The most Ellen of Ellen sounds

written by Angela Morris
2019 GLFCAM Ruth Crawford Seeger Fellow, Cycle 8

One day in January, during my week at GLFCAM as a participant in Cycle 8 (“Strings and Mallets”), I stood alone on Gabriela’s deck overlooking clouds that sat in the valley. As I watched water softly graze the sides of the hills, I let water’s warm saltiness stream down my own face. That week, there was no resisting the waves of grief; the night before I came to Boonville, I lost a friend and trusted collaborator, an irreplaceable marvel of a person, to suicide.

To write about that friend, Ellen, is something I deeply want to do now. But it feels impossible to say something that is true enough, something that can do justice to a beautiful human being who was a participant in the disorderly reality of being alive so recently. To write is hard, too, because I knew Ellen best in a realm language can barely touch: Mostly what we did together was listen and make music. Over the past few years, we played more than a dozen shows, almost all improvised, as well as rehearsals and recording sessions. Her sounds and her personality inhabit my musical imagination, and that interior space is where I feel her presence most clearly and miss her most acutely.

 On Gabriela’s deck, I waited with the wave, observing the moment’s emotions together with the garden and forest and hills spread out below. Huck and Beau, dogs who’ve been through some stuff themselves, kept me company at a respectful distance. Jeremy, Gabriela’s husband, approached as gently as the dogs. Their presence said: You are safe. However you are is ok.

Back in the fall of 2018, when I first met Gabriela over Skype, she asked me how I thought composing for “classical” musicians would fit into my musical life. It was a question I was already grappling with since I usually compose for and with improvisers. The closest thing to “classical” so far has been my large ensemble writing, for the 18-piece big band I co-lead. Even there, I’ve been experimenting with strategies to overthrow some dictatorial aspects of composership, giving musicians agency in the development of the piece while still giving the piece a distinct identity. I get very excited about improvisers co-creating a composition, listening for sounds that exist beyond any single mind, and delivering them into audibility.

 I learned a lot about that state of listening from Ellen. Improvising, she might usher in a musical transformation as if it walked on from offstage. She’d subtly introduce a new character to the piece while most attention was directed elsewhere. She could recast a previously ordinary musical interaction by adding harmony that no one else could imagine, harmony somehow totally natural and totally surprising. She could express a complete thought with a flitting facial expression, musically and otherwise.

Throughout my time at GLFCAM, I was thinking a lot about Ellen’s uniqueness and our shared experiences of listening. The shock and sadness of her death made that kind of expansive listening seem more precious and important than ever. And Gabriela seems to have a knack for finding people who share that value. At the community concert on GLFCAM’s Bueno Yabbelow Music Series, Chris Froh (faculty percussionist) introduced his piece by inviting the audience to step into their own sonic imaginations – in other words, to practice doing what composers do. “I invite you to imagine the sound that this instrument will make,” he said, holding up a top hi-hat cymbal and a drum stick. He explained that he was about to play that instrument, and that instrument only, for five minutes. He prepared us for the reality of what those five minutes might entail. “You are going to have some reactions. You might be bored. You might be angry.” Everyone laughed with relief — With relief at hearing something true and being allowed to listen to ourselves, together.

Before Chris and Leo Eguchi (faculty cellist) gave my piece its reading, I glanced through the pages I had written, and I was not feeling any of that relief. I thought: Ugh. Not only is this going to sound bad, it’s not even fun to play. What the heck am I doing? Then, the hour came, and Chris and Leo dove into the work of transforming the symbols into sounds. Something that had only existed in my imagination became something we could all hear. It stands out luminously in that dark week. It felt affirming: Not only that I can write music, but that I do.

I felt the potential of my compositions to invite people — players and audience — to inhabit a transformational listening space. That perspective softens the conflict I have about the hierarchical nature of notation. Composing isn’t a power play, demanding my instructions be followed, but an intimate invitation into my particular way of hearing. As Gabriela suggested over Skype, look for the most Angela of Angela sounds, and make a piece with those.

 The water lifts from the valley, it circulates, it falls down my face, it rises. I miss Ellen. I am so glad to know her… to have known her. I miss my friends back in Brooklyn, and at the same time I’m grateful to be here.

 It’s heartbreaking, unfair, and incomprehensible that the most Ellen of Ellen sounds have all been made. I’m so grateful for the perseverance and work she put into making recordings and doing her work while she was alive. I’m honored to have known and shared and made sounds with her. As time goes on, I hope I can do my work in a way that invites more people into the rich listening experiences where I remember her most. 

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Here a resource if you or a loved one is at risk of suicide or self-harm:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

1-800-273-8255


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If Brooklyn’s music circles draw a Venn diagram, Angela Morris thrives in the loop between avant-jazz and pop. The composer and multi-instrumentalist has performed throughout North America and Europe. Find out more on Angela's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank