Everyone has a special something to offer inside of them. So I think that part of being a composer, or an artist of any sort, is to find your own special gift and to nurture that, and don’t worry about anything else. If you’re a writer of haiku or short story, whether you’re a painter in oil or acrylics or collage, a dancer, a sculptor, it makes no difference. Find your own voice and pursue it, and then back it up with technique and craft.” -Morten Lauridsen
Morten Lauridsen has been described as an icon among choral composers. His works have been nominated for Grammy Awards, earned him a National Medal of Arts, and are performed across the United States and the world more often than just about any living choral composer.
Before any of that, before the awards and accolades, the applause and the performances, before shaking hands with the president or having his work performed at Carnegie Hall, back when he was a youngster in 1950, Morten Lauridsen started playing trumpet in the school band at C.E. Mason Elementary.
As a part of our school’s historical retrospective, I reached out to the composer this summer, asking about his time at C.E. Mason, and was rewarded with a charming reminiscence of life in Beaverton in the 1950s. C.E. Mason was a new school in 1950, large windows looking out from solid classrooms, a voluminous assembly room with a stage that is now our library. Imagining a young Morten Lauridsen playing trumpet on that stage is a connection to history that our current students, musical and otherwise, can relish. Like him and his mid-century contemporaries, students today are striving to find that “special something to offer inside of them” that a more seasoned Lauridsen described in the 2012 documentary film of his life.
The 1947 architect’s drawings for C.E. Mason show details for the wooden doors our students still open, doors a young Lauridsen would have passed through on his way to study Oregon history, a favorite topic, as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic too. Even then future artists had to meet state requirements in decidedly non-artistic subjects.
In his six years at C.E. Mason, the young trumpeter remembered working most lunch hours in the cafeteria, washing dishes so he could have a free meal. I like to think that this work ethic, rooted in his formative years and expressed in the same building our current art students now inhabit, is in part responsible for the prolific catalogue of musical works the composer has built over the decades spent in the busy city of Los Angeles, where he is a professor at USC, and the peaceful silences of Waldron Island, where he composes beneath the stillness of the woods. Morten Lauridsen is a man of the world, but a boy of Beaverton.
As boy, Lauridsen remembered being “patched up” by the son of Dr. C.E. Mason, himself a doctor, after “being terrible spiked in the leg during a baseball game.” The small world of Oregon was smaller yet then.
Life at C.E. Mason Elementary for a creative soul in the 1950s wasn’t however, without peril. “I enjoyed most of my grade school teachers,” he told me. “Although I still remember distinctly the art teacher disapproving of my green bunny rabbit in the third grade–there went my career as a visual artist!”
If Morten Lauridsen were at ACMA today, we would frame his green bunny rabbit.
It is a pleasure to look back sixty odd years and see a picture of our school through the eyes of an artist. Knowing the astounding work that would come later from this young trumpeter and unconventional preadolescent artist puts a glow to his memories of C.E. Mason Elementary, and might serve as a reminder to our current students of the long history of art at this special campus.
Lauridsen ended his reminiscences with a heartfelt comment that I hope many students would agree with across the years. His life at C.E. Mason, he said, was “in all, a fine grade school experience.”
These days, every morning in lieu of a first bell of the day we play music over the PA. Tomorrow morning that music will be Chanson Éloignée. Our kids will be moved, the power of art will swell in song, and the same halls that young Morten Lauridsen walked in 1950 will reverberate with music composed by one of C.E. Mason’s favorite sons.