Hearing a Person—Remembering Ruth Anderson (1928-2019)
The last music Ruth Anderson heard before she died was Judith Blegen singing Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf erden …, with which Mahler’s Fourth Symphony ends, a song which had been a touchstone for us for many years and which I had been unable to find for weeks among our record collection despite just… Read more »
The last music Ruth Anderson heard before she died was Judith Blegen singing Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf erden …, with which Mahler’s Fourth Symphony ends, a song which had been a touchstone for us for many years and which I had been unable to find for weeks among our record collection despite just about reorganizing the collection in my search. Then I looked among the contemporary LPs, and there it was, next to David Behrman’s beautiful On the Other Ocean—the wrong part of the century but very much the right context.
Listening to it now, again, I find I am immersed in her text piece Sound Portrait: Hearing a Person, which she created first for her students then for others, in 1973:
“In a darkened room, find a comfortable, totally relaxed position.
Listen to a piece of music.
Think of someone you love.
Do not think of the music.
When you find your thought of the person is gone, bring it
Let other thoughts come, and then let them go.
As the music progresses, let the thought image of the person
Be unaware of the music.
Let anything which happens happen, except keep easily bringing
back, letting, the person image occupy you.
You will find explanations of the person—the music will explain the person.
The music ideas, counterpoint, extensions, contrasts, repetitions, variants,
Rhythms, textures, qualities of sound, all music elements are of the person,
sometimes very literally, sometimes suggesting, sometimes exact, sometimes
understood, sometimes leading to understanding, sometimes verging on language, always primarily nonverbal, always a known sense, a coming of a known sense.
You will find after, an understanding of the person you did not have,
and a personal relationship to the music.
The music, too, will be known.”
For her, it was always that movement of the Mahler 4th.
Ruth Anderson, composer, teacher, flutist, and orchestrator died peacefully at Calvary Hospital, New York, on November 29th, 2019, aged 91. She was a Professor Emeritus of Hunter College, CUNY, where she was the director of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio from 1968 to 1979, the first operative electronic music studio in the CUNY system and one of the first in the USA to be founded and directed by a woman.
Our earliest meeting was in that studio, where I was to substitute for her while she went on sabbatical. Ruth had first asked Pauline Oliveros to run the studio for her, but Pauline too was on sabbatical and suggested that Ruth contact me—I was then still living in England and eager to come over here. I went to the studio to meet her, nervous, and a bit apprehensive, not having worked hands-on with voltage-controlled equipment, a key part of the studio’s design then. Ruth turned up in white shorts, a blue shirt, and sneakers with a hole in the right toe. I relaxed.
It was a very good studio, beautifully equipped, with a dedicated technician, Jan Hall, who designed new gear and kept everything running very smoothly. Ruth loved tech, tools of any kind really (hence the house we built in Montana, her birthplace), and the studio was her home. It was home to some of the students also, who brought in a couch, a lamp. Jan brought in his slippers.
She was an inspired teacher. Of her studio seminar, she wrote (in a letter to me in 1973), “I give lots of facts, and am very demanding—that they know, that they have self-respect, that they only DO—and sometimes I see it’s not yet the time to DO and they will… and leave them alone, or help when I see they need it… and from students who have been with me before, begin to understand this is not a course, but some equipment and a safe place to be. As soon as the students so-called begin to know each other, to hear a great variety of music, or also experience acoustics, experience each other through sound, like the skin-resistance oscillators, they learn and do, or dream.”
Born in Kalispell, Montana on March 21, 1928, Ruth received a BA in flute, subsequently studying privately with Johnnie Wummer and Jean-Pierre Rampal, then the MA in composition from the University of Washington. At UW she took courses with the poet Theodore Roethke, and she later came to know many other poets including Jean Garrigue, May Swenson (with whom she did Pregnant Dream), W.S. Merwin, and Louise Bogan (whose haunting poem, Little Lobelia is the source of Ruth’s I come out of your sleep). She was one of the first four women admitted to the Princeton University Graduate School program in composition, where she received a fellowship. Two Fulbright Scholarships took her to Paris (1958–60), where she studied composition privately with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged Ruth to also study Gregorian chant at the Abbey of Solesmes.
Ruth’s was a multi-faceted career. She toured as a flutist with the Totenberg Instrumental Ensemble from 1951-58 and was principal flutist with the Boston Pops (1957-58). As a freelance instrumental and choral arranger, she was also an orchestrator for NBC-TV and the Lincoln Center Theater production of Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman (1966) and Show Boat.
Her establishment of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio and her involvement with the downtown music scene brought a burst of creative activity when her studies of psychoacoustics, Zen Buddhism, and her teaching intersected, sparking a number of works for tape which are truly innovative. SUM: State of the Union Message from 1973 is a hilarious collage, a send-up of both Nixon and TV commercials, its duration being exactly that of Nixon’s State of the Union Message that year and saying, as she put it, “as little, and by extension, as much as the president, and using the one medium we all share.” Ruth was a superb analog editor, and I recall coming into the Hunter studio at some point while she was working on SUM and finding a fishing line strung across the room with an amazing number of pieces of tape, some very small, delicately suspended by splicing tape, and trying to figure out how she could keep them all straight. She knew what each was, being both persistent and precise, a perfectionist.
She wrote of her work, “It has evolved from an understanding of sound as energy which affects one’s state of being. [These are] pieces intended to further wholeness of self and unity with others.” Hearing a Person is a beautiful, practical example of this key intention, as is the classic tape work Points (1973-4), created entirely from sine tones at a time when few others were interested in so seemingly basic a waveform. But to Ruth, sines are “the basic building blocks of all sound… a sine tone is a single frequency focal point of high energy… Separate sine waves enter at five-second intervals, accumulate in a long veil on one channel while another set of sines is introduced on the second channel and continuing this way with the veils of sound shifting in and out of each other at a very low dynamic level. The high focus of energy of a sine wave, the outsize breathing interval of five-second entries, the calm of the veils and timeless quality are some of the elements I can isolate which have made this a healing piece, one that consistently generates in listeners a sense of repose and quiet energy.”
Jan Hall has said of Ruth, “She was brave,” and certainly to undertake such a challenge as a piece consisting entirely of sine tones at, necessarily, a soft level, is to work entirely exposed. Indeed, she wrote to Charles Amirkhanian in 1977, “Sines are extremely difficult to record, and then it’s difficult to maintain a copy of sines without collecting burbles on tape—this is a strong reason for wanting the piece on a record where burbles don’t collect.” Points was released on the seminal LP produced by Charles Amirkhanian on the 1750 Arch Records label New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media, which was actually the first collection of electronic music by women, in 1977. She was a bit thrown when that quote appeared in the sleeve notes, but I’ve always loved it. With that LP and two releases on Max Schubel’s label Opus One, her work began to be known in the US and internationally.
In addition to Points, a rich array of works in diverse media appeared during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, such as I come out of your sleep—a 4 channel tape piece from 1979; the text pieces Silent Sound (1978), the Sound Portraits, Greetings from the Right Hemisphere (1979); interactive biofeedback pieces such as Centering (1979) for four performers wearing galvanic skin resistance oscillators through which they respond involuntarily to a dancer who is, in turn, responding to their sounds. Ruth’s delight in play comes through in the sonic installations and games she created for exhibitions, collaborating with Jan Hall and Bob Bielecki. For example, in Tuneable Hopscotch (1975), the individual squares generate pitches as you land on them but someone else is at controls on the wall, changing the pitches even as you select them. In Time and Tempo (1984) the viewer’s biofeedback controls the movement of a clock’s hands, slowing as you approach stillness. Together we also created a number of Hearing Studies for the Introduction to Music and other courses at Hunter. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS), the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, the Alice M. Ditson fund and residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony supported much of this work.
To her great pleasure, Here, a solo vinyl album of five pieces, two never before released plus three works mentioned above—SUM, Points, and I come out of your sleep—will be released on the Arc Light Editions label in 2020. The test pressings came shortly before she went into the hospital and we were able to listen to them together. She was on morphine and deeply tired, but as she listened, she started moving her hands to re-shape a phrase, murmuring how she would like to have changed this or that sound, composing right to the end. It was wonderful to see, and she was delighted with the quality of the pressings. Thank you, Jennifer Lucy Allan, visionary producer of Arc Light Editions.
And then there is Flathead Lake, where Ruth spent much of her childhood and where we built our house. She needed a home of her own there, and I needed to be among mountains at least part of the year, so in 1975, barely a year after we’d begun to live together (we moved fast!) we bought about two acres on the lake, added forty feet to it when I assumed that the boundary survey stakes must have been at the halfway point of the property and started felling dead trees on adjacent land. We bought it. We mapped out a floor plan—Ruth did all the designing meticulously—and started to build. About that detailed planning, I remember going to the local lumber yard and saying we wanted to buy exactly four hundred and sixty-four six-inch nails. Tim smiled, estimated that at so many pounds, and we were then his customers for the next fourteen or so years.
We built wall and floor frames, siding and flooring, got help with the really tough things from her family and from professionals, who would often just take off to go elk hunting mid-project, roofs (there was more than one; the place kept growing like a plant), plumbing, electricity, and finally turned the garage over to the pros, being tired of building by then. Ruth finished the interior tongue-and-groove walls for the bedroom just in time for Christmas in ’89, having spent the whole year there while I went back and forth, teaching. But what astounds and moves me very much to think back on it, is that she did that while enduring chronic fatigue, the cause of her year off!
Strong of spirit, self-reliant, a brilliant mind, Ruth loved structures of all kinds. She was also tenacious, very funny with a dry wit, and delighted in the absurd. Her last piece was Furnishing the Garden (2002–approximately 2012), installed at our New York home. Discarded chairs and an old stripped sofa frame began to appear, leaning against a tree here, planted among wild roses there, and best of all, a child’s tiny wooden chair wedged part-way up a large tulip tree. It makes a handy launching pad for local wildlife.
I am so grateful to have been able to share her life for forty-six years. We were finally able to marry legally in 2005 (in Canada), something Pauline and Ione had done and recommended, not long before.
Ruth’s archive will be placed in the Music Division of The New York Public Library.
GREETINGS FROM THE RIGHT HEMISPHERE
“You are invited to a party.
I will furnish wine, cheese, bread and a SPLENDID opportunity for all who come to KNOW one another.
As you enter, leave your left hemisphere – all your words – speaking, reading, writing – at the door.
Let yourself be known, and know others, through your right hemisphere – YOUR SENSES – through all forms of non-verbal communication.
Have a lovely time.”