HELENA - After leaving his office in the Capitol, state budget director David Ewer has a special way to escape the stresses that accompany his job managing Montana's deteriorating finances.
He likes to sit at a piano at night playing music he has composed. He'll play for an hour, two hours, four hours or maybe even longer.
"I get into an entirely different space in my life playing the piano, and it's a confortable space," he says. "It's a tremendous relief."
Ewer's path as a composer is hardly normal. He struggled with piano lessons for three years in grade school and then, as an adult, quit piano lessons three more times.
"The reality is that I can't read a note of music," Ewer says. "I taught myself to play the piano. I played the piano to myself almost every day all my school years, from the earliest days, from grade school, just my own compositions, my own music."
Ewer will perform his musical, "Shackleton," at 2 p.m. on March 13 at the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing Arts in Helena. The public is invited to the free performance, which is set in six scenes and lasts about 70 minutes.
"I hope that the story is compelling enough that the audience can simply use their own imagination to imagine a story that's intrinsically and incredibly visual," he says.
He has written the music and narration about the story of Ernest Shackleton, the famed British-Irish explorer who led an epic trans-Antarctic expedition nearly a century ago. (See related story).
Ewer, who was born on Cape Cod, admits to being inspired by the ocean.
"It's a coincidence that we're in turbulent waters, and Shackleton was in turbulent waters," Ewer said, referring to the state's current budget situation.
Ewer was a state legislator from Helena for eight years. As a lawmaker, he perhaps is best remembered for his prophetic but futile warnings against Montana Power Co.'s electric utility deregulation bill in 1997, but the skids were greased for its passage. Afterward, Montana Power sold its power-generating assets and converted itself into a telecommunications company, Touch America, which went bankrupt.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer tapped Ewer to be his budget director after his 2004 election, and he's held that job ever since.
An intense intellectual at his day job, Ewer turns into a more relaxed man at the piano, even though he often plays intensely.
Ewer says he has only three real passions - government, music and bird-watching (he say he was once an expert and could recognize bird calls because of his interest in music).
"I like most areas of music," he says. "There are some that speak to me more than others. I'm a sucker for Puccini, ‘Madame Butterfly,' ‘La Boheme.' I'm a sucker for melody."
His own music, Ewer says, features "sort of simple melodies and a certain amount of sentimentality about place and to some extent, conflict, because ‘Shackleton' is about enduring through the hardships and the conflict of Antarctica, the South Pole."
He didn't learn about Shackleton's story until 2002 or 2003 when he read some books about the voyage.
"I started seeing a story in my mind," he says. "I had music that I thought fit nicely with the story, and then I filled in where I needed to by composing other music to fit the story line."
When Shackleton recruited men to accompany him on the expedition in 1914, he looked for those who could survive tough times together.
"Shackleton had a supreme gift of being able to judge men, knew what made them tick and knew that camaraderie was perhaps even more important than competency, although he insisted on competency," Ewer says. "For them to survive the perils of a polar expedition, they would have to be able to get along."
Among the questions Shackleton asked applicants was whether they could sing and dance. From that, Ewer envisioned a doctor being interviewed for a job as surgeon on ship, the Endurance, and being asked if he can sing.
"So it just rings out music to me," Ewer says. "Can you sing? So you have a song, ‘Yes, I can sing!' "
Ewer won't be singing the songs, but will highlight some of the lyrics in his narration.
He has bigger dreams for "Shackleton," but at this premiere, it will be
just Ewer and a black Baldwin grand piano at the Myrna Loy.
"Given where I am in life, I don't feel like waiting any longer to share it with friends and colleagues and neighbors and the public," he says. "I'm 55, and I don't want to wait any longer. I have arthritis in my fingers. See those pinkies. So it hurts when I play.
"My preference would be to have this presented as a full-blown musical (with actors and an orchestra), but that's just a dream. But given that I can play the piano, and given that I can play it to my own satisfaction, I feel like I can convey a powerful story to the public. I'm going to attempt it."
Les Cramer, who's been involved in music in the Helena area for 25 years as director of a boys' choir that toured internationally and now is the music director for the First Presbyterian Church, says he first heard Ewer playing the church's grand piano. He rushed to check out who was playing and was impressed.
"Once you've heard it, you're just dying to have the public have a chance to experience it," Cramer says. "There's a melodic structure, but it's not overly sing-songy. It's
not like a hymn or a pop song ...
"I felt some Gilbert and Sullivan in it. I felt some Copeland in it, asome Philip Glass, Rachmaninoff, but certainly no copying. It's original."
This music has "this cinematic quality" that Cramer envisions being orchestrated for a film score for a movie about Shackleton voyage.
Ewer says he harbors dreams of his musical being performed on Broadway someday.
"Sure," he says. "I think people should dream big. What have you got to lose?"
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.