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By Thomas C. Baggaley

Merrill Jenson has changed. Granted, the first time I met him was under far different circumstances. It was about ten or fifteen years ago - I'm not sure of the exact year - and I was a member of the Brigham Young University Marching Band. That year - as was the case every year - we had our season-ending banquet at the Provo Park Hotel. Awards were given to the various members of the band for their efforts. Jenson, who himself had been a member of the marching band years before, was the guest speaker.

At the time, he seemed more ambitious and energetic. I think there was even a hint of arrogance about him, born of that self-confidence that a film composer must develop to survive in a business where rejection is far more common than praise and accolades. After all, there is, in most cases, only one composer selected to write the score for a given film. Work can be scarce, and competition is fierce.

Now, Jenson is more mellow, more relaxed and easy-going. Happier? Perhaps. There is more of a softness about him that I did not notice ten years ago. It helps that now, instead of speaking in front of a large gathering of college students, he can speak with me one-on-one. Maybe now I can finally get a sense of the real Merrill Jenson that I couldn't see before, but I think there is more to it than that. It is a change, not just of situation and surroundings, but in Jenson himself.

Jenson seems to agree, and he credits at least a part of this change to the experience he had writing the music for The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd, which plays daily in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. His experience scoring the film was so powerful that, as he states it, "After Testaments, I really didn't want to write anything else. It's been hard to get back into the commercial side of things, but I've had to realize that I have to make a living as a composer."

For Jenson, it has been difficult to find the right balance between the demands of a career as a film composer and the gospel. "I used to think that you can't be a good member of the church and also be a successful film composer in the world. I still believe it is difficult - maybe impossible - to be a top-tier, successful film composer, because the career demands so much of you."

Film composers are often asked to write an immense amount of music in a very short amount of time. These deadlines are often inflexible and meeting them is mandatory, because theaters have already been booked. The sound of the film needs to be mixed and prints made in time for the film's scheduled opening. An even more rigorous schedule applies to the music composed for television. Such are the demands that when the great Igor Stravinsky was offered the opportunity to score a film, he wouldn't even consider it.

Jenson has had many sleepless nights trying to keep up with the pace. "They expect you to be married to your work - that you're consumed with it, and that effort will make you a better person. The industry requires 100% commitment. I did that for a while, giving a minimal effort to other things like the church and my family.

"I was getting no sleep and earning lots of money. My career was driving me. The creative fire was making me its instrument. I was always working out the music in my head. I was an awful conversationalist in my family. We didn't take any family vacations, because I was afraid someone would call with a job. My philosophy was 'You have to love music more than life itself.'"

Additionally, film composers have to constantly look for work. Working as a film composer is not a typical 8 to 5 job with a nice set of health and retirement benefits and a steady paycheck. Jenson currently has two film projects on his schedule. After that, if nothing comes up, he's out of work. "You have to promote yourself - contact directors and send demos."

Especially since working on Testaments, Jenson has found this difficult to do. Jenson would prefer that the focus be on his music, rather than his personality as an artist. "The talent of creativity is God-given. I think the music needs to stand on its own, because it's God-given, therefore it isn't mine. In a way, you have to have an ego and be selfish to promote yourself. The message is 'Look how good I am.' For me, that doesn't allow me to be a complete person, because the gospel teaches selflessness. But you've got to get work. You've got to get the music performed and heard. You've got to find the balance somehow."

Jenson was consumed with his music career, but he still wasn't happy. "I would come back from London where I was recording with the National Philharmonic - some of the best musicians in the world - and I would listen to the music and feel unfulfilled." Until one day, that changed. "I was thinking about my family, and I realized I was happy." As he put more effort into his family and his church calling, Jenson found joy and satisfaction. But this was not all.

"After I'd figured out all that, I suddenly found I was writing better music, and it was more pleasing to me. I spent less time writing and was able to work faster and more efficiently. I stopped thinking about me and thought about others and I became a better composer. I made less money after that transition, but I was happier." That was the balance Jenson had been looking for.

For Jenson, writing the music for Testaments provided the perfect opportunity to close the gap between the demands of his art and the gospel. "To write music on the Savior - and have it work - there is no better way for filling that gap." Jenson has had numerous opportunities to write music for films about the Savior before. One of the challenges of this is that some filmmakers have begun to think of him as only being able to write music for that kind of film, making it difficult for him to be considered for other films, but he still feels blessed to have been involved with so many films that deal directly with the life of Jesus.

"Finishing working on Testaments was one of the hardest things that happened. It was like being released from a calling. It was a great experience. I was able to have a close relationship with several of the General Authorities. [After working on the film,] I'm not as commercial as I once was. But I've had to realize that life goes on after Testaments."

The writer and director of Testaments was Academy Award-winning director, Kieth Merrill, a man Jenson has worked with on many occasions. Jenson owes the beginning of his career to Merrill, who took him as an unknown composer who really hadn't done anything of note and trusted him to score his feature-length documentary, Great American Indian, in 1976. "What I loved about Kieth was his trust in me. He seemed to believe that I could do it, that I could write the greatest music possible. He just gave me that feeling of confidence. He instills confidence and gives you the freedom to express it your way."

Jenson and Merrill established a good working relationship through the years. "He never expressed his ideas in terms of music. Kieth is also an artist, and he would draw lines to show what he wanted the music to do with those lines. They were really illustrations more than just scribbly lines, but they would bring a creative thought to me - just through his scribbles.

"And visually what he captured through the camera stimulated me to no end. His visuals caused so many ideas to flow that it unleashed a whole new side of me I didn't know was there. He encouraged me to not necessarily react to what was on the screen, but to allow that stimulus to cause me to work on another level. I wasn't always writing what was on the screen. The music could then be symbolic of the mood he was trying to create."

Other films Jenson and Merrill have worked together on include Legacy, The Witness, Take Down, Harry's War and Windwalker. Jenson adds, "I believe [Merrill is] a giant as a filmmaker and one of my closest friends in the business. Quite frankly, the best films I've ever done are his. How can you beat Testaments?"

Jenson's latest projects include Almost Perfect, a musical for the stage, and a soon-to-be-released collection of hymn arrangements, titled High On A Mountain Top that he recorded in Prague with an 80-piece orchestra. Almost Perfect is the result of three years of work in collaboration with Douglas Stewart, the lyricist for Saturday's Warrior and was recently produced at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah.

Of his hymn arrangements, Jenson says, "A lot of classical composers aren't good film composers because they actually write too much. My tendency - my nature - is to write too much, so when I write for film I have to simplify. My hymn arrangements are more like mini-symphonies than simple hymn arrangements, and I finally get to do what comes naturally to me." Jenson uses the LDS hymns as folk melodies, much the same way that Aaron Copland used folk tunes in many of his more familiar works. In fact, Jenson would probably find comparisons with Copland flattering, because as he puts it, "I would rather be thought of as an American composer who is LDS, not as an LDS composer."

Despite the demands of his career, Jenson has found ways to accept magnify his callings in the church. He has even found time to serve as a bishop and is now a branch president at the Mission Training Center in Provo. Thinking back, Jenson says, "I don't know if I would change my career. If I started over, I'd probably do a lot of it the same - without sleep. Intensity is a good, productive thing to have - it heightens your creative juices. I still like the excitement of the pressure. As you accept more church assignments, it cuts into that, but those are not career choices. You have to learn to decide when it's good enough." In other words, the key is finding the right balance.

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2002 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.





About the Author:

About the author - Film composer Thomas C. Baggaley received a master's degree in music from UCLA, where he studied film scoring with highly regarded composer, Jerry Goldsmith. He is president of Quest Haven Publishing and co-webmaster of the web site. He has recently released a CD of inspirational music titled "Spirit of the Sabbath", which is available at Deseret Book and is currently producing another to be titled "Healing Showers: Music for a Rainy Evening". He also teaches music theory, music history, songwriting and music appreciation at Salt Lake Community College. He is a husband and father to three wonderful children and serves as the teacher development coordinator in his ward.

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