Gerald Elias knew Essie White was the one when he read her words.
Elias was commissioned to create an original composition to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Moab Music Festival and the flavor of Moab.
He composed “Conversations with Essie”, a four-part chamber ensemble. It debuted in 2002 at Red Cliffs Lodge, which was once Essie White’s home. Though White died in 2003, the music will make its return to Red Cliffs Lodge Saturday, Sept. 1 to celebrate the festival’s 20th anniversary.
“I had come across a transcript of interviews that Essie White had given on the radio,” Elias said. “I found her manner of describing her life engaging and very musical. I chose an excerpt from the transcript as an integral idea of the piece.”
Essie Larsen White was born in 1905 in Poverty Flats, an area in Spanish Valley south of Moab. She was raised on the Fisher Valley Ranch. Her father, Amasa Larsen, gave her and her husband, George White, a ranch 17 miles upriver from Moab on the Colorado River as a wedding gift 1928. While running the cattle ranch with her husband in the 1930s and ‘40s, she raised three sons: Bill, Jode, and Tommy.
“Essie described what life was like at that time: The harshness of the environment, how tough it was to survive there and how tough it was to be a woman,” Elias said.
Elias drove to Moab from his home in Salt Lake to visit with White and have her permission to use her words for music.
“She was quite elderly, hard of hearing and almost totally blind, but she still had the same spirit that she always had,” Elias said. “She had quite a sense of humor.”
Elias incorporated the style of Aaron Copeland, the great American composer, into the ensemble.
“I tried to get the music to fit into that western context. In fact, the opening of the piece consists of musical puns. I take a variation of Beethovan’s ‘Eroica Symphony’ and combine that with ‘Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande’. Both describe Essie.”
The chamber ensemble is 20 minutes long and is accompanied by a female narrator who shares Essie’s words and memories.
“While her life was so rough, you get a sense of joy in very simple things, like hot water for example, or seeing a beautiful pasture,” Elias said. “There are very dark descriptions, yet at the same time the ability to survive and enjoy life’s simple luxuries.”
Julia Barrett, mother of executive director Michael Barrett, narrated the piece in 2012. She is returning this year to resume the role.
“When we did it ten years ago she got herself into the character, she got herself into the role,” Elias said. “People in the audience believed that was Essie on the stage. It was a convincing performance.”
Cricket White Green, granddaughter of Essie White, attended the concert in 2002 that honored her grandmother with her mother, two younger sisters, daughter and Grandma Essie.
“She loved it, but she was all ‘why are we making this big fuss over me?’” Green said. “She thought it was important to get the story of how Moab was founded. It wasn’t necessarily about her, but how hard it was.”
Green had read most of White’s diaries.
“I typed them for her as she began to lose her sight,” Green said.
Green’s father, Tommy White, was White’s youngest son. He bought the ranch from his parents and ran cattle there until his death in 1984.The White family continued to run the cattle ranch until it was sold to Colin Fryer in 1998, who then developed the Red Cliffs Lodge.
Green was close to her grandma. Each week for 18 years they traveled State Route 128 to return to the ranch so Essie White could water the flowers on her youngest son’s grave.
“She told me a lot of stories. And I asked her a lot of questions,” Green said.
She said the concert is true to her grandmother’s spirit.
“I think it expressed how strong she was and how much work it was just to get through each day,” Green said. “Every day was physical labor to get through the day. It was a lot harder back then.”
Green learned a good life lesson from her grandmother.
“She said when you spend a lot of time on the back of a horse, you figure out who you are and learn to like yourself so that you don’t have a problem being alone and entertaining yourself,” Green said.
Essie White died a year after the first concert was performed in 2002, just a few days short of her 98th birthday.
“I felt honored to be able to meet with her,” Elias said.