[Her] creative output is rooted in equal measure to a deep reverence for and connection to both literature and nature.
Credit: Christian Steiner
Elena Ruehr | Bears
“When you sing in a chorus and it all just clicks, you feel as if you are all one big voice. There’s this sense of oneness. Instead of being 50 people all singing a piece of music, you’re one big, superhuman sound. In the moment, you just feel elated and empowered.”
— Elena Ruehr
in MIT Spectrum
The Providence Singers’ first encounter with Elena Ruehr came on February 25, 2005. Her Cricket, Spider, Bee, a setting of three poems by Emily Dickinson was part of the New Music for a New Age concert which also, coincidentally, included a world première — Trevor Weston’s Ma’at Musings — and music of Morten Lauridsen.
Her setting of Bears, a poem by Adrienne Rich, was commissioned by the Providence Singers with its Wachner Fund for News Music. Ruehr had this to say about Bears:
“I had two obsessions when I was very little: stuffed animals and music boxes. When I first read Bears by Adrienne Rich, the poem immediately brought me back to my childhood. There’s something both mysterious and lighthearted about this poem, and I imagined my own stuffed bears wandering around my house at night, accompanied by the slightly out of tune, dreamy sound of music boxes. In this setting, the piano takes the role of music box, with tunes set off by slightly wrong notes that suggest a dreamy, twinkling world. The chorus tells the tale with a bit of mystery and some nostalgia.”
Feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) is among the most influential poets of the second half of the 20th century, as her list of honors suggests — two Guggenheim fellowships, a National Book Award for Poetry (shared with Allen Ginsberg), the Yale Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, a 1994 MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Award”), and others. She was active against war and oppression and was a fierce advocate for the arts. In 1997 she declined the National Medal Arts as a protest both of the House of Representatives’ effort to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and of Clinton White House policies regarding the arts and literature.
An award-winning faculty member at MIT since 1992, Ruehr has also been a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute and was the first composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), from 2000 to 2005. BMOP premiered her pieces Shimmer, Sky Above Clouds, and Ladder to the Moon, as well as her opera Toussaint Before the Spirits in collaboration with Opera Boston (Arsis Records, 2005). Ruehr’s pieces are often inspired or suggested by work from other artistic spheres, and she is known for her collaborations with the writers Louise Glück, Elizabeth Alexander, Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett and Adrienne Rich, among others.
Ruehr lives in Boston with her husband and daughter.
A poem by Adrienne Rich
Wonderful bears that walked my room all night,
Where are you gone, your sleek and fairy fur,
Your eyes’ veiled imprisoned light?
Brown bears as rich as mocha or as musk,
White opalescent bears whose fur stood out,
Electric in the deepening dusk,
And great black bears who seemed more blue than black,
More violet than blue against the dark–
Where are you now? upon what track
Mutter your muffled paws, that used to tread
So softly, surely, up the creakless stair
While I lay listening in bed?
When did I lose you? whose have you become?
Why do I wait and wait and never hear
Your thick nocturnal pacing in my room?
My bears, who keeps you now, in pride and fear?