Elena Ruehr (b.1963) was born in rural Michigan, was taught the piano by her mother, and began composing as a child. Having studied composition with William Bolcom at the University of Michigan and with Vincent Persichetti and Bernard Rands at Juilliard (where she earned her doctorate), her music reveals a wide variety of external influences—particularly dance, which was a major preoccupation in of her childhood, and jazz. As a performer, she also studied African drumming and was a member of the University of Michigan Gamelan. Her own work is suffused with an organic sense of movement via sensual melodic lines, irregular but strongly pulsed rhythm and meter, and vibrant timbral combinations. She has written a great deal of music for voice, including several stage works, and her instrumental melodies frequently evoke vocal music. More broadly, Ruehr’s music is often inspired by natural processes and visual imagery. She has compared her approach to rhythm and meter to the fluid periodicity of waves, for example, or to the rhythms of breathing and walking. Ruehr’s pieces also draw from other arts, especially visual art—e.g., her orchestral triptych O’Keeffe Images—or literature, such as her Cloud Atlas, a cello concerto named for David Mitchell’s novel.
A member of the music faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since the early 1990s, she was also the first composer-in-residence for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. That collaboration led to the composition and recording of several orchestral works (O’Keeffe Images, released on CD on BMOP/sound in 2014); BMOP also performed and recorded her opera Toussaint Before the Spirits, which was produced to great acclaim by Opera Boston in 2003. She has also been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.
Three of Ruehr’s six string quartets were commissioned by the Cypress Quartet and one was commissioned for the Borremeo Quartet. Her quartets have also been championed by the Arneis, Biava, Lark, ROCO, Quartet Nouveau, and Shanghai string quartets, among many others. Her recordings include Quetzal Garden (Radius Ensemble, 2016), Lift (Avie Records, 2015) Averno (Avie Records, Trinity Choir, 2012), and Jane Wang considers the dragonfly (Albany, various artists, 2009).