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The Oratorio Society of Virginia Michael Slon, Music Director

Welcome All Wonders: J.A.C. Redford and the Veil of Hollywood

J.A.C. Redford
J.A.C. Redford

We all remember the scene from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, where Toto the dog pulls back a curtain on a booth in the great hall of the Emerald City, to reveal a scrawny man frantically pulling levers and flipping switches as the booming voice and projected image of the wizard exhorts Dorothy and company to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

The men and women who write music for Hollywood productions are a bit like that man behind the curtain in the sense that viewers are much more likely to remember the name of the film, or the actors and actresses involved, than the person who wrote the music for it.

To be fair, there are big names in Hollywood films whose reputations exceed even the blockbuster films they’ve composed scores for. The prime example is John Williams, whose many collaborations with Steven Spielberg have made him perhaps the best-known living composer.

Other composers have come to Hollywood for a steady income, or to escape religious persecution or to pursue artistic freedom. Some don’t make it as film composers. An example of the latter is Igor Stravinsky, who came to southern California many years after his tumultuous early period in Paris, but whose idiosyncratic style drew attention to itself—just the opposite of what film music should do.

If film score composers are for the most part behind-the-scenes figures, then musicians who write for television are even more anonymous. But there are some very interesting connections to some surprisingly highbrow figures in the music world in the seemingly mindless jingles of sitcoms.

The theme to the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son was a piece called “Streetbeater”, and it was written by jazz great Quincy Jones. Jones is a figure whose influence spans the whole range of genres in late 20th century music. He would go on to produce three albums for Michael Jackson in the 1980s, but early in his career Jones studied composition and music theory with both Olivier Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger, the latter of whom was also Aaron Copland’s early mentor.

It was another 1970s television series, Starsky and Hutch, that marked the Hollywood debut of American composer Jonathan Alfred Clawson (J.A.C.) Redford. He co-wrote the theme music for the late 70s crime drama, then would go on to receive Emmy nominations in the 1980s for the themes he wrote for the television series Coach and St. Elsewhere. Redford is among the most prolific of Hollywood composers, and has written over 500 compositions for television movies and series alone.

Born in Los Angeles to parents involved in the entertainment industry, and raised in the Mormon faith, Redford wrote his first music in his teens for a series of rock and roll bands. He lists another multi-genre musician, Frank Zappa, among his early influences. Redford attended Brigham Young University in Utah for a period before returning home to California and finding work as a Hollywood composer and arranger. Shortly after his Starsky and Hutch debut, Redford rode out an American Federation of Musicians strike by continuing his education in composition with Hal Johnson and conducting with Frederick Zweig, and he took a master class in film composition with Walter Scharf.

If Redford earned a decent living writing music for television and movies, his interest in artistic music never left him, and he started in the 1980s to put his skills to use by composing a wide range of choral, orchestral, chamber and dance music, much of it religious and set to poetry, another of Redford’s interests.

Redford’s Welcome All Wonders: A Christmas Celebration (1993) can best be described as a Christmas cantata in five movements. The texts include 17th century British poet Richard Crashaw’s eponymous poem, and additional settings of Christmas-themed verse from 16th century poet Robert Southwell, and modern authors Vassar Miller and Brian Wren. Crashaw’s title poem has also been set to music by Redford’s contemporaries Richard Dirksen and Stephen Paulus, among others, but it is not a traditional religious choral music setting such as a Magnificat or a Gloria.

Redford’s predilections for non-Biblical poetry and novel musical forms explain the juxtaposition of ancient and modern texts used in Welcome All Wonders. He writes at his website, www.jacredford.com, “In the pantheon of the arts, poetry is nearly as important to me as music. So when I set out to compose a vocal work, the choice of a text is critical to me.”

That Redford would go on to also title his 1997 autobiography, Welcome All Wonders, after Crashaw’s poem is a testament to the powerful influences of religion, music and poetry in his life. Drawing inspiration from a wide variety of musical genres that include English choral music, jazz and rock, Redford describes his compositional style as a combination of “natural lyricism with acerbic harmony and counterpoint. I love dance-like rhythms and irregular time signatures, colorful orchestration, and narrative forms that take the listener on a journey.”

If J.A.C. Redford’s TV and film music has already garnered fame, fortune and recognition in Hollywood, then his artistic music has also made the classical music scene take notice. Redford’s compositions have been performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, violinist Joshua Bell, the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His music has also been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Lincoln Center in New York, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and London’s Royal Albert Hall.

The curtain, it would seem, has been raised on this most talented, prolific, and deserving musician.

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