accustomed to Mormon pop might know how to respond to this recording, which can only be described as high art. When listening to Mormoniana, do not expect the warm fuzzies of Mormon pop. There is nothing sweet about this music. In fact, this recording has absolutely nothing to do with competition in the popular market. Rather, Mormoniana must be understood as a dialogue between artists and composers, writers and a publisher, as a piece of art featuring some of the most acknowledged, respected and scholarly minds in the field of contemporary-classical music.  Some of them are heavyweights in the field of music theory.

The Music

The impressive list of composers includes Crawford Gates, Robert Cundick, BYU’s composer-in-residence Murray Boren, Deon Nielsen Price, Gaylen Hatton, David Fletcher, Reid Nibley, Rowan Taylor, David H. Sargent, Lansing D. McLoskey, Christian Asplund, Jeff Manookian, Nathan Fifield, Todd Coleman, Royce Campbell-Twitchell, and Lisa DeSpain. Pianist Grant Johannsen’s performance of the work is superb.

Be prepared for a very different listening experience, a crash course in contemporary-classical music theory, as you get a glimpse into the world tread only by the composer’s composer. Become more acquainted with the influences that drive contemporary-classical music and watch its parallels in the contemporary visual art world.

Ultimately, many will continue to scratch their heads, but serious musicians, performers, thinkers and even listeners with taste for contemporary-classical will applaud Mormoniana’s contribution to the archives of Latter-day Saint music. The music is brainy in concept, artistic, substantive and finally, intellectually satisfying for the serious musician, theorist and performer.

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

Stylistic Elements

The range in stylistic elements is broad. The 16 concert scores are challenging, occasionally in tricky meters, some to be played with modern techniques. Some pieces are infused with a jazz influence; others have 20th century elements such as non-traditional writing of parts; some avoid symmetry and break with traditional writing conventions, structure and notation which result in dissonance and atonality; others embrace both traditional and contemporary elements.

Jeff Manookian employs 20th century percussive techniques of piano performance a la Sergei Prokofiev including using the closed fist to play rhythmic and rushing tone clusters (notes lying next to each other on the keyboard). In 20th century music, closed fists and even the entire forearm is used to play large tone clusters.

In contemporary spirit, Murray Boren, Nathan Fifield and Rowan Taylor weave dissonant motifs in counterpoint, sort of a contemporary twist on baroque structure. Fifield even takes his cue from a baroque tune, Bach’s ”O Haupt voll Blur und Wunden“ (also known as the hymn ”O Savior, Thou Who Wearest“) and freely diverges as he explores this tune in variations.

The more outwardly melodic pieces by Reid Nibley, Royce Campbell Twitchell and Robert Cundick use repeating motifs and patterns and themes throughout their compositions, which build and gain power. Meanwhile Crawford Gates weaves melodic and cascading strains using a broad combination of elements, from broad dissonant chording, to unpredictable metering and romantic sweeping arpeggios.

Jazz influence is most apparent in Lisa DeSpain’s playful composition “An Ice Cream Between Friends,” which is probably the most outwardly reminiscent to Mussorgsky’s approach (not necessarily in style) to writing his whimsical and frenetic “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” from Pictures at an Exhibition.

Artwork by John Moe selected by composer Lisa DeSpain for “An Ice Cream Between Friends.”

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

Visual Art Drives the Concept

Selected artwork, which provide the inspiration for these concert compositions, are by visual artists Sallie Clinton Poet, Monte Anderson, Lane Twitchell, Walter Rane, Alfred Lambourne, Bruce Hixson Smith, Peter Livingston Myer, Stephen Moore, Trevor Southey, Leslie Williams, V. Douglas Snow, David Linn, William Meeks, John Moe, Ray Andrus, and collaborative photographers Thomas Epting, Matthew Day, and Natasha Brien.

Each composer selected a visual art piece as a springboard for his or her composition, and each approached this task differently.


Gaylen Hatton employs constantly changing meter as a propulsive vehicle to illustrate the tragic and mournful fall of Lucifer in ”Fallen Angel.” While on the other hand, unchanging driving meter is a vehicle In Murray Boren’s ”The First Principle.” The metaphor of faith without fear drove Boren’s dynamic markings for the performance of this piece: “Fearlessly, without metric accents,” (Glen Nelson, CD Liner Notes, Mormoniana, Tantara Records, 2004.)

Artwork by David Linn, selected by composer Murray Boren for “The First Principle.”

David H. Sargent uses unpredictable metering and contrast between dissonant heavily pedaled chords versus tones played in quick staccato that jump in sporadic intervals to reiterate the ambiguity of the contemporary painting of the Raising of Lazarus by Bruce Hixson Smith.


The physical properties of sound also become a vehicle – Christian Asplund’s manipulation of sound in “Vision” is driven by the contemporary painting of the same name by Trevor Southey, which depicts a man and pregnant woman and an apparition of their unborn child. Asplund plays with the resonance of the piano itself and uses “combinations of sounds that build in such a way as to almost make sound visible,” (Glen Nelson, CD Liner Notes, Mormoniana, Tantara Records, 2004.)

In addition and in the spirit of performance artist John Cage, sound quality in time becomes the study for Todd Coleman in his contemporary composition “Exquisite Corpse” (written for piano and digital audio). The photo grouping by Epting, Day and Brien, which juxtaposes odd images from different stages of life and death, drives the unconventional format of the music. “The score is presented in fifteen second intervals (rather than measure divisions) … with quotations to Brahms’ Lullaby, John Cage’s Sonata for Prepared Piano, and Purcell’s aria from Dido and Aeneas, ‘When I Am Laid in Earth.’” (Glen Nelson, CD Liner Notes, Mormoniana, Tantara Records, 2004.)

Artwork by Thomas Epting/ Matthew Day/ Natasha Brien, selected by composer Todd Coleman for “EXQUISITE CORPSE.”

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

Manner of Notation

Notation also becomes a vehicle. Composer David Fletcher “let the marks in the painting dictate musical structure, rhythm, tempo and notation,” (Glen Nelson, CD Liner Notes, Mormoniana, Tantara Records, 2004) as in “The Swirling World of Ersatz Earth.” Fletcher’s piece is somewhat impressionistic. Quartal harmony is used, as he breaks from traditional writing of parts. The myriad of repetitious chording reiterates the spiraling imagery in the painting, turning, increasing in tempo as it converges into the center.

 Artwork by Lane Twitchell, selected by composer David Fletcher for “The Swirling World of Ersatz Earth.”

In Deon Nielsen Price’s “Women in Christ’s Line,” the ancestral line is represented by the flourish of notes from the top of the keyboard to the bottom and a series of short themes to represent the different women.

Lansing D. McLoskey uses a “series of notes rising and falling in intervals of perfect fifths” to make reference to the right angles in the grid in Corner Grid.  This reiterates the grid pattern in the formalistic painting by Stephen Moore, Untitled (corner grid). The piece is given unusual dynamic markings “Gently, from opaque to translucent” (Glen Nelson, CD Liner Notes, Mormoniana, Tantara Records, 2004.)

 Artwork by Stephen Moore, selected by composer Lansing D. McLoskey for “Corner Grid.”

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

The Flipside – Music Drives The Visual

Although all the composers responded to visual images, the only visual artist to have done the reverse in the Mormoniana project is artist Valerie Atkisson, who was active early into the project. Valerie, a participant in Mormon Arts Group, created the frontispiece for the book, entitling it Notation in Time.  She derived the imagery from music iconography and approached the piece in an improvisational manner, recording her reaction to historical methods of music notation throughout the centuries. To make a distinction, Atkisson’s artwork was the only piece created for Mormoniana.  All other visual pieces were finished previous to the project and selected by the musicians for their inclusion in the book.

Valerie Atkisson, Notation in Time, gouache and computer art, 2004.

What Makes Mormoniana Contemporary

Mormoniana is diverse in both style and approach in the music and in the visual art. The visual art, for instance varies from traditional landscape to the non-objective art, from more abstract paintings to religious imagery, from photographs to mixed media collage. Likewise, traditional and unconventional elements are embraced in the music of Mormoniana. This inclusivity of disparate elements in the music and art, and everything in between, makes Mormoniana contemporary. In other words, anything and everything goes. The fact that music combines itself with visual art is contemporary, a legacy of performance artist John Cage, where media really have no bound and can be combined and intertwined in unpredictable ways. The collaborative effort has the feel of a grand collage of sight and sound.

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

The “Mormonistic”

“What is most delightfully Mormonistic (about Mormoniana),” says essayist Michael Hicks, “is that it is all over the aesthetic map. 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 what it should be, according to some common held orthodoxy or art or Mormon-ness.”

In other words, the spiritual subject matter for many pieces makes it uniquely “Mormon,” but the music diverges from our “common” association with Mormon music after that point. Testimony finds expression in art song in concert form.

Having made that distinction, concert music is not to be confused with the hymns, nor music to be played or performed in sacrament meeting, for instance. Some are fearful of unconventional interpretation of sacred subject matter because of the lack of distinction between hymns or music for meetings of worship and concert music. There is indeed a distinction and a place for everything. Concert music is for the concert hall and is not intended for Sunday meetings of worship

Mormon Artists Group

Mormoniana is the second publication by Mormon Artists Group Press, having published Musical Compositions by LDS Composers in New York City’s Library Collection two years previously. This first publication was a reference volume of more than 200 existing works. Mormoniana, on the other hand, was a commissioned project as a seeming natural consequence of the dialogue within Mormon Artist Group (MAG), which is comprised of 50 creative artists who are Mormon and live in New City (painters, choreographers, novelists, photographers, filmmakers, architects, playwrights, historians, poets, etc.). The group does not limit its associations or its dialogue to New York; Mormoniana includes commissions of composers from all over North America.

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

The Dialogue

What gives Mormoniana most significance is the dialogue from which the project sprang. The dialogue exists amongst the entire creative LDS community about its own relevance in an LDS culture and the corollary of the arts and the Gospel. Librettist Glen Nelson, the Director of MAG (who instigated the Mormoniana project), is an active participant in this dialogue, with a very keen sense of the issues that face the LDS creative community. He in no small way has sought to create opportunities for this artist group and for the larger footprint of serious LDS art to be felt in and to find significance within an LDS culture.

Four years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion group moderated by Nelson. This panel, convened as part of the Manhattan Stake Arts Festival, brought together professional Mormon artists to discuss the role of art in LDS culture. Central to this dialogue is Spencer W. Kimball’s Gospel Vision of the Arts, which many artists, performers, composers, writers, poets, architects, filmmakers, and others in the LDS community regard somewhat as the artists’ manifesto. The dialogue is ever-present, and artists continually ask themselves, “Have we arrived, as a culture, to the level of excellence and vitality in the arts that President Kimball foresaw? Are we getting closer?”

Mormoniana gives me hope that we are getting closer and are moving in the right direction, although the LDS creative collective seems hardly even aware of itself and its potential or of the talented individuals that are represented but still live in obscurity.


Moreover, out of all the collaborative works that I have seen by artists who are LDS, Mormoniana seems to be one of the more successful attempts. Mormoniana is a well-conceived and beautifully contained and executed work of art, and to finish it off, it is hand bound by Glen Nelson himself in limited edition.  Nelson used a gorgeously simple brown silk embroidered hard cover to set the work apart from mass issue off the press.

As a manifestation of this yearning to give a collective of artists validity and a voice, cultural and societal significance, Mormoniana might even seem to say not only, “We are LDS – hear us roar,” but also, “We are LDS and we are also smart and sophisticated.” It could demand historical significance – a collaboration that involves such a large number of LDS creative professionals (and many of whom are at the forefront of their fields).  This makes Mormoniana definitely a project that cannot be ignored. But ultimately, it demands nothing, not even our approval. It is art.

In conclusion, I find Mormoniana fearless in its attempt to be what it is and nothing less, not answerable to popular culture but only to itself and to higher truth. I appreciate Mormoniana as a documentation of a serious LDS artistic culture that is struggling to define itself and to make its presence known.  Collaborative, contemporary-classical, cutting edge? Most definitely, and I can’t wait for more.

To find out more about Mormoniana, visit

© 2004 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.

About the Author:

Rose Datoc Dall received her BFA in Art History and Fine Art Studio from Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in 1990. Rose interned at the Valentine Museum in Richmond, served as the Gallery Director for the Alliance for the Varied Arts in Logan, Utah and the Visual Arts Director for Zion East Foundation for the Varied Arts, ZEFA, in Virginia. She is currently a painter and exhibiting artist who works from her home studio and enjoys writing critical essays on the subject of art, participating in artistic forums as well as participating in collaborative projects with other artists.

Rose converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1987 at the age of 19 and afterwards met her husband-to-be, Timothy Dall, with whom she married in the Washington, D.C. Temple in 1989. Rose and Tim are the proud parents of four children ranging from age 12 to 2. Sister Dall has served in many different capacities in her Church callings, from music, to Young Women, to the Relief Society, to Primary and various Stake callings. She is a Filipino-American who grew up on the East Coast, but moved around the country from Utah to Wisconsin to follow her husband’s academic career and graduate studies. Rose and Tim finally moved back to Northern Virginia in 1993. She and her family currently reside in the Washington, D.C. area in the community of Ashburn, Virginia where they are members of the Brambleton Ward in the Ashburn Stake.


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Selected Cuts from Mormonania

Deon Nielsen Price

Gaylen Hatton

David Fletcher

Reid Nibley

Rowan Taylor

David H. Sargent

07. CORNER GRID- Lansing D. McLoskey

08. VISION- Christian Asplund

09. FIVE- Jeff Manookian


11. EXQUISITE CORPSE- Todd Coleman

Crawford Gates


14. OLD NAUVOO- Royce Campbell Twitchell


16. MOUNTAINS- Robert Cundick