John Ellis: Composing the Music

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John Eliis, composer

John Ellis composed the music for WNYC's special Living 9/11 and recorded it along with musicians Chris Hoffman, Mike Moreno, Mike Rodriguez, Dan Peck, Daniel Freedman and Avishai Cohen.

A note from John Ellis about how he created this music:

I've been a friend of Marianne's for a long time, and I've long admired her work. She came to my latest collaboration with playwright Andy Bragen last April. That piece, called Mobro, traced the journey of the Mobro 4000, a barge filled with garbage that sailed the open seas from New York to North Carolina, New Orleans, Beliz and Mexico (among other places), and ultimately returned to Brooklyn to be incinerated. We told the story from the perspective of the garbage, and there was a lot of rejection and grief in the singing and in the music, but also a lot of hope. I knew that Marianne was looking for something that could evoke that kind of mood, and she played me some of the interviews she'd been doing to prepare for the piece. We also talked about the big themes that she was using to organize the show, and I thought about those themes quite a bit.  

Before writing any music, I chose the instruments that I wanted to write for. For me, orchestration and mood are completely intertwined, and I wanted to have an emotional palette wide enough to capture the moods we needed. For these pieces I chose tuba, cello, trumpet, drums, guitar and clarinets. When I then sat at the piano I had these things in mind: the character of the instruments, the interviews I'd heard, and the memories that I have from 9/11.

I tried to get quiet enough to uncover some small fragments of melody or rhythm that I could develop. Everything was sketched out on staff paper, and I usually had multiple approaches to each mood. I was striving to get 10 small pieces which could also be edited into smaller sections and revisited with multiple orchestrations. I was not scoring specifically for the interviews; I only had the feeling of them in the back of my mind, and I was hoping that I could cover enough territory that Marianne would have the raw material she needed to edit things in where she thought they fit best. 

I was never convinced that it would work, only hopeful that we'd get lucky and make a discovery along the way that would complement the powerful stories that were being told.

What do you want to remember from 9/11 and what do you want to forget?

Honestly, as hard as it all was, I don't want to forget anything.  It was a powerful time.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at the Newark airport preparing to fly to Texas for some gigs with Charlie Hunter's band. We were all checked in and at the gate when the first plane hit the towers. Needless to say, it was a confusing time. At first everyone thought it was some kind of horrible accident, and we were scrambling to get some news from CNN.

Then the second tower was hit. There was a collective sense of shock as everyone in the airport immediately realized that we weren't dealing with an accident and that the towers had been attacked. Then it's all a bit blurry, but it wasn't long before the airport security were armed with assault rifles and we were all evacuated from the airport. Where did everyone go? I still wonder. We were all ushered out on foot, and it was kind of a stunned migration away from the airport. 

Our tour manager at the time, Sean Murray, was amazing. He had managed to get us a hotel room near the airport as well as a van before the reality had set in on everyone else. We spent the night (was it two?) near the Newark airport, a band of five in two hotel rooms, watching the news in amazement, overcome with shock and grief. 

First there were all the calls to loved ones to make sure everyone was OK, and to report that we were safe. Then we had to make it home somehow. I was staying in Sunset Park at the time, and I remember that there was some small window of opportunity when the Verrazano was open and we made it across, overwhelmed by the sight and the smell of smoke and ash.  

It was a heavy time to be here, as everyone remembers: the signs up everywhere with pictures of lost loved ones, the haze (both internal and external), and the feeling of understanding between absolute strangers in the street. We were all suffering.

I tried to go downtown with my girlfriend to volunteer, and it was surreal. Hazy and dark like a dream. There were FBI agents, fire department and police, lots of concerned citizens and grief-stricken mourners. I'll never forget those signs: the posters with people's faces, the urgent messages to call if you see them. There were so many of them, and they were blowing in the wind.  

Everyone has their near-miss stories, it seems. The fact that we were scheduled to fly around that time of course made us all feel that it could have been us. My cousin, Jamie, was in the second tower when the first one was hit.  She immediately evacuated, although if I remember correctly the word they were getting was to stay put, and then the second plane hit just where she and her colleagues had been. 

One of my mother's oldest and dearest friends had a son that was in one of the planes. They joined a group called Peaceful Tomorrows, which was started by the families of people who lost loved ones in the attacks of September 11. I'm inspired by the courage of those people, those who have suffered so greatly and are still working to heal themselves and to try to make sure that others don't have to go through the same kind of pain they've gone through.