J Taylor Arnold
photo courtesy of J Taylor Arnold
“Long before yMusic was a household name, they toured to my little school,” Taylor Arnold said. “I remember hearing what I know now as ‘Music in Circles’ by Andrew Norman, but then they just called it, ‘a piece our friend wrote us that sounded like his air conditioner on a hot day.’ I never knew music like this existed and instantly knew it was the music I wanted to write.”
In that moment, Arnold’s focus crystallized and has since led him down a winding path that has helped him grapple with his past and craft floating dreamscapes for listeners to lose themselves in.
This trajectory culminates with a collaboration with the Utah-based classical group, NEXT Ensemble. Arnold received a commission from the group to write an evening-length work for four female voice, piano, cello, and clarinet documents the stories of the wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church.
Having grown up in the heart of Utah surrounded by the faith, no one could be better equipped than Arnold to tackle this subject.
“For a long time I hated being associated with Mormonism. Part of me still does, I guess,” Arnold said. “But the more I devote time to studying the real history, the more I am beginning to reclaim the title. It will always be a part of me and it’s my constant reality and will forever be the culture my family and Utah community live and interact with. The LDS church doesn’t get to claim that title for themselves, so little by little I’m reclaiming it for what it means to me.”
After completing high school and serving in the Marines, Arnold entered university and rediscovered his love of music that he carried with him since his early teens.
“I went to college originally for theater, but found it wasn’t the same and I didn’t fit in,” Arnold said. “Then I tried criminal justice and it didn’t feel right. I then switched to Communications with a focus in Public Relations and Marketing.”
“It sounds overly cinematic, but I missed music, Arnold continued. “One Veteran’s Day on campus there was a Veteran symphonic band playing in the Student Union Center. They sounded ok. But I was so moved. Not because they were veterans or the patriotic music, but because it brought so many wonderful memories and feelings that I had playing music. I didn’t want to end up like those playing in this band, not in a bad way, I just knew right then that I would never be happy only being a weekend warrior when it came to music. I needed this in my life.”
Arnold began fervently composing and over time, developed his own artistic voice within post-minimalism that wades between lush chord arpeggios and lilting melodies.
“[Each] piece has a narrative for me,” Arnold said. “There is a story for each piece. But the stories sometimes don’t make a lot of sense - like dreams. One minute you’re in one scene, and then in the blink of the eye you’re somewhere different. But for some reason, in the dream, it all makes sense.”
These dream worlds became grounded in 2018, when Arnold wrote a piece for chorus and percussion ensemble that foreshadowed his commission with NEXT Ensemble. Arnold wrote his first major piece with an explicit narrative incorporating the words of Helen Mar Kimball, the fourteen year old bride of Joseph Smith.
The stories of the wives of the Mormon leader became touchstones that have driven Taylor’s latest work.
“These stories, in many cases, well-documented stories are very problematic for the Mormon Church as they claim to be the One-true living Church on the Earth today, led by a prophet of God, just as Moses was a prophet,” Arnold said. “There isn’t much room for moral turpitude in it’s leaders since they speak directly with and are the mouthpiece of God. The Mormon Church teaches from a very young age, absolute obedience. I remember singing songs before I was eight years old like, ‘Follow the Prophet, don’t go astray...follow the prophet, he knows the way.’”
“The more I read about the young polygamous wives of Joseph Smith the more outraged I became that their stories had been squashed, Arnold continued.
“In the midst of studying these women, a massive news story broke in the Mormon World - Joseph Bishop, the former President of the Missionary Training Center (where they send all those young 19 year olds to study for a month to three months before they send them away to knock on your doors) had been recorded admitting to sexually abusing women in the basement of the MTC. It sent shockwaves through the Church - God makes no mistakes in his callings. Yet, somehow, a predator was in one of the highest callings in the Church… This caused me to study more and more and I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to share their stories, although the project is daunting and I feel a huge amount of responsibility to be sincere to them and their worldview while also explaining what happened.”
With Arnold’s ever-evolving musical language and his increasingly confrontational works that bring Mormonism to the public consciousness, one driving ethos rings true in his new work.
“I really want people to just begin asking questions,” Arnold said. “Just because everyone has done it forever, doesn’t make it right.”
Taylor Arnold’s Music can be found on his website and Soundcloud.
His work with NEXT Ensemble is slated to premiere in April 2021
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Erich is a musician and writer living between Montreal and New York whose work appears on Best Life, Eat This, Not That!, MSN, and more and has represented artists for years as a PR rep. He likes weird music. If you want to find his music, it's over here.