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Sea Without a Shore

Sea Without a Shore


Marimba, Five Percussion, & Orchestra. Commissioned by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Premiered by the NCO and NEXUS, Nov. 2001.

Composer’s Notes: Sea Without a Shore

The exciting task of writing an orchestral piece featuring Chris Norton and percussion ensemble began in September of 2000 when I flew to Toronto to meet with Nexus and heard them perform. Their concert was nothing short of awe-inspiring, featuring a broad variety of instruments from all over the world- drums, gongs, bells, mallets, and “toys”, many of which I had never heard before and couldn’t begin to pronounce their names. What struck me above all was the incredible precision and discipline so evident in the musicians’ performance. I wrote in my journal that night, too excited to sleep, that this was a commission that was going to profoundly change me and my approach to composition. I didn’t know then how prophetic that statement would be.

I began the process by studying percussion. After spending over $200 at a music store in New York, I came home loaded with percussion dictionaries, texts, and books on African, Indian, and Chinese instruments. I studied scores of some of the great percussion pieces and listened to countless recordings. Just the process of choosing the instrumental palette of my piece seemed daunting- Nexus owned the instruments and could perform the styles of virtually every type of percussion instrument that existed.

In the spring I sat down to begin the actual writing. My normal process is to find the main themes, and then the piece usually comes relatively quickly. I often hear the piece fleshed out, complete with orchestration, and my task is just to get it down before it starts to evaporate. This time the melodies and ideas came quickly- in fact every time I sat down I seemed to find more, but the form, the shape and texture and fabric of the piece simply wouldn’t come. After many weeks of struggling with this I realized the problem was I was trying to force something to happen. All my ideas were full of direction and momentum and busyness, much like how I tend to live my life, and there wasn’t enough stillness. There wasn’t enough silence.

As much as it seems a strange notion to need silence in a piece of music, that was what was missing. Form, of any type, can only come from formlessness. In the same way, sound has a beginning and an end, which are defined by the silence that surrounds it. When one approaches the process of composition as the combination of nothing more than sound in space, all the rules change. It’s liberating and frightening at the same time. With a palette of incredible sounds- bowed gongs and cymbals, delicate bells, the endless variety of types of drums, the harmonic and percussive effects possible in strings, the possibilities are endless of new combinations of sounds that perhaps have never been heard before. But I had to get comfortable with the idea of space in a piece, and confront the fear that if nothing organized and deliberate were marching toward a climax, it might be boring, or worse yet, pointless. I became intrigued with the idea of beginning with absolute and utter stillness- nothing more than the sound of a singing Tibetan bowl, and then allowing the sound to accumulate slowly, ambiguous at first, and then gradually taking more and more form until at last the organization of melody and harmony and rhythm make their statement.

The title, “Sea Without a Shore” came from this notion of infinite space without borders. There’s an Eastern proverb I love that says if you’re in a corral with a dangerous bull, the answer is not to worry about defeating the bull, but to take down the fence to make the field larger. Obviously the bull is a metaphor for our problems in life- the struggles we have in relationships, our worries and fears. But if we allow the field to be large enough, there is enough room for everything- even what seems evil and terrifying. By allowing, even welcoming what is, nothing can take away the truth of stillness


Sea Without a Shore evokes infinite vastness reaching in all directions toward horizons that move when we move. The sea is an ancient emblem for limitless potential ; it may be seen as a symbol for was Buddhists call emptiness. And this composition opens with a stretch of total silence within which gradually is heard the growing, whirring vibration of a bronze Tibetan prayer bowl. Other sounds slowly emerge- thuds and crackles and gongs- and then strings and winds and a trumpet organize into the texture growing out of a melodic figure as simple as Bach theme for “The Art of Fugue.” Within emptiness, substance organizes and permutes and complexifies and crescendos before snapping again into emptiness.

The Nashville Chamber Orchestra has already recorded some marvelous Ellisor commissions that reward rehearing. Sea Without a Shore likewise cries out for further audition. On first listen, it sounded very much  like a masterpiece.

Marcel Smith, The Nashville Scene

From the Nashville Scene’s Best-of Issue:

Best Classical Premiere: Sea Without a Shore by Conni Ellisor

Over the last half-dozen years, Conni Ellisor has done several impressive premieres with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Last fall, she did one that moved me to my core. NCO had commissioned Sea Without a Shore  especially to be played with the internationally renowned percussionist quintet  NEXUS, abetted by local marimba virtuoso, Christopher Norton. Some of the work’s power derived from the fact that it was played in part by instruments bespeaking the beginning of human music- sticks and gourds and hanging bits of things. But much of the power came out of the character of the composition itself: The music gradually emerged out of silence, evolved into a cosmos of controlled turbulence and lapsed into silence again. It was a potent emblem of what music does and what people do.

Marcel Smith