Striking High Notes
An Interview with Composer Elena Ruehr
By Suzy Marden Photographed by Bobby DiMarzo
Elena Ruehr is an American composer, musician and educator. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and now teaching at MIT, she is the recipient of a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship. Elena has received international acclaim for her contemporary classical compositions. She enjoys a loyal following and is respected among fellow musicians who champion her work worldwide.
In recent reviews by The New York Times, Boston Globe, Gramophone and The Washington Post her work has been described as “gorgeous, descriptive, vibrant, sumptuously scored, lyrical, compelling, emotional and vivacious,” but perhaps best summed up as “a revelation that just might be a model for 21st century music making,” by Classical Voice of New England.
I met Elena at the Millennium Residential Tower in downtown Boston. Elena is a petite woman with bright sapphire blue eyes and dark blond hair. I was immediately struck by her brightness, energy and effervescence that bring out the best in the people around her. Beyond her inviting personality is a core of brilliance, for she is both a formidable and gracious presence. Elena’s mind moves quickly, as if she has an entire staff working inside her head. Like her music, she is deliberate, articulate and has an enormous capacity to interpret the “voice” within literature, film and poetry.
Suzy: I’ve read that your guiding philosophy when composing is to “leave the surface simple and the structure beneath the surface complex.” What led to this?
ELENA: I formed that idea very early. My father is an accomplished mathematician and my mother is a folk singer, and they both influenced this train of thought. My father always listened to classical music while he was working, so I heard a lot while I was growing up! At about 3 years old, I would crawl into his office and look at the vinyl record covers while the music was playing. I particularly loved listening to Béla Bartók, whose music was dark and complex yet relatively contemporary back in the 60’s. And I thought he was a woman! So, I wanted to write music just like his when I grew up. In fact (even after I found out he was a man) he remained my role model for a very long time. Conversely, my mother was a folk singer and she introduced me to music from around the world. I was very influenced by her politics. She was liberal, anti-elitist, and a feminist and her political convictions extended to her sense of popular culture as the culture of the people.
When I decided to write music, it was important to speak to people in a populist way (from my mother), while maintaining a certain level of gravitas (which tied back to my father’s math background). The simple surface is the ability to communicate at the most elemental level but always with integrity and depth.
Suzy: In 2010, you collaborated with the San Francisco-based Cypress String Quartet on the CD How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr and Strad Magazine said, “It’s a brave move by Cypress to devote its new disc entirely to a contemporary composer, and a little-known name at that. But the music of Elena Ruehr brings rich rewards, hovering between a resonant neo-Romanticism and more cerebral contrapuntal techniques, and it’s full of rhythm, life and color, immediately accessible to the listener but rich enough to repay repeated listening.”
ELENA: Yes, a very brave move! Cypress commissions a composer to create new works for them every year. It is a completely blind review. They delete the composers’ names from the music and listen until they narrow the field down. They all have to agree on the composer they want to work with. I was very fortunate when they decided to record their first contemporary CD with one composer and that it would be me.
Suzy: You are very gifted at the interpretation of other artist’s work; tell me about your collaboration with Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Gluck and the CD based on poems from her book “Averno.”
ELENA: I have been an admirer of Louise’s work for a long time. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at a concert and it was like meeting a rock star. I told her I would love to write an opera with her, and she said that would be fantastic. Later we got in touch and she asked if alternatively I would consider writing a cantata (song-based musical compositions often based on poetry or verse) from her new book of poems Averno, which examines mankind’s relationship to nature. She sent me a copy before it was published, and the book went on to be a National Book Award finalist!
My composition told the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, because these poems focus on the natural world, they resonated with me since I am an environmentalist. There is a dark aspect to these poems that I saw as a comment on climate change. As I assembled the poems, I interspersed some lighter works, since as Louise said, “the earth didn’t know how to mourn, it would change instead.” Ultimately, the earth will heal and that is joyous.
Suzy: You also are inspired by visual artists, such as Georgia O’Keefe and her painting Ladder to the Moon. Why translate it into music?
ELENA: When I was about 7 I went to the Chicago Institute of Art where I saw her breathtaking painting, Sky Above Clouds. I was struck by its beauty and became a big O’Keefe fan, admiring her art as much as her rugged individualism. There is a quote of hers in response to art critics at the time who were very harsh on her: “I can’t do what I want. I can’t say what I want. I’d be a fool if I didn’t paint what I want.”
Suzy: How do you respond to critics?
ELENA: There are always going to be critics who push me to be more “complex” or “less friendly” on the surface, so I keep that O’Keefe quote with me always. My internal critic is the hardest one. As artists we walk a fine line: we need to be self-critical, but not so critical that we lose our child-like voice, that whimsical voice.
Suzy: Your soundtrack for the archival film Manhattan Trade School for Girls is an incredible example of how sound influences the impact of the image.
ELENA: The National Film Preservation Foundation approached me to do music for a couple of silent films and I identified with this one right away. In one sense it was a blank slate because it was silent, but it also had images of black and white cards with text appearing between scenes. It was like a jigsaw puzzle to figure out the timing, and it took a lot of math to solve. It was really exciting to make these girls sing, because they don’t have voices in the movie. I chose a girls’ choir here in Boston, The Winsor School Girls Choir. There was a lot of rearranging and mashing up to create that sound. I used some Ragtime tunes that were written about the same time as the movie by women ragtime composers.
Suzy: What are you working on right now?
ELENA: My current projects include a new chamber work, it’s about time, for San Francisco Contemporary Music Players; Eve, a choral work for the Boston-based Cantata Singers; and a 40-minute opera, Cassandra in the Temples, for the Grammy-winning, eight-voice singing ensemble Roomful of Teeth that premieres at MIT – all in November, so it’s a busy summer! And, I’ve two CDs being released, one with Boston Modern Orchestra Project featuring my cello concerto Cloud Atlas, and another being produced by Avie Records in England.
Suzy: You have so much on your plate with all the recent critical acclaim, why continue to teach?
ELENA: I love my students. I took a semester off when I was producing the Averno CD and thought to myself; maybe I won’t teach anymore, but I missed teaching so much, especially at MIT. There is something about the light in the eyes of my students when they learn something new. They are all so bright; they keep me on my toes. I think the students today are responsible, passionate and socially aware in the best ways.