When Elena Ruehr (b. 1963) received her musical education (University of Michigan and The Juilliard School) in the late 1980s, melody wasn’t even considered as a part of modern music theory classes. Fortunately, one of her teachers—George Balch Wilson—recognized her gift for it. Now she sees melody as “the most complex and human of musical experiences.” Raised in a family of amateur musicians (her mother sang folk music and early jazz standards), she learned the piano at age five. Her passion as a dancer infuses her music with a distinctive rhythmic pulse. There’s sense of logic in her music: “the idea is that the surface be simple, the structure complex,” she states. Accordingly, her music often expands from short motives whose repetition and variation create an underlying design. She draws her musical inspiration from literature, art and non-western music.
The orchestral music on this disc spans her career of 21 years. The title of Vocalissimus (1991) comes from Wallace Stevens’ poem “To the Roaring Wind.” It’s a percussion-centric work of energy: shards (cells) of brass and woodwinds swirl around, communicating with each other randomly. Then, a subtle pulse takes over and the strings add a sweeping melody that lead to a climax, ending peacefully. In Shimmer for string orchestra Ruehr creates a beguiling tapestry of changing string textures (staccato vs. legato), dynamics, density (full orchestra vs. a few players) with an basic pulse that never wanes. The title is apt: there is a rich, shimmering gloss that is interrupted at the end by forceful chords that shock the listener.
Cloud Atlas is a cello concerto (2011) that’s inspired by David Mitchell’s novel. Six characters narrate stories that move through different time periods into the future. Ruehr focuses on the sixth character—the “goddess” Sonmi-451, and has her moving through all six stories. The music is soulful and dreamy, and Jennifer Kloetzel’s rich cello captures the essence of this impressionistic work.
The title of the album, O’Keeffe Images, refers to three paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Her sensual forms vacillate between beautiful and ugly, and the obscure delineation between the figurative and abstract earned her the title of “Mother of American Modernism.” Ruehr was inspired by her paintings, but the music is hardly a literal musical portrait of each of the works. Summer Days pictures a deer’s skull and flowers above a New Mexico landscape, where O’Keeffe visited for twenty years. The music is mysterious and has an underlying pulse that may represent the darkness of the skull. It’s expansive and dramatic. Sky Above Clouds is one of a series of repetitive abstract cloudscapes that fascinated O’Keeffe. Ruehr underlies her musical representation with a mutable ostinato, above which rise several intense and dramatic musical billows. Ladder to the Moon is an abstract minimalist painting with a yellow ladder pointing to a small crescent moon, with a green butte below. Ruehr’s music integrates a large orchestra with hand drums and dancing rhythms that evokes a spiritual ritual. It’s the most colorful and moving of the three portraits.
Ruehr’s artistic inspirations result in music that’s melodic, creatively orchestrated, with underlying rhythms. Performances and sound are superb. It will be interesting to watch her develop in the future.