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Volume 24, Number 3 — March 2017

Morten Lauridsen: Getting Back to Nature

Lauridsen generates musical ideas while rowing and sailing or on long walks on this isolated beach and through the forest near Seattle, Washington.
Lauridsen generates musical ideas while rowing and sailing or on long walks on this isolated beach and through the forest near Seattle, Washington.

By Angela Wampler | November 25, 2008

The Los Angeles Times has described Lauridsen as "a soft-spoken but gregarious man...an herbal-tea-and-handcrafts kind of guy, although he also drives a red sports car with vanity plates that read DIR8-ON, after his best-selling musical setting of Rilke's poem 'Dirait-on' (So They Say)."

"Grounded in the earth" could also describe Lauridsen, who divides his time between Los Angeles and his summer retreat — a rough-hewn cabin on an isolated beach in the San Juan Islands of Washington State's Puget Sound. The island is so remote, there is no direct ferry service from the mainland, and mail arrives by boat about three times a week. There is no indoor plumbing, no electricity and, therefore, no television, and no cell phone service. Just the way Lauridsen likes it. He enjoys long, candle-lit conversations in the evenings with a few of the 75 hardy souls living on the island.

Lauridsen's best-known works are the large choral work "Lux aeterna" and the beautiful setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" — both compositions will be presented in Kingsport, Tenn. These and other works were finished at Lauridsen's island cabin — on an old $50 piano — and musical ideas were generated on long walks on the beach or through the forest. Last year he moved a Steinway grand piano (c. 1800s) to the cabin.

His rustic cabin was formerly an abandoned general store built in the early 1900s. Lauridsen has been renovating it since 1975. He also has reworked much of his home near the "Hollywood" sign and Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where he and his wife raised three sons. "It's a storybook house (c. 1930s) that looks like it came right out of The Hobbit," he said. "I really enjoy working with my hands," he added.

After his father's recent passing, Lauridsen spent two nights composing music in the cabin, watching the leaves turn yellow during the day.

"I keep my summertime very unspoiled," he continued. "I think this island centers me...I go with a pile of books and the tools I need to work on my house. It is a chance to reflect on where I've been and to think about my next project. I take long walks in the woods, make some tea and read poetry. I tend to be a meditative individual. It's very important for me to go to a place where I can reflect. The serenity there, the closeness with nature and the abiding calmness have affected my music."

While attending Whitman College, Lauridsen was a lookout for the U.S. Forest Service on Mount St. Helens, essentially alone for 10 weeks. He said, "It was a period of intense introspection that changed my life. I went back to college and took every music course I could lay my hands on. I sang in the choir and got my piano playing up to a fairly high level, but I didn't think I had the temperament to be a performer. So I came down to (the University of Southern California) to sort it out... Suddenly a whole new world opened to me. I cut off my social life, I'd go to sleep listening to a stack of records, I studied literature. In a short amount of time, I had written pieces that were published." He stayed on to do graduate work, and eventually became the chairman of USC's composition department.

His musical inspirations? Composers like Samuel Barber and Randall Thompson. "I've always admired composers who know what to do with line, and those composers certainly did. I have composed a number of art songs as well, and I have a great love of the American musical theater — the music of Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and others. When I give talks about my music, I include those individuals alongside great song-composers like Brahms, Schumann and Schubert. The craft of composing elegant melodic lines is something I've been honing my entire life. So many composers are simply afraid to write one, which I think is regrettable."

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