An Interview with Elena Ruehr

We spoke by Skype on May 3, 2010.

TM: You grew up in Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. Was your family musical? Did they play accordion in the old country?

ER: My dad was a jazz piano player. He put himself through college — he was a mathematician. He went to college at the University of Michigan when he was sixteen. He worked from 3:00 P.M. TO 11:30 PM in the Ford Motors plant, making cars, went to classes in the morning, and worked in the jazz band on the weekends. I can’t believe he did it….He was a jazz pianist in the old school — loved Oscar Peterson, and loved Gershwin. My mother was a folksinger, and loved kids’songs. She collected all the great folksingers — Pete Seeger, Joan Baez — and was really interested in old folk songs. Joan Baez would have been modern for her. She used to teach me those old folk songs in the car as we drove around, with our tents in the trunk, camping from one place to another, all over the country. One of my mother’s grandmothers was a pianist who accompanied silent films for many years in Plymouth, Michigan. She grew up doing that in high school, and wanted to be a professional musician, but didn’t make it.

TM: Where was your father from?

ER: My parents were both from Plymouth and my dad worked at the Ford plant in Ypsilanti.

TM: I can’t imagine when your father had time to sleep. How did they come to move to the Upper Peninsula?

ER: My dad got a job at IBM, in Poughkeepsie, New York and my mom started going to state university in New Paltz where she went to Eleanor Roosevelt’s afternoon teas. My dad got tired IBM because he hated wearing ties. So he quit. One summer we lived in a tent by a lake. People called my mom a beatnik and a hippie because she sang and played the guitar, but she didn’t like that. They went off to this nowhere place in the Upper Peninsula where my dad got a job as a math professor. My mom became a rabble-rouser feminist politician and also taught at the university.

TM: When did they move?

ER: It must have been about 1967 or 1968. There was a little time in between — my dad finished his Ph.D at Ann Arbor, and worked in the Radiation Lab, where they did bomb research. He quit that, because he hated the bombs. By the time we got to the UP it must have been about 1967 when I was four years old.

TM: How big was the town where you lived?

ER: South Range had about 300 people. There was a university five miles away called Michigan Tech, in Houghton, and that was a town of about four thousand.

TM: That is small.

ER: Very small — you are right.

TM: Your father played piano –is that where your piano came from?

ER: We always had a piano. My mother was my teacher, but my dad played every night. After dinner he would play Gershwin songs, and my mom would sing. It was very sweet.

TM: How did your mother get involved in the folk scene? That was something very labor-left-wing-Jewish in the fifties.

ER: She was part of that scene and she was about a quarter Jewish. We have movies from 1961, where she has long hair in braids, and my dad has a beard, and she is singing and playing the guitar. I think it might have been in New York where there were cool arty types who introduced her to folk at school — she was in school while my dad was at IBM.

TM: This was just about the time that Bob Dylan arrived from Hibbing, but you went the opposite direction — from the metropolis to a town of 300. Did you go on to study piano with another teacher?

ER: My mom needed her piano tuned, so she called the local community college — Suomi, which is now called Finlandia, and the man there who tuned pianos, Melvin Kangas, who had a chicken farm in a town of 40 people, would come and tune our piano. She liked him, and he liked her, and he became my teacher. He had gone to the University of Michigan, and had gotten a masters’ degree in composition, studying with Leslie Bassett, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner in the sixties. Melvin had given up on big city life and had come home. He is a wonderful, wonderful guy, very smart, just didn’t like the nonsense. He taught me how to push the boundaries of the tonal music that I was writing with my mom as my teacher.

TM: Was there a Finnish colony there?

ER: There was copper mining in the Upper Peninsula, and there were Cornish and Finnish people who came to be miners.

TM: Were there musical ensembles at your school? Choruses and bands?

ER: We moved to Houghton when I was in the fifth grade, and I went to high school there, where we had a chorus and a band. Robert Nordeen was the conductor.

TM: Were you in the chorus and the band?

ER: Yes. I played the piano for the chorus, and sang as a tenor and sometimes an alto, and I played the flute in the band.

TM: When did you take up the flute, and why?

ER: When I was in the second grade, the teacher at the school in South Range asked us all what instrument we wanted to play. I went in and said “I want to play the drums — raaaaaah!” He said “Girls don’t play drums.” I said, “Oh! OK, I’ll play the flute.” So that’s how I became a flutist. I kept it up until I was twenty, when I gave it up because I had too much to do.

TM: And there were probably no boys whatsoever who played the flute.

ER: No boy flute players, and lots of boy drummers.

TM: And trumpeters, with no women who played trumpet.

ER: No, although we had women playing French horn.

TM: Was there an orchestra there?

ER: No orchestra — just band and chorus. No strings.

TM: Probably not a large Jewish population in the UP.

ER: There was one Jewish guy whom I dated briefly, and he was the only Jewish guy my age in town. There was a synagogue, which had about twenty members.

TM: You mentioned folk music earlier. Was there popular music you were listening to?

ER: I have two older brothers, and one was into heavy metal — he liked Led Zeppelin. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin because of him. My other brother was interested in indie bands — he got interested in Morton Subotnick, which was at one end, and The Doors at the other. My friends were listening to the B-52s, and Aerosmith, and everything in between. I liked Janis Joplin and loved Paul Simon — I had a crush on him….

TM: Was there live music in that part of the state?

ER: I dated a disc jockey named Dan Cunningham in high school, so I heard a lot of music through him. He was on a top-40 radio station. I played in a rock band, which did fifties songs, and a little jazz, and a little pop music. But mostly we heard recordings.

TM: What was the name of the band?

ER: I will not tell you — it’s that embarrassing.

TM: You played keyboards?

ER: I did, and sang a little bit.

TM: Did you have a Farfisa?

ER: I had a Fender Rhodes. I used to tune it myself, although eventually I messed it up completely.

TM: Keyboard, drums, bass — and a guitar?


TM: What did your mother think about your rock and roll?

ER: She didn’t like it, but I was a very headstrong girl. She used to date a drummer in a band when she was in high school, and she thought “she just has to work this out”. And I did.

TM: Do you still have recordings of the group?

ER: Someplace in my basement.

TM: When your papers are given to the institution of your choice, they will include the recordings of the rock and roll band.

ER: They will be burned….

TM: At what point did you start to think that you would be a musician? Were you starting to think about composition at that point?

ER: When I was in the ninth or tenth grade I started to have lessons with Melvin Kangas, and started writing piano music. On the one hand there was this pop music going on, but on the other my dad was listening to the Beethoven and the Bartok string quartets. He had a hi-fi system that he had built himself, and got all these reel-to-reel recordings of Bartok and Beethoven. I used to listen to them a lot. I thought Bartok was a girl, since her name was Bella. I was writing pop songs and piano pieces that were in the style of Chopin, Debussy, Gershwin. I didn’t know what I was going to do until I had to decide what I was going to major in in college. I had to make a decision — I got a call from a band that was touring the Midwest, a top-40 band, and they wanted me to come tour with them. It was bigger than anything I had done. And I had an offer to go to the University of Michigan and be a composer. I had gone to Michigan, and auditioned there, and had a wonderful moment where I was at the graduate student class — they had accidentally scheduled me for the graduate students instead of the undergraduates — and the class was talking about Berg’s Wozzeck. I had never heard anything like it. I was just completely astounded by the fact that music could be so deep and real and complicated. I didn’t understand it, but I felt like there was this huge place that I was never going to see unless I went there. So when the pop band called, I thought “No way! I am going to college! I am going to learn about this.” Little did I know that I would not earn as much money as I did that year for another twenty years…..

I was really taken by Berg’s Wozzeck — it was the thing that got me to college.

TM: In the UP you had never heard of Berg —

ER: nothing like it.

TM: Was there a public library with a collection of recordings?

ER: There was a library at my dad’s university, Michigan Tech, and my brother Fritz, who liked Morton Subotnick, and I used to go down there when we were kids and listen to the Well-Tempered Clavier over and over again, in the recording on harpsichord by Wanda Landowska. In studying piano with my mother, I went through all the John Thompson books, and then all the Classics to Moderns….

TM: Was your focus on composition when you got there to the University of Michigan?

ER: I was always a composer, right from the start.

TM: Who was the faculty in composition at Michigan at that point?

ER: Leslie Bassett and George Balch Wilson, who was my first teacher, and my main teacher there. Bill Albright was there, and Bill Bolcom, who became my teacher later.

TM: Where did Michigan sit esthetically? Was it conservative, musically?

ER: It was rather conservative, to be honest. I used to say to my friends that they don’t call it a conservatory for nothing. When I got there I felt that the performers (not the composers) were so encapsulated in the past. They were so deeply engaged with these ancient things that I didn’t have a connection with them. I would hang out with the art students, though as time has passed I have become more interested in history.

TM: Conservatories tend to be places that pass on from teacher to student a hands-on and not so analytical approach to music, so they can be extremely conservative places.

ER: I would say that Michigan was kind of in-between, because on the other hand, it was a university, and so the intellectual part of the experience was really engaging.

TM: How isolated was Ann Arbor at the time in terms of its musical life?

ER: To me it seemed like a Mecca compared to the Upper Peninsula. Then I went to Juilliard and saw the difference.

TM: What sort of music were you writing in your beginnings in composition at Michigan? Do you still have pieces from that period that you look back on fondly? Is there an opus one that dates back that far?

ER: I think I would leave out everything that I wrote as an undergraduate. I wrote a flute piece, I wrote a flute and vibraphone piece, a trio for strings, a set of songs, a pseudo-cello-concerto….most of that stuff I would call juvenilia.

TM: What was the idiom? What did they encourage you to write?

ER: They encouraged me to think less about pitch and more about form, and line — that was George Wilson. George was really interested in line, and how to make a form out of a long line. That has stayed with me all this time. He had me draw pictures of the piece, rather than pitches, and then put the pitches in. That was very interesting to do.

I did some set theory. I got interested in Dallapiccola — I liked Dallapiccola a lot. I was interested in smaller sets — the Babbitt idea. I was listening to minimalism. I was all over the place.

TM: Where did you go from there?

ER: I went to Juilliard, and I think I went there because I was sick of the small town, and I wanted to go to the city. I could have gone to Eastman, but I really wanted to go to New York. I wanted to study with Vincent Persichetti, and I was right about that. He was a great teacher.

TM: When did you get to Juilliard?

ER: 1985.

TM: The late eighties are an interesting time, because this is when you have the breakdown of the uptown school — it’s no longer sustainable to be writing uptown music. It’s rather like the collapse of communism, which took place at the same time.

ER: [Laughs] I remember talking with Milton Babbitt about that.

TM: The system collapses from within, and in a very short time, it’s gone — it has no more prestige — something that was there for decades, with an intellectual system. There was no possibility of serious work outside that system, and all of a sudden — zip. How was your experience of that moment?

ER: I remember that when I got to Juilliard, there was this weird time feeling — I felt like I was going back in time in terms of the esthetic. Looking back on it now, I think that they were looking towards the future. Serialism had already left Juilliard by the time that I got there, but it was still in place at Michigan. The situation at Juilliard was the way toward the future, but it seemed like the way of the past. It was very odd to be in this kind of neo-Romantic place. Nowadays neo-Romantic would be something much simpler than it was at Juilliard in 1985, when it just meant “not serial” and “expressive”.

TM: Did you also work with Milton?

ER: I knew Milton Babbitt, but he was not my private teacher.

TM: What were you writing at Juilliard?

ER: One of my most important pieces from Juilliard is on my CD, Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly — a piece called Of Water and Clouds for flute and piano, which is my earliest recorded piece. I wrote a saxophone and piano piece, based on a six-note hexachord from Milton Babbitt, and was reading his Words about Music….something happened to me. I started studying early Stravinsky, and octatonic music, and wrote Of Water and Clouds, which is very much influenced by my work with octatonicism.

TM: Does that connect up with having been a flutist yourself?

ER: I wrote it for my friend Su Lian Tan, who is a flutist. She was my best pal — she wrote me a piece, and I wrote her a piece, and we played them at Alice Tully Hall. We played another piece by Daron Hagen.

TM: Does the flute have a special place in your imagination? What’s your take on the instrument?

ER: I know the high G, how it feels, how it sounds, how it speaks, how it’s different from the A-flat above it — when you play an instrument you get to know it so deeply that it’s in your head. And I have written several flute pieces that are hallmarks of what I do — there’s Of Water and Clouds, and The Law of Floating Objects, which for me was a moment when I captured something that I care a lot about. And another piece called Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly, for the flutist Sarah Brady.

For me the flute is the instrument that marks my moment. The flute is a conduit for lyrical and vocal writing. When I write my string quartets, which I think are some of my strongest music, I am writing for four voices, really, and then I write operas, and vocal music, and choral music. To me the flute is a voice.

TM: Please elaborate on what you said about The Law of Floating Objects.

ER: To be very technical, it marked two different ideas that I had had. One was based on my dance experience, which I haven’t talked about, and my ideas about rhythm, and the other is my understanding of lyricism. It’s a piece for five flutes — I had been working for a long time on an idea called pattern music, which is the first movement of my first string quartet, as well as my piece called Shimmer, for string orchestra, and also the third movement of my third string quartet. A series controls everything that happens in the music, but instead of being twelve notes, it’s ten notes, and may be diatonic — so it’s not serial, but cycling. A little bit of Babbitt and a little bit of minimalism. That was the pitch content, but the rhythmic content was about creating a sense of cycle that is very, very fluid, so there are these circular patterns which happen throughout that piece that are tagged by perfect fifths. The fifths occur everywhere from every six eighth notes to every seventeen eighth notes, and they are constantly moving back and forth between these cycles, so there is a fluid sense of time, but it is still cyclical. Like waves crashing on the beach. That was a moment where I figured out how to do that.

TM: Listening to that piece I was listening to the fifths, and the wonderful sound of the bass flute, and the rhythm evoked something about Latin music, about Latin American dance perhaps.

ER: There is a fluidity in Latin American music that moves between threes and twos, and I think that is more natural than straight quarter notes. That is something that I like a lot, for sure. (on an aside, I think the threes and twos in Latin American music are more linguistic based — a kind of fluidity that has to do with the rhythm of speech, like African “talking” drums, and the fixed rigid strong/weak beats in mid-period European music are more movement based, from walking and marching to the formal dance styles of the period.)

TM: If I am watching television, Latin music is always used to signify sex or sensuality, or both. Something is going on in the American ear when it hears threes plus twos.

ER: I think it is a more natural rhythm — there’s a reason that it is sexy.

TM: Please say a little more about Shimmer. What was striking was the use of a combinatorial rhythm with a highly diatonic set of pitches. It doesn’t evoke another voice, but it is so diatonic that it recalls music of the fifties, perhaps.

ER: The story is that I got a commission from the Metamorphosen ensemble, which recorded it, and I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and they were all kids, and I thought “They’ll never do this” and they did (!). I wanted to write them something that was like “cutting-edge pop music meets string orchestra”, and I kept hitting a wall, because it all sounded like Beethoven’s Fifth with a drumset. In a fit of frustration I went to a shopping mall, and was walking around and heard Vivaldi playing, and thought “What would Vivaldi do if he had been transported by time machine to this shopping mall?” My idea was to create a piece that looked like Vivaldi on the surface, but was constructed in a modern way underneath. This is the opposite of writing rock music for string orchestra, in that mine supposed to sound old (on the surface), but it’s actually made in a new way, rather than being made in an old way, and sounding new (on the surface). It’s made with a five-note pitch set, combined with another five-note pitch set — they are both pentatonic scales, and are a whole step apart, so you can transpose them by keeping one set the same, and moving the other one. It was the most controlled piece I had ever written in terms of design and idea.

TM: The very first few bow strokes on the recording seems like the piece is not quite underway — it seems to emphasize the way the rhythm works.

ER: Scott Yoo and I talked about making it sound like early music, not a thick violin-y kind of sound, but rather a clean echo-y sound.

TM: Two schools of composers: one, architectural: think Oscar Niemeyer, a couple of curves, and everything comes out of the curves he draws, with the details filled in after. Or: a composer invents a motive, and that generates a counter-melody, and that generates a harmonic motion….and perhaps the large-scale form grows out of the material, so that the structure is generated by the details. Which school do you belong to?

ER: I do both, definitely. I constantly go back and forth. I find the gesture, I look at what the big picture is, I draw pictures of the big scene, I go back to the gesture — it’s all interrelated. All of my pieces start with a two-second, a three-second sound…maybe you could say I start with the gesture first, but the sound suggests the architecture, and the architecture suggests the development of the sound. I don’t think any composer could say that you can separate those two things out, actually. It’s where your focus is, which shifts all the time, for me.

TM: Narrative — do you think in terms of a drama, in terms of character in terms of building a large structure?

ER: There’s environmental — trying to create a sense of space — the Law of Floating Objects creates a sense of space. And then there’s story. All my string quartets are stories. They are all very deeply narrative. I really like narrative.

TM: Does the narrative come first? Or does it come along after the motivic material?

ER: The motivic material suggests the narrative, and the narrative alters. They coinhabit the same space.

TM: You have a brand-new CD of quartets out. What are some other projects for 2010 and 2011?

ER: I am writing a cello concerto for Jennifer Kloetzel and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. I am writing a sixth string quartet. I am recording quartets 2, 5 and 6 next year. The most important thing though is that in 2011, on April 3, the Washington Chorus will premiere my cantata Averno, with poet Louise Glück I feel good about the music, but Glück’s text is extremely important.

TM: Avernus is the lake in southern Italy which is the entrance to the underworld.

ER: Louise Glück’s book is called Averno, and I chose eleven poems in order from the book, which has about fifty. The underlying principles are two. One is the story of Persephone and Demeter, which is the Avernus reference, but the larger metaphor, which is an understated but extremely powerful aspect of the poetry, is, as she says, humans’ relationship to the earth. It’s a powerfully dark story about the natural world and how humans have lived in it.