Shirley moves from Skid Row to composing music in Newark

NEWARK – Some careers take a different path.

“All I wanted to do was play music,” Ben Shirley began, “so I wasn’t exactly gifted in high school. Decades later, after having destroyed my life with alcoholism and drug addiction, I went back to school. Supported by the amazing people of the Midnight Mission, a homeless shelter in LA’s famous Skid Row where I found myself broke, drug ill and homeless in 2011, I enrolled in Los Angeles City College . I became a straight student and got a certificate in music technology.

“Several years later,” he continued, “I applied to the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music and was accepted, on a partial scholarship. I was in the inaugural class of the technology program and composition applied.

“Incidentally,” he added, “my entire journey from Midnight Mission to SFCM is documented in the film, Skid Row Marathon. I was one of five homeless people filmed over four years, and ultimately featured in the film that tells the story of the running club that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell started. I was one of the first members of the club. Skid Row Marathon has won dozens of awards in film festivals in 2018, including Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Today, Shirley is a composer and orchestrator of films and television shows, in addition to classical music. In addition, he has just been named a member of the board of directors of the Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m composing for a chamber ensemble,” he said, “or for the Newark Granville Symphony Orchestra, or for a movie, I try to compose with honesty.”

Shirley grew up describing herself as an “army kid”. He was born in Berlin, then moved to California, then to Texas. He went to high school in El Paso and graduated early because he had been a touring musician since he was 15.

Ben Shirley is a composer and orchestrator of films and television shows, in addition to classical music.  He works to compose music from his Newark home and was recently named a member of the board of the Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra.

“My first memory of music was hearing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love,” he recalls. “The middle section freaked me out, and I loved it. From that moment, I wanted this danger and this fear in life and above all, in music. I was a touring musician (bassist) for 25 years. I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. I was signed to Epic Records as a bass player for the band UPO and later for Chingalera. We had rock hits that stood out and we toured with most of the alternative rock bands that had big success in the 1990s.”

“I didn’t start composing,” he continued, “until I went back to school, while living in the homeless shelter. I was in my forties. Although I’ve heard music in my head since I was a kid, I never knew how to put what I had in mind on paper.

“I’m so grateful to LACC for opening this door,” he noted. “I ended up writing a piece of music in school that was dedicated to The Midnight Mission. I needed the piece to apply to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I chose to honor The Midnight Mission because the amazing people there put me on the road to recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction The play was called Midnight at 12:01.

“Ben is the real deal – a musician’s musician, a composer’s composer,” assessed California composer Gabriela Lena Frank. “Artists are constantly in search of beings, wondering if their motives are pure and if their work is good. I feel like Ben is perpetually engaged in these questions and therefore his music is not afraid to be what it should be – lyrical, rhythmic, raw, ugly, beautiful. I like that about him.”

“The one thing I always wanted to do was music,” Shirley replied. “The truth is, I’m a former rock n’ roll bassist who was homeless for 26 months, and I definitely don’t sound like a typical classical composer. I’ve certainly lived two totally different lives. As a musician touring, I indulged in all the debauchery that goes with it for 25 years. Now I’ve been sober for over 11 years and live in suburban Ohio. It’s literally the opposite of my life before the sobriety, and I’m grateful for that every day.

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Aces of Trades is a weekly series about people and their jobs – whether it’s unusual jobs, fun jobs, or people who take ordinary jobs and make them extraordinary. If you have a suggestion for a future profile, let us know at [email protected] or 740-328-8821.

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