Ben Verdery: Scenes from Ellis Island

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Guitarist and composer Ben Verdery's "Scenes from Ellis Island" contains selections of his eclectic solo and ensemble music. Verdery's broad sources of inspiration include world music traditions, gospel, pop music, history, philosophy, and of course virtuosic guitar composition, combining these together in music that resonates with an expansive joy.


Guitarist and composer Ben Verdery's music is expressive of his infectious enthusiasm and omnivorous appetite for diverse sources of inspiration. Comprised of a mix of solos and duos, and the large guitar ensemble title piece, heard here in a multi-track recording, "Scenes from Ellis Island, draws on world music, gospel, pop music, and virtuosic guitar composition in a collection of works that feature his energetic and affecting performances.

Opening the recording is the duo What He Said, performed here with guitarist Simon Powis. Verdery draws on the energy of American vernacular music in the track, citing the gospel of Aretha Franklin and the blues inflected country music of Lyle Lovett as specific jumping off points for the piece. Toggling back and forth between jagged call and answer quartal textures and pentatonic grooves, the exuberant opening leads into a reflective chordal middle section before returning to an expanded exploration of the initial material to close the piece.

Now and Ever is a solo work originally written for Scottish guitarist David Russell. Written in an alternate tuning involving an unconventional half step between a 3rd string A and a second string A#, Verdery organizes the pitch material of the two movement piece around the minor second interval.

The first movement is meditative at first, becoming gradually more rhapsodic as Verdery uses across the string campanella fingerings for harp-like flourishes and insistent ostinato figures to shape the unfolding texture. The second movement is more active, opening with a series of sharply strummed chords that descend chromatically and become a structural pillar throughout the movement. Verdery navigates through these voicings in several ways, arpeggiating them as he rotates inner voices around into various permutations, and introducing harmonics as central pitches around which other pitches whirl with cathartic energy. Towards the end of the movement, Verdery introduces a tender tremolo passage that floats between minor and major modalities.

From Aristotle is a four movement work for mixed vocal artist and guitar, co-composed by Verdery and collaborator Mark Martin. The text is drawn directly on Aristotle's writings on linguistics. Martin brings a varied arsenal of extended vocal techniques to his performance, including ethereal wind sounds, Tuvan throat singing, and beat boxing. Together, Verdery and Martin's setting of the text alternates between direct word painting and a more abstract expression of the text, in a piece that doubles as a narrative reading of these ancient texts and a nostalgic paean to their embedded meaning. It closes with what Verdery describes as a "baroque/gospel guitar lament."

the rain falls equally on all things is a thirteen minute solo fantasy inspired by Schubert's famous art song, Nachtstück. Opening with a mixed texture of percussive sounds, harmonics, and bluesy interjections, Verdery proceeds to take the main motivic material emerging from this passage and present it in many guises, key centers, and characters. A sequential passage over a pedal point diffuses into ethereal arpeggios that draw the listener into the guitar's subtle resonance. Verdery integrates pizzicato and glissando and repeated pitches in an evocative "rain drop" passage. The opening percussive texture returns briefly before the title of the piece is sung in a lyrical end to this ambitious solo work.

Scenes from Ellis Island for guitar ensemble was commissioned by a Staten Island high school music program, the borough of New York City closest to the location so symbolic to the history of the immigrant experience in the United States. Verdery was struck by the awareness that the students premiering the piece would experience Ellis Island as part of their weekly or daily lives, on the way to and from Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry, and, visiting the island's museum, discovered the photography exhibit filled with depictions of the hardship and perseverance of those who passed through there. The work is sectional, covering a wide range of stylistic and timbral territory. A pointillistic minimalist texture towards the opening leads gradually into driving chordal material over which Malian singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté (daughter of the legendary singer Kassé Mady Diabaté) makes her first soulful entrance. The first of two solo guitar soliloquies follows, a delicate interlude. Chromatic alternating chords provide the foundation for stabbing glissando chords across the ensemble in the subsequent accumulating section, which ascends beyond the fretboard into a swarm of high unpitched plucks. The sound of bottleneck slides (some imitating seagulls presumably from the New York Harbor), scraping coins along the strings, and Bartok pizzicati function as foley sounds of sorts accompanying a pre-recorded chorus of voices speaking in various languages, a melange that captures the polyglot ethnic makeup of New York, a city of immigrants. An ostinato of descending slurs propels the next passage forward into the second, more virtuosic solo. Percussive non-pitched strumming establishes an East Indian rhythmic cycle (6-6-6-5-5-5-4-4-4-3-3-3-2-2-2), opening up into a lyrical cello solo performed by Guilherme Nardelli Monegatto, which leads to Diabaté's final climactic improvised solo in her native language, Bamana. Scenes from Ellis Island is a rousing close to an album which perfectly captures Ben Verdery's virtuosity, eclectic compositional style, and gracious spirit.

-D. Lippel

  • Produced by Matthew LeFevre, Ben Verdery and Solomon Silber
  • From Aristotle and Now and Ever recorded by Solomon Silber at Elm City Records Studio, New Haven
  • Scenes from Ellis Island recorded by Matthew LeFevre and Pedro Lopez at Temenos Studios Madrid. Mixed by Matthew LeFevre and Ben Verdery
  • All other compositions recorded by Matthew LeFevre at the Yale School of Music. Mixed and Mastered by Matthew LeFevre
  • Design: Marc Wolf (
  • All works except From Aristotle are published by Les Editions Doberman Yppan

Content Photos:

  • Cover: " Four immigrants and their belongings, on a dock, looking out over the water; view from behind" c1912 Oct. 30, Library of Congress
  • Track listing: "An excellent view of the front facade of the Immigration Station; a boat is docked in front" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902 - 1913
  • Pages 7-8: "Immigrants on a ship approaching New York City, bound for Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty in the background" Wikimedia Commons
  • Pages 17-18: Landing at Ellis Island, Library of Congress
  • Back cover: montage of photo of Ben Verdery with "The pens at Ellis Island, Registry Room (or Great Hall)." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902 - 1913

Ben Verdery

Hailed for his innovative and eclectic musical career, Benjamin Verdery tours regularly throughout the US, Canada, Europe and Asia, performing at venues and festivals including Ottawa ChamberFest, 92Y Kaufmann Auditorium, Verona Guitar Festival, Guitar Festival of Belgrade, International Festival Internacional de Guitarra de Taxco (Mexico), Theatre Carré (Amsterdam), the International Guitar Festival in Havana, Wigmore Hall (London), and Metropolitan Opera in New York.

As a recording artist, Ben has released more than 15 albums and has recorded and/or performed with such diverse artists as Andy Summers, Frederic Hand, William Coulter, Leo Kottke, Anthony Newman, Jessye Norman, Paco Peña, Hermann Prey, John Williams, hip‐hop artist Billy Dean Thomas, beat box/vocal percussionist Marc Martin and Nano Stern.

A prolific, published composer in his own right, many of Ben’s compositions have been performed, recorded and published (Doberman‐Yppan, Alfred Music) over the years. He has composed works for The Assad Duo, guitarists David Russell, Scott Tennant, David Tanenbaum, John Williams and John Etheridge, The Changsha International Guitar Festival, the Chilean Guitar Ensemble, the Pensacola Guitar Orchestra (FL), Kyo‐Shin‐An Arts (NY), Wake Forest University, Thomas Offermann and the guitar ensemble of the Hochschule for Music and Theatre (Rostock, Germany) and the score for the documentary film Corida Goyesque. Ben’s Scenes from Ellis Island, for guitar orchestra, has been extensively broadcast and performed at festivals and universities in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Europe, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet included it on their CD, Air and Ground (Sony Classical).

By turn, many of the leading composers of our time have created music for Ben, including Ezra Laderman, Daniel Asia, Martin Bresnick, Bryce Dessner, Javier Farias, Aaron Kernis, John Anthony Lennon, David Leisner, Hannah Lash, Ingram Marshall, Anthony Newman, Roberto Sierra, Van Stiefel, Christopher Theofanitis, and Jack Vees.

Ben owes much to his guitar teachers Philip De Fremery and Frederic Hand, both of whom he studied with at SUNY Purchase. The Master Classes he took in Arles, France with Leo Brouwer were seminal for Ben as well. He continued his studies with his mentor Anthony Newman and still receives coaching from his other mentor, Seymour Bernstein. He will always feel greatly indebted to what these and many others have given him over the many years.

Since 1985 Ben has been guitar professor at the Yale School of Music, Artistic Director of 92Y’s Art of the Guitar series since 2007 and Producer of his Maui Summer Master Class since 1999. Ben is also an Honorary Board Member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas.

Simon Powis

A passionate and expressive style coupled with a formidable technique has garnered attention for Simon Powis as a talented soloist, chamber musician and innovator. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Powis undertook his first committed studies to the classical guitar with Raffaele Agostino at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Following on from Sydney, he studied in various festivals in Europe, the Royal Academy of Music in London, and under the guidance of Benjamin Verdery he completed a Doctorate in Music at Yale University. As a performer, Powis has performed internationally in Asia, Australia, the Americas, and Europe. Solo performance highlights include the Kennedy Center, the Adelaide International Guitar Festival, and a solo tour in Beijing. Ensemble collaborations with string quartet, cello, violin, voice, and guitar duos have seen a range of performances and recording with highlights including the GFA Symposium with Ben Verdery, Carnegie Hall with the Linden Quartet, and the Rockport Music Hall with cellist Jacques Lee Wood.

Mark Martin

New York City and Denver based artist and musician Mark Martin is best known for playfully blurring the lines between language and sound through his energetic and dynamic blend of beatboxing and theater. Martin was recently featured in a Tedx Talk about his work with beatboxing. Winner of the 2016 American Beatbox Championships and the 2016 International 2016 BeatRhyme Battle, Mark has battled in and judged many international beat-box battles including the World Beatbox Championships, and the Grand Beatbox Battle. Martin's blending of storytelling with vocal exploration led him to a 5 year run with international touring musical theater company Voca People, as well as featured appearances on MTV. Mark enjoys collaborating with other musicians, especially his partner and 2x World Beatbox Champion, Kaila Mullady as Lightship. Together, Martin and Mullady created a curriculum teaching beatboxing as a tool for speech therapy.

Guilherme Nardelli Monegatto

A native of São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, Guilherme Nardelli Monegatto (violoncello) was awarded third prize in the distinguished 19th Annual Sphinx Competition. In 2018, he served as co-principal of both the Verbier Festival Orchestra and Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, where he had the opportunity to work with Valery Gergiev, Sir Simon Rattle, and Gábor Takács-Nagy. Guilherme is now a student at Yale, where he is honored to be co-principal of YALE Philharmonia, principal of the Grammy-nominated Yale Cellos. For the 2019-20 season, he will be part of the Apprenticeship Program with the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate

Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté possesses one of the most beautiful, versatile and expressive voices of West Africa. A jelimuso (female jeli or ‘griot’) from Mali, she has acquired a cult following as the charismatic singer of Trio Da Kali, an acoustic trio which was formed specially to collaborate with the Kronos Quartet, receiving rapturous reviews for her work on their collaborative award-winning album Ladilikan and for her moving performances with Trio Da Kali, who have toured widely in Europe and the USA to critical acclaim. Hawa’s charismatic voice is emphatically 21st century, but it is also steeped in the rich heritage of Mali’s griots, the hereditary musicians that date back to the founding of the Mali Empire in the 13th century. She was born into a celebrated griot family, the Diabatés of Kela, a village in southwest Mali famous for its music. The Kela Diabatés have a formidable reputation as singers, instrumentalists, and reciters of oral epic histories, with many legendary names from the pre-colonial era to the present, and today Hawa is the torch bearer of that great tradition. Hawa’s father Kassé Mady Diabaté was known for his entrancing singing, moving his listeners to tears (from which he gets his nickname, Kassé, ‘to weep’), a quality that Hawa has inherited, along with the nickname. Her great-aunt was Sira Mory Diabaté, considered the most important Malian female vocalist of the 20th century, a prolific composer whose songs, like Kanimba (on the album Ladilikan) have become griot classics.



Gapplegate Classical Modern Music Review

Composer-guitarist Ben Verdery writes guitar music that is rather remarkably idiomatic, music that lays out on the strings well. If you did not already know he was a guitarist (since he plays on the album at hand) you could tell from the music. I mean on his album Scenes from Ellis Island (Panoramic Recordings PAN14), which features six of his guitar-centered works, with the composer on mostly nylon stringed classical guitar (but also baritone and steel string for one work).

It is work that evokes both musical and extra-musical associations and does so with a sense of eclectic encompass. Listeners would not mistake this music for something historical, older. It is thoroughly of our time without necessarily being rabidly "Modern." For that it is thoroughly Contemporary. There are "Progressive" elements, a nod to Popular Culture (in vocalist's beat box rhythms on From Aristotle) a kind of ethnic vocal panorama (in Scenes from Ellis Island) and some very nicely hewn guitar lines, some fascinating inventions for one or two guitars, vocals, and in one case, cello (the latter on the title work).

Ben Verdery in the liners talks of the varying inspirations for the works on the album. The opening What He Said (with Simon Powis on second guitar) utilizes call-and-response and musically portrays Verdery's inspired love of Gospel Music.

Now and Ever centers on the minor second interval, accentuated by a special tuning. The interval for the composer represents the struggle and sorrow of those suffering repression.

The four-part From Aristotle features a co-composed collaboration with mixed vocalist Mark Martin (with beat box, Tuvan overtone singing, East Indian rhythms, synchronized vocal-guitar lines and a "baroque/gospel guitar lament") both making musical equivalencies to several texts by Aristotle.

the rain falls equally on all things was initially inspired by Schubert's "Nachtstuck."

Scenes from Ellis Island followed from the composer's visit to the historic site and his feelings on encountering evidence of the bold and brave process of immigration, of those "yearning to breathe free" as the iconic poem about Lady Liberty has it.

In the main this music gives us some extraordinary well constructed, inspired and for that matter well played guitar works. Anyone who looks for such things in the New Music realm should find this one especially nice, I would hope. Recommended.

— Grego Edwards, 2.11.2020



While not an exhaustive portrait, "Scenes from Ellis Island" nevertheless presents an in-depth account of Ben Verdery (b. 1955) as guitarist, conceptualist, and composer. In containing multiple solo performances, the hour-long recording presents ample evidence of his prowess on the instrument, but it also benefits from appearances by beatboxer Mark Martin, West African singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, cellist Guilherme Nardelli Monegatto, and fellow guitarist Simon Powis. Verdery's virtuosity helps distinguish the five performances, which makes for a consistently engrossing recording, regardless of whether he appears alone or with guests. The listener derives ample satisfaction in witnessing a wholly engaged musician penetrating deeply into the music. "Scenes from Ellis Island" is hardly Verdery's first album; in fact, he's issue more than fifteen and has worked with Andy Summers, Frederic Hand (one of Verdery's guitar teachers), and Leo Kottke, among others. A guitar professor at the Yale School of Music since 1985, Verdery still studies with his mentor Anthony Newman and receives coaching from another mentor, Seymour Bernstein.

True to the American spirit associated with the release's title track, the opening What He Said draws from gospel, the guitarist incorporating into the material the qualities of exuberance, soulfulness, and spontaneity characteristic of the form, and also Lyle Lovett, Verdery borrowing a piano part from the song “Church.” Executed in a call-and-response style with the leader joined by Powis, the piece, rich in picking, strumming, and interlocking patterns, immediately captivates when it leaps from the gate with an energized, almost bluegrass-inflected intro, after which a short lament presents sensitive handling of the material before an exuberant reprise of the opening attack.

Originally written for Scottish guitarist David Russell, the two-part Now and Ever features Verdery alone, its opening movement initially meditative and then rhapsodic and the second considerably more active, the guitarist dazzling with lightning-fast voicings and delicate tremolo and generating permutations by using harmonics as core pitches around which others constellate. In this first of two solo presentations, he holds the listener's attention unflaggingly with techniques that range widely. The second, the rain falls equally on all things, a fantasy, was inspired by Franz Schubert's Nachtstück and explores for thirteen minutes the panoramic wealth of possibilities the guitar offers. Having introduced the piece with percussive sounds and bluesy figures, Verdery subjects the emergent motivic material to multiple treatments, lyrically musing on it at one moment and then venturing through pedal point, pizzicato, and glissando sequences.

Featuring text taken from the author's book on linguistics, From Aristotle is a four-movement co-composition between Verdery and Mark Martin, the latter a versatile mixed-vocal artist who adds voice-generated wind sounds, Tuvan throat singing, beat boxing, and straight vocal delivery to his partner's sympathetic guitar contributions. While Martin's singing voice isn't distinguished, the variety of extended vocal techniques he brings to the presentation does impress; the respective drum'n'bass and funk grooves he produces with his voice in “A Verb” and “The Wineless Cup,” for instance, are also striking emulations.

Of the three pieces featuring guests, it's the multi-part, fourteen-minute title epic that stands out most, however. Powis joins Verdery again, but this time the two are augmented by cellist Monegatto and vocalist Diabate, the latter, a jelimuso (female jeli or ‘griot') from Mali, in particular doing much to make the performance memorable. Commissioned by a Staten Island high school music program, Scenes from Ellis Island was inspired by a trip Verdery took to the Ellis Island Museum where he was moved by photos capturing the hardship and perseverance those new to America endure in addition to the hopes and dreams they carry for their futures. Following a dignified intro by the guitars, the pointillistic minimalist style of the opening gradually segues into a chordal section over which an impassioned Diabaté makes her first soulful entrance. The brief vocal section gives way to, first, a tranquil guitar interlude, then aggressive glissando chords and ascending swirls of unpitched plucks. A pre-recorded chorus of voices speaking in various languages surfaces, their babble symbolizing New York's ethnic diversity, after which the guitars return accompanied by a lyrical cello solo and a second, this time improvised (plus multi-tracked) statement by Diabaté in her native language, Bamana, to bring the piece and album to a rousing finale. As much of a show-stopper as Scenes from Ellis Island certifiably is, it's hardly the only high point on the release and neither is it the only piece that recommends it.

— Ron Schepper, 3.12.2020

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