Ambrose music professor moves on with new CD, concert

Bill Campbell is a prolific, award-winning composer, music professor, and church musician.

At age 53, the unpretentious, soft-spoken music man is ready to write the next movement in his life’s score. Campbell — a professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport — will be moving after the end of this semester, to Portland, Ore., with his wife Michelle, to be closer to family and artistic colleagues.

Bill Campbell has taught at St. Ambrose for 18 years.

“I’m moving to be closer to where more things happen for film and music and other arts,” he said recently, noting he has a son who lives just north of Portland. “Michelle and I have nobody that’s family here nearby. Although we’ve lived here for more than 17 years, and we’ve got great friends here and great connections and a wonderful network and it’s a nice place to be. But it’s time to move on.”

He has taught at SAU for 18 years, which included eight as music department chairman. Campbell has headed the St. Paul Lutheran Church contemporary ensemble for 16 years.

“Simply put, I need to spend more time on my creative music-making, and we want to be closer to family,” he said, adding they don’t have a specific timeframe to move yet. “I’ve felt a lot of joy teaching and working at St. Ambrose and directing the contemporary music at St. Paul, and I’m sure I’ll miss aspects of both in the future. Without a doubt, I’ll miss all the people here in the Quad Cities, and I’m grateful for all the friends and memories made.”

The cover of Campbell’s new album, “Together We Rise.”

Campbell will present his swan song to the community in a special concert Saturday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m., in SAU’s Galvin Fine Arts Center, 518 W. Locust St., Davenport. It’s an album release concert to celebrate his latest original disc, “Together We Rise,” that fuses solo piano with synthesizers and electronics. It’s 44 minutes “of epic, virtuosic tracks and quiet music for inner growth,” according to a release on the record.

“This music was inspired by my hope that we can all work for the common good and justice for everyone within our society,” Campbell said. “It’s a concept album about an individual finding their personal strength to move forward in confidence, rising up and lifting up others.”

“It’s different,” the contemplative composer said in a recent interview. “It’s mixing synthesizer and electronics with piano, in a way that brings me back to who I was when I was younger in some ways, but it’s a total evolution really as well.

“Thematically, it’s all about the need for the common good and about our need to rise up and move forward, but we need to do it as a collective together,” he said. “It can’t just be individuals.”

There’s also a flip side to that cooperation, Campbell said.

“That is, the individual part that we all play and we’ve got to find ways to find our strength — to be part of this motion, moving forward to make the world continue to be a good place,” he said.

The title song of the album is one he wrote in 2020, during the pandemic shutdown, for solo piano.

Campbell at work at his keyboards.

“There’s some other pieces in this album that use what I call semi-prepared piano, where I can physically remove a device that I’ve created to mute the piano strings,” Campbell said. “It gives a very different sort of sound to the resonating strings, and then there’s other pieces that I use looping technologies and in quite a lot of the music, I also weave in synthesizer parts.”

In the April 29 concert, he will have pre-recorded music that will be played on a laptop, and Campbell will perform along with that. Most of it will be played live by him, and everything has been written and recorded by the composer.

Working together for good

In these times of profound disagreements and division (on everything from politics to COVID), Campbell sees a chance for unity.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to come together and to see through those people who would be divisive and the messages that they say that are divisive, and for us to come together and build, continue to build the society for not only humans but for every living thing,” he said.

“That’s why I wrote it when I wrote it,” Campbell said. “I really hope that folks will listen and internalize the intention behind this and use it as music that can help inspire them to move forward.”

Campbell has been director of contemporary music at Davenport’s St. Paul Lutheran Church for 16 years.

Just attending any performance, with total strangers, is intensely moving and inspiring.

“Everyone’s there to experience the music — to be there together, to talk with people,” Campbell said. “There’s a big social aspect to any concert and experience like this. And I love that myself and every event that I play or that I go to is different, because the people that are assembled, the people who are there are different.

“And so every concert is unique and that is part of the energy that feeds us as performers, to me even as a composer,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, beautiful thing and it’s part of the idea behind ‘Together We Rise.’ Without everyone there, it’s just not possible.”

There’s more to the music on this album than a collection of songs. It’s program music in the tradition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz; a concept album such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

The first half of the album introduces and expands on themes that are used over the full 44 minutes of music. After a short introductory track, it starts relatively dark and rhythmic, with forward motion and some mysterious reflective moments, according to the album release. The title track, Together We Rise, is an anthemic piece, and along with other solo piano pieces Let This Darkness Be and Drive All Night highlight the composer’s abilities at the piano.

Other tracks such as Web of Life and Approaching the Summit combine the piano with synthesizer and electronics with overlapping patterns in a post-minimalist style. The second half of the album is primarily devoted to a multi-movement piece titled Sanctuary Suite that ends with an interplay between the song of a white-throated sparrow and the composer at the piano.

Mute stick for sound

“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,” Campbell said. “The music on this album, then, moves beyond the piano in a few different directions.

An Arizona native, Campbell earned his PhD in music composition from the University of Oregon, and a master’s in music composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“I created a new piece of equipment I call a ‘mute stick’ that I place on a small range of the grand piano strings to get a muted sound without my hands touching the strings,” he said. “The result is sort of similar to a pizzicato sound on string instruments, and when I use it and simultaneously press down the sustain pedal it becomes quite resonant. This extended technique effect is an essential part of two of the tracks on this album: Emerging and Web Of Life

“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,” Campbell said.

“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.

“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,” he said. “Most of these patches (sounds) are sonically akin to a full string section in an orchestra and help fill out the sound beyond the piano. They’re not on all the tracks on the album, but when used they help move the listener along in the music.

“Finally, I used some ambient electronics effects including a subtle delay and some special reverb,” Campbell described. “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.”

A wide-ranging composer

Campbell is an award-winning composer for film, dance, theatre, orchestra, choir, chamber ensembles, and soloists. His music for films includes work nominated for two Oscars in 2021 and 2019, a regional Emmy nomination in 2020, and earned him the award for best film score in 2020 by the Iowa Motion Picture Association, and best original score at the 2021 Luminous Frames Festival.

Campbell won best original score in 2020 from the Iowa Motion Picture Association for Moline-based Fourth Wall Films’ “Sons & Daughters of Thunder.”

Additional awards include those from ASCAP, Kennedy Center American Collegiate Theater Festival, Penfield Music Commission, Waging Peace, and multiple teaching institutions. His solo piano album, “All In Due Time,” was released in September 2021, and may be streamed on all major sources.

As a performer, he’s led multiple new music groups, was the keyboard player for the Sonoran Consort, and played with orchestras and as a soloist in North and South America.

“Together We Rise” will be released on all streaming platforms on Friday, April 28, and on limited edition CD and vinyl which can be purchased now for pre-order at 

It will also be produced as a limited-edition CD available starting Saturday, April 29 at the album release concert at the Galvin auditorium, and on a limited-edition vinyl LP a few weeks later.

“I like listening to some albums on vinyl myself,” Campbell said. “I know that a lot of people love the experience of playing a vinyl record. and I just wanna be able to provide that for them. Also, this album is a concept album like people in all kinds of genres would have made since at least the late ’60s.

“And that really harkens back to the age of vinyl albums,” he said. “So I conceived of this as a first part and like a second part, although you could play it in either order.”

A poster for the short documentary “Lifeboat,” for which Campbell wrote the music.

Campbell attended the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony, since he wrote the score for the Oscar-nominated short documentary, “Lifeboat.” It’s about the harrowing journey of North African refugees who risk high seas to find a better life in Europe and the people who risk their lives to help them.

He’s already written the score for his latest film project, a short fiction movie called “American Xeno” (made by Portland-based filmmakers).

“It’s an exciting film and I’m really looking forward to it, to audiences experiencing it,” Campbell said, unsure when its release date will be. ”I’m curious as to how people take it because it’s about xenophobia in America and it’s a very intense film. So, even if it’s subject material that people aren’t comfortable with, at least it doesn’t last a very, very long time.”

“American Xeno” places the viewer in the midst of a hate crime. Consisting of only two shots, the film plunges the viewer into the visceral horror lived by those targeted by racists and bigots, wherever they are in the world, according to the film website.

It was directed by Campbell’s frequent collaborator, Skye Fitzgerald, who directed “Lifeboat” (part of a humanitarian trilogy), and the Oscar-nominated “Hunger Ward.”

Tickets for the April 29 SAU event are $30, available HERE.

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