Approachable and absorbing modern string quartets from Elena Ruehr.
ELENA RUEHR: SIX STRING QUARTETS: Cypress String Quartet—Borromeo String Quartet—Stephen Salters, baritone—Avie 2CD AV2379—70:57, 69:24 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
What’s striking about the six string quartets written over a period of 20 years by Elena Ruehr (b. 1963) are the diverse influences that are the inspiration for the works on these discs. Her music sounds fresh and new, yet approachable, making it a constant source of fascination for the chamber music lover. Of her music, Ruehr says: “the idea is that the surface be simple, the structure complex.” Most of these quartets communicate on first hearing, but repeated exposure reveals a musical and emotional depth that satisfies. Ruehr grounds the inspiration for her music in real world experiences, connects the musical past with the present, and embraces many cultures. The listener is submerged in a constant process of discovery that is invigorating.
Ruehr grew up in rural Michigan with a mother who sang folk music and jazz standards. Dinner was preceded by singing and playing folk songs and Gershwin tunes. She learned piano at age five and was writing music as a child. Her compositional mentors included William Bolcom, Vincent Persichetti and Bernard Rands. She was exposed to the music of her time (twelve tone techniques and minimalism) but one of her teachers, George Balch Wilson, recognized and encouraged her gift for melody. She sees melody as “the most complex and human of musical experiences.” In the First String Quartet (1991), “Interlude” she juxtaposes a soaring melodic line with a brief fiddling motive, while underneath is a Bach inspired contrapuntal milieu. It’s brief but rich musical mix.
Her passion as a dancer imbues her music with a distinctive rhythmic pulse. She studied and practiced African drumming while in college and was a member of the University of Michigan Gamelan. Ruehr uses a Sub-Saharan melody in the third movement of the String Quartet No. 3 (2001) to express the joyful and dizzying dancing of her two year old daughter. In the String Quartet No. 1, the fourth movement, “Estampe” Ruehr combines biting Bartokian pizzicatos, asymmetrical rhythmic stomping and circling ostinatos to create a whirlwind of energy. She uses silence as dramatic exclamation points—the last movement of the 6th quartet is only one of many examples.
Ruehr also has written music for voice, including several stage works. The Second String Quartet “Song of the Silkie” (2000) uses a baritione (Stephen Salters) with two distinct voices to tell the Orkney-inspired folk tale of an earthling man searching for a changeling seal-woman. Its other-worldly atmosphere and Salter’s voice is beautiful—something Benjamin Britten might have written. In the Fifth String Quartet (2010), Ruehr was inspired by Ann Patchett’s novel about a hostage situation. Each movement correlates with the title of the ten chapters of the book. Musical references include Dvorak and Puccini, Peruvian dance and Japanese folksong. Its melodic richness would be a good first listen to these quartets.
The String Quartet No. 4 (2005) was commissioned by the Cypress String Quartet as part of their ‘call and response’ series. The response was to Mozart’s K.465 and Beethoven’s Op. 59, no. 3. There’s a real sense of yearning in the mildly dissonant introduction that’s deepened through Ruehr’s use of silences and layered melodies in the first movement. The “Aria: Andante” has a pronounced Eastern flavor, with glissandi creating a state of turmoil, anchored underneath by a drone. Ruehr likens it to “being in love with something, maybe a music of the past, but knowing it’s not yours.” The“Minuet” is an exercise in silences, unbalanced rhythms melodic fragments that is definitely modern. The last movement teases with incessant motion, sinuous melodies, and a ‘ghostly but transparent’ melody that leaves the listener unsettled but intrigued. The Sixth String Quartet (2012) is dedicated to death of the manager of the Cypress String Quartet. It’s a darker work with integrated tensions between rhythms, dissonances and melodies. The musical language is more sophisticated, abstract and challenging.
Three of these quartets were commissioned by the Cypress String Quartet and their relationship with the composer results in performances that are authentic and well executed. Anyone interested in exploring string quartets from our time will find music that is compelling and absorbing.