Weekend (Re)Visitor: The Music of Low

The wife and I saw Low last night at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. It was a great venue and a great concert — we got treated to two sets and an encore, a good two hours of music. I don’t go to many concerts so I suck at reviewing them. I didn’t take notes so I don’t have the playlist. Nor did the experience, although it was great, provide me with any major insights in to the band, its music, indie rock, Mormon culture, etc. But I can share a few minor thoughts that I had during the course of the evening:

  1. The band is both much darker and a bit more funnier than I had previously realized.
  2. Alan Sparhawk is rather a bluesman, isn’t he? Watching him sit with a guitar in his lap and hearing it and his vocals — Alan is singing the blues.
  3. The harmonies sound even better in person.
  4. There is a lot of talk about blood and deserts and flowers and bodies of water and bodies.
  5. When Low gets written about, it’s always about Alan. When it is about Mimi, it’s about her in relation to Alan. When it’s about the bassist (Low has had 4; the current bassist is Steve Barrington), it’s about his relationship to Alan and to Alan and Mimi. In performance, yes, Alan is clearly the front man, but in some ways all 3 members are in their own world. There’s little interaction except through each of what they contribute to the music, but, you know, that’s what you want, I think, from a band like this. I guess what I’m getting at here is that the band doesn’t work without the bassist or any of the other members — the way the music is built just really works and when you can see every note being played and song, it really hits that point home.
  6. All three members of the band close their eyes much of the time while they are playing. Like prayer or meditation or simply intense focus. And it makes sense, not just because of the emotional intensity of the songs, but also because so much of  the music require precise hitting of and timing of notes (and of getting the silences right).
  7. Alan is one intense dude. I don’t know whether it’s an act or whether it was an off night (it sure didn’t seem like), but he was struggling in parts. Or maybe just really feeling it. Near the final 1/3 of the first set he deliberately pulled out four or five guitar strings at the end of a song that ends with the repeated lyric “I am nothing but heart.” He then mumbled a joke about it and casually got another guitar.
  8. There’s nothing explicitly Mormon in the music of Low. I mean, yes, you can pull out phrases and images. But it’s all rather oblique. However, what is clear is that Alan is grappling with faith and violence and love and humanity in his lyrics. And some of them give you chills — Murderer and Cue the Strings, in particular got to me last night. But really, that’s only the beginning. I mean, they must have played more than 20 songs.


Low: Official site, MySpace, Wikipedia

YouTube: Murderer, Monkey, In Silence, Belarus, Breaker

AMV: Alan Sparhawk on God’s language; Low’s “maudlin Mormon message”

Linescratchers: Q&A with Alan Sparhawk

Kulturblog: Susan M reviews a Low concert

An excerpt from The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers

Last week Mormon Artists Group announced the availability of a fine edition version of BYU Assistant Professor of Music Jeremy Grimshaw’s The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers, an account of his trip to the island to study gamelan music and subsequent efforts to start a gamelan orchestra in Utah. I’m pleased to bring you the following excerpt from the book. Tomorrow I’ll post a Q&A with Jeremy.

The fine edition version is limited to 25 copies and costs $125. You can purchase it (and read more about it) at http://mormonartistsgroup.com/ (for some reason the website doesn’t do direct links to its pages — so click on “Works” when the page loads and then The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers). Other editions of this title may become available in the future. Mormon Artists Group fine editions almost always sell out so if this does interest you and is within  your means, act quickly.

From the section on unpacking the gamelan instruments when they arrive in Provo.


When the instruments arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that the unpacking party was a kind of music of its own: a polyphonic chorus of hammering, the groan of boards being forced out of square, nails squealing at the pull of crowbars. The twenty-one crates, some of them as big as refrigerators and all of them sturdy enough to protect their heavy, precious cargo on the nine thousand mile, three month- long journey from Bali, Indonesia, to Provo, Utah, put up quite a fight before giving up their contents. Continue reading “An excerpt from The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers”

Q&A with Arthur from Linescratchers

Arthur Hatton created Linescratchers — a blog, podcast and web forum for LDS musicians who don’t write/record/perform “LDS music” (e.g. devotional or Christian-pop inspired LDS music) — in June 20008 as a blogspot blog featuring artist interviews. It has since moved to its own domain name and expanded what it offers, including rolling out a podcast last June. The interviews are great, but it was the podcast that really got me excited about what Arthur is doing and convinced me that there are some very talented indie LDS musicians out there. Just yesterday, Linescratchers scored its biggest interview yet — Low’s Alan Sparhawk (Linescratchers takes its name from the Low song When I Go Deaf) . It’s a good interview and so are the others.

I recommend you take the time to poke around the site if you haven’t yet, and do subscribe to the podcast.

Arthur was kind enough to have the tables turned on him by AMV and do the following Q&A.

What was the impetus behind the creation of Linescratchers?

The short answer is, I created it because it didn’t exist. There is no other website for LDS musicians who don’t write LDS Music. However, I’ve never been satisfied by the short answer. Linescratchers really came out of my experience with a few people in my life. For example, a young man who was told by his mother that he couldn’t be a rock musician and a good Mormon. After an argument with his father, he moved out of the house and decided the obvious choice was rock music. He lived in a storage unit where his band practiced, staying warm only by plugging in their stage lights and pointing them at himself as he slept. He slipped into a world of sex, drugs, and bad decisions. After perhaps twenty years, he has returned to activity and his wife was baptized. They are now sealed in the temple, but he is working overtime now to correct mistakes and will probably never feel caught up. Continue reading “Q&A with Arthur from Linescratchers”

Update: Stan Bronson’s Down from the Mountain at Proud Earth Music

Two years ago I reviewed Stan Bronson’s album Down from the Mountain for AMV.   My family has really enjoyed Bronson’s appealing singing voice and musical take on San Juan County history.   My impression of the album was that anyone interested in Mormon-themed folk music might find Down from the Mountain a fun listen.

The website I linked to went down shortly after the review.  I contacted Bronson directly and received an e-mail response asking me to direct interested parties to an e-mail address, but readers commented that the address bounced their queries. 

Well, I have good news.  Ken Dixon, vice president of Proud Earth Music, e-mailed me to call my attention to Proud Earth’s new website, featuring Bronson’s music among others’.  Especially fun: If you click into the catalogue you can listen to short clips of tracks from the album.  Bronson’s music is distinct, so even in those brief clips you’ll get a fair idea of what the album is like.   Both CDs and individual tracks are downloadable.

“Our Refined Heavenly Home”


Elder Douglas L. Callister of the Seventy wrote a delightful article in this month’s Ensign, “Our Refined Heavenly Home.” I’m ashamed to admit that I might never have read it had not my dear wife told me I should. (I keep saying I’ll stick the Ensign in the bathroom where it will actually get read, but it seems weird to have all those pictures of Jesus on my toilet, Backslider or no Backslider.) The article is adapted from a BYU devotional Elder Callister gave in 2006 which is about 1800 words longer and has even more dandy quotations. (Frankly, it’s tempting to just lift all his quotations and anecdotes and place them here for discussion, but I can’t quite feel good about that.)

The article has three main thrusts, language, literature and music, with an everything-else category to finish things off.

For brevity’s sake, I will take a short excerpt from each section to comment on, but in your comments, feel free to reference any part of his talk. Continue reading ““Our Refined Heavenly Home””

Mormon Artist Magazine: Interview With Ben Crowder

Mormon Artist is a new on-line magazine that is imressive in its ambitions, and even more impressive in the fact that it seems to be meeting those ambitions. This is a publication to watch. After having just released the third issue, I interviewed Mormon Artist editor and founder Ben Crowder. The magazine can be found at http://mormonartist.net/ . Although the web layout is nice, I even more highly recommend the PDF version of the magazine for its wonderful aesthetic quality. — Mahonri Stewart

Q. 1- First off, tell our readers about Mormon Artist. What is it? What are you trying to accomplish with it? What is its genesis?Mormon Artist is an online magazine about the Latter-day Saint arts world. Its core is interviews with the artists themselves, since that’s what I find most interesting, but we’re gradually expanding to include more types of content as well. I have three goals for the magazine: first, to show how much is actually happening in Mormon arts (much of which is unknown to most members); second, to encourage more and better work; and third, to help new artists get started by getting their names out there.

I suppose the birth of the magazine was at the end of June — and I’ll get to that in a moment — but its genesis started much earlier. I’d spent the previous year writing and directing plays with New Play Project, and I think it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for NPP, there would be no Mormon Artist. Working on Mormon theatre not only gave me firsthand knowledge of the workings of a volunteer-run organization (which is what Mormon Artist swiftly became) but also got me giddy about the undercurrent I was sensing — that times were changing and that Mormon arts were really starting to come into their own Continue reading “Mormon Artist Magazine: Interview With Ben Crowder”

Science, Art, and Spirit at the Bluff Arts Festival, Part One

On Saturday, November 29, I participated in activities at the Bluff Arts Festival in Bluff, Utah.  This little town of just a few hundred people really knows how to throw a party.  I took my eighteen-year-old son, an aspiring writer, to this celebration of the arts, sciences, and the human spirit, and having him with me deepened my pleasure in the event immensely.  He’s already a part of the unusual Bluff community via his participation in a Shorinji Kempo class held there weekly, but this was his first experience with a writing workshop and open mic reading. Continue reading “Science, Art, and Spirit at the Bluff Arts Festival, Part One”

Music in the key of free: an interview with Sally DeFord

Sally DeFord is one of the most prolific modern LDS composers and arrangers. Her work has been featured in Church magazines seven times and she has received 33 Church music awards for her compositions and arrangements. Seriously, search for her name on LDS.org–there are eighteen hits. Her song, “If the Savior Stood Beside Me“ was used in the 2008 Primary program and was performed in the General Young Women’s broadcast in 2007. Oh, and she also gives away her music for free. That’s right. You heard me. FREE. (That noise you’re hearing, that’s ward and stake choir directors everywhere cheering.) Read on to find out why.

Continue reading “Music in the key of free: an interview with Sally DeFord”

The three genres of Christian music

I’m finally getting around to processing my notes on Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh. One of the most interesting sections deals with the Christian music industry and various opinions over what is and isn’t acceptable in the industry. Radosh interviews Jay Howard co-author of Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Howard identifies three types of CCM* fans: separational, integrational and transformational.

According to Radosh, “the breakdown [into these three groups] is not along aesthetic style lines, and any of the CCM camps can accommodate pretty much any musical style.” Rather, the three groups are each defined by their views of popular culture and the relationship between their work and the larger culture. I’ll outline the three genres and then provide a bit of analysis in relation to the Mormon market. Continue reading “The three genres of Christian music”

Help me find the “non-American” Mormon Culture

Last year I purchased a bound volume of the 1949 issues of the missionary magazine of the Argentine and Uruguayan missions, El Mensajero Deseret, which I found in the basement of Sam Weller‘s in Salt Lake City. I had hoped that I might find there some articles originally written in Spanish by local members (not missionaries), and that I might there discover something of their perspective at the time. Unfortunately, my (still) somewhat cursory review, while it found many interesting articles, including one written by my grandfather that my family didn’t know about, failed to find any articles by local members and few originally written in Spanish.

I’m not sure how different things are today. Mission magazines like El Mensajero Deseret, which were meant for all members in the mission (not just the missionaries), have been replaced by the Church’s international magazine (in Spanish, La Liahona), and that magazine is largely a translation from English.

As a result of examples like this, I think its easy to assume that no Mormon cultural works are being produced outside of the English-speaking areas of the Church. In a comment to my post last week about What Should Mormons Know About Mormon Culture?, Anneke wrote:

“I’m uncomfortable with any attempt to define “Mormon Culture” that then limits that culture to “Anglophone Mormon Culture.” I realize that most of the time English is all we’ve got”¦”

I am also uncomfortable about this — but its hard for most of us, English-speaking residents of the US generally, to know much about what is being produced in Mexico or in France or Brazil or Japan. Its not like there are clear paths for getting materials from these places to the Mormon market in the US! I suspect that not a lot is being produced, given the low density of LDS Church members from each other in other countries, the lack of a market or way to distribute cultural works, and the near worship that foreign LDS Church members sometimes have for the Church in the U.S.

So, hoping that those who read this will add the works they know about, here’s a list of some of the works I know or have heard of. I’m sure there are plenty of others:

Continue reading “Help me find the “non-American” Mormon Culture”