I love everything about Bill Campbell’s new album, “Together We Rise,” and especially how the award-winning composer, music professor, and church musician unveiled it in a dazzling multimedia swan song at St. Ambrose University.
At age 53, the unpretentious, soft-spoken man is ready to write the next movement in his life’s score. Campbell — a music professor at Ambrose — will be moving this summer to Portland, Ore., with his wife Michelle, to be closer to family and artistic colleagues.
So his April 29 concert at the Galvin Fine Arts Center was a heartfelt celebration of not only the contemplative new record, but a valedictory for an impressive career still in full flourishing. Campbell was clearly in his element and expressed deep gratitude for both the many people gathered to see and hear him, and the glorious music he’s been able to create from his compassionate mind and soul.
Bringing together aspects of his film scores and solo piano music, Campbell in “Together We Rise” weaves a unique musical experience. “I’ve always loved the sound of a good piano, and yet I’ve also been interested in ways I could expand on that beautiful sound,” he has said. “The music on this album, then, moves beyond the piano in a few different directions.”
Campbell created a new piece of equipment called a mute stick that he puts on a small range of the grand piano strings to get a muted sound without his hands touching the strings. The result is sort of similar to a pizzicato sound on string instruments, and when the pianist uses it and simultaneously presses down the sustain pedal, it becomes resonant.
This effect is an essential part of two of the tracks on the new album: “Emerging” (track 2) and “Web Of Life” (track 5). Campbell performed the entirety of the 44-minute album in the first half of the Galvin concert – accompanied by spectacular visuals that used complementary video, photos and line art, as well as a live look at the open piano from above as Campbell played.
“Another way I expanded the sound is by looping certain motives or short musical ideas, that repeat throughout the piece and allow me to build more textures around these repeating patterns,” the composer described.
“I’m also incorporating synthesizers on a number of the pieces, which create a much larger sound world. I’ve always had keyboards around and in the studio, but I haven’t used them on previous solo albums,” he said. “The sounds I’m using on this album I created and used for a recent film score I composed and they just naturally felt like they should be part of this new music.
“Finally, I used some ambient electronics effects including a subtle delay and some special reverb,” Campbell said. “This, combined with the other techniques I previously mentioned create a more cinematic sound than previous albums of just solo piano. After all, I do love film and ambient music, and I compose film scores, so it seemed totally natural to combine these worlds of piano and electronics.”
An amazingly prolific composer (including for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra), his film scores include for two Oscar-nominated documentaries (in 2019 and 2021), and one that earned a regional Emmy in 2020, and Iowa Motion Picture Association award for best film score in 2020 (for “Sons & Daughters of Thunder”).
As a satisfying whole, the album “Together We Rise” is profoundly mellow, soothing and inspiring, from its first, brief “Invitation.” “Emerging” uses that plucked intro, a repeated motif, then with the piano over it — urgent, propulsive.
The plucked theme becomes part of full piano, repetitive, hypnotic, like much of the album. The mute stick plucking returns at the piece’s end, unifying it.
The record’s title song is anthemic, revealing thick, rich chords, dramatic and emphatic. There’s an effect of light shining through when Campbell abruptly changes key in the same theme. He has extensive runs up and down the keyboard, showcasing his colorful, commanding technique.
Within the solid architecture of the piece, the pianist riffs in some jazzy window dressing and his right-hand flows up and down in a river of beauty.
In “Let This Darkness Be,” Campbell sonically reflects the title, with the minor key and tonic, always a foundation upon which he improvises intelligently over the single, insistent chord, almost like he’s trying to escape quicksand where he’s inextricably planted.
“Web of Life” features a plucking pattern at the start, repeating, insistent, minimalistic, again with piano riffing on top of it, inspiring, uplifting and mesmerizing.
“Drive All Night” is heavy, with deep bass, energetic, appropriately driving, fierce, also with a good deal of repetition.
The appropriately named “Sanctuary Suite” (the whole album serves as a stirring, comforting sanctuary) starts with computer generated strings, soft, wistful, gentle, then an electronic pattern with piano over it, more propulsive, insistent, with piano figures climbing higher and higher.
Part of the suite is strikingly simple, concise, light as air, with high notes, and an overall therapeutic effect. The suite’s concluding “Lessons From the Sparrow” is Campbell’s lovely duet with a song of a white-throated sparrow, with chirps interspersed with piano, playing off each other, so gently and life-affirming — again hypnotic, as toward the end, the piano soars up like the birds.
The thematic album was inspired by the composer’s hope that we can all work for the common good and justice for all in our society. “It’s a concept album about an individual finding their personal strength to move forward in confidence, rising up and lifting up others,” Campbell has said.
The second half of his final Ambrose concert reflected his infectious optimism and persuasive force for good.
Campbell featured music from his solo piano record, “All In Due Time” from 2021, expressing the perspective of gathering strength in quiet times, and that all will be well in due time.
He related the difficult story of an injury to his right arm, which forced him to look at piano music for the left hand alone, and he played the title piece, for just that one hand, in which Campbell impressively traversed the length of the entire keyboard.
I also loved the concert’s “Blue Sky Day,” which he was commissioned to write for the fall 2021 inauguration of SAU president Amy Novak. The shining, hopeful piece not only reflected the joy of that day, but a main theme in “Together We Rise” – aiming for and working for peace in the world.
“Peace is one of those impossible ideas we all need to pursue,” Campbell said at the concert. But it only becomes a reality if we pursue it together.
“Together We Rise” is available on digital, CD and vinyl at Bandcamp.com.
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Dr. William Campbell, “Together We Rise” album artwork.