Kenneth Cope’s Musical Testimony of Joseph Smith
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
The man behind such seminal LDS albums as Greater than Us All and Women at the Well shares an interactive musical and visual testimony of Joseph Smith.
Put your interactive CD-ROM in the computer and a four minute movie on the life of Joseph Smith passes before your eyes. Floating in space is a ball with fiery magma cracks which cools into a blue planet which dissolves into the head of a baby. Joseph Smith is born, foreordained from the foundations of the earth to be the prophet of the last days. Then in quick dissolves you look over Joseph’s shoulder through candlelight at a scripture in James, see a long shot as he walks into a grove in spring, enter a log cabin where an angel is visiting, run through Joseph’s life in glimpses and flashes until a camera moves up the stairs at Carthage and a bullet passes through a wooden door. The music undulates and swells, moving with the camera. With the new interactive CD-ROM, Joseph Smith, the Seer, you have just entered into new possibilities in your understanding of Church history.
And suddenly you have choices. Do you want to study Joseph’s early years or Zion’s Camp march or catch new glimpses of Nauvoo? It is all at the click of your mouse.
The man behind the music for this new dimension in gospel learning is Kenneth Cope, familiar to Latter-day Saints for his numerous well-loved albums including Greater than Us All, and Women at the Well.
A year ago Kenneth got a call from Chris Jones, a man with a vision who was starting CapitalMedia. His dream was to use instructional multi-media not just to teach the gospel, but to teach with an emotional impact, creating something beautifully done and well-crafted. Would Kenneth create the music and an accompanying album for the CD-ROM? It would be something new for Kenneth-to write music and have it deliver the meaning without words.
“I’m a man with a message,” Kenneth says. “That’s who I am. This would be the first time I would orchestrate something that had to bring emotion and understanding without lyrics, using no other tool but the music itself. ” Kenneth gave Chris the answer he has given to others who have approached him with projects. He had to think and pray about it.
Kenneth and his wife, Kathy had a prayer about it before they went to bed that night, and he said, “I got the answer right then.” He knew he was on board.
Kenneth loved the possibilities of Joseph Smith, the Seer. Like a film, creating the expanded possibilities of a CD-ROM involved the talents of a team. Researchers and scholars, 3D artists and photographers were involved. The expertise of Susan Easton Black, Richard Cowan, Joseph McConkie and Larry Porter were lent to the project.
“We journeyed to the Church history sites to capture photography. We looked for textures and angles, the sides of trees and the rough wood of buildings so that the artists could come home and build graphics and images on the computer,” said Kenneth. The final product would be a rich panoply of photography, interactive maps, text and graphics, burnished with the art of Liz Lemon Swindle. What’s more it would contain over 30 hours of narration with professional voices taking parts to bring Church history alive.
It was a dream project for Kenneth whose love for Joseph Smith started in a series of small moments while he was young. “I remember going to the Manti pageant which started with this boy praying, and then looking for the plates on a hillside,” said Kenneth. “From that intent prayer came all that followed-the restoring of the gospel, converts gathering, crossing the plains, and eternal blessings in temples. Then the pageant ended with that same boy on a hillside. He was only a young man, and because he believed and had faith, he could be a pure receptacle for God’s word to come through him. I felt the Spirit.
“Then,” said Kenneth, “I was a junior, attending a high school for the performing arts in Houston Texas, about 45 minutes from my early morning seminary class. Every day as I took the bus to school, I pulled out a Book of Mormon and read. Day after day I read and felt that God was in it.
“Next, I served in Switzerland and France on my mission, and we kept ourselves busy tracting. There were not a lot of homes– mostly apartment buildings-and we climbed and climbed and knocked and knocked. I was so busy that once for some time I hadn’t had much personal study time. I’m not sure why. Anyway, I felt empty. I remember praying, ‘I’ve got to get the Spirit; what can I do?’ The answer came that I should study the scriptures. ‘ I can’t do it on this bike right now,’ I said. The answer came, ‘Do you know any by heart?’ I had memorized Joseph Smith’s first vision, so I thought, OK, and started quoting it. With each word the Spirit got stronger and stronger. I hadn’t been looking for another strong witness that Joseph was who he said he was, but I got it.”
Parallel with these early stirrings of the Spirit in Kenneth’s life was the love of music. He’s sung since he was a child. “I had harmonies in my head,” he says. “One day when I was in about fourth grade, I was riding with my mother in the car, singing harmonies in the back seat and she turned to me and said, ‘Honey, you have a gift.’ That’s probably the first time I recognized it. It was later that I learned I could write music, too.”
Kenneth is passionate, emotional, and like any artist, he writes about what moves him deeply. For him, above all else, shining like a beacon in his soul is the gospel of Jesus Christ. “I felt like the Lord would use my talents in his service,” he said.
After Kenneth married, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. He thought if he could break into the big scene and gain confidence and clout, he would be able to make better art. His goal was to have an impact. “I would do Latter-day Saint music and try to network down in L.A.” he said, “but it just kept coming back loud and clear. “I’m glad you’re here, but I have other treasure for you that is not in this city. I want you to make music for my people.” After five years in Los Angeles, the Copes moved back to Salt Lake and “since then I haven’t had a chance to breathe,” says Kenneth.
A Testimony in Music
“What am I supposed to say now? What am I supposed to do now?” These are the questions Kenneth asks as he conceptualizes and creates music. Before the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, Kenneth felt to write a musical biography of the prophet that he called My Servant, Joseph. Based on Kenneth’s deep study of the prophet, the songs took listeners through Joseph’s life, with moving renditions of poignant scenes. Emma’s grief at losing a baby, the bond stronger than death between Hyrum and Joseph, the triumph of the message from Cumorah-Kenneth captured these in music where his testimony of the prophet is felt as well as understood.
“I love Joseph Smith for his humanity, his love for life and people.” says Kenneth. “He had the doctrines of eternal life flowing from his lips; he saw and knew things that other people didn’t. He submitted to a lot of abuse that most people would have refused to endure, and still he reached out to people. He’d go out of his way to find people in need and give them confidence. He found ways to get close to them. People loved him because of it.
“I love the truths he restored. I love that he found a way to hear the voice of God with such clarity. I’m trying to learn how to hear that voice in my own life, and Joseph stands before me as an example.”
The Spirit’s Help
Kenneth relies on the Spirit to help him create music. “I’m not a Mozart who sits around and all this music flows into me and I can’t get it out fast enough,” admits Kenneth. “I want to affect change. I want to be better and I want to help people to be better. I want my music to instill in people the desire to take a step upward and outward. If I don’t have the Spirit I’m just going to be sitting there with blank paper before me. If the Spirit doesn’t touch the music and touch the people who are hearing it, nothing happens. God has to work on us, turning what’s inside of us to loveliness and ennobling us to be more like him.
“You know when you get the music right. You know when you connect,” said Kenneth. “Lots of times it brings emotion to me. I had the words and music for the chorus of “Never a Better Hero,” and I had some ideas for the lyric, but I needed really good music When it came, it felt like the right thing. Sometimes it comes easily. Sometimes I work and work and have to think about it for a long time.”
Joseph Smith, the Seer
For the Joseph Smith, the Seer, Kenneth called upon the richness of his feelings for the prophet. He captures the prophet’s humanity in a piece called “Sleigh Ride.” Kenneth said, “It must be remembered that while Joseph was a prophet, intent on magnifying his office, he was also a man who rejoiced in the temporal earth God had created for humankind ‘to please the eye and to gladden the heart-and to enliven the soul’ (D&C 59: 18,19). He knew the long-term value of regularly “unstringing the bow.” At Kirtland, over the course of a few months, just before the temple’s dedication, Joseph mentioned in his history more than a dozen times something about sleigh riding.”
He creates a song with Hebrew overtones that describes the long-standing tradition among the Jews concerning a prophet ben Joseph, who would make an earthly appearance before the glorious coming of the Christ. He captures the “Tears Flowing Fast” when Joseph said farewell to Emma before the martyrdom.
As he wrote the soundtrack, Kenneth felt the consistent dream of his soul realized. He connected.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.