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A Conversation with Elena Ruehr


The work of composer Elena Ruehr has been the subject of no fewer than five monographic CDs in the last six years, including a collection of her string quartets from 2010, and a disc of orchestral works in 2014 with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. A previous interview covering her earlier years appeared in 2010 at Opera Today. The interview that follows focuses on the chamber works appearing on her latest CD, Lift, released in January. We talked via Skype on January 27, 2015.

Photo: Christian Steiner

Photo: Christian Steiner

Tom Moore: I would like to talk with you about the works on your most recent CD, Lift. Are the works all commissions from the performers?
Elena Ruehr: The title track, Lift, was not commissioned. I was in the kitchen, cooking, and was listening to NPR, and heard the story about Malala Yousafzai being shot by the Taliban. I had not heard of her before that day. I was so struck by her story that I sat down and started writing a piece, which turned into Lift. I wrote the whole piece in one night, and then spent a couple of weeks tweaking it and working it out. There are three versions. The first version I wrote for a two-voice girl’s choir. Then I tweaked it again and turned it into a piece for two violins, because I couldn’t get the right text for the girl’s choir. And I looked at it again and said “this is a piece for solo cello”, because I can turn the two voices into two contrapuntal lines for the cello. When I had that idea I realized that this was the way it should be, so I wrote it out. I sent to my friend Jennifer Kloetzel, who read it and was very happy and decided to do it.

TM: It seems that it must be very unusual for a composer to sit down and write a piece because the Muse tells them to. Almost everything is commissioned far in advance. That must usually be the case for you, yes?
ER: Yes, but every once in a while I will get an inspiration to do something, and this is one of those times.

TM: When the inspiration struck, did it say something about the musical language, or the form, or just the idea?
ER: Mostly it was about creating this two-part counterpoint, with a melody over a drone. The original inspiration was to have a two-part girls’ choir, since she was a young girl, so it was really about expression of both sorrow and hopefulness. Those two elements play back and forth throughout the piece. Once I had had that initial idea, musically it spun out as a melodic line that tried to be a very long line.

TM: It’s interesting that the initial point of departure was the sound of a girls’ choir, and yet the final result comes out to be a very deep cello sound, with a drone. The first time I listened I put the disc on without looking at the notes, and when the second voice came in, my reaction was that it was a second instrument, so in fact the actual performance sounds like two individual voices, which is a great thing for a single instrumentalist to be able to do.
ER: I am so happy it was that way. The original piece for girls’ choir was pretty short, starting out with that two-part counterpoint, and then moving to more rhythmic stuff. I drew out what had been a two-minute piece into nine minutes by using the drone and expanding and developing that original idea.

TM: Had you written other works for unaccompanied cello?
ER: No, that’s my first one.

TM: For me, that medium seems to draw forth these sublime and elevated works. It’s a small repertoire, but we think of the Bach cello suites….I don’t know if those were in your ear when you were writing.
ER: Very much. My husband is a cellist, and he plays the Bach suites all the time, so I am constantly hearing them.

TM: Are you enthused to write more for solo cello?
ER: I recently wrote a new work for solo cello for Rhonda Rider, so I guess I am! Cello is an important instrument for me. I wrote a cello concerto that was also for Jennifer Kloetzel, which is on a new CD called O’Keefe Images [released Oct. 2014, BMOP]. Right now I am writing a bunch of concertos.

TM: Talk about the title please.
ER: I realized, as I worked on the actual cello piece, rather than the original version, that the drone itself was on an open string, so that the piece slowly goes from one string to the next – it all goes up. And then I realized that the conception of the piece was to start in the dark and move toward the light, which is what happened, happily, with Malala Yousafzai. I thought of it as a hope and prayer for her. So it lifts up, and moves way, way up high. It is as if the piece is mired in this muck, and slowly lifts. The play with the more rhythmic material is an intention toward lifting.

TM: From that part of the world you have the image of the lotus rising from the mud….
ER: The cover art was made by Rick Fox, a local artist who was inspired by that piece, and made a picture of a girl blowing a leaf into the air. It is a little more abstract.

Elena Ruehr

Elena Ruehr

TM: Listening naively to the next piece, the Second Violin Sonata, I was surprised to read in the notes afterward that there is a jazz influence, since it seems to be well-hidden. In the first movement there is a moment that reminds me of Charles Ives, since we have an abstract language, and suddenly there is a blues shuffle. What does that moment mean? It’s such a contrast from the previous material. Why does it appear at that moment in the piece?
ER: I haven’t thought about it – it just came out that way. I am trying to remember back to when I wrote it. I felt like it was a sort of natural phenomenon – as if a cloud is moving across the sky and the lighting changed. As if you are in a landscape, and you feel that you are part of it, and suddenly you are back in yourself. Your perspective changes – at one point you are part of it, and at the next moment you are separate from it. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but that’s about the best I can do.

TM: Your father played jazz. How does that fit in with this piece?
ER: Each movement has a slightly different theme to it, so I could talk about each movement.

TM: Please do.
ER: The first movement is dedicated to Bill Bolcom, who was my teacher. I would say that that shift is also shifting toward his music, and away from my voice – encapsulating the things about Bill Bolcom’s music that I like – the energy, the gentle references to jazz, without being completely within it, and there’s a kind of showiness, a virtuosity to it that I like.

The second movement is dedicated to my teacher, Eddie Russ. He was a jazz player from Detroit who came every summer to the Upper Peninsula and gave jazz classes every summer for years. He was a pianist and a very lyrical writer. He died a few years ago, and I wanted to write a piece dedicated to him. It’s darker – a bit of an elegy.

The last movement has a complete program – I will tell you the story. “Meeting Oscar” is the title of the movement. I was seventeen. I was in Chicago, visiting my aunt and uncle with my mom. The four of us went out to a club to hear Anita O’Day. I went up to get an autograph from Anita O’Day, and came back, and my mom said, “See that piano player who is sitting a couple of tables away – go up to that piano player and ask for his autograph.” I didn’t really want to, but my Aunt Marilyn said “Oh you must! And Elena, lay it on thick!” I knew they were putting me up to something, but I didn’t know what it was. I went up to the guy, who was smoking a cigarette, and said “I am so impressed – I am an aspiring jazz pianist (which I was at the time) – would you give me your autograph?” His jaw literally dropped open and the cigarette fell on the floor, he was flustered, and the guys sitting next to him were laughing…he signed his name on a napkin, and I went back to our table, and my family was all laughing. I said “what did you just do to me?” My mother explained that one of the guys sitting with the pianist at the table was Oscar Peterson. I had been admiring Oscar Peterson for years, and playing these transcriptions that we had at home. “Mom, why didn’t you ask me to get Oscar Peterson’s autograph?” and she said “Well, honey, I figured he would remember you better this way.”

It was a whole funny experience, and I wrote the piece to tell the story of that experience. The piece starts out with me going to the club, with harem pants on (it was 1980); it has this kind of “harem pants” feel, and the band comes in, Anita O’Day sings, and my mom is there – she’s a prankster, and it has a kind of prankster feel, then there’s the joke, which is the development section, and then it turns into this 1980s pop song, with a dark thing in the middle, which is me at seventeen saying “I am getting out of this place….”

So the whole piece is telling a story but is also a showcase for Irina Muresanu, a very virtuosic piece for her to play, with Sarah Bob, pianist. It wasn’t a commission per se, but it was written for them.

TM: In the Klein Suite, what is the “klein”?
ER: It was written for the Klein International String Competition in San Francisco. Not kleine, but Klein.

TM: I thought that perhaps it might be related to the “Klein bottle”…
ER: I thought that since it was written for the Klein Competition, and I thought it would be a funny play on “kleine”.

TM: It’s also only two movements, which is the smallest possible suite.
ER: Exactly. The commission was for a very short piece – eight minutes. As part of the commission, it had to be written so that it could be played on violin, viola, or cello. It’s best on violin. I have scores for all of those, and it has been played on all those instruments. The truth is that the first movement can sound better on the cello, but the second is almost impossible for the cello since it is so fast.

TM: Irina Muresanu is Romanian. Was I hearing Eastern European augmented seconds and so forth?
ER: In the Klein Suite? You may have heard that, but it wasn’t my intention. Irina helped me write it. She is my neighbor, and is a good friend and a very fine violinist, so when I was working on it I would bring it over and ask her questions. But I wasn’t thinking of Romanian stuff at all – I was just writing music.

TM: That’s interesting, since it very much sounds like it to me….
ER: Irina is Romanian, and plays a lot of music by Romanian composers, so I have heard her play a lot of Romanian music. It’s entirely possible that unconsciously, the sound of her instrument and the music that she plays and her sound got enveloped in the piece. It’s entirely possible, and I didn’t realize it.

TM: Please talk about how the piece works, how it’s constructed, how the two movements relate to each other…..
ER: I think they relate to each other as two contrasting things rather than as a complete thread, written as virtuosic pieces that would show off the various abilities of the instrumentalist. The first movement is very much a Bach theme, with a sense of counterpoint and a sense of line that covers the whole phrase from beginning to end, and then there is a section with arpeggios that is a relief from that long line. It’s really all about trying to capture the lyrical playing of the soloist with a few little techniques that would show off their skills. It’s quite difficult to do some of that stuff, but entirely possible.

The second movement is a foil, with the virtuosic techniques that are not displayed in the first movement, with a lightness and brightness and bird-like quality to it, with rhythmic virtuosity.

TM: On the CD it is such a contrast to the first solo work on the disc, in the sense that you had a deep voice, and now there is a higher, and less grounded music, flying around.
ER: I was thinking of birdsong. Irina plays all kinds of birdsong-like music, too, and so I was thinking very much about the bird-like quality that she has when she plays. “Flying around” is probably appropriate. There’s also some fiddling in the second movement. We have a fiddler player who lives across the street from us, a young kid, very talented, who plays fiddle in the summer in the afternoons, and I would hear him playing all the time.

TM: A related question: is it possible for a composer to think of birdsong without evoking the memory of Messiaen?
ER: That’s entirely possible, I think. I don’t think there’s a lot of Messiaen in this piece. I like Messiaen, of course I do, but he’s not at the top of my list of music that I listen to. I wasn’t thanking about that.

TM: I was wondering since there was a moment in the other violin sonata that reminded me of that – perhaps it was also a bird moment.
ER: I grew up with a lot of birds, and have listened to a lot of birds. He liked birds, and so do I.

TM: “Adrienne and Amy” are two people that I would imagine that very few listeners, even musicians, really know.
ER: Yes. They are Amy Beach and Adrienne Fried Block. Amy Beach, the composer, and Adrienne Fried Block wrote the big biography on her. This was a commission from the estate of Adrienne through Judith Tick. I actually wrote the first movement while she was ill and she was able to could hear it, but then she died, and I finished the other two movements. And this one really does have a little more Messiaen – I was actually thinking specifically about Messiaen.

TM: Ah-hah!
ER: So that’s where your Messiaen comes from.
It starts out with a quote from Amy Beach. She was listening to a bird outside her window, and started transcribing the bird’s song, and wrote a piece dedicated to the birdsong. It became one of her more famous piano pieces – A Hermit Thrush at Morn (op. 92, no. 2) [sings the motive]. This is throughout the piece. There’s also a birdsongy thing that comes from Amy Beach.

The other story about Amy Beach is that when she was young she went to play concertos in California. She was in a garden in Berkeley with an ornithology professor. He learned that she had perfect pitch, and asked her to help him transcribing birdsongs. She relates that one of the most beautiful moments in her life was sitting in the garden with the professor transcribing song.

So that became the structure for the piece. The first movement is the Amy Beach quote, the second is The Hermit Thrush, the most Messiaen-like, and the final movement, the Professor in the Garden, which refers both to Amy Beach’s experience and the fact that Adrienne Fried Block was lecturer and activist in her own way. The final movement is, of all the pieces on the CD, the one with the most twelve-tone construction – I was thinking about the academy, and the idea of academic music. It goes back and forth between the twelve-tone style and the earlier idioms.

TM: One of the things that struck here was that there was so much more imitation in this piece than you hear in the other works on the CD.
ER: Perhaps I was trying to get into the headspace of Amy Beach and the romantic tradition that she was part of…

TM: What so many contemporary composers try to avoid is writing things that repeat themselves, at least in the modern sense.
ER: That’s a sort of narrative construction that has gone out of style, but it was very much part of Amy Beach’s world.

TM: I would like to digress a little here. Amy Beach is probably one of the most well-known of American women from the 19th century in terms of music, and very much associated with Boston. Here are you are a hundred years later, a composing woman in Boston. How much has changed? Do you feel a connection with Amy Beach?
ER: I feel very close as an American woman composer living in Boston, married to a doctor (she was married to a doctor). I feel very much as if I am picking up her mantle. I think she was a very different person than I am, personality-wise, but we have many threads in common. I would also say that as a musician I exist in a different space than she existed in, but there is a personal connection and parallels in how we have lived our lives.

As far as women composers go, I have to say that that’s a very complicated question. Amy Beach had a very big career, a stellar career, and in a way very little happened for women composers after her career. It was never great for women composers, but it is almost as if a door closed sometime in the 1930s and 1940s, and things became even harder. Then things came back up in the seventies, and eighties and nineties, when doors started to slowly open again. I think things were getting better while Amy Beach was composing, but then there was a reactionary push against it.

Especially in the last fifteen years, I have seen so many women composers come out and do so well. It’s a better climate for women composers right now than it has been in my lifetime, I think.

Elena Ruehr

Elena Ruehr

TM: I think of Boston at the time of Beach as the “Athens of America”, and then something changed. You had Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps it was simply the economic downturn with the Depression, and that was it.
ER: I think that the influence of the academy on the arts in Boston has been both good and bad. As the music departments of Harvard and MIT and Tufts and Brandeis became the center points for new music in Boston it got a little conservative. When I first moved here in the 1980s I had been living in New York, where it was pretty open-minded and there were a lot of different types of new music going on. When I got here I felt like I had moved back in time twenty years. I don’t think that is true anymore. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, honestly, was such a breath of fresh air, because Gil Rose had such an open mind about programing. He would do movie music; he would do from the most academic music to the most sentimental, gushy music. He really tried to run the huge gamut between different types of styles. That opened up the aesthetic in town a lot.
But when I got here I felt that the academy had a grip on the expressive range of the composers in town.

TM: You would say that it was the highly abstract, serial idiom of the mid-century that was hanging on longer in Boston than elsewhere?
ER: I think so, yes. A composer like John Harbison helped push the envelope, and he was an outsider for a while, but that is not the case at all anymore.

TM: Let’s talk about the Prelude Variations. Since the disc moves backward in time, this is the next-to-oldest piece in the collection. It’s a rather unusual combination – viola and cello.
ER: It’s a commission for an amateur viola and an amateur cellist. They had heard one of my pieces, and had close ties with the Cypress String Quartet, so they asked for a piece that they could play, with the idea that Jennifer Kloetzel and Ethan Filner (of the Cypress Quartet) would record it. In a way this situation was the inspiration for the whole disc, since I knew that somebody would record each of these pieces. I asked Sarah Haushcka (who commissioned the work) to hear their life story as an inspiration for the piece, and she sent me a really lovely, long note. It was an anniversary present for her husband, and she told the story of when they met. She was playing some Bach preludes on the piano in Woods Hole on Cape Cod, and he is a marine biologist. He heard her playing and knocked on the door. It was the Bach preludes that stood out for me in the story. So there are two Bach preludes that are in there – it’s not transcription, but there is a lot of quoting.

TM: It must be pretty rare for composers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to write pieces that are consciously restricted in their technical demands, whereas if one looks back to the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, there is so much music that is at a middling level. Even a non-virtuoso can play the Brahms Intermezzi, for example. It seems like we have lost something in not having that repertoire present – maybe there is simply no market demand for it.
ER: For me it is always interesting to consider the technical demands on the players when you are working. I don’t look at it as a restriction or a straitjacket, but rather as a challenge, a way of inspiring ideas. This whole disc is dedicated to the musicians who are playing it.
Irina is a beautifully virtuosic player, and she looks great when she plays. She creates a whole show all by herself. Jennifer has a particular kind of sound that I try to pick up on…it’s really about the players. Not all of my music is written that way, but these pieces are. I really believe in the idea of amateur players, and my husband is an amateur cellist. I play piano trios with him and with Ed Miller, who is the violinist. Easy ones, since that’s the level we are all at – I read, and my husband practices….
So I really enjoy the idea of playing that music, and writing music for them to play it.

TM: And this leaves the Scarlatti Effect. Are you referencing the Mozart Effect?
ER: That may have been after I wrote the piece.

TM: Now no one will be able to see the title without thinking of the Mozart…..
ER: It was a commission from Donald Berman, who asked me to write a piece for First Night in Boston [a celebration of New Year’s Eve, with concerts]. I used to play through a book of Scarlatti sonatas when I was looking for inspiration. Ever since I was a kid I have been reading those pieces. So I decided to write a piece that was a tongue-in-cheek mish-mosh of all kinds of Scarlatti.

TM: There were some harmonic things towards the end that didn’t sound like you, I thought.
ER: There are actual quotes, where I am orchestrating the sonata, but sometimes I am squashing two different sonatas together, putting counterpoint from one sonata with another, playing with the harmonies, putting wrong notes in the bass, things like that. I also always thought that the sonatas were too short, and wanted to hear more development, so this is a way of realizing my feelings about Scarlatti. The big fat jazz chords at the end: that’s my way of saying – ok, we’ve had fun, now we’re done.

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