This fine film by Michael Stillwater provides us with an insightful portrait of one of the most bankable of modern composers. Morten Lauridsen is celebrated mainly – perhaps, by many people, exclusively – for his vocal music. Though it’s clear from his website
that he has composed works in other genres it is the vocal music on which this film concentrates. That’s understandable since the film is part of a projected series entitled Song without Borders
Much of the footage is shot in and around Lauridsen’s home on the remote Waldron Island in Washington State – he also has a base in Los Angeles, where he is Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California, his alma mater. The composer’s Waldron Island home is called Crum’s Castle, a former general store which he bought in a very run-down state. It still looks a bit ramshackle – in a nice way – but any shortcomings in terms of creature comforts are more than compensated by its location. It overlooks the water – next stop Canada – and as the island is so sparsely populated there’s little to disturb the pristine beauty except the sounds of nature, namely birds and the lapping waves. This is clearly inspirational for Lauridsen.
The film makes much of the natural beauty of Lauridsen’s environment and the very sympathetic scenic camerawork is a major feature of the film – much of the scenery is jaw-droppingly beautiful. There is no commentary. Instead we hear a lot of reflections by Lauridsen, either as voice-over or spoken directly to camera. A number of musicians and artists offer observations about his work, including the composers, Ola Gjeilo and Paul Mealor as well as the conductor, Paul Salamunovic. The latter is the conductor emeritus of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and it was for him and that choir that Lauridsen wrote one of his most celebrated works, Lux Aeterna
. Indeed, it was the highly enthusiastic review
by my colleague John Phillips of Salamunovic’s premiere recording of the work that alerted me to Lauridsen’s music. I bought the disc as a result and so it’s to John that I owe my initial awakening to Morten Lauridsen’s art.
It’s not the Salamunovic recording of Lux Aeterna
that is included on the soundtrack to this film. Instead the equally fine recording by Polyphony and Stephen Layton is used (review
). Other music featured in the film includes the Madrigali
, in which Paul Mealor conducts an evidently good chamber choir, Con Anima. They have recorded those pieces (review
) and it looks as if the sessions, with the composer in attendance, were included in the film. Other recordings by The Singers/Minnesota Choral Artists and by The Dale Warland Singers are heard.
Another ensemble is featured: Volti
, a professional chamber choir from San Francisco. Sadly, I don’t think they’ve recorded any of Lauridsen’s pieces. That’s a pity because they are truly excellent in the excerpts we hear in the film, where we see them in rehearsal with Lauridsen in attendance. Inevitably, perhaps, the film leads up to Lauridsen’s rapt O magnum mysterium
and it’s Volti who sing it; they do it wonderfully well.
Volti’s conductor, Robert Geary is well versed in conducting contemporary vocal music and I suspect that much of the music that he and Volti perform is an awful lot more complex and chromatic – or dissonant – than Lauridsens’s. Geary makes an insightful comment. He tells us that in his estimation Lauridsen comes closer than any other American composer to understanding what deep meditation is all about and to bringing that forth in a musical way.
This is an excellent film. We gain a good understanding of Morten Lauridsen and what makes him and his music tick. There’s some beautiful music to hear and the scenic photography is stunning. You may be like me when you watch a documentary and tend to skip the closing credits. Don’t do that on this occasion because if you do you’ll miss hearing in full another of Lauridsen’s most appealing pieces: the serene Sure on this Shining Light
The bonus features include an abbreviated version of the film [56:45] and a number of shorter items. These include Commentaries [9:16] in which various people, including several who have participated in the performances shown in the main film, pay tribute to the composer. The other bonuses are, frankly, ‘commercials’ of one sort or another. I don’t think they add a great deal to the package.
Anyone who admires this composer will want to see this film and if you don’t know Lauridsen’s music or if you have heard it but can’t get on with it Michael Stillwater’s perceptive documentary might just open the door for you.