Drawing inspiration from a life lived on the edge, Benjamin J. Shirley is a Los Angeles based composer-orchestrator who is known for succeeding against most odds. After spending more than two years as a resident of the Midnight Mission, a homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row, Benjamin has emerged a respected composer, orchestrator, and arranger who brings a distinctive perspective, and relentless work ethic to film composition and concert music.
Benjamin was the first Composer Fellow for Street Symphony, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to engaging underserved communities experiencing homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles through musical performance and dialogue. Founded by Artistic Director Vijay Gupta (First Violins, L.A. Philharmonic), Street Symphony is comprised of members of the L.A. Phil, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. As Composer Fellow, Benjamin studied composition under internationally acclaimed composer, and Street Symphony Composer in Residence, Reena Esmail.
Through this fellowship, Benjamin’s commissioned piece, “We Need Darkness to See the Stars,” (orchestra, double choir) had its world premiere at the Messiah Project on December 8, 2017. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts livestreamed the Messiah Project, giving the piece a global release.
Street Symphony has also commissioned numerous works based on the writings of Rumi. Benjamin’s “….in the Spirit of Rumi,” (bassoon/tenor voice) has been performed several times. “Don’t Go Back to Sleep,” (oboe/alto), “Whitley Heights,” (brass quintet) and “Intelligent Eyes” (flute, oboe, clarinet Bb, trumpet Bb, double bass) are set to premiere in 2019.
In October 2018 the world premiere of Ben’s piece “Brother Burn” (clarinet Bb/tenor), was performed by Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, and Todd Strange, tenor with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Opera, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, as part of USC’s Visions and Voices series.
In addition, the Street Symphony regularly performs “Midnight to 12:01” an original string quintet composition written as part of Benjamin’s audition for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and gifted to the Midnight Mission. “Midnight to 12:01” premiered at the 2015 Annual Golden Heart Awards Gala.
In 2018, Benjamin was elevated to the position of Co-Composer in Residence at Street Symphony alongside his mentor, Reena Esmail. Ben’s responsibilities in this role include working as a Teaching Artist, now providing composition lessons to a new composer fellow within Street Symphony. He continues to receive lessons from Reena Esmail.
Benjamin has worked as composer assistant to award-winning film & television composer Kim Planert. Planert wrote the original motion picture soundtrack to Skid Row Marathon, a feature length documentary, which follows the story of a Los Angeles judge who starts a running club on Skid Row, giving members -including Benjamin- a second chance at life as they battle their addictions. The film has won numerous awards while on the festival circuit, including awards at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival, Coronado Island Film Festival, and the Port Townsend Film Festival.
As one of the runners profiled in the film, Benjamin was invited to work on the score with Planert, providing additional sound textures, and conducting a piece at the final scoring session. Ben also serves as co-orchestrator for Planert’s forthcoming debut album, which will be released in 2018.
Benjamin became a touring musician at the age of 16, and spent the next 25+ years on the road, touring internationally with numerous bands as a bassist, and recording albums and sessions with renowned producers Steve Albini, Jimbo Barton, J.J. Blair, Sylvia Massy, and Rick Parashar. In 1999, he was signed to Epic Records, as bassist for the rock band U.P.O. which released rock radio singles charting in the Top 5.
By 2011, alcohol and drug addiction had driven Benjamin into homelessness. He took refuge in the Midnight Mission on L.A.’s Skid Row, and would live in the shelter for the next 26 months.
During this time, Benjamin focused on sobriety, and soon rediscovered his passion for music. He returned to school at the Los Angeles City College Music Academy in 2012.
In 2015, Benjamin was accepted into the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as a student in the inaugural class of the Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) Program. He is currently on a one-year leave for Professional Development.
In 2017 Benjamin earned a scholarship to Shastra, where he completed Shastra’s annual Summer Intensive in Indian classical music, taught by acclaimed Indian-American composer Reena Esmail, and renowned Hindustani classical vocalist Saili Oak. Through this scholarship, Benjamin arranged the Hindustani bhajan “Miltaa Jaa Jo,” for classical string quartet, featuring Indian vocals by Saili Oak.
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Grateful for a second chance at life, Benjamin draws from personal experiences of desperation and redemption to ensure each original composition comes from a place of unpretentiousness and honesty. As an orchestrator, each orchestration is meticulously written with unparalleled attention to detail.
Benjamin lives in Hollywood with his wife and a couple of hairbrained rescue dogs.