By Thomas C. Baggaley
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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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.'"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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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