Composing a career in music

Former Kamiak concertmaster comes into his own with first orchestra commission
By Nicholas Johnson | Mar 01, 2017
Photo by: Nicholas Johnson Composer and 2010 Kamiak graduate Ben Ash stands outside his childhood home in Mukilteo recently. Ash now lives in Greenwood, but regularly visits his parents in Mukilteo.

Ben Ash is no stranger to the discipline and decorum that symphony orchestra concerts demand of both the ensemble and the audience.

“I’ve been that person playing with a straight face,” said Ash, who held first chair in Kamiak High School’s orchestra before graduating in 2010.

Now, as a composer preparing for the world premiere of his first-ever, orchestra-commissioned work, Ash says he wouldn’t take offense to a little fanfare. In fact, he might encourage it.

“I would love to see people get excited in the middle of an orchestral piece and maybe stand up and cheer during the performance,” Ash, 25, said. “I think there are moments in classical pieces that scream for that, but you will be kicked out if you do it. If I started a mosh pit in the middle of a symphony orchestra concert, I might get arrested.”

The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO), of which Ash is also an alumnus, will perform his piece, “Collide-o-Scope,” at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 12, at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.

The concert is the orchestra’s annual benefit and Ash’s piece will serve as a precursor to performances of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

“Man, those kids can play,” said Ash, who sat in on a rehearsal of the concert last weekend. “They are as good as a lot of professional orchestras out there. I feel a lot of pride to be able to give something to them after spending the best two years of my performance life there.”

Ash first picked up a violin at age 3 when Ivan Chan, then-concertmaster of the Philharmonic Strings at Kamiak, agreed to give him lessons. According to his parents, David and Laura Ash, the youngster had been begging for a violin for months.

“I cannot remember a time when I didn’t play violin, but I do remember a lot of times when I didn’t want to,” Ash said. “My parents tell me I wanted to do it when I was 3, and I believe them because I have no memories to the contrary.”

At age 10, the soundtrack for the movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” captivated Ash’s imagination.

“It just blew me away that such great music could exist in a film,” he said. “It’s one of the few movies that I can listen only to the soundtrack and still get emotional value from it.

“It wasn’t until years later that I realized I didn’t just love it, I wanted to do it. I thought, ‘If that’s the kind of thing film composers get to do, I want a chance to do that.’ If there’s anything I want to do with my music, it’s to make another 10-year-old feel the way I did when I first heard that soundtrack.”

By the end of his high school career, Ash was a polished performer who had played in both the Seattle and Everett youth symphony orchestras, but he wanted to compose film scores. He went into New York University majoring in violin, but came out in 2014 with a degree in music composition.

In New York, Ash had scored several student films and written a number of instrumental pieces, including two short works for a full orchestra recorded by the NYU Symphony.

After returning to Mukilteo, he wrote and played all the instruments for the score of the award-winning documentary “Coming Out,” directed by fellow Kamiak alumnus Alden Peters.

For a while, he coached a string rock ensemble for Kamiak orchestra teacher Brian Steves. He also composed a score for an Everett Police Department recruiting video.

“I didn’t know how to navigate the randomness of freelancing,” he said. “I realized I knew people who could help and [Maestro Stephen Rodgers] Radcliffe was at the top of that list.”

In November 2015, Ash sent a Facebook message to Radcliffe, the longtime director of SYSO, asking for insights on how to go about securing paid commissions to write for orchestras. Radcliffe invited him to dinner and, over cocktails, asked him to write a piece for SYSO.

“It was such a huge vote of confidence,” he said. “I don’t think he had heard anything I had written before.”

It took Ash about a year to finish the 15-minute piece, partly because he prefers to write music with pencil and paper and partly because he had to work to pay his bills.

“I don’t live with my parents, so there’s rent to pay,” he said.

After a few months assembling fireplaces at Travis Industries in Mukilteo, he moved on to Half Price Books in Everett, writing in his off hours.

“I’m way too old fashioned and I don’t like using computers,” he said. “People tell me I could work so much faster if I just start with piano and then orchestrate everything out later, but I like to take my time. I have spent a lot of my life in orchestras and youth symphonies, so I actually work better thinking of all the different parts at once.”

The end result, he said, walks the line between the sublime and the ridiculous.

“OK, it’s mostly ridiculous,” he said. “There’s too much going on in this piece, but I like it that way. It’s very noisy; there isn’t a lot of quiet.”

These days, Ash draws inspiration from progressive rock and metal bands such as Rush, Dream Theater and Meshuggah.

“I find a lot of similarities to orchestral music,” he said. “It’s actually classical in a lot of ways. When I realized that, it opened all sorts of doors. These bands are a big influence on how I’m writing these days.”

Ash said many assume metal bands don’t know what they’re doing, musically.

“Rock music has borrowed so much from classical and classical has not really returned the favor,” he said. “I’ve embraced what I love about both worlds. I love the sounds of the classical world, but I also love the zaniness of rock music and how it can jump haphazardly from one extreme to another in a short amount of time.”

Ash has stepped away from his day job, for now, and said getting his first paid commission has energized him to keep looking for ways to collaborate.

“This piece has done more for me motivationally than financially,” he said. “I have realized I need to kick my own butt and keep freelancing.”

While Ash is still wrestling with whether to pursue orchestral concerts or film scores, and a return to New York would likely mean more opportunities, he said he’s decided to stay on his home coast.

“Mukilteo has given me such a deep appreciation for the arts,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in a big city with a major musical reputation. I grew up in a suburban community that still managed to instill in me a love of the arts.”

 

Catch ‘Collide-o-Scope’ in concert

The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra’s benefit lunch will be held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle at 11:30 a.m. March 12, followed by the concert at 3 p.m. at Benaroya Hall.

Concert tickets range from $17 to $54. For ticket information, go to www.syso.org, call 206-362-2300 or email boxoffice@syso.org.

The concert will be recorded and later aired on Classic KING-FM 98.1.

Until then, listen to musical compositions by Ben Ash at soundcloud.com/composerben, where he plans to eventually post the live recording of his new piece, “Collide-o-Scope.”

 

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