Composer Spotlight: Murray Boren and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Sacred in Opera: Dr. Boren, good afternoon! How are things going for you in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Murray Boren: I’m functioning, I guess.
SIO: I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. Every time we interview a composer for our newsletter, we realize that they are sacrificing precious time, where they could be writing or doing other things.
MB: It’s no problem. I’m doing nothing but staying quarantined right now.
SIO: A few years ago, when looking through the NOA archives, I realized that no Mormon composer had ever been featured in our Opera Journal or SIO Newsletter. I therefore thought it important that we take time to spotlight sacred music drama pieces that have come out of the Mormon church, and I thought it fitting to begin with your fine works.
MB: Great! Well I’m honored to speak with you today.
SIO: What does spirituality mean to you in relation to your work as a composer and a musician?
MB: That’s a hard question of course. I think that spirituality comes from whatever resonates in people’s hearts when they express or hear the sounds. I don’t think that the story lines themselves have any didactic impact because spirituality is so internal. I’m also not so sure that the music itself is spiritual. Messiaen for example, is a spiritual composer. But I don’t think that because he declared his music sacred, I have to feel it that way. I think that the listener may feel a connection to the sacred in his music because inherently, it does have that spiritual part of him in it. Does that make any sense?
SIO: Do you mean that the human aspect is what’s spiritual in and of itself?
MB: Yes. I find spirituality in most artistic experiences simply because artists are body, mind, and spirit.
SIO: As you share, I think of the concept of Creatio Continua, the theological belief that creation is continual and that in that is the Spirit of God.
MB: That idea is certainly a motivating factor behind why I compose.
SIO: Why have you chosen to utilize the genre of opera and in some instances sacred Opera particularly?
MB: Isn’t that a weird thing? People have actually complained that I’ve utilized opera as a medium for communication, because to them, opera is seemingly among the least accessible of the arts. They think it would be easier for me to write string quartets, which I’ve also written. But I was always drawn into the world of theatre and opera specifically. I was a pianist who began writing operas by setting stories that already existed, and I fell in love with the idea that the storyline could somehow be enhanced by the sonics of this great art form. It’s a funny thing, because I love the work I do, but writing opera can sometimes also feel like a big waste of time. I say this because in the grand scheme of things, operas don’t get performed very often. Another personal observation that in today’s marketplace, opera can often become a producer or director’s art—where the composers seem to take second place in the process—and sadly, the staging and designs become more important than the music itself.
SIO: It sounds as though for better or worse, opera found you.
MB: Absolutely. In my case, part of that has to do with which performers were around and available. If I had not been surrounded by so many singers, perhaps I would have gravitated towards writing other forms of music. But many of my close friends were and are vocalists.
SIO: When did you begin to compose?
MB: I’ve been composing since I was a teenager. Friends would ask me to write songs, and after hearing what I had created for them, would wonder if they wanted to ask me again. I laugh about it today because my works never quite sounded as they were suspecting. But that’s how I began to hone my skills, and I never stopped.
SIO: Tell us a little about your writing process:
MB: Well, although I’m a pianist, I never compose at the piano. I’ve always written from my desk, and I read the music as I read words off a page. Hearing what I write in my head has always came naturally to me. It’s challenging for me to even understand how composers who can’t read music sonically can move forward. In fact, I remember once reading a score with a friend of mine, and I started complaining that the violas were too loud. He then asked me to explain what I meant. “We’re just reading the score,” he said. But I explained that I had to turn those violas down in my mind, and so I did. Because I could balance the sounds the way I wanted to in my head, the actualization of a performance was never the only goal for me. The process of writing was always the ultimate goal. Once the works were written, I was always in a way done with them, because I had already heard them accurately in my mind.
SIO: Were any of your works workshopped through the Brigham Young University Opera Theatre? It's such a wonderful and well-recognized training program. BYU was also your academic home for many years, both as a student and then a member of their faculty.
MB: The head of the opera department at BYU at the time was extremely supportive of my work. He certainly kept me on track. In fact, when I wasn’t writing, he would ask me to compose something for the students. He even arranged for one of my operas, Abraham and Isaac, to be broadcast on Salt Lake’s PBS affiliate. I was really quite fortunate that BYU produced every opera I completed. Of course, like most composers, there are a few works that I never finished or didn’t want to have heard. So I got rid of them before they ever surfaced onto the stage. I’m grateful that the earliest workshops certainly helped me define what I’ve come to believe an opera should be. They also significantly helped the musical works themselves to develop and to grow in complexity… they grew deeper I think in a lot of ways.
SIO: How would you describe yourself today as a composer, and what are ways you've worked to notate what it is that you hear inside your head?
MB: I’ve never felt any need or interest in writing extensively in styles of diatonicism. Consequently, I live somewhat removed from the musical mainstream. My earliest operas are really out there because they are non-metric. They don’t have meters, but rather spatial notation. When writing these earliest works, I was exploring how best to treat the vocal lines so they could be freer and more speech-like. I soon discovered that singers and orchestra conductors don’t particularly like reading music that has no meter. I also found myself having to educate singers at great length to to help them understand what I was trying to convey. I finally just gave up the “spatial notation” idea, and started notating in a more standard manner. Nevertheless, I’ve always tried to ensure that meter serves merely as a time tracker and not a leading contributor of accent patterns. I never want meter to serve like poetic feet that help direct a poem. I think music is much freer than that.
SIO: How did you come to understand voice classifications, and what are some of the things you consider when writing for the human voice?
MB: I actually have an editor. I’m married to a soprano, Susan Alexander, who used to sing a lot on the east coast and Europe. When I start writing things that she thinks aren’t doable, I hear about it pretty quickly. I’m also a tenor, and for these reasons, voices always had to make sense to me. The more you investigate, the more you get an ear for what a voice can and cannot do. You acquire the necessary sensibilities organically, and if you don’t have that, I don’t think you can be a very good vocal composer. When composes just ignore what voices can do, the writing can become either orchestral or just poorly written. I tell students that if the voice can’t do it, then you shouldn’t make them try! As much as you want to sing "Ol’ Man River," you just can’t sing it convincingly if you’re a tenor. It’s not going to work.
The same way that a good singer studies a score to see where they can give their full voice and where they can’t, I always try to pace the writing, and decide where I want to use the resources of the vocalist. I prefer drafting lyrical lines, and I try to avoid creating disjunct lines unless the libretto calls for it. I also like writing passages that follow speech patterns. I usually read the libretto myself several times and try different ways to say the lines … the same way I would if I were an actor. I then pick what I think is the most effective reading of a line, and try to get the music to follow that same basic flow, both in terms of range and rhythm.
SIO: Was there ever a time, perhaps in your early years, where you thought that your writing was problematic for singers, either in terms of balance, pacing or other?
MB: I’ve actually never had that kind of experience. If the orchestra is playing what I wrote, then we’re ok. Some orchestral ensembles just blast through things and that never helps. I have made adjustments in the tessitura for certain singers. Several of my operas also have alternate sections so that if I’ve written a high E for a specific soprano, I’ve also devised a way to make those few bars work for those singers who may not have that high note in their range. I have no trouble offering those kinds of alternatives, neither compositionally or aesthetically, because I want the music to be effective. If the singer can’t sing what I’ve written, it’s just going to look like hard work for them.
SIO: It's really interesting to hear you talk about speech and your deep commitment to storytelling. Other than the sacred elements that we’ve seen in some of your operas, what are other connecting threads or themes that interest you most to explore?
MB: For me, it’s always been about studying the extremes of human emotion-- finding people who are in extremes one way or another, either joyfully or under stress. Abraham and Isaac, offers a perfect example of a story with heightened emotion. Most Mormons who heard my interpretation of that story didn’t think I did right as far as their theological view was concerned. But I wasn’t trying to be theologically accurate. I was trying to express what I thought I would have gone through if I were in that situation. Christymas Playe which is just a setting of the nativity, also contains great drama because of the social situation of the plot. I thought it interesting to see the pressure between Joseph and Mary. Their journey in explaining who this baby was and whose it was, is an extraordinary yet still human kind of tension.
SIO: In a refreshing way, I haven’t found your writing to be overtly theologically didactic, but rather more focused on the art of story-telling.
MB: That is correct, and I should tell you that this tendency of mine has also created conflict with folks in the LDS community who’ve thought that it should not be that way.
SIO: How so?
MB: I cannot criticize The Church as a whole because I don’t think it would be a just thing to do. But there are some people who see themselves as protectors of the theology of The Church, and if something isn’t consciously teaching some theological concept, they find it a waste of time. Take for example the last opera I wrote called The Book of Gold. It’s a story about the founding of the LDS Church. I don’t know how much you know about the Mormon Church, but the opera is based on Joseph Smith and the gold plates. My librettists and I devised an action-adventure story, featuring a young Joseph Smith— a man who does all kinds of strange things with serious ramifications. We tell this great story in a way where audiences, without having any kind of LDS affiliation, often find it to be an emotionally evocative and gripping tale.
SIO: Your works have at times shed light on and even questioned the boundaries of LDS doctrines and beliefs. Is your setting of Abraham and Isaac told from the Mormon perspective or could this and possibly other works written by you be performed by groups outside the Mormon Church?
MB: Abraham and Isaac is certainly not told from the Mormon perspective. My version of the tale has Abraham anguishing over his choice, and most Mormons would say that he had so much faith that he never even thought twice about his decision. But for me, there’s never been much fun in that interpretation, and I still can’t imagine myself having that much faith. Christymas Playe is also not a Mormon telling, and is perhaps the most generic in religious content of anything I’ve written. It’s been done by several universities, and people respond to it as a story they already know with some few new takes on parts of it. So yes, I very much welcome my works to be respectfully performed in venues outside Mormon jurisdiction.
SIO: I think what's intriguing is the idea that regardless of what your faith stance or ideals may be, there is still so much that one can identify with in your works.
MB: I would hope so. You don’t have to buy into the underlying theology of a religious piece to truly enjoy the humanity in it. These characters are real people suffering through real strain, real struggles, and who express real joy when they get through tough times.
SIO: Regarding your opera Emma, what prompted in you a seeming rebellion to take the story of Emma Smith, and find a differing perspective, knowing people inside The Church who would disagree with it?
MB: Yes, many folks have disagreed with me, and have gone as far as to come backstage after a performance to ream me out for works I’ve produced. Those have always been interesting experiences.
My opera Emma, which tells the story of a woman having to make a rather difficult choice, is one such work that’s received considerable backlash from LDS members. It has also really intrigued and moved listeners outside the Latter-Day Saints community. In the opera, we see that Emma, the wife of Joseph Smith, must decide whether to join The Saints in moving out west to Utah. In the end she decides to not go. In The Church today, Emma’s decision often gets criticized, but my telling of her story argues that Emma had to do what was right for her and her children. Throughout the opera, as was also the case in her real life, Emma goes through a lot of anguish and adversity. We see her surrounded by a group of women, some of whom even become her enemies because they can’t understand why she chooses not to go with them. My librettist for Emma and most of my operas is Glen Nelson. He was the first person to suggest that Emma Smith was not a villain at all, but rather quite human and marked by a very complex decision.
This story makes a lot of sense to me, because life is nothing but choices and most of them are not clear cut. The decision of whether to go or to stay is one that most people face some point in their lives, and there can be advantages to both. We often make choices with the hope that the future will work out, and that’s what made me think about Emma Smith in different ways than I had been taught about her. I also liked the idea of writing an opera with an all-female cast! The work requires an exceptional soprano in the title role, but it’s not a terribly difficult score to produce. It’s now been performed in collegiate settings several times, mostly because the characters are evocative and the score contains lots of ensemble work that allows for some liberties in casting.
SIO: Have you ever been interested in setting a religious story outside Judeo-Christian traditions?
MB: I wrote one once. It’s about a Japanese boy, trying to decide whether to become a monk or do other things with his life. Like Emma Smith, this boy’s struggle resides in having to make a decision. One of the things I loved about this project was that though I chose to recreate the soundscape of a different culture, that choice didn’t make the story unrelatable to my culture. In a sense, all human stories are the same stories. You can choose to tell them from a different perspective and learn a lot from them. I don’t even think that most people realize that Muslim operas exist, and of course they do. But if they got to know them, they would see that there’s so much humanity in them and as a result, consequently respond to them, and to the culture from which they came in a new light.
SIO: In the context of art as a reflection of the time, are your works in any way intending to leave ethical, and
moral questions to be answered by the listener?
MB: I’m not really good at writing things that specifically seek to tell people what they have to think. I do ascribe to the belief that you can’t be an artist and not leave a piece of yourself in your work. Those questions that you have yourself, somehow always inevitably show up in your art. I think that any questions posed in my compositions have multiple answers, where people who tune in will in some way reach their own conclusions. It’s not a conscious choice, but every piece I’ve written feels like that to me. Most of my works contain ethical and spiritual material, and all participants are invited to choose how they wish to engage with that material.
SIO: If I think of your response in the context of a work like Emma, I would imagine that as much pushback as you’ve received for the choices you’ve made, you’ve also received feedback from people expressing that your perspectives in some way made them feel more positive.
MB: People have commented that my works have challenged them to rethink their view of history. There were also productions outside Utah (in New York and other regions), where audiences with less Mormon bias empathized much more with the stories told onstage. Those performances were especially meaningful and affirming, in that they helped me confirm that the operas were effective.
SIO: It’s fascinating to consider how touring or the transfer of works to other demographics can bring greater awareness of the different ways in which audiences respond to thematic material, be it musical or coming from the libretto itself.
MB: Another funny and enlightening fact related to Emma is that the New York Times review applauded the very things that the Salt Lake and Utah reviewers criticized. The Times review was a musical response, and not biased or emotionally driven.
SIO: What other sources have been most influential in your compositional process?
MB: I had teachers early on who really gave me the necessary freedom to explore and to basically do what I wanted. In my case, that was helpful, because I was a focused young man who wasn’t trying to emulate anyone. Regarding opera, my biggest influence has been my librettist, Glen Nelson. He often comes up with wonderful solutions and ideas for new sketches. We set what I think is a strong interpretation of James Joyce’s short story The Dead, and the thought of working on that piece was totally his idea. At first, I didn’t care for the story and didn’t see it as operatic. Then when I saw his libretto, I began to see the story in a completely different light, which led me to create a different sound palate unlike any I had used before because it seemed to match his words. I have another libretto written by Glen based on the life of Picasso. But I can't figure out how in the world to get the sound to match what he’s so beautifully written. It’s sitting on my desk and he’s patiently waiting, because I’m determined to figure it out!
SIO: Are there some ways that you’ve played with sound or notating processes that you think our readers may be unfamiliar with or that may surprise other musicians when reading through your scores?
MB: I think if a piece of music is well-written, the listener shouldn’t notice the process. The sonic result may be unfamiliar to them, so that they may have to adjust their ears a bit. But I don’t think my listeners should hear the actual process I put on the page. I think that’s a private matter. But to answer your question, when reading through the scores, people will see that I use many different kinds of notation. Emma has lots of improvisation happening in the orchestra. No one has ever mentioned that element of the opera in a review. However, I think this score particularly would surprise people, because it flows very fluidly, and yet on the page, it appears to have big holes.
SIO: Perhaps it’s those improvisational passages and seeming holes that make Emma so accessible.
MB: I think you’re right. I also think, generally speaking, that both audiences and production teams have to let go more of any preconceived notions. They must be willing to immerse themselves in whatever the composer gives them instead of trying to impose themselves onto the score. You have to accept that the composer may have known what he was doing, and follow the directions and sonic threads as they move through. You then may end up with something the composer was actually intending. If the composer didn’t know what he was doing, you’ll end up with something that doesn't work. Then as a producer, you’ll have to find a way to somehow fix the problems. But if the writing and the casting is strong, then it doesn’t take as much for the product to be successful.
SIO: What are some suggestions that you would offer as guidelines for staging in either the theatre or sacred spaces?
MB: My personal view is that the simpler the production the better, because that puts the music in the forefront. I’ve seen so many productions where the music is completely overpowered by the effects, and where singers find themselves fighting the production just to sing and be heard. Perhaps it’s my ego speaking, but I don’t like seeing when production devices become barriers to the sound.
SIO: Part of the magic in opera is that inherently so much of the drama is in the music itself. Where do you see your music going from here? Do you have any fears that the music you’ve written may not have a future beyond your lifespan?
MB: I’ve realized that I really have no fears related to the dissemination of my works. Writing has been a process that I’ve needed to go through. I’ve never really had an expectation for my music to become mainstream, popular, or even produced again after their premiers. It would have been fun to have seen that happen, and a couple of my works have been done more than once. But I’ve honestly never had those kinds of expectations. I never thought of myself as being at that level, and there aren’t many contemporary composers who fit that category anyway.
SIO: Have you any last words for our readers?
MB: If you’re a composer, follow your heart. If you’re a producer, follow the music. If you’re a performer or an audience participant, open up, let go, and allow what’s on the stage to wash over you. If you’re open-hearted enough, then whatever the composer wrote in the music may touch you somehow.
Lastly, I think there are many sacred stories that haven’t yet been explored through the medium of opera. There are also many narratives such as Moses and Aaron that could see many different and compelling settings. I think composers have been shy to engage with religious stories because they see them needing to be overtly religious. If that’s the case, then they’re missing out on some great material to build from. I say, just trust the story, and don’t fear what new revelation or interpretation may emerge.
Operas by Murray Boren:
The Only Jealousy of Emer (1973)
Abraham and Isaac (1977)
A Christmas Playe (1982)
The Dead (1993)
The Singer's Romance (1998)
The Book of Gold (2005)
About our Contributor
Isaí Jess Muñoz serves as Associate Professor of voice and opera at the University of Delaware and as Vice President of Conferences at The National Opera Association. Since 2015, Dr. Muñoz has chaired NOA’s Sacred in Opera Initiative. He has appeared with leading organizations including the Israel Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Symphony Orchestra, Mostly Mozart Festival, New York City Opera, and Alvin Ailey Dance Theater on Broadway. Dr. Muñoz is featured on 14 audio recordings including the 2009 Grammy-Nominated Album "Song of the Stars" with Voices of Ascension. His latest solo album titled "Visca l'Amor," features 24 Catalan art songs by native composers. Dr. Muñoz is a graduate of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and SUNY Stony Brook. www.JessMunoz.com