Elena Ruehr: Turning Emotion Into Sound
Elena Ruehr’s prolific output is a by-product of her maintaining a consistent composing schedule (five hours every day from Noon to 5:00pm) as well as her never-ending inspiration from the visual arts and her constant reading (four books a week), plus her desire to communicate with listeners.
Ever since I heard the Cypress Quartet’s first recording of three string quartets by Elena Ruehr over a decade ago, I was entranced by her music. And after hearing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2014 recording of works of hers inspired by paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, I made a mental note that I needed to talk with her for NewMusicBox one day. This fall turned out to be an ideal time for us to finally connect. Her opera Cosmic Cowboy, created in collaboration with librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, just had a successful three-performance run at Emerson College, and Guerrilla Opera will give the first performance of another Ruehr opera, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, created with librettist Royce Vavrek, at MIT in February. Plus her Ninth String Quartet is receiving its world premiere the first weekend of November.
It’s a remarkable amount of activity after the last two and a half years of pandemic-related cancellations. But Ruehr was nevertheless extremely active during that period, composing over 30 new pieces, some of which were even performed during that time, either in virtual concerts or masked up in controlled environments. Ruehr’s prolific output is a by-product of her maintaining a consistent composing schedule (five hours every day from Noon to 5:00pm) as well as her never-ending inspiration from the visual arts and her constant reading (four books a week), plus her desire to communicate with listeners.
“Beauty is really important, but also accessibility,” she opined during a Zoom chat we had in late September. “I’m sure that your average non-classical musician isn’t gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach. And that matters to me. That’s important to me.”
All the other details that go into creating a piece–whether its her fascination with combinatorial diatonic pitch sets (an influence from serial music that sounds nothing like serialism) or how she sonically interprets O’Keefe paintings and novels like Cloud Atlas and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto–are ultimately much less important for her than the emotional impact she hopes her music will have on listeners.
“I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it’s the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that’s the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get,” she explained. “If they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don’t, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it. … I try to make a sound out of the emotion that I’m feeling. And when I say ah yes, I captured it, then I write it down, and then I work on it. So it’s all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job; that’s what I do.”
Her love for O’Keefe makes a lot of sense. (“She was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. … Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion.”) But sometimes the things that have inspired her are quirkier. She actually attributes her attachment to writing for string quartet as well as her music’s polystylistic inclinations to hearing the Beethoven and Bartók quartets when she was a little girl and mixing them all up, erroneously thinking that they were all composed by someone named Bella Bartók, a female composer!
From that formative mash-up, she went on to immerse herself in Medieval and Renaissance music, minimalism, world music, and even pop. Now it’s all part of her compositional language.
“Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it,” she said with a grin.
We had a very pleasurable hour chatting about all these things and I felt it could have gone on much longer. But I made sure we ended before Noon so she could embark on another composition.
Just to talk about the pandemic a little bit. ... I wrote like 30 pieces in two years or some kind of insane amount, I don't know, because I was working every day for five hours a day, and I had nothing else to do.
Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it.
Another thing about Georgia O'Keefe that I like is that she was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. And she was very brave about it. Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion.
It's all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I'm concerned, that's my job; that's what I do.
I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it's the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that's the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get. And if they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don't, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it.
I'm a real weirdo reader. I read three, four books a week. ... I only read novels. And I read everything from Pulitzer Prize-winning literature to the ancient classics, to the junk. I love sci-fi, mystery novels. I read everything.
Vivaldi would have totally flipped if he was just in a time machine and appeared in a shopping mall and heard his music being played perfectly, coming from heaven.
I thought that Béla Bartók was a girl composer who had written all the Bartók and the Beethoven string quartets. ... It wasn't until I was like 15-years-old and taking piano lessons, playing Bartók, and I said, "Oh, I love Bartók. She's my favorite composer." And the teacher said, Bartók's a guy, and I had a huge argument with her.
Being beautiful is very important as far as I'm concerned. I take it very seriously. Emotive is important too. I have this little phrase--the surface is simple; the structure complex. .
I'm sure that your average non-classical musician isn't gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach.
I was very aware of the fact that I'm white and I'm writing an opera about a black story. And I felt pretty uncomfortable about it. ... If I don't tell the story because I'm white, what does that mean? You know? Am I not telling a story because I'm white? That's sort of a racist thing, too. Right? So I just decided it was better to tell the story and let the chips fall where they may.
I changed all the religious words, so instead of saying Lord have mercy, I just say, oh have mercy. ... I'm not a religious person. Whenever I hear music that's religious and I see that religious word, I go, oh, that's not me. I'm not included. You know? If you are religious, it doesn't mean you can't be included.
Read the Full Transcript
Elena Ruehr in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Via Zoom on Friday, September 23, 2022 at 11:00 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu.
Audio production by Anthony Nieves.
Frank J. Oteri: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I know you’re in the middle of a bunch of projects, which is kind of weird, because for the last almost three years, we’ve all been in this bizarre holding pattern, and now it seems like there’s all this stuff happening again.
Elena Ruehr: Just to talk about the pandemic a little bit. For me, I’d stopped traveling. Travel just interrupts my flow so much. I think there are a lot of artists who just worked a lot. I wrote like 30 pieces in two years or some kind of insane amount, I don’t know, because I was working every day for five hours a day, and I had nothing else to do. So for me, it was actually kind of eye opening. Now I’m back to traveling again, and there’s concerts which I’m going to. Either my own or other people’s, and it all gets in the way. I mean I love it. It’s wonderful to be back, but it was interesting for me to just be at home and work.
FJO: So you really feel when you create music, you need to be in your own space. You can’t write on a napkin?
ER: No. I have different ways of getting my work out. I’m not really an introvert, but if you take those little personality quizzes, I lose energy when I’m in social situations. You know what I mean? And so all of that stuff took away from my creative energy.
FJO: But it’s amazing that you were able to write so much music during this time. Did performances of all these pieces happen yet, or are they all scheduled to happen?
ER: Some things. I wrote 25 pieces for [my] daughter for her 25th birthday. That counts as one.
ER: They’re little, short pieces, and she’s a sight reader and a pianist–I mean, she’s a climate science scientist. But where am I going with this? Those haven’t been performed yet. Right? But they were for her. She’s been playing them for fun. And a bunch of my friends who are piano teachers have been using them. They’re like intermediate pieces. But I had a number of performances. I had my Cassandra in the Temples opera performed online with The Thirteen. I did a work for Lara Downes, and that was done as an online experience. I had a number of online things, and then in and out as the pandemic phased in and out, I had different concerts. One of ’em, I went to a concert and got COVID.
FJO: Oh no.
ER: I was fine. I had a very mild case. But you know, I was like oops, you know. That’s what happens, you know. So I’ve had little performances all through it. But now they’re starting, they’re stacked up, because there’s all this stuff that’s ready to go.
FJO: That’s great. And operas! That’s the biggest thing, and opera was probably the area that was hardest hit during all of this. First off, singing is allegedly a super-spreader–people singing together, like chorus or solo voice, or opera. A string quartet or a pianist–you can play with your mask. In opera you really can’t deal with the mask ‘cause it turns everything into Un Ballo In Maschera.
ER: Terrible. No. Yeah. I just had a big opera premiere, and that was put off for two years because of the pandemic. That was hard to take. When you write an opera, you really want to see it, and I had to wait. But now it’s done. Our show just ended. It was called Cosmic Cowboy. It was a sci-fi opera. It was a real extravaganza. We had almost a full house every night. And we got standing ovations, which is nice.
FJO: I think people are so happy also to be able to be back. To be able to hear live music. There’s something about hearing live music together that is really irreplaceable. I think we discovered that as wonderful as it is to have these online concerts–I’ve been just enjoying being able to virtually attend concerts all over the world that I otherwise might not be able to go to–it’s really not the same thing as being in the room.
ER: First of all, just the sound itself is so much better. Especially with voices. I think I’m really sensitive to voices. And then the energy in the room, and being there with the performers. It’s a completely different experience.
FJO: So, operas have been a very important focus for you. And they’re central to the work you’re doing now. But I find it interesting, even the works that are non-operatic, even works that don’t have sung texts, so many of your instrumental pieces have a narrative behind them somewhere. There’s a story. There’s something beyond the notes. You’re nodding your head, which people are not going to be able to hear on a podcast.
FJO: One piece that immediately came to my mind is this wonderful cello concerto of yours Cloud Atlas, which was inspired by the David Mitchell novel, which I’m ashamed to say, I still have not read.
ER: Oh, it’s so good! I don’t know if you like sci-fi, but he’s an amazing writer, so it’s very high-level sci-fi. So it’s really good. Yeah.
FJO: I’ve been wanting to read it for years, but then I got scared of reading it because I read somewhere that the American and the British editions are different. There are chapters that are different in one version and the other, and I’m like okay, which version should I read? That’s the kind of thing that makes my head explode.
ER: I just read the one that I had, and I loved it.
FJO: But I wonder, as somebody who hasn’t read the book, I loved the piece. Am I missing something when I hear the piece because I don’t know the book?
ER: Absolutely not. I mean, I think the reference to Cloud Atlas is that in Cloud Atlas, it happens in these different time periods. And the writing style changes from sort of 18th, 19th century writing to 20th century writing to sort of Tweeting, and the style of the language changes according to what time period it’s in. And that was the thing that I was interested in–writing a cello concerto that embraced a sense of stylistic complexity and a sense of past and future, and different styles.
FJO: That definitely ties into your musical interests, which are really post-modern, everything’s fair game–whether it’s medieval music, Renaissance music, romantic music, or up to the date contemporary music. It’s all part of your language.
ER: That’s true. And also world music and anything that I hear. Pop music. Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it. Yeah.
FJO: So that’s a piece that’s clearly inspired by a work of literature, although maybe by its structure more than by its story. And then you have several wonderful pieces that span a 20-year period that are inspired by the paintings of George O’Keefe. So I wonder what makes her paintings something that you keep returning to.
ER: There’s two reasons that I’m interested in Georgia O’Keefe. One is that I went to the Chicago Art Museum all the time as kid, ‘cause my grandma lived in Chicago, and we would go to the art museum every year. And there was Sky Above Clouds, it’s that huge, huge painting that hangs in there, and I just loved it from the time I was a little kid. So it was an obvious choice for me to respond to that. But the other thing is that she’s a woman artist, working at a time when it was a big deal to be a woman artist and get really famous. And I had read her biography, and I was really interested in her as a human. So it was those two things that sort of led me to O’Keefe.
And once I did Sky Above Clouds, I said I need to make a set, and then I was looking at other O’Keefe paintings and there’s another thing about O’Keefe that I like is that she was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. And she was very brave about it. And I like that about her. It actually gave me some courage. Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion. That’s why I do what I do. There’s a quote O’Keefe said which is, “I can’t say what I want. I can’t do what I want. I’d be a fool if I didn’t paint what I want and say what I want about painting.” And I just always keep that in my heart. And I’m like, I’m gonna do what I want, no matter what.
FJO: You did each of these pieces ten years separating each one. Next year will be the next ten-year mark. Is there a fourth one?
ER: Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that. Maybe you’re gonna inspire me.
ER: I could write a new O’Keefe piece. I’ll think about it. I feel like the triptych is already recorded, but maybe. I’ll put that in the back of my thinker.
FJO: I just thought it was interesting that each one was separated by ten years. I know you’re involved in so many different projects. To write another orchestra piece right now, that needs to be ready by next year, that’s a tall order.
ER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But, I write every day. Five hours a day, so I write a lot of music, so I might.
FJO: That’s fantastic. What time of the day?
ER: Noon to five. Unless, I’m teaching, in which case I go one to six because I have to teach until 12:30, you know. But those are my hours. And I know it because I don’t schedule things as much as possible during those hours. Those are just my free hours. Sometimes I’m really composing all that time. Sometimes I’m just moving my little forte mark up and down, and stuff like that. But I’m doing my work five hours a day.
FJO: You know the great Gustave Flaubert story that one day he added a comma in the beginning of the day, and at the end of the day, he got rid of the comma. And that was his work for the day. So, moving things around is actually very important.
ER: I’ve heard my writer friends say this, and it goes back to your quote–if you’re having writer’s block, you don’t just avoid your work. You go in there, and you edit, and you check your typos, and you go through, and eventually, your gears start working, you get back into it, and you’re doing it again. So I think there’s a lot to be said for that.
FJO: It’s so true. Well I have my marching orders. We have to be very good and end at a hard noon. Because I don’t want to invade your composing time. It’s something that’s very precious, especially if you’re writing that fourth O’Keefe piece.
ER: I’ll try to start in 45 minutes.
FJO: So, once again with the O’Keefe pieces, there, I know the paintings. They’re super famous paintings. I’ve seen them live. I’ve also seen reproductions of them. But again, I wonder how important is it to know the paintings, to have seen the paintings to appreciate the music?
ER: I think they’re just jumping off points for me as an artist. I don’t think it’s important. I think the music exists by itself. But there are relationships between the music. Especially Sky Above Clouds¸ which has all these repeating images of clouds. There’s a little ostinato motive that’s constantly there. It morphs and it changes, but it’s always there. And to me, it’s the clouds repeating. I was in graduate school when I wrote that piece, and I was really enamored with Steve Reich and John Adams. And it’s just a little bit minimal. I was really interested in that kind of thing. So there was something about the O’Keefe that seemed like minimalism made as a visual object to me.
FJO: If it’s not important for the listener to know those references…
ER: Oh, I don’t think it is.
FJO: … then why use those titles?
ER: Well, they’re cool titles. And if you know them, it does enhance the experience. And they are inspirations to me. I mean, I have one string quartet. It’s my fifth, which is…
FJO: Bel Canto.
ER: …Bel Canto. That’s based on the Ann Patchett novel. Quite literally. It’s one of the only pieces I have that’s really literally based on something extra-musical in a way that matters. And if you know that book, you do experience the string quartet in a very different way than if you don’t know the book. So that’s probably one piece that really does matter. But most of them, it’s just a jumping off point.
FJO: It’s interesting that you mentioned String Quartet No. 5, because I was heading right there. And what made me think of that is, in the case of the string quartets, you’ve now written eight of them, which is amazing.
ER: I wrote nine.
FJO: Whoa. Okay. I gotta catch up. So the ninth one hasn’t been recorded yet. It’s not out there yet.
ER: No. It’s gonna be premiered first weekend of November.
FJO: That’s incredible, but once again, when you title a piece, say, String Quartet No. 7, all that tells a listener is that you’ve already written six others. Right?
FJO: But you get the best of both worlds, because most of these pieces also have additional titles beyond that sort of formal title. And even the movements, every particular movement has a title. The one I thought of immediately was Bel Canto, where you get so specific–the accompanist dies, cooking coq au vin, really specific things. So what in the music tells you those things?
ER: Well, in Bel Canto, it’s complicated because the story is about an opera singer. And she has certain repertoire. So I chose four pieces, three of which she actually sings in the book, and one which I just included because I needed a little variety. I actually quote those pieces, and I use them as jumping off points. So Vissi d’arte, dee-dee-dee-dee. Right? That aria is one that she sings in the book. And the opening of the piece starts Rebels in the Vents. And it’s dum-dee-dee-dee, dum-dee-dee-dee, you know, I just take the first note, and put it down an octave, and I make this little ostinato out of it. So all of the pieces in that quartet refer back to the source material. But sometimes it’s altered enough that you can’t tell. Sometimes it’s very, very, very close to the source material. The fact she’s an opera singer informs the music.
FJO: But if someone were to hear this and say, oh this is the coq au vin chapter, where’s the coq au vin in the music?
ER: Well okay. So “Simon Thibault Makes Coq Au Vin.” Right? That’s the name of that movement. The book has both light and dark moments. In this moment in the book, it’s very light. And it’s very sweet because he’s doing this for other people. And it’s a moment of relaxation. So I wanted to write something very sweet, and very straightforward, and short. Now I have to remember exactly my process. But I lean towards the more diatonic. This is not a very specific answer, but the truth is that I have an emotion about that scene. And I sit in that emotion. And then I sit at the piano. And I improvise through that emotion. I try to make a sound out of the emotion that I’m feeling. And when I say ah yes, I captured it, then I write it down, and then I work on it. So it’s all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job; that’s what I do.
FJO: Love it.
ER: How it’s done remains a mystery to me. You know, all the stuff happening up here that you don’t understand.
FJO: And it’s what keeps fueling the next piece, because if you’d figured it out, it’s not as much fun. Right?
FJO: Maybe I was having an aural hallucination with this. You said that there were three pieces that she sang that wound up in the piece. At one point, I thought I heard a snippet of Dvorak somewhere. Is that possible?
ER: Rusalka. It’s a whole movement, “Song to the Moon.” It’s more than a transcription. Because I do add layers to it, but the tune itself is in pizzicato. You know, usually it’s the singer who’s singing the tune. But this is just a pizzicato, and then there’s this layering of the story on top of that. It’s called “Carmen Studies Grammar,” and to me, the Dvořák is the grammar.
ER: That language is the grammar of that music. They’re studying grammar, and they’re in a closet, and they slowly fall in love. So the stuff that’s layered on top is really what’s the important thing. But the grammar is underneath. I’ll tell you a funny story about that movement. Which is if you know what I’m doing, you understand that I’m not just stealing Dvořák. Right? But if you don’t know the Dvořák, and you go to a concert, and you listen to it, you might say, oh I really like that one. And amazingly, not amazingly, it’s not that surprising. So many people have come up to me and said, “Oh, I really like that movement,” you know. And I’m like: well, it’s kind of not really me.
FJO: Love it.
ER: It gets played on the radio all the time and I’m like: well, you know, if they’re gonna choose one piece, they’re gonna choose Dvořák.
FJO: Wow. But it’s sort of a trick thing because you have a movement referencing Carmen. You’d expect to hear Bizet, but instead you hear Rusalka.
FJO: Now, so along those lines, just like with not knowing the book that it’s about, or not knowing the painting doesn’t necessarily keep you from appreciating the piece. Although knowing it can enhance it. Similarly, knowing the music, the source music that you have then manipulated and turned into something else for your own ends aesthetically, I would say enhances the experience, but obviously, there are a lot of people who’ve have heard this piece, who love it, who don’t know Rusalka.
ER: Right. Exactly. And that’s fine. I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it’s the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that’s the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get. And if they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don’t, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it.
FJO: And I guess what threw me, because I do know Rusalka, but I was thinking which Dvořák string quartet is this from, and it wasn’t. You took it and put it in a different frame, which was very interesting.
ER: I have had the experience of people who do know Rusalka who when they hear it get a little annoyed. Because I’m stealing it, but you know, it says in the program notes that it’s based on all these pieces.
FJO: An audience member’s not necessarily going to get it. But ideally, the players who are playing the music are going to get it and maybe because of that you’re going to get a richer performance of the work. And one thing that I was really struck by, which I wanted to transition to, is the Cypress Quartet. I love that recording of three of your earlier quartets. I think it’s One, Three, and Four. And they play those pieces like it’s standard repertoire for them. They live that music. And it’s the kind of thing that every composer, or most composers I would think, should dream for. This is like an ideal kind of performance situation where the players are putting their all into it, and they’re not just reading the notes. They’re interpreting it and they’re making it into their piece as well as your piece. And it’s a beautiful thing. So I’m curious, you’ve had a long-term relationship with them. How did that begin? How did that happen? It’s a very lucky thing for you and for listeners to be able to have that level of performance of these pieces.
ER: The Cypress Quartet changed my life, in a beautiful, wonderful, great way. But the way it came about is a composer named Dan Coleman, who you might know, who’s a good friend of mine. We both went to Juilliard, maybe not at the same time, but we became friends. I don’t remember how we became friends, but we became friends. And the Cypress Quartet had this thing which is that they commissioned a new work to go with a program every year. And they were always looking for a composer. The way they did their selection was that they would get anonymous recordings that they would solicit from their friends. It wasn’t a call; it was a solicitation. So Dan Coleman recommended that they listen to one of my quartets. My Third Quartet was done by the Borreomeos, and they had me send it in anonymously. And then they would listen to stacks–20, 30 pieces–and if they all liked the same thing, then that would be on the list of people that they would commission. But they had to all like it.
ER: And so they chose me. I wrote my Fourth Quartet for them, and then I wrote my Fifth Quartet for them, and my Sixth Quartet for them, and then recordings. And on and on.
FJO: Incredible. And they went back to the pieces that they didn’t commission and performed them as well.
ER: My First and Third. And they played them all over. They played them 30 times on a regular part of their concert tours. They became just like my buddies. I used to call them my band. They’re all good friends of mine still. They’re no longer a quartet together. They lasted 20 years, and they were like: we want to do other things. But now, all of them are working with me in one way or another on their own projects. So, it’s pretty cool.
ER: The other thing that I loved about working with them was their commission program which is they asked me to write my fourth quartet in response to Beethoven, Opus 59, No. 3 and the Mozart “Dissonant.” I was really interested in the idea of the relationship of older repertoire to what I was doing. And that informed a lot music that I’ve written that’s not involved for them. But they’re responsible for the Bel Canto one. They asked me, ‘cause I used to travel with four books all the time, ‘cause I’m a real weirdo reader. I read three, four books a week.
ER: And novels. I only read novels. And I read everything from Pulitzer Prize-winning literature to the ancient classics, to the junk. I love sci-fi, mystery novels. I read everything.
FJO: Love it.
ER: So they asked me to respond to literature. I chose Bel Canto because it had this musical thread through it that I thought would be fun to play with. And I love that book. So that’s that story. I love working with them. The other thing about the Cypress Quartet is that because I had all these other quartets that were written pretty well, they’re some of my best work, and they were recorded so well, lots of other quartets found me. So now I have ten string quartets that I can call up any time and say, want to play one of my pieces?
FJO: That’s so fantastic. It’s the kind of thing most composers dream and a rare thing. It happens with chamber groups; where it happens even less, you were lucky also in this regard, is with an orchestra. You were the first composer-in-residence for BMOP, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is a fascinating thing because normally you think of composers-in-residence and you think of orchestras that mostly do standard repertoire. They have a composer-in-residence who’s going to be their kind of gateway to new music. And they’ll maybe commission a piece, or have that person curate a series. But BMOP is all about new music. That’s what they live for. So to be composer-in-residence for them is, I imagine, a very different kind of experience, or was a very different kind of experience.
ER: Well, I’ve never been the composer-in-residence with an orchestra that was not a modern orchestra, but it was really fabulous in many ways. That was a job that I just auditioned for. They had a call. And I just auditioned. I got along really well with Gil Rose who’s still a good friend of mine. They’re a great orchestra. Gil is a great conductor. He really knows how to pull it all together. So I got my pieces performed, and an opera, and two CDs, and all this stuff, which is wonderful. I got to meet all the musicians in the band. And now those musicians are playing my music all the time, which is great. And finally I got to interview all the composers for five years I did that job. I would be the emcee at the opening of the program, and I would interview all the composers who came through. And have to, of course, do some research on them and get to know them, and then I would go to the rehearsals and really learn their piece inside and out. I learned an enormous amount about what was going on at that time in the music world. What the aesthetics were. What people were thinking about and that was really fascinating and interesting.
FJO: Wow. That’s wonderful. I feel like that’s what my life is to a great extent, talking to all these people. Kind of getting inside their heads. It’s very inspiring as a composer. So I totally relate to that. There’s a piece on that BMOP recording that I want to mention because it’s one of my favorite pieces of yours, and I wanted to talk about it a little bit. It only uses the strings, the string orchestra piece Shimmer. It is such a gorgeous piece, and in the notes you talk about how it’s inspired by Vivaldi. I love Vivaldi, and I get into these arguments with people who say: Vivaldi wrote the same piece 500 times. He didn’t! If you hear people who are really dedicated to playing his music, there is so much going on in there, especially when you hear period instrument groups do Vivaldi, and they bring out some really incredible things in it. I love your piece, but I don’t hear the Vivaldi in it. I hear lots of other things. So I’m curious about the hidden cipher of Vivaldi in that piece and where that is.
ER: Well, there’s a story. Do you want to hear a story?
FJO: Yes. Totally.
ER: I don’t know if you know Scott Yoo’s Metamorphosen. I was 27-years-old or something. That’s how I met Dan Coleman. Dan had a piece commissioned by Metamorphosen, and I don’t know how he found me, but he found me, and he said we should get this girl to write us a piece. And so they were going to make a recording for their premiere season. And they said will you write us a piece? You have six weeks, or two months, or whatever it was. It had this really, really quick window of time. I was teaching full time. And I was composing in every crack of time that I could to try to get it done. And so I was like, okay, yeah, I want to write a piece. And so I was like well, these guys are all young, and they’re sort of rock and roll. I’m going to do something kind of rock and roll for orchestra for them. I kept writing these things that sounded just so cheesy, like remember that Beethoven’s Fifth version, it was so awful.
FJO: The disco Beethoven?
FJO: Walter Murphy?
ER: Yeah. You know, this is not what I want to do. I was really frustrated, and I was under the gun, and under the deadline. And I got really mad one day, and it was cold. It was January, in Boston. And I thought, I have to get out of the house and just walk around. And I said I’m going to go to the shopping mall, ‘cause that’s where you can go in the winters when there’s ice all over. So I go to the shopping mall, and it’s a very upscale, fancy shopping mall. The Chestnut Hill Shopping Mall, in Newton. And I’m just like walking around, you know. I’m just there to get out of the house. I’m walking around, and they’re playing Vivaldi Four Seasons. Spring. And I go aahhh, Vivaldi, it’s so beautiful. And it’s a string orchestra, and I’m like, I wish could write something like this. And then I was like, Vivaldi would have totally flipped if he was just in a time machine and appeared in a shopping mall and heard his music being played perfectly, coming from heaven. You know? Like that whole sort of idea. And I said, wait a minute. I can write something like Vivaldi. I can sort of try and get into Vivaldi’s head. I was very much interested in minimalism at the time. And I wanted to write a piece that was based on this idea I had been playing with which is cyclical, basically serialism, but instead of being a 12-note series, it might be a five-note series. That’s Sky Above Clouds. And in this case, I thought if I have two five-note series, I could almost turn on my computer and play you do, re, fa, sol, la, and re, fa, so, la, do. Right? They’re the same thing transposed. They’re combinatorial. But anyway, they both fit into a major scale, but they’re a combinatorial five-note set that fits into a seven-note set. Do you get my drift?
FJO: Oh, I love it. It’s great.
ER: I can’t remember the series in my head. It’s gone. But then I said, okay, now, that’s the part of it that’s Vivaldi–the diatonicism.
ER: The other part of it’s that Vivaldi is that by taking this set that’s a ten-note set, and taking the lower notes, which is the Steve Reich idea of taking the lower notes and creating a resultant melody, and the higher notes and creating another resultant melody, what I did was make counterpoint. And so the whole piece is full of canons and counterpoint, and then some of the ornamentation is a little Vivaldi-esque. You’re not supposed to go: aahhh, oh, Vivaldi. Obviously. But there are Vivaldi aspects to it. So that’s how that happened.
FJO: Interesting. Once again, really great writing for strings. All the string quartets, that string orchestra piece, but as a far as I know, you’re not a string player or never were a string player.
ER: Nope, I played the cello for one semester in college.
ER: You know, they had those meet the instrument classes. I did that. But I could barely hold a bow, I found it very awkward.
FJO: I’m curious about where background does play out in your music. I know that your parents are a mathematician and a literature professor, so I understand the love for reading, and how books inspire stuff, and the mathematical stuff, here we are having a conversation wigging out about how to apply combinatoriality to diatonicism, so the math is there. You were a dancer early on. Obviously, the music has a flow, has motion, but I’m wondering how those formative things shaped who you are and what you do.
ER: Well, you sort of mentioned a lot of them, but I have another story about string quartets.
ER: Do you know my Bartók story?
ER: So my dad had a hi-fi kit that he built in the 1950s, which was a reel-to-reel tape recorder set. He was a hi-fi geek. He was a mathematician. And he got with the kit, when he made it, all the Beethoven and Bartók string quartets on reel-to-reel. I think it was the Budapest Quartet playing. He used to listen to them, and he got them mixed up. If he liked it, he would put it in one pile. And if he didn’t like it, he’d put it in another pile. And the Bartók and the Beethoven were all mixed up in a big pile. Right? And different movements, it was just a big mess ‘cause he wasn’t a neat freak. He would just put on whatever was on the top of the pile, and then he’d put it over on one pile or the other. And then he’d put the next one on top.
I was allowed to go and sit in his study and listen to the music while he was doing his mathematical equations if I was quiet. So I’d go in with a coloring book and I’d just sit there and listen. I did this for years. And I would just quietly sit there and color. Then one day I was like: oh, I really like this. They all sounded like the same composer to me. Sometimes it was like a good day and happy, and sometimes it’s kind of a gnarly day, but there was just this composer who was writing this music. It was really cool. And one day, I go to my dad, I say, “Daddy, what is this?” And he says, “Béla Bartók.” ‘Cause he’s busy, and I go, “Oh, Bella. She’s a girl.” I thought that Béla Bartók was a girl composer who had written all the Bartók and the Beethoven string quartets. One person.
FJO: Love it. I love it.
ER: It wasn’t until I was like 15-years-old and taking piano lessons, playing Bartók, and I said, “Oh, I love Bartók. She’s my favorite composer.” And the teacher said, Bartók’s a guy, and I had a huge argument with her.
ER: I went home, and I told my parents that my piano teacher didn’t know anything and they were like, well no, Bartók’s a guy. And I was like aaargh!
FJO: Oh wow. Oh, that’s amazing. I’ve heard all these stories over the years from female composers about finding role models. This one takes the cake.
ER: That’s absolutely the reason why I’ve written so many string quartets is that I was steeped in it as a little kid. But to this day I get the movements mixed up because I never knew what they were. I was just listening.
FJO: I love it. That’s incredible, and also plays into this whole mix and match periods of history idea, this post-Modern aesthetic, although one thing I have to say that I find so refreshing about your music is that it sort of exists beyond “isms.” We kind of have this short-hand these days for better or worse where we try to explain everybody away in a sentence. Say, oh this does that. I was listening to your Three Preludes for Piano. There’s some Debussy in there, there’s some Scott Joplin in there, there’s all this stuff in there. But it was inspired by Babbitt, also in a way. There’s a 12-tone row behind it, but it doesn’t sound like that at all. It sounds totally different. So you’re able to use these different pieces of history and do your own thing with them, which is really exciting, but of course, then it makes it harder to explain what you do.
ER: Yeah. I guess, but whatever.
FJO: If I wanted to be glib and come up with a sentence, I would say this is music that uses all these materials and is not afraid to be beautiful.
ER: Well thank you. Being beautiful is very important as far as I’m concerned. I take it very seriously. Emotive is important too. I have this little phrase–the surface is simple; the structure complex. It’s something that I thought about a lot when I was in my ‘20s, trying to form a sense of my style, and it was inspired by Mozart really in the sense that Mozart is so straight on the surface, but the more you dive in, the more you find oh wow, four-bar phrases, and then there’s a two-bar phrase. All these really interesting things that makes Mozart very easy and approachable, but also deeply interesting and profound. And that was my role model. If I can do that, then I’ve succeeded. You know what I mean? So yeah. Beauty is really important, but also accessibility. I’m sure that your average non-classical musician isn’t gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach. And that matters to me. That’s important to me.
FJO: To take this back to opera, it’s really important because this music is serving a story. So you can’t get really bogged down in “isms,” if what you’re doing is trying to tell a story. There have been amazing 12-tone operas, amazing minimalist operas, but in all those cases they’ve taken those musical languages and have done really expressive things with it. I don’t think most people watching Lulu are busy trying to pick out the tone rows. They’re engaged in the story that’s going on, which is why it works. The first piece of yours I’ve ever heard, actually didn’t see, just heard from the recording, was Toussaint Before the Spirits–a really powerful work. I knew the story of Toussaint Louverture. I was lucky to know the story because in the ‘80s, I taught ESL, and I had students from Haiti, and learned this whole story. It’s an amazing story. This fight to create this independent country in the Caribbean, in the middle of the global slave trade, at a really bad time in history. It’s a story that most people just don’t know. It doesn’t get in a lot of the history books, which is why I think it’s really important to tell that story and to spread that story. But what you’ve done with it is very unusual, which is why I’d love to see it staged. There’s a tiny snippet online. I’d love to see all of it because you’ve taken this historical figure, but you’ve kind of created this mythology around him. It’s this larger-than-life story. So I’m wondering how the whole thing works on stage.
ER: Well, I’ll give you a long answer.
FJO: Okay. Good.
ER: I was approached by Gil Rose to write an opera for Stephen Salters who’s the singer that’s featured in Toussaint. And I knew I wanted to do two things, or three things. I wanted to reference old opera. So I wanted a historical subject. I wanted a great hero for Stephen to play. I wanted to feature dancers because I have my dance background, which has turned out to be a problem for staging because that’s a problem. It’s an issue. But anyway, I was thinking about Galileo; luckily, I didn’t choose Galileo, ‘cause Philip Glass did Galileo, and he premiered it a couple months before my show. But I talked to Stephen, and I was like maybe we should do a great black hero. And we said well Toussaint is really interesting, and I had been reading Langston Hughes, and I set a Langston Hughes cantata, that Stephen was in, that references Toussaint. And I said you know, this is a great subject. This is deeply interesting, but I can’t do it with a librettist who’s not an expert on this subject. So I started reading all the books about Toussaint, and the most famous book which had won a National Book Award was All Souls’ Rising, which was by Madison Smartt Bell. So I wrote to Madison. I think I found his agent, and I said, I want to write an opera. And he wrote back. And he says no. And I said please could you think about it, I think it could be kind of cool, and here’s this singer that I’m gonna write for and I sent a recording of Stephen. And he says, oh, this is really interesting. Maybe you should send me some of your music. So I sent him Shimmer and Stephen singing one of my songs called Stars. And he wrote back and he says, it sounds like a combination of Barber and Steve Reich. And I was like, oh this guy knows what he’s talking about. He says, I’ll do it.
ER: But he says, but I want my wife Elizabeth Spires, who’s a poet, to collaborate with me. He’s a novelist. And he doesn’t write librettos. So they wrote me this libretto. And so all the meta-story is not really me. It’s Madison Smartt Bell and Elizabeth Spires. But we did raise Toussaint into an archetypal figure. Because that’s part of the vodou religion, that there are these ancestors that become raised into gods. So we turned Toussaint into this archetypical figure by the end of the show, which he is. If you grow up in Haiti, every high school student writes a paper about Toussaint.
But it is also problematic. I wrote Toussaint in 2000 and 2001. Right as I was writing it, September 11th happened, and I started thinking a lot about Toussaint, his story having to do with the slave trade and the slave trade being based really on economics. And that the revolution, there was a parallel there that I was really interested in, the parallels to modern life where we are investing blindly in companies that participate in slave labor even today. So I was thinking about all that stuff when I wrote it. But I was very aware of the fact that I’m white and I’m writing an opera about a black story. And I felt pretty uncomfortable about it. I think that’s one of the reasons, there’s two reasons, that this has not been staged ever again and one is because it’s a dance opera and it’s hard, and two, is there’s a little political discord over this issue of whether I should really be doing it or not. That’s just the way it is.
FJO: I think what’s important is that these stories need to be told. Artists need to tell them so that audiences are aware of these stories.
ER: For me, it was here is this great black hero. I’m writing for a black singer who’s a heroic type. He lives in the time of Mozart. I want to write about that time period. I really want to tell this story. If I don’t tell the story because I’m white, what does that mean? You know? Am I not telling a story because I’m white? That’s sort of a racist thing, too. Right? So I just decided it was better to tell the story and let the chips fall where they may. And I was very proud of that. I am still very proud of that opera. I think I wrote some of my best work, whether it gets produced again, your lips to God’s ears. It would be great.
FJO: The other operas are being done. Cassandra in the Temples, once again, an old story, an ancient story, but updated to reference climate change, which is obviously very current, and something that affects all of us.
ER: I got the idea to do the Cassandra opera when I saw Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. It just made me think that Cassandra was this person who was predicting this terrible thing, and no one would believe her. And I felt that Al Gore, although many of us believe Al Gore, that he had the same problem. And so that was where that came from.
FJO: One final work I want to touch on, a recent work that you created during the pandemic, is this requiem that you did, which is a really powerful, moving piece that is much shorter than a lot of other requiems and has interpolated texts, and is a very personal piece. So I wanted to talk about it and what it means in this era of the last three years where we’ve lost so many people.
ER: Yeah. Well my mother passed. She didn’t have COVID, but she was on a ventilator, and I had to make the decision to take her off the ventilator. And it was very difficult. I was very close to my mother. My mother was a really cool, wonderful, feminist, smart environmentalist. Very cool lady. One of my best friends. I used to talk to her every day practically. So when she passed, it really hurt me. And I wanted to write a piece for her, but I was feeling a little funny about it. And my husband, who’s a doctor, said, you should write a requiem for her and all who passed in 2020. And so he sort of gave me permission to take that extra leap. And then I thought about my mother who was an atheist, and I wanted to write a requiem, so I was looking for texts, and I just thought the standard requiem is the text that I want to use. I want it to be in English, because that’s her language. And I wanted to have no religious references.
So I just took a standard really basic requiem text, translated into English, and I changed all the religious words, so instead of saying Lord have mercy, I just say, oh have mercy. Right? Stuff like that. Just simple, simple little changes, so that it was a secular mass. It was a secular mass for her. But it was important to me also. Because I’m not a religious person. Whenever I hear music that’s religious and I see that religious word, I go, oh, that’s not me. I’m not included. You know? If you are religious, it doesn’t mean you can’t be included. Do you know what I mean? So it’s an inclusive, secular mass, that’s a requiem for my mother and all who passed. And the Oh Have Mercy movement is the second movement. To me I think it’s the most powerful because it’s got this sense of rhythm that is the ventilator, and then finally it breaks, and that’s when she’s gone.
Elena Ruehr: Requiem
Samantha Dotterweich, soprano / Krista River, alto / Charles Blandy, tenor / Andrew Padgett, bass
Peggy Pearson, oboe
Ryan Turner, conductor
Seth Torres, recording engineer / Maurizio Fiore, livestream engineer
FJO: Wow. I’m so glad I asked you about that. It’s a funny place to end this conversation because I feel like that piece is very much of the pandemic moment. And we’re sort of now at this point, at the beginning of our conversation we talked about how we’re sort of now at this transitional period, where we’re sort of pivoting out of it somehow. You said you’re traveling again. All these live pieces are happening again. So is everything back to normal? Normal, in scare quotes. People listening to this can’t see my fingers.
ER: Pretty normal, I mean I went to BSO last night. And I didn’t wear a mask. I forgot it, and then I went: oh, I forgot the mask. And then nobody was wearing masks, so I was like okay. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, but I forgot to bring it. So it is pretty normal. I’ve been going to a lot of concerts. I’ll tell you something on a happy note. So that we end happy, ‘cause it’s almost twelve o’clock. I’m writing a new opera. It’s called The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. It’s based on a graphic novel by Sydney Padua. And it is a response to the pandemic in the sense that it is a comic opera. It is very funny. The librettist is the fabulous Royce Vavrek.
ER: He’s amazing. He’s a lovely guy. And it’s a lovely, funny libretto. It’s very funny. And it’s very light. There’s hardly a dark moment in the whole show. It’s full of things that make people laugh. We did a reading of it, and people were just giggling. I thought: you know, it’s time. It’s time for us to lighten up because there’s so much that we can feel dark about, but I needed to lighten up. I feel like my listeners need to lighten up too.
FJO: I can’t wait to hear that and see it.
ER: It’s gonna be at MIT because Lovelace and Babbage were the inventors of the first calculating machine, and so MIT has supported Guerrilla Opera to do the first production. And then it’s gonna get reproduced in a couple of other places. But the MIT premiere’s the first weekend of February. So you gotta come.
FJO: Wow. Fantastic. Wow. Well, thank you. I don’t want to intrude onto you composing time. Thank you so much for spending some time with me today this morning, before you’re composing.