An Interview with Franklin D. Ashdown

Franklin D. Ashdown (1942–2023) was an American composer and physician. He was born in Logan, Utah and began piano study at a young age. At age 13, he was recruited to play the organ for a local congregation. Ashdown earned degrees in science and medicine from Texas Tech University and the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center. He later studied organ with Judson Maynard and James Drake and was privately coached in composition by Fred Tulan (San Francisco) and Leonard Raver (The Juilliard School). Based for much of his life in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Ashdown pursued dual careers for more than three decades (1971–2007) as an internist and organist/composer. After his retirement from medicine in 2007, Ashdown focused exclusively on music. Ashdown’s numerous organ and choral compositions have been widely published, and his organ music became a frequent part of the repertoire of many performers throughout the USA. Ashdown’s music has been performed in venues ranging from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the Salt Lake Tabernacle to Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. His music was featured on American Public Media’s “Pipedreams,” National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s CBS broadcast, “Music and the Spoken Word.” Leonard Raver and Stephen Burns recorded his “Requiem for the Challenger” on the Classic Masters Label, and James Welch has included some of his solo organ music in his series of recordings for various labels.

This interview between Franklin Ashdown and Carson Cooman was conducted in the early autumn of 2005 and was originally published in “Living Music Journal” (November 2005)

CC: When you were growing up, did you always intend to have a dual career of music and medicine together?

FA: No. I really had very little idea of what a musician’s life was all about, because I had no role models among professional musicians. I loved music very much, but I really had no notion of doing it professionally. I was “programmed” to be a doctor from the time I was about five years old. Both sides of my family really encouraged me to go into medicine. My father was a university professor and my mother was a nutritionist, so both of them came from the world of biological sciences. Thus with that background, I had never really considered going into any other profession from the time I was a little child until the time I was in college.

CC: Did you study composition formally with anybody?

FA: I never took any formal composition lessons. I had an excellent piano teacher all through high school who gave me a good background in theory and harmony. But it was not until after I had already written a number of pieces that I sought any composition coaching.

CC: Did you start composing fairly early on?

The first thing I ever wrote was a fight song for my high school when I was a senior. However, I didn’t truly write anything else until I was 29—when I wrote out an organ piece. When I was in college, I took my first organ lessons. I had an excellent background in piano but had become very intrigued with the organ. Thus, undergraduate years included many organ lessons. When I got into medical school, I spent a lot of my weekends learning organ literature as a kind of respite from medicine studies. When I finished medical school in Dallas (UT Southwestern Medical Center), I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. During my residency there, I resumed taking private organ lessons. It was in Salt Lake that I had an organ teacher who heard me improvise and encouraged me to start scoring things out and actually begin composing seriously. So I started doing that and quickly became hooked on it. I haven’t stopped since.

CC: Do you improvise frequently?

FA: I improvise organ preludes quite a bit in church. When I sit down to compose—particularly if it’s a free-style piece—I often begin by improvising some musical threads with which to work.

CC: Have there been any influences in your musical work from your work in medicine?

FA: I can’t really say that my medical work has specifically influenced my composing or the choices of music that I like. But the medical specialty that I went into does have a connection in music, I think. I’m a specialist in internal medicine which is mostly a diagnostic discipline. It involves sitting back and thinking and listening carefully to the patients. So it very much involves critical listening skills. We internists listen to patients describe their symptoms and their pains. Then, after listening carefully, one draws all the threads together to make a diagnosis. In musical composition, many of the same intellectual skills are brought together—critical listening to draw various strands of melody, harmony, and rhythm together into a coherent work. Perhaps it’s a function of my personality that I am drawn to the “cognitive” side of the work in both medicine and in music.

As a more specific connection, a recent (2003) organ piece, Scenes from the Life of a Doctor, is inspired specifically by images connected to my medical practice. It was written for Wayne Leupold’s “organ demonstrator” series, in which each piece has a movement connected to a different family of organ stops/sounds. For example, the first vignette, “The Birth of Billy Taggart,” describes in musical imagery my first delivery as a junior medical student. The piece begins somewhat nervously but ends with the sunny delight that such an experience evokes. Another vignette, “Dysrhythmia,” recalls a patient critically afflicted with an erratic heart rhythm; it utilizes low-pitched pedal sounds to suggest the heart tones a doctor typically hears.

CC: Do many of your patients know that you are also a composer?

FA: A few of them do. I would say the vast majority just know that I’m involved with playing the organ and directing choirs for church. They don’t know much about my compositional activities.

CC: Have you personally encountered many other medical professionals who are also practicing composers themselves?

FA: At the American Guild of Organists conventions, I’ve encountered a few of them. I haven’t really met any here in New Mexico. For example, the organist and composer George Baker started out as primarily a musician and earned his doctorate in organ. Then he went to the medical school (the same one I did!) and eventually became a dermatologist. He’s now recently retired from his medical practice and has returned to being a concert organist and full-time musician. I’m also aware of an ophthalmologist in New York City, Hampson Sisler, who composes both for organ and other instrumentations.

CC: What are your current/upcoming projects?

FA: I’m currently writing a lot of choral music. Some use texts from the psalms and others use various old texts that I find very appealing. I’ve also very recently written a free-style organ piece entitled “Fantasia Navidenia Antigua.” It is toccata-like work based upon the idea of an old Spanish Christmas fantasy. It also incorporates some small quotations from “Riu, riu, chiu”—the familiar Spanish folk carol. [This work was published by Augsburg Fortress in the volume “Noel!” in 2008.]

CC: What was your first publication as a composer?

FA: My first publication was a piece called Funambulistasia, which was published by Seesaw Music in New York City in 1976. A funambulist is a tight-rope walker. The piece was written for the noted organist Leonard Raver, who at one time was planning to do a Broadway production that involved the organ. He even thought the live show might involve an actual tight-rope walker! It never came to pass, but some music by various composers was written for it. My piece is very dramatic—quite atonal, almost aleatoric, and very wild.

CC: It’s interesting that your first publication was for such an avant-garde style organ work, since you are best known for your many compositions in a more “neo-romantic” contemporary musical idiom.

FA: The reason why I wrote the piece that way is because I had just been to the Hartt School of Music Organ Festival in 1974, a summer festival of new organ music during the 1970s. I had thus been saturated with that sort of avant-garde organ music and wanted to compose that kind of piece. In the years that followed, I decided that I prefer to write more traditionally.

CC: You’ve mentioned to me that you plan to retire from medicine in a few years. What are your plans at that point?

FA: I plan to retire from my medical practice in 2007. I will then devote my time entirely to composition. I’d especially like to write more works outside the choral and organ world. I’ve written a few pieces of that sort in the past (an orchestral triptych and an organ concerto), but I want to explore many of the other musical forms.