Composer Sam Cardon turned the song in his soul into 2 Emmys
By Jeanette W. Bennett, photography by Kenneth Linge
If Sam Cardon is conscious, he’s tapping.
It might be something for a film score he’s working on, perhaps a jingle for a commercial or it could be a jazz piece for his next solo album.
Even the artwork in his home studio has an element of song. “Dancing Father” by Brian Kershisnik, who is a Utah artist and friend of Sam’s, sits across from Sam’s line of sight in his 12-foot-by-12-foot basement studio.
This Emmy-award winning composer says the only way to get music to stop running through his head is to read, and just for the record, he prefers classic books over contemporary works.
This father of four and grandfather of two has made a living in the music industry, never knowing what he’s going to be doing six months down the road. Fortunately, he says, there have only been two times he’s really been nervous about where his next project would come from. No word yet on how many times his wife has been nervous.
Sam’s current musical baby is the score for “The Work and the Glory: American Zion,” which opened in October. Sam also composed and produced the soundtrack for the first “Work and the Glory” film, which is one of the most successful LDS-themed movies of all time.
Sam’s long-time collaborator, Kurt Bestor, has seen more headline time than Sam, but they both won an Emmy for the music they wrote for the 1998 Olympics and “Good Morning America.” The duo also did music for the 2002 Olympics, and Sam has scored 30 films and been involved in four full-scale musicals.
After growing up in the idyllic town of Farmington, N.M., where Sam remembers his Juilliard-trained piano teacher and attending a classical piano concert in the movie theater, he came to Utah where he stayed to raise his family.
The Work and the Glory
100 Minutes of the film
55 Days of shooting (they shot this film and the next film together)
155 movie theaters that plan to show “The Work and the Glory: American Zion” as of press time
PG-13 Rating given to the movie
2 Number of films based on Gerald Lund’s book series so far
How did you get involved with “The Work and the Glory”? I did the score for the first movie, and I’ve been involved with Vineyard Productions (the producer of the second “Work and Glory” film) for a number of years, and they are a top-flight bunch. With a project like this, there are lots of expectations. People want to see the highest levels of standards, so there is a pressure associated with it. The first movie was very professional. It looked and felt like an important movie. I’d say “mission accomplished” for the first movie. This is a much different movie, mainly because of the books. This is a very tragic movie, a very romantic movie. And it’s a cliff hanger. There are lots of moments of intrigue and characters who feel deeply.
Had you read the series before you started working on the film? I had read the books. Although I didn’t make it clear to volume 45 … (laughing) I don’t even know how many there are. Actually I was swept up with the books just like everybody else. I remember seeing the books in the stores, and there were so many copies that the stores would make entire structures out of the books. Gerald Lund did everyone a favor by making church history so accessible.
How was the film in terms of “scorability”? This is an easy movie to respond to. There is so much genuine emotion on the screen, so it’s very easy to respond musically. My wife and I come down here to my basement studio and watch the scenes and just bawl. The scenes are so well-acted and well-written. As a composer, I have to be careful not to intrude on the really fine art that is already in the scene. Sometimes a composer’s job is to save a film from its bad acting and bad writing, but that is not the case with this film.
What will people notice that is different from the first film? Many things. For one, Joseph Smith has a meaty role. In the first film, he was more of a side story. And our Joseph Smith is an impressive actor. He doesn’t come across with an agenda or anything. He’s not LDS, so he’s not trying to bear his testimony on screen, and that has worked well. This is so well-acted, and the cinematography is top drawer.
What scene do you hope we’ll pay close attention to? What is the best scene? The scene that I find particularly moving is where Joseph Smith was tarred and feathered, and then his infant child is exposed to the elements and dies the next morning. This scene is a highlight in terms of that you’ll get a sense of what that might have been like. I love that scene.
Favorite characters? Ben Steed (the father) and Joshua Steed are particularly palpable. And I think as viewers we want to see how people are changed or influenced by what’s happening around them. This is a classic father-son drama, and it’s the same one I’ve had with my own son in times past.
Take me through the film-scoring process. In the beginning I’m looking for a tone, an esthetic quality to build on. In general, the music and the sound effects are the last things that happen to a film. Everyone misses their deadlines along the way, but the release date can’t be changed, so the time for the sound is usually tight. In this film, I fortunately had six weeks.
How much direction do you get? Sterling (the director) loves the music of Vaughn Williams, and a lot of his classical repertoire is based on folk tunes. He was really wise in selecting this direction, because the music doesn’t come off as Americana as much as an older tradition. In a couple of places in the music, I used some existing folk tunes, and that makes it feel like a story that’s been around forever and will be around forever.
When you go to the movies, do you find yourself listening more than watching? Yeah, and it drives me crazy. Some movies are so great that I get swept up in the story, but a lot of times I’m simply listening to what is going on. I find myself analyzing everything I hear. When I was in high school, I would wear out my vinyl records, but now I’m too impatient to listen to things over and over. It’s less of a mystery to me of how they created it.
How would you describe your CD collection? I probably have 5,000 CDs of film music. The greatest discovery for me has been satellite radio, which I got for Father’s Day. I used to listen to a lot of talk radio because I needed a break from music. But on satellite, there are jazz stations, country, world music. I really enjoy that.
What opportunities has music brought to you? I’ve had lots of opportunities to compose music for ethnic films, so for example I went to India and spent five weeks working with Indian musicians. I worked on a film in Egypt, and I’ve done African things and Native American things. I find ethnic influences intriguing, and I really find it fun to have my own compositions influenced by different kinds of music.
I noticed you have more than 150 songs on iTunes. How has technology changed the music industry? It’s fantastic. I’m in the habit of buying CDs, but I also know that on iTunes I can access anything I can dream up. I was doing some music and needed some Filipino music. Try to find that at your local music store. But with technology, we have access.
When did you begin making plans for a career in music? I didn’t. I registered at BYU as an accounting major. But one year cured me of any desire to do that. The truth is, I don’t have any marketable skills other than music. I feel fortunate to have found a way to make a living. And it’s a living that can have a long lifespan. John Williams did three major films last year and he’s in his 70s. How many professions count age as a bonus? If you are a female actress, you aren’t working anymore at 30. I used to do more album producing, but it’s harder to stay relevant. With film scoring, age and experience help.
How have you been able to keep a career afloat in Orem? People forget that the Osmond family brought the industry to this little valley. I was able to watch Hollywood legends at work on the “Donny and Marie Show.” The L.A. talent was coming here, and things were operating at a Hollywood standard — not a Utah Valley standard. It’s a huge blessing, and everybody owes a huge debt of gratitude to that family for bringing that world-class level of talent and expectations.
How did you meet your wife? We were hometown sweethearts in New Mexico. When I was a senior, she was a freshman. When I got home from my mission, she was the eligible girl in town. Then we came to BYU and had a lengthy courtship.
How lengthy? Almost three years. I didn’t know how I was going to support anybody. And my future grandmother-in-law sat me down and wanted to know what I was going to do. “Are you going to be one of those guys playing in bars?” she asked. She would cringe if she knew how many bars I played at during college just trying to support my family.
What role has your wife played in all of this? She has been incredibly supportive. Music is a difficult career, especially early on when I was doing lots of things for free or for very little. Who is going to pay somebody who is untested or untried? People who survive the entertainment industry as a spouse are remarkable people. There’s not a good track record for marriages in this industry — even in our little valley. There’s been a lot of pain and suffering in marriages because this industry is so all-consuming.
Does a project take over your life while you are working on it? On a film like “Work and the Glory,” there are long hours because the deadline is tight. And even when I’m not actively working on the music, I’m thinking about it. I’ll be having a conversation with my wife, and she’ll say, “Are you there? Are you hearing this, because this is important.” The bonus for her is that she has traveled around with me, and we have those memories together.
As a former accounting major, do you have an affinity for the business side of music? I hate the business part of it. If I could eliminate it altogether, I would do it in a heartbeat. I’m not very good at it. I’m not organized — fortunately my wife is meticulous. I leave a lot of loose ends. My environment is tidy — I’ve learned that from my wife. But I space out on a lot of things. The flip side of this characteristic is that I’m spontaneous and I know how to improvise. For me surprises are good things. If we have plans to do something, and then something comes up, I get excited wondering where this journey will take us.
How has your career affected you as a parent? I’m a normal dad in an unusual field. I haven’t sought fame and fortune — I simply try to be good at what I do. Any public notice I get for what I do is somewhat embarrassing for me. If I tried to work on my image, I would fail. I could be a plumber and my kids would be just as happy.
Are any of your children musically inclined? I have two songwriter daughters, and my son loves music. They’ve all been around it enough to really love it. None of them have followed me into the field, and in a way I feel guilty about that. I have a friend who is a choir director, and she has infected her passion in all her children. I admire people who can spread their own personal passion to lots of people. Evidently, I haven’t pulled that off.
Do you find yourself in musical church callings all the time? I was in charge of the road show one year, and it failed miserably. And I was a ward choir director one time. But I’m not a good cheerleader. I’m not the kind of person who can rally the troops around my own passion. I always tell my local bishops that I get to do music everyday, and other people love music and don’t get to do it.
Do your ward members get nervous to do their special musical numbers in front of you? I hope not. Three weeks ago, I accompanied a young girl to sing a song in our ward, and she told me later that she was nervous. But you have to remember, I understand a lot about music, but I don’t hold a candle to people who have steeped themselves in rigorous training. My attitude is more casual.
How would you describe your experience with the Olympics? Amazing. It’s in the top five experiences in my life. Kurt Bestor and I had done the music for the closing ceremonies for the 2002 Games, and to sit in the stands with billions of people watching — and knowing you had participated in that — was amazing. Those athletes had taken their achievements to the highest level, and music makes you feel that more deeply. Those heroes wouldn’t resonate as deeply if there wasn’t music to help us experience it.
You also did music for the Calgary Olympics, right? Yes. It was funny because Kurt and I went to church in Calgary during the Olympics. And I’m 6 foot 4, and Kurt is 6 foot 3 and we enjoy sports and look the part of an athlete, I suppose. At church they announced that we were there with the Olympics. Afterward, crowds gathered around to find out more. When we told them we were there doing music, they all looked disappointed and walked off.
So you’ll be 50 next year. What will that feel like? I don’t like the idea of getting older. Turning 50 will be the second worst day of my life — with the first being the day I turned 40. Some of my best friends in the music business are 20 years younger than I am, yet I feel like I relate to them.
It takes self-motivation to be a successful musician. Do you read books or magazines to keep yourself motivated? When I was in my 20s, I read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and that is a hugely motivating book.
What’s on your top 10 book list? This sounds like a cliche, but I love “Les Miserables.” That is a life-changing book. A close second is “East of Eden.” I was disappointed when it got on Oprah’s reading list because people don’t take it as seriously as they ought to. I love “I, Claudius.” The wit and humor in that book is unparalleled.
And top 10 pieces of music? “The Moldau” by Smetana. I love all the music by Debussy. I love the music of Bartok. And Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” is one of my absolute favorites.
What is your best music? What are you going to be remembered for? I can’t answer that. I guess I haven’t written it yet. I will say that I have enjoyed my serious collaborations with Kurt (Bestor). They have been richly rewarding. He’s a great artist. We had a company together for years, but for the past six years we’ve been doing things on our own. But we still talk weekly.
What advice do you have for parents as far as training their children in music? If the child is truly talented, my best advice is to let them do it. It’s tempting for parents to say that music is not a secure field, and it’s true that I know people who have failed miserably. But if a child has that inclination, it would be miserable for them to do anything else. On the other hand, parents shouldn’t push children into music either. I’d never discourage anyone from pursuing music. The most unlikely people are involved with the music business. You can never predict what can happen. I would caution parents to help their kids pursue music in a way that doesn’t draw too much attention to the child. I’ve hardly seen anything good from having attention lavished on young people. You should pursue music — or anything else — to make a contribution and not simply to become famous.
How often do you go to the movies? We love movies. My wife and I will see two or three movies a week.
Do you attend the premieres of the movies you work on? Yes, we like to pretend just for a night out on the red carpet.
What is it like to sit in a premiere of a movie you have worked on? Is it fun to watch people who are watching your movie? When you know the audience is loving it, that is fantastic. It is a great payoff. I’ve also been to other ones when you can tell that the film did not hit the mark. Nobody is giving each other high fives afterwards. And that is awful. The successes are wonderful and the failures are really hard.
I’ve read that you keep a notebook next to your bed. Do ideas come to you around the clock? Absolutely. I’ve always said that 80 percent of my best ideas came to me in the shower. If I try to force something, it doesn’t happen. But the moment my mind is relaxed, I’ll have a flash of inspiration. Another thing I’ve learned is that my first impulse is usually the best.
Do you enjoy other types of creative arts? I have a fantasy of doing visual art. A few Christmases ago, my wife bought me oil paints and all the things for that, along with the help of Jim Christensen. And I have to admit I haven’t used it yet.
What do you love about working from home? We moved here and built this studio when my oldest daughter was in fifth grade. Music can take you away from your family a lot. But now I’m home so much that my daughter once complained, “Dad, you are ALWAYS here!” But she and I have had some great late night chats. Her room is across the hall from my office. It’s been a wonderful blessing to be at home, but I have missed my colleagues. Composing can be a lonely profession. I sit in this room by myself for hours and hours a day, and it really drives me crazy. I’ve thought about putting a periscope in my window well so I can at least see what’s going on outside.
What’s next for you? I’m working on a musical called “First Freedom” for a group out of Virginia. I’m also doing another feature film called “Slow Mo” about a young kid who finds some magical glasses that slow everything down for him, and he becomes an amazing baseball player. It’s along the lines of “The Sandlot.”I’m also working on a ballet of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Sam on Sam
Wife, four children, 2 grandkids
BEST LOCAL RESTAURANT
OTHER EATING SPOTS
Thai Chili Garden, Thai Ruby’s
BEST KEPT SECRETS
IN UTAH VALLEY
“The BYU Museum of Art and the Springville Art Museum. The scenery in Provo Canyon. People forget how beautiful it is here.”
Sprinklers, ice cream trucks and doorbells
LEAST FAVORITE SOUND
The sound of his own cell phone
Two-volume Far Side Collection, New Yorker Cartoon collection and framed cartoon of a piano player that says, “This next number goes out to all the little people I met on my way back down.”