Art Maker: Jeff Olmsted | composer/songwriter

Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2015

Composer/songwriter Jeff Olmsted, 60, is a native of Northampton and a graduate of Northampton High School. He spent most of his adult life in the New York City area, where he founded and directed the Interfaith Fellowship Choir. He was the long-time musical director of the award-winning Shadow Box Theatre. He and his wife, Julie, performed their original cabaret show, “Jeff and Jewel’s New Age Blues Revue” in five states. Olmsted’s “Songs of Rumi,” for chamber orchestra and chorus, was commissioned and premiered by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009. Recently returned to his hometown, he teaches piano and directs the Haydenville Congregational Church choir and two a cappella groups, the Wise Guys and On That Note. A staged reading of his new musical, “Tar2f: A Musical Comedy of Religious Delusion,” an adaptation of Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” was recently performed in Northampton.

Hampshire Life: Describe the work you are doing now.

Jeff Olmsted: I am working on a piece about our town’s most famous resident, Jonathan Edwards. It’s called “The Surprizing Work of God.” I’m saying it’s a folk opera because I don’t know what else to call it.

H.L.: What will the audience experience?

J.O.: First, I hope that the art is beautiful enough to inspire reverie on the awesome unity and continuity of our shared history. Also, I hope that the audience will come to appreciate Edwards as a much more interesting and sympathetic figure than the fire-and-brimstone preacher that embarrasses modern liberals.

H.L.: What is your creative process like?

J.O.: For this project, I’ve done quite a bit of research, reading about Edwards, reading his sermons, learning about pre-Revolutionary War American music. I do most of my actual composing at the computer. It seems like the ideas are fully formed somewhere in the collective unconscious, but pulling them out is often slow and not fun.

H.L.: Does it start with a “Eureka!” moment?

J.O.: It can. Here’s a case in point: I was reading a book called “The Family” by Jeff Sharlet. It’s about a shadowy right-wing religious organization active in politics today. He begins with a chapter on Edwards, re-telling the story Edwards himself told in his first published work, which was called “The Surprizing Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls at Northampton.” In that little book, Edwards wrote about his relationship with a young parishioner named Abigail Hutchinson, who died experiencing religious ecstasy under his watchful eye. I thought, “A woman sings herself to death! That’s an opera!”

H.L.: How do you know you’re on the right track?

J.O.: I don’t know, though I do trust myself more as I get older.

H.L.: What do you do when you get stuck?

J.O.: Drink coffee, take a walk, nap, watch TV

H.L.: How do you know when the work is done?

J.O. It kind of goes clunk. I’ll let somebody hear it.

H.L.: What did you do today that relates to your art?

J.O.: I wrote and recorded an a cappella arrangement of a Harold Arlen song, gave five piano lessons, and read an article about Jonathan Edwards and social justice.

— Kathleen Mellen


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