Christian Steiner

American composer Elena Ruehr is reaching a critical mass of public recognition after a quarter century of steady work in multiple genres, increasing numbers of commissions, the ardent loyalty of a growing cadre of artists who champion her work, and enthusiastic response from audiences and critics alike. In November 2011, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players announced the TenFourteen Project, a commission for chamber works from an international group of ten distinguished composers, including Elena Ruehr, Ken Ueno, Agata Zubel, George Crumb, Chou Wen-chung and five others. Ruehr's new chamber work will be performed in San Francisco as part of the 2014-2015 season of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, under the direction of the group's Artistic Director, Steven Schick. In January 2012, Elena Ruehr's first cello concerto, titled Cloud Atlas, received its world premiere by cellist Jennifer Kloetzel and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Barbara Day Turner. Ruehr's cello concerto is dedicated to Ms.Kloetzel, who is the cellist in the Cypress String Quartet. With David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas as an inspiration, Ruehr's concerto uses different musical styles to evoke a sense of history, while keeping continuity through lushly lyrical melodies. April 2012 will mark the release of Averno, a CD of Ruehr's complete works for chorus and orchestra, featuring Trinity Wall Street's new music ensemble NOVUS NY and the Trinity Choir under the direction of conductor Julian Wachner. Featured soloists on the recording are baritone Stephen Salters and soprano Marguerite Krull. Ms.Ruehr wrote her cantata Averno - set for soprano, baritone, chorus and chamber orchestra - while a pursuing a fellowship at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute in 2008. The 40-minute work sets eleven poems drawn from the collection Averno by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück. According to Glück the text deals with "Humans' relationship to the natural world" and makes frequent reference to Greek myth, most notably in its title, "Averno", reputed to be the entrance to the underworld. Aside from Averno, Ruehr's upcoming recording also features Gospel Cha-Cha, based on a poem by Langston Hughes, and Cricket Spider Bee, on a poem by Emily Dickinson.


Elena Ruehr's creative output is rooted in equal measure to a deep reverence for and connection to both literature and nature. An avid reader, Ruehr has frequently drawn inspiration from literary works, from ancient mythology (Averno) to modern fiction (Bel Canto, All Souls' Rising, Cloud Atlas) and poetry (Averno, Gospel Cha-Cha, Cricket Spider Bee, Rain Down, Lullabies and Spring Songs, Five Men). And from her earliest works, she has returned again and again to the natural world as the ultimate source material (Of Water and Clouds 1986; Slender Wind 1988; Rain Down 1989; Sky Above Clouds 1993; The Law of Floating Objects 2000; Ladder to the Moon 2003; Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly 2007). Ruehr, a student first of William Bolcom at the University of Michigan, then of Vincent Persichetti and Bernard Rands at The Juilliard School (M.M. 1987), says of her music "I have a philosophy that I developed in my 20's that guides my musical choices: the surface is simple, the structure complex." This philosophy is evident in Ruehr's bold lyricism, which is informed by her ability to combine musical structures from worlds as diverse as the second Viennese School and minimalism. Her work has been described as "music with heart and a forceful sense of character and expression" (Washington Post), "magical" (Audiophile Audition), "sumptuously scored and full of soaring melodies" (New York Times), and "unspeakably gorgeous" (Gramophone). Currently available recordings of Ruehr's music include How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr (Cypress String Quartet); Toussaint Before the Spirits (Arsis CD 158); Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly (Albany TROY 1117) And Shimmer (in Metamorphosen, Albany TROY 194).


Elena Ruehr's oeuvre includes compositions for chamber ensemble, orchestra, chorus, chorus and orchestra, synthesizer, wind ensemble, instrumental solo, opera, dance and silent film. She was composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project from 2000-2005, where the orchestra premiered her pieces Shimmer, Sky Above Clouds, Ladder to the Moon, and her opera Toussaint Before the Spirits. Her five string Quartets have been championed by the Cypress, Biava, Borromeo, Lark and Shanghai String Quartets. A complete cycle of her quartets is currently being performed by the ROCO Quartet in Houston ( She has also written two scores for silent films: Manhattan Trade School for Girls and Deschutes Driftwood. Both are available on DVD from the National Film Preservation Foundation (


Elena Ruehr was raised in a small town in Michigan, the daughter of a mathematiciain and an English professor, both amateur musicians. Her career as a composer started along with her piano lessons at age four. Her earliest mentor was the Finnish Kantele player and composer Melvin Kangas, who also inhabited her small town. In addition to her formal studies in composition at the University of Michigan and The Juilliard School, she has also studied modern dance, and played in Javanese and West African performing ensembles. Ruehr has taught at MIT since 1991 and lives in Boston with her husband and daughter.

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