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Classical 101

Meet central Ohio composer Ben Shirley

Ben Shirley conducting on orchestra in a recording session
Mark Hayes
Skid Row Marathon
Composer Ben Shirley conducts an orchestra of L.A. musicians in a recording session of the soundtrack for the documentary 'Skid Row Marathon.'

Composer Ben Shirley says music saved his life. But at one point in time, his pursuit of a music career almost killed him.

During the last 25 years, Shirley has gone from the rhythm section of a rising-star rock band to L.A.’s Skid Row and, most recently, to a new career as a classical composer in his current home of Newark, Ohio.

The Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra will perform the world premiere of Shirley’s Little Bell on A Very Merry Holiday Pops Sun., Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in Newark’s Midland Theatre.

Little Bell is Shirley’s fantasy on the German Christmas carol Kling, Glöckchen, klingelingeling (“Ring, little bell, ring-a-ling-a-ling”). The Denison University Choirs, the bell choir from Granville’s First Presbyterian Church and boy soprano soloist Macrae Harvey will join the orchestra under the direction of Russel C. Mikkelson.

The story of Shirley’s path to central Ohio is one of loneliness and addiction, of mountaintop highs and rock-bottom despair and, ultimately, recovery and redemption. And while Shirley was chasing the allure of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, music was the friend that saved him from self-destruction and led him to a new life.

The Dude at Midnight

Shirley remembers when music first spoke to him. He was a kid and hurting from the pangs of social isolation. Music eased that pain.

“(It was) that thing that just connected me and didn’t make me feel like an outsider or an alien,” Shirley said.

During his high school years, he found a niche playing bass in a rock band.

“Rock music happened to be that thing that made the hair stand up on my arms,” Shirley said. “And once I formed a few chords or played a few notes on bass, I just devoured everything and tried to learn everything I possibly could.”

He stayed with it, graduated from high school in Texas and spent eight years touring with bar bands. In 1990 he moved to Los Angeles to make it big in rock ‘n’ roll.

“I was in Hollywood, California, and playing in seventy-five thousand bands and hoping to get seen by somebody,” Shirley said. “And I thought, all I have to do is hang on long enough.”

Shirley stayed in L.A. long after most of his musician friends had thrown in the towel and skipped town. In the late 1990s, he and some other musicians formed the band U.P.O. A few years later, Epic Records released the band’s first album, No Pleasantries (2000).

It looked like Shirley had defied the odds. He was living his dream, and it seemed his career was about to take off. But when the musicians of U.P.O. stepped onstage for their first big stadium concert, he knew something was wrong.

“It’s this whole life of trying to grab this thing and work hard and trying to prove things to people and trying to prove things to myself. Okay, here it is. And it’s like, oh God. Now what?” Shirley said.

He parted ways with U.P.O., found another band and worked with different record producers, but things still didn’t feel right. The vicissitudes of his rock career led him into alcohol and drug addictions and in and out of treatment centers. In May 2011, and with the help of some friends, Shirley’s recovery sponsor took him to the Midnight Mission homeless shelter in L.A.’s Skid Row. Homelessness jolted him into the realization that, somehow, his life needed to change.

“I had that moment of clarity, of ‘it’s over,’” Shirley said. “At that point I had nothing, and I wanted it all to go away.”

Composer Ben Shirley seated in a booth
Lindsey McCutchan
courtesy of the artist
Composer Ben Shirley

Shirley doesn’t know for sure where that moment of clarity came from. But he thinks it might have been music itself – a friend he calls “Dude” and evokes now and then with the ease of a supplicant calling on a saint.

“Maybe it was music,” Shirley said. “Music had that divine purpose for me, after I got out of that mental torturous hell coming off of all that stuff and it was still there. Maybe it was music.”

Skid Row Commissions

Shirley stayed at the Midnight Mission for just over two years, determined to start a new life in sobriety. He then moved into a room in the home of a friend, whom he describes as “an old-timer in recovery,” and completed a certificate in electronic music at Los Angeles City College. He continued his studies for two-and-a-half years in the San Francisco Conservatory’s Technology and Applied Composition program.

Shirley returned to Skid Row in 2017 – this time to serve. He worked as director of community engagement with Street Symphony, an organization that leverages music to create opportunities for homeless and incarcerated persons.

While in that role, and under the tutelage of Street Symphony’s then composer-in-residence Reena Esmail, Shirley composed You Need Darkness to See the Stars for chorus and orchestra. The work was premiered in 2017 on Street Symphony’s Messiah Project concert, an annual event featuring portions of Handel’s Messiah, new musical works and stories of resilience from the Skid Row community. That event was also livestreamed by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Shirley succeeded Esmail when she stepped down as Street Symphony’s composer-in-residence in 2018. His work in that role eventually led to his first major commission and recording. In 2018 he met Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic, at a rehearsal for a Street Symphony event at the Midnight Mission. McGill performed Shirley’s Brother Burn for tenor and clarinet on Street Symphony’s Midnight Mission performance series.

Soon afterward, McGill and the Pacifica Quartet asked Shirley to compose a clarinet quintet. The musicians’ recording of Shirley’s High Sierra Sonata features on American Stories (Cedille Records), released earlier this month. McGill and the Pacifica Quartet will premiere the work in February in Los Angeles.

Cedille Records
Cedille Records

My lifeline to everything”

After leaving behind his rock career and the addictions and angry persona that came with it, Shirley has now also left his West Coast home of 30 years. In 2020, he moved from L.A. to Newark, shortly after his wife, Jen, had returned to her childhood home to care for her father.

Today Shirley is embracing his new home in Newark. He works as a neighborhood homeless outreach specialist with Behavioral Healthcare Partners of Central Ohio, an organization serving those struggling with addiction and mental health conditions. And he serves on the board of the Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra.

“We’re able to give back, and people have welcomed me. I still find that all rather new coming from where I did,” Shirley said. “It’s just so genuinely kind and lovely – all the stuff I never thought I needed in my life.”

Shirley is currently fulfilling commissions for two new musical works. One work is a viola-cello duo for two L.A.-based professional musicians, the other is a piano trio for Composing Earth, a commissioning program established by composer Gabriela Lena Frank to raise awareness about environmental issues.

In hindsight, Shirley says, it’s clear that the glamour of a successful music career, not music itself, was the siren call that almost lured him to his grave. Throughout that journey, music was there to remind him why he was alive. And music is still what gives him hope.

“Music, to me, is still my lifeline to everything,” Shirley said. “Music is still the joy of opening my eyes in the morning. The green outside, the birds. Everything’s music, everything’s a rhythm. That’s the best way I can explain it.”

The Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra will premiere Ben Shirley’s Little Bell on A Very Merry Holiday Pops, Sun., Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in Newark’s Midland Theatre.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.