"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
January 8, 2009
Good LDS offerings in music
by Orson Scott Card

We didn't know Kay and Melvin Ward, and yet I received a package from them at Christmastime. When I opened it, though, it turned out to be a response to my essay on Christmas music.

The letter was from Melvin, and he spoke of his wife's return to serious composing a few years before. They had recorded several CDs of Kay's music, but had been disappointed by the lack of response from the wider Mormon public.

Now, you have to understand the trepidation with which I opened the CDs and inserted Breath of Faith into the player. As a writer (and, decades ago, as an Ensign staffer) I've seen a lot of manuscripts and self-published books, particularly from aspiring LDS authors. There are warning flags.

Inspiration

For instance, whenever the cover letter assures me that the enclosed writing was "inspired," I count on its being awful. Why? Because what they think of as inspiration is really enthusiastic carelessness: They wrote it all in a rush, full of the emotion of creativity, but with no attention to art.

And, because they think it's inspired, they refuse to consider it dispassionately enough to revise it and improve it. The first draft is the final draft.

I don't deny the possibility of inspiration in artistic works, but I think it is extremely rare. Does the Spirit of God inspire unskilled plumbers to do excellent work? Does the Spirit sustain someone in a career as a stockbroker if he has not troubled to learn his craft? Is a strong testimony a substitute for medical school?

Then why should we imagine inspiration will substitute for training and study in the arts alone?

It seems far more likely that the Spirit might touch the audience or readers to allow them to receive a sacred message from a particular performance, regardless of the skill of the performer.

In such cases, however, it's good for the artist to keep in mind that the Spirit can work through anything. I've known people to feel the touch of the Spirit, leading them to the Church, through reading anti-Mormon literature!

Far better for artists to learn their craft, hone their tools, and shape their material with painstaking care. If the Lord then helps them during the act of creation or performance, he has a lot more to work with. And the artists have something to rely on the rest of the time.

Clean

Another warning sign is when the cover letter contains a diatribe about all the filth and evil in the books/music/movies offered in the wicked world, and then tells me how clean this book or CD or DVD is.

Again, I automatically assume -- and am rarely proven wrong -- that the artist thinks that any story or lyric or script will do, as long as it doesn't have bad words and nobody takes their clothes off.

While it is true that in worldly art, offensive words, sexual scenes, and graphic violence are relied on far more than their actual contribution would require, that does not mean that creating art without these elements automatically makes it "good."

If you found a bunch of bananas covered with mud, you might want to wash them before peeling them. But scrubbing has no effect on how ripe they are.

Too often these "clean" works by LDS artists are either so underripe (lacking in skill and creative development) or so overripe (full of cliche and self-indulgence) that they are very unpleasant to consume.

Superior

A third warning sign is when the cover letter reveals an arrogant writer or artist. These are the letters that sneer at the ignorance or bad taste of the Mormon audience. The message seems to be: If you don't like my work, you too must be a pious hick.

Such vanity might provide consolation for artists who have not found an audience, but I have little patience with it.

Art is a dialogue. Create how and what you will, if you choose to use techniques or subject matter that alienate the potential audience in predictable ways, then you cannot blame the audience for rejecting your work. You rejected them first!

Imagine if you received an invitation to a party, but the invitation told you every item of clothing you should wear. "And above all don't wear that red dress/checked shirt you had on at the ward supper last week -- it would embarrass the other guests."

"Oh, and we'll be serving dishes you've never heard of," says the invitation, "but they're much better than any of the foods you like."

Would you go? Oh, maybe out of curiosity -- but wouldn't you feel rejected from the start?

This superior attitude is usually an assertion of loyalty to the "high standards" of worldly art -- you know, the standards that killed academic poetry and music by making them inaccessible to ordinary people.

I'm So Unfair

I have been so unfair to Kay and Melvin Ward, because this preamble might lead you to think that these categories apply to either Melvin's letter or Kay's music.

There was no hint of any of these things in Melvin Ward's letter. That's why I actually had some hope -- why I opened the CDs the day I got them and listened immediately.

At first I was relieved. It wasn't awful!

And then I began to realize: It's actually good!

It helps that the Wards engaged excellent singers and musicians to perform their music, and the production values are professional. No garage recordings here

But the underlying compositions are every bit as good as Melvin Ward's letter asserted.

Kay Hicks Ward is the real thing, a rare serious composer in an LDS musical community dominated by pop composers who have a few licks that are pleasing but don't really understand music at its root.

I have since listened to both albums -- Breath of Faith and Near Unto Bethlehem -- at least a dozen times each, and my pleasure in them has only increased.

You can buy all their albums at http://www.kayhicksward.com/ -- though, annoyingly, you have to purchase each album separately through paypal instead of gathering more than one into a shopping cart for a single transaction.

Not that these albums are perfect. I wish that singer Robert Breault, for instance, had forgone the rolled r. It might sit well with the Italian-influenced bel canto community, but it sounds faintly ridiculous to ordinary American ears and weakens otherwise excellent performances.

We don't roll our rs in English, and there's no musical reason why a foreign consonant should be introduced in songs written in our language.

But Breault earns complete forgiveness by the glorious power of his voice -- and for the sweet and soaring last note of "Be Still."

While the compositions are meticulous, there are occasional lapses in the lyrics. The very titles of "Boy of Mine" and "Heaven's Very Special Child" are bathetic. In particular, the use of "special" as a synonym for "precious" is a marker of cloying sentimentality; it's a word you use instead of taking the time to find a meaningful one. And it is resorted to more than once in this carelessly written lyric.

I'm irritated when lyricists treat heaven as a one-syllable word "heav'n." When translating from other languages into English, one can be excused for distorting words to make them fit existing music. But when it's an original composition, either put two notes on heaven or write a lyric that doesn't require contracting multi-syllable words.

It has always been a cheat, and is no longer an acceptable one, to resort to "heav'n," "pow'r," "o'er," "e'er," "e'en," and other such nonsense.

If, as a lyricist, you find yourself writing "With thy loving arm, shield me now from harm" or distorting diction just to achieve a rhyme like "love" and "above," or filling your second stanza with phrases like "take me home, no more to roam" or "day by day, come what may," you aren't done yet.

Achieving a rhyme is something you do in addition to, not instead of, having a strong, fresh lyric.

Likewise, in the line "This special child will need much love," the word much is clearly just a filler to make the words and notes come out even.

Having said these negative things about the lyrics, let me point out that they are also grammatically flawless -- including the second person singular and the subjunctive, which few writers have a clue about these days.

The few flaws are minuscule in comparison with the achievements here. These are the works of a composer who has complete mastery of her own musical vocabulary.

I found myself asking the same question that Melvin Ward raised in his letter. Why doesn't the Mormon audience embrace such extraordinary talent?

Let me suggest that the answer is not a lazy or miseducated audience. I find that even musically untrained Mormons are quite capable of recognizing beauty and power in art, when it is well-performed -- even if it challenges their expectations.

I'm not speaking of academic art that deliberately repels regular people -- there's none of that here. I can't think of anyone who won't be both surprised by and delighted with the blue notes in some of the Christmas carols, or the Jewish musical motifs in Ward's arrangement of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."

And in the songs where the ideas are surprising -- for instance, some of the assumptions about Joseph's knowledge and attitude in "Boy of Mine" -- most people will at least be intrigued, even if they don't agree.

Anyone can delight in deliberate echoes of other songs, like "I long to hear" in "Remember Me," which echoes a phrase in "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus."

The lyrics are invariably suited to the music -- or vice versa. I was thrilled with "Remember Me," in which the singer compares himself in the place of the righteous thief who was crucified beside the Lord.

"Hear My Prayer," despite lyrical flaws in the second stanza, is a heartfelt song that is well within the reach of many ward soloists, and will have a powerful effect in sacrament meetings.

And "Every Child Is Holy" deserves a permanent place among our the best and most-beloved Christmas songs.

The biggest problem that keeps excellent work like Kay Hicks Ward's albums from achieving the popular reception that it deserves is neither in the work nor in the potential audience.

It's in the sore lack of effective advertising and review media in the LDS community. It's simply too hard to get the word out.

Remember when The Improvement Era carried advertisements? I understand why the revamped Church magazines dropped ads, but when BYU Today dropped advertising, the last Church-wide advertising medium disappeared.

In this internet age, Mormon Times, Meridian Magazine, and other online publications provide space for ads -- but they are, by necessity, short.

What we don't have -- what we have never had -- is a churchwide sequential advertising medium. I'm speaking of radio, of course, where the ads come as part of an unavoidable sequence.

Outside a few markets in Utah and Idaho, however, we Mormons are not numerous enough to support broadcast radio aimed at us. Broadband internet, however, allows us to reach Mormons among every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.

A webstation solely devoted to Mormon music would do only part of the job. It would almost certainly have to center on Mormon pop or on pious standards -- the two formats are quite incompatible -- and would only reach people who are already satisfied with Kurt Bestor and Sam Cardon on the one hand, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the other.

What fills the gap is Mormon talk radio, where the content is LDS life, practices, and doctrines -- aimed at loyal members. The initial audience would listen at the computer, but then there's a much larger aftermarket among those who download the podcast and listen to it while driving or exercising.

Then sequential ads, including music ads, could reach an audience that is not already aware that they need or want what is being advertised. The Wards -- and others -- could buy advertising time that would actually make their target audience aware of what they're offering.

Meanwhile, we have the example of Sally DeFord. Her website (http://www.DeFordMusic.com) offers free downloadable sheet music, along with some .mp3 recordings, of the hymns she writes.

DeFord is a first-rate composer of sacrament-meeting-appropriate music, and her lyrics are usually up to the level of the music.

What she doesn't do is charge any money or even allow you to donate. She pays for everything out of pocket -- which explains the almost-primeval look of the website -- and writes all of the charming and witty commentary on the site. Spend any time there, and you feel like you know Sally DeFord.

This is not a model for self-supporting LDS art -- when you don't charge money, you can't even pay for your expenses. She doesn't even sell ad space (which makes me crazy, because I would love to pay for the privilege of advertising my new book of hymns on her site).

But this is the way DeFord has found to offer her music to the whole Church, and it's a good way. Certainly she doesn't have to spend her life trying to catch people making illegal copies of her sheet music so she can make a buck -- because they're free, all copies are legal.

When you look around for the Mormon Shakespeares, Bachs, Tennysons, or Carusos, remember that, while we are a community of faith on Sundays, we have not yet created ourselves as a cultural community with the ability for artists to reach the whole church to find or create an audience.

But maybe this column -- and MormonTimes.com, and webcasts yet to come --

will begin to create a place where all of us can find each other to talk about things that are important and good -- but can't be said (or performed) in sacrament meeting.


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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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