by Ann Ellsworth

Premiering Sheila Silver's “Being in LIfe,” for Horn, Alpenhorn, Tibetan Singing Bowls and String Orchestra

ellsworthSheila Silver’s new piece, “Being in Life,” for Horn, Alpenhorn, Tibetan Singing Bowls and String Orchestra, was premiered in Seattle by the Philharmonia Northwest, Julia Tai conducting. I have never premiered a piece of this scale and magnitude or worked in such close collaboration with a composer. Sheila is an amazing creative force - watching her process different textures and phrases within her rhythmic sound world gave me a glimpse into her deeper relationship with music and sound. I was also fascinated to see firsthand how Sheila, as a composer, took this idea of a piece and grew it into a premiere. The love and commitment she gave to this piece had the same energy with which she gardens, teaches and cares for those around her. Her passion for life and music is inspiring and life-changing. I had met Sheila very briefly as a colleague when, as a junior faculty in crisis, I reached out to her for advice. Sheila reached back as a mentor and friend, played music with me, encouraged me, listened to me and talked with me about Being in Life. 

Sheila’s partner, John Feldman, is a filmmaker and needed a soundtrack for his film about biologist  Lynn Margulis called, “Symbiotic Earth.”  Sheila invited me up to their home in the Hudson Valley near Great Barrington to “improvise the soundtrack,” an offer I feared but could not possibly resist. I had been to her home once before with Rachel Drehmann - we were in Great Barrington playing with Ken Cooper’s Berkshire Bach Festival - and after dinner (amazing!), Sheila took us up to her studio and proceeded to beat, ring, clang and sing her impressive collection of Tibetan singing bowls for about an hour. She wanted to know what would happen when the horn and bowls played together, and it was with this vision in mind that she asked me to come and stay for three days and make a soundtrack. 

I am no wilting violet here but I have to admit, trying to keep up with Sheila’s work pace is exhausting. We’re about 20 years apart but her energy level is so high, I often forgot that I was the chronologically younger one. She’s a morning person; rehearsal would start at 6:00AM, which I pushed back to 6:30 because I had to “warm-up,” a concession she made graciously. We’d play for a few hours then go for a brisk 45-minute walk in the hills near her home. Breathless might be an appropriate word to describe our pace, and yet somehow we were able to converse. I loved her stories about studying abroad with Karkoschka and Ligeti. Sheila filled me in on her new opera, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which is slated for premiere with the Seattle Opera. She told me about asking Khaled Hosseini for the rights, getting her Guggenheim Fellowship and traveling to India to study Hindustani music. She was immersed in this sound world and spoke at length about instrumentation, how to be true to the spirit of this music, and when to abandon the form and be true to her Western setting of the piece. At times she would tear up talking about the Hosseini story and the hardships faced by the women in Afghanistan. I was working on a book about my adoptive family. (It’s been released this month - see the link at the end of this article. -Ed.)

Sheila was enormously helpful in talking with me about form and how at a certain point, loyalty to a form can hold us back if we adhere to it too tightly. She read my manuscript many times and championed it by sharing it with her writing friends and community. 

Back from our walk, she would make us a smoothie in her Vita-mix with fruit, greens, fresh coconut and all sorts of healthiness, boil water for tea, and then we were back to work. I sat next to her at the piano so I could see her fingers and the scraps of manuscript she had taped to the large Plexiglas rectangle that enlarged her piano desk. She would speak very quickly, “Try this!” and either sing or play something and I’d scramble to imitate or approximate while she added an accompaniment. We would noodle around, get the bowls out and have me mix with them and then she’d say, “Wait, what did I just do? What was that?” and try and go back to capture the flicker of tonality or rhythm that had struck her imagination. I started recording everything on my phone as reference, but often by the time I could find it, she had come up with a new idea. I loved this process, as far from my comfort zone as it was. I was scrambling to keep up, to please and then innovate as she gave me more and more autonomy. Things would be cooking along when Sheila would suddenly say, “I need a nap!” Within 30 seconds she had made sure I had everything I needed and would lie down on the floor, flat on her back, close her eyes and be immediately in some other place. I don’t know if she was sleeping or resting or meditating. She said it was something she needed to do for her brain. 

Nap time lasted about 20 minutes. We’d grab a snack of nuts, kombucha, kefir and avocado on toast with lox, do another session with John Feldman and start recording some of the music we’d rehearsed. At times we would watch the film and play along. I’d sit quietly while Sheila and John discussed in the rapid-fire shorthand reserved for creative collaborators who are also married. It was a whirlwind and then suddenly quiet as we would sit back and watch a three minute segment of the film joined with Sheila’s noodles. It was incredible, really, the transformation her music made to the visual content. Of course as musicians, especially horn players, we know that the soundtrack is everything. I was just able to marvel again at the moment when music and film come together. Symbiotic Art. Then another walk down to the pond for a swim, back up to the house, break for dinner (amazing!) and yes, do another session before bedtime, lights out at 9:00. 

  • A rehearsal for the premiere

    A rehearsal for the premiere

  • Taking notes at the dress rehearsal

    Taking notes at the dress rehearsal

  • A performance at Lawrence University

    A performance at Lawrence University

  • Alphorn detail

    Alphorn detail

    It was while working on the soundtrack that Sheila started thinking about doing a piece for string orchestra, bowls and horn. It felt like the bowls and horn had a real affinity for each other and as we talked about what went into that special mix of sonorities, I had to open my big mouth say, “you know what would sound really cool is alpenhorn.” Of course, I was right, and after I brought my alphorn up for her to hear it, Sheila agreed. So lost was I in the concept that I forgot this would mean actually having to play that magnificent but squirrelly beast, a worthy but challenging endeavor.

    We started looking for orchestras that would agree to perform the piece once completed so that we could start applying for grants. Sheila was out in Seattle talking opera and I was living north of Seattle at the time, so we reached out to Julia Tai and had a meeting at one of the many delicious coffee places in Seattle to talk about doing the Premiere with the Northwest Philharmonia that she conducts. An excellent conductor and advocate of new music, she agreed to join our applications. Sheila applied for a Fromm commission from Harvard, and we got it! 

    The piece is in three movements and 25 minutes in length. The first movement, played entirely on alphorn, starts with a slow introduction to this incredible instrument’s sonority, extreme registers and dynamic range, accompanied by the striking of the bowls. Then the alpenhorn begins this really fetching tune; somehow Sheila’s setting of the harmonic series makes it sound like the alpenhorn has broken free and is moving outside the limits of physics. When I’m playing it, I feel like I’m an enormous and lumbering mammal that is mysteriously taking flight. 

    I am playing on a beautiful Swiss alpenhorn that Joe Anderer bought for me on one of his many trips. It’s made by Ernst Nussbaum, is pitched in F# and comes with an extension that can lower the pitch to F. One of the first things I did when I got the horn was to have a wooden alpenhorn compatible copy made of my old Giardinelli (remember Giardinelli?) C12 mouthpiece (the one Dave Krehbiel chose for me when I was 16 years old – I use 4 other mouthpieces in addition to my C12 for specific playing situations but I still warm up and warm down on my C12). I was directed to send my C12 to Franz Fristchi in Switzerland and was surprised to learn it would take several months to have my mouthpiece and the copy sent back to me. I was told that a lot of that time was needed for the transportation of the mouthpieces up and down the alps…by donkey. I cannot confirm that this is or was the actual practice but while I waited, I enjoyed envisioning my mouthpieces in a pouch on the back of donkey making their way through the mountains.

    Knowing I would have to spend a lot of time preparing for “Being in Life,” I decided to arrange Daniel Schnyder’s Alphorn Concerto into a 10 minute Fantasia (with Daniel’s blessing, of course!) to perform with the Lawrence University Wind Ensemble around the same time. Sheila’s piece is written in F# to match the specific Tibetan Singing Bowls, Daniel’s piece is written in F to match the rest of the Western world, and once I started really practicing, I was increasingly surprised at how differently the two lengths of horn respond. I’ve spent most of my alpenhorn career playing in F but have grown much fonder of F#. It feels lighter, more nimble and more stable. It is a disconcerting key for my ear and I have to confess that on some of the more exposed entrances for which I don’t have a clear reference, I started fingering these phantom keys with my left hand to match the transposed pitch of the note on a double horn. It’s a helpful trick I learned from R.J. Kelly when I was studying natural horn and would get disoriented. 

    In her program notes, Sheila describes the piece as follows: 

    Being in Life, reflects the idea that we are all walking down our individual life paths, intersecting and interacting in various ways.

    This piece is dedicated to the memory of Raphael Anthony Warshal Yell who died suddenly and tragically just short of his 3rd birthday. I spent time with this delightful little boy just a week before his death in March of 2018 and had come to believe that he was a musical genius. I could tell that he was listening to music – from Mozart to reggae and even my “modern” music — with an intention of complete understanding. He was processing the structure of the music while being totally immersed in the glory of the sound. He may have been a child, but he was already a sophisticated and discerning listener. In tribute to him, I decided to write a joyful piece that would “knock his socks off” – enchant his young ears and fill him with amazement. If I started to veer into the sadness of his death, I stopped myself and changed course. I hope that this work will appeal to the “child” in all of us.

    The first movement explores the sound world of the Alpenhorn – whose harmonic structure is dependent on the fact that the Alpenhorn is in F# with only the pitches of that harmonic series available. I selected the specifically pitched singing bowls to work with this. The second movement is a setting of a Hindustani “bandish” (prayer melody), Aiso Mahagyani Konahay in Raag, Bilaskhani Todi. The melody is one that I learned while studying Hindustani music in India with my guru, Pandit Kedar Narayan Bodas. When I sang it for Ann, she insisted that it become part of her concerto. I have given it a fairly Western setting, much in the tradition of composers setting a folk tune. The third movement, “The Hunt,” has a playful program: starting out at a fast pace, the dogs and riders are chasing a fox but they lose him when they get ensnarled in a thicket. Then the fox (now the Alpenhorn) emerges triumphant, thumbing his nose at the hunters and dogs as he gets away.

    Besides switching between F and F# on the alpenhorn, I had also not calculated how different it would feel to go from playing my horns in Sheila’s studio to standing in front of a group with only three hours of rehearsal time over two days. Scant rehearsal time is a common reality in our business as we try to balance a respectable hourly rehearsal rate for musicians and the lack of financial support for rehearsal time. 

    “Being in Life” is a difficult piece and unlike the warhorse concerti from our canon, there was no piano reduction to rehearse with, no recordings for reference, and because the low registers of the horns and basses are so extreme, a lot of of the notes were not represented on the midi.

    Watching the videos of Sheila’s “workshop” performances of her opera, I begin to appreciate how important it is to hear the performers and instrumentalists in a new work in real life so that a composer can make corrections. It has made me realize how much time and effort goes into the fine tuning of the actual piece even after many performances before it becomes a standard. Sheila is already tweaking some of the string parts and solo part for me, as well as making a piano reduction for me to rehearse with and setting the second movement as a chamber piece for horn, violin and piano that I will perform this summer at the IHS Symposium August 3-8 in Eugene, Oregon.

    BTW, I have book being released today about my adoptive family and raising kids who suffered early trauma. Spoiler alert: Music is the greatest brain gym, healer and confidence builder ever…but of course, we already know that!!

    Called, “outrageous” and “splendidly projected,” by the New York Times, Ann Ellsworth is a versatile soloist, collaborative and recording artist. Her creative approach to interpretation and shameless repurposing of music from all periods and styles has earned her some notoriety in multiple countries. The Huffington Post called her premiere of a piece for Alphorn and samplestra, performed in a boxing ring in Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, “meticulously planned and executed…as fresh and exalted as Alpine air.” Her three solo recordings, “EUPHORIA,” “Rain Coming” and “Late Night Thoughts” are adventurous but cohesive mix tapes of new works, previously unrecorded works, works which arguably should still be in progress and arrangements of works for horn in mixed ensembles. Her sound world has been called, “dream-like,” “other planetary,” and “musically dangerous” by her colleagues.

    Ann has toured internationally as a member of Kristjan Jarve’s Absolute Ensemble, the Manhattan Brass, the Danish Esbjerg Ensemble, and numerous other musical and artistic configurations. An advocate of new music, Ann was a founding member of the New Music and Culture Symposium and loves working with composers and premiering new works. She has performed with such popular artists as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Diana Ross and can be heard on numerous television theme songs, commercials and movie soundtracks. Ann also loves playing natural horn, soprano horn (high F/high Bb), and alphorn. Ann Ellsworth attended the Eastman and Juilliard Schools, with further study in Oslo and St. Petersburg, Russia. She is a former member of the Phoenix Symphony and has held faculty positions at numerous schools in the New York City area. A native of the “Other Bay Area,” (San Francisco), Ann Ellsworth is psyched to be joining the Lawrence University faculty in Appleton, Wisconsin.

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