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Ruehr strikes the right note

Elena Ruehr
Elena Ruehr

Composer Elena Ruehr used a red plastic flute, a moment from early motherhood and an inconspicuous sound system to reflect on her own music-making process in an hour-long talk in Killian Hall on Nov. 10.

Ruehr, 41, a lecturer in music and theater arts at MIT, is composer-in-residence at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Her lively, intimate presentation, titled "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Modern Music--Ancient Traditions in the Modern World," was organized by the MIT Women's League.

Ruehr spoke without notes. There was no threat of power points. Occasionally, she waved the toy flute, which belongs to her daughter, Sophie, now 8. The flute worked in Ruehr's talk like the madeleine pastry in Marcel Proust's novels: it brought back the moment that set a life in motion.

"When Sophie was two, we had one of those long days at home sitting on the couch. I was a little bored. I picked up this flute and came up with this song. My third string quartet started with these four notes," Ruehr said, playing the tune.

For "Shimmer," an orchestral work, Ruehr traced more cerebral roots. "Shimmer" premiered in Jordan Hall in 1997 and will be performed there again in February, by the Boston Modern Orchestra project.

"Shimmer" derives its complexity and cyclical structure to both modern and classical works. Ruehr was "influenced by two very different new music composers--Steve Reich, who is very interested in cyclical patterns, and Milton Babbitt, who is interested in complex structures. And I was also influenced by Vivaldi, whose string music inspired the orchestral structures," she said.

As Ruehr played a two-minute excerpt from "Shimmer," her arms revealed years of dance training. She pointed to signify musical changes as if the notes could be seen in the room, like tame birds.

Since composing "Shimmer," Ruehr's interests have included computers ("not programming. My brother's a computer scientist. I don't like programming") and recently, experiments with bird songs. She whistled one.

"That's a song I heard when I was a little kid. I liked it. I also liked what happened when I recorded woodpecker sounds off the Internet and slowed them down. Inside each 'digga-digga-digga' is another 'digga-digga.' They're fractals with so much information! I couldn't hope to write it all down," she said.

Ruehr played a recorded segment of "The Law of Floating Objects," her composition for 5 flutes that was "most inspired by computers and bird songs," and an excerpt from her "String Quartet #3," delighting the lunch-hour audience.

Circling back to her topic, Ruehr said, "Forget about bird songs. Forget about the computer. I'm interested in flutes. I'm back to ancient instruments," said Ruehr. Her newest piece, a string quartet, was commissioned by the Cypress Quartet to respond to works by Mozart and Beethoven.

Elena Ruehr's compositions have been commissioned and performed internationally by musicians and orchestras including the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble. Her dance opera "Toussaint Before the Spirits" opened to critical acclaim as part of Boston's Opera Unlimited Festival in June 2003.

Ruehr studied at both the University of Michigan and the Juilliard School of Music. Her early orchestral works also received prizes from the Cincinnati Symphony, the Omaha Symphony, and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. Ruehr began teaching at MIT in 1991. In 1995 she received MIT's Baker Undergraduate Teaching Award. She teaches the music theory sequence (Harmony and Counterpoint 1 and 2) and has also taught Composing with Computers, 20th Century Music and Women in Music.

A CD of "Shimmer" is available from Albany Records.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 2004 (download PDF).

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