“Stunning.” “Magically beautiful to hear.” “Compelling, emotional, theatrical.” These are a few of the high raves that critics have lavished on composer and lecturer in music Elena Ruehr for more than a decade.
The world premiere of Ruehr’s 2003 dance opera, Toussaint Before the Spirits had the audience on its feet, stomping and cheering. The 2000 premiere of The Law of Floating Objects was described as a stunner of “dance rhythms and airy undulations”; her Gospel Cha Cha  was lauded as “riveting,” and the 2000 live performance of Cymbal and Spice was “jeweled with surprising syncopations,” the work of an artist “with a natural gift for making danceable scores.”
Indeed, for 39-year-old Ruehr, who joined the MIT music faculty when she was 28, the physical aspect of music is critical. “I write the music into my computer and I spend a lot of time dancing around, so I can figure out how the timing works and how it feels,” she says.
Like her music, dancing has been a passion for the composer since she was a kid. “I begged my Mom to sign me up for ballet classes,” says Ruehr, who grew up a child of academics in the remote, university town of Houghton, Michigan. “I danced and danced until I became a teenager and then music took over.” She has carried the passion and elegance into more than 20 musical scores, collaborating with the Nicola Hawkins Dance Company and baritone Stephen Salters on dance and opera. Her work as composer in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project has led to recent CD projects, including a new recording of her opera and a forthcoming orchestral works CD. The Shanghai, Cypress and Borromeo String Quartets, and The Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble have commissioned her works, and the Cincinnati Symphony, Omaha Symphony and Civic Orchestra of Chicago have honored her with prizes.
Ruehr’s compositional roots trace back to the northwest Michigan town, where her mother, a folksinger and pianist, taught her piano improvisationally. From the age of four on, Ruehr composed little tunes on the piano, and when she was 11, began formal lessons with a “wonderfully nice and wacky composer with great musical talent. I was pursuing both classical music and pop, and he encouraged me to be more avant garde.”
By high school, “music was the only thing I cared about, the only thing I wanted to do.” Though at first her parents tried to dissuade her from a career in music, Ruehr followed her passion, majoring in music composition at both the University of Michigan and Julliard. These days, Ruehr says that even if she never received another commission, she’d still compose. “I’m driven to do it,” she says.
Even so, Ruehr finds herself surprised by her musical proclivities. “I’ve become very interested in the fact that I made a conscious choice to become a classical musician rather than a jazz or pop artist. Despite the huge push towards the avant garde in art, I’ve become fascinated by existing within the tradition, although perhaps in a post-modern, selfconscious kind of way.” Whenever she goes to a concert, Ruehr says, “I feel like things are in a time warp. I’m always aware that it’s an historical act.” Ruehr traces this impetus to her 1994 orchestral piece Shimmer, the inspiration for which came after she heard Vivaldi in a shopping mall, “coming from nowhere, from the heavens. That’s when I first got this idea that I wanted to write a piece for orchestra that sounded like Vivaldi, but with modern technique.”
Prefers an Audience
While Ruehr says she doesn’t need an audience, she prefers one. “I always have a sense of someone listening, a sympathetic listener with a sensitive ear to music … probably my mother.” Ruehr’s ideal is to have the listener “be transported to whatever place I’m writing about … it could be an emotion or something beautiful, or have something to do with time, memory or the evocation of change.” To be an esoteric composer writing highly complex music, geared for academic specialists, is not her goal or metier. “I want to communicate to a broader group of people,” she explains. “Music has something intrinsic about it that anybody can understand on an essential human level, and I want to incorporate that thing we all have.” Part of the inspiration, she adds, “is to share something in an ephemeral way. Vibrations moving through the air really affect people.”
Despite her decade-long immersion in air vibrations in the classical mode, Ruehr feels she’s now on the verge of something different. “I have no idea what it is, but I feel I’m at a turning point.” At the moment, it’s slowing her down, which she finds frustrating. “It means you can’t find the idea that’s going to make you dance around the room.” But Ruehr, who says she has to be in love with her work in order to work, isn’t worried. Her dancing feet are simply waiting for their muse.