American composer Elena Ruehr is this week's subject for the Consonant Classical Challenge. On her website, Ruehr says of her music "the idea is that the surface can be simple, the structure complex.' Ruehr studied with Vincent Persichetti and William Bolcolm, two composers who wrote contemporary music that makes a ready connection with their audiences.
And the same can be said for Ruehr. While the structures of her works are indeed complex, the melodic surfaces are simple enough to be
grasped on first hearing. Part of it has to do with her use of tonality, which provides a point of reference for listeners. Ruehr also cites
literature as an inspiration, so it's no surprise that a substantial part of her catalog is for the voice. It includes an opera "Toussaint
Before the Spirits," a cantata, and several choral and solo vocal works.
Elean Ruehr has written an extensive amount of chamber music, including six string quartets. The first movement of her 3rd String Quartet
illustrates the dynamic between surface simplicity and underlying complexity. Titled "Clay Flute," the quartet evokes the nature of the folk
instrument with simple, pentatonic motives. But listen carefully to the supporting lines. That's what gives the music its substance.
"Shimmer" showcases Ruehr's orchestration skills. The work is written for string orchestra, but notice how Ruehr moves the ensemble away from its more traditional sound and into a place where it, well, shimmers.
The "Prelude Variations" for violin and cello show Ruehr's facility to maintain the balance between simplicity and complexity even with the most minimal of resources. Like Bach, these variations use the notes that are present to imply harmonies, making the music sound thicker than it actually is.
Although Elena Ruehr hasn't composed a symphony (yet), she does have a good number of works for orchestra, including a cello concerto. Part
of the challenge of the CCC is to find composers using tonality not to just create pretty music, but to create works with real depth and
meaning. I think Elena Ruehr's music does just that. And it's music I hope we'll start seeing on programs with increasing frequency.
How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr
Elena Ruehr: Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly