Ellen Reid, Full-Spectrum Composer
By Lou Fancher
In a conversation, composer and sound artist Ellen Reid uses the word “interstitial.” As if highlighted in brightest yellow in dense text on a computer screen, the word pops to attention as an apt definition of the sonic and frequently visual worlds her works occupy. Except, from the tiny fulcrum of this in-between space, Reid’s compositions extend like the spokes on a bicycle wheel to vast application: chamber orchestra works, pieces for classical and contemporary instrumental ensembles and choral groups, operas, film and television scores, sound design for art installations, and more.
Reid was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her opera, p r i s m. With composer Missy Mazzoli, she co-founded the Luna Composition Lab, a fellowship and mentorship program for young female, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming composers. Reid has a BFA from Columbia College at Columbia University, where she focused on musicology and computer music. Before earning an MA from California Institute of the Arts, she worked for several years at an international school in Thailand, a post that sparked her interest in opera.
Recent media attention draws focus to Reid as the first composer to have a world premiere with Los Angeles’ four major classical music institutions: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale, LA Chamber Orchestra and LA Opera. In the Bay Area, a work written for Kronos, SOUNDWALK, was recently presented in Golden Gate Park. Presented by the Kronos Festival in association with McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, the free, GPS-enabled work allows users to experience a self-curated performance in which the walking path chosen by the listener determines the music heard. As a result, musical cells crafted to harmonize with the park’s landscape and attractions need never result in the same sound experience from one visit to the next.
The innovative, progressive, 21st-century tilt of Reid’s compositions makes it a wonderful surprise to find at the end of one “spoke” the music made unforgettable by all-girl groups of the 1960s: the Chiffons, the Shirelles, the Dixie Cups, the Shangri-Las, and others. Music of Memphis, Motown, and musical theater are as much a part of her backbone as is Eastern and Western classical and contemporary music. Reid speaks of her origins as a musician, the Luna Lab, her processes, winning the Pulitzer, and the fear she experiences at the cusp of each new project.
Tell me about the music you listened to while growing up: What music filled your ambient sound environment and what music did you intentionally listen to?
There are different environments. I grew up in East Tennessee, so we sang in church choir and that was pretty consistent. We rehearsed once a week and performed on Sundays. I also played piano. My parents met in Memphis and my dad grew up there. They were into music of their generation and Motown and music that originates in Memphis. Musicals were a big part of music we listened to as a family. As a younger person I listened to a lot of Top 40 hits on the radio and pop music, and also I was into older pop music like Simon and Garfunkel. And girl groups. I found that kind of thing beautiful. There was an album I had, The Best of the Girl Groups Volume 1 [a 36-track compilation on Rhino] I could sing the whole thing from soup to nuts. It was a CD and I still have it, but I don’t even have anything to play a CD anymore. Oh my gosh, it was so good.
Some people might not know about the origins of your interest — after the girl band phase was firmly established — in classical music. What story would you like to highlight?
I went to college in New York and was surrounded by tons of music from classical to experimental to jazz to everything under the sun. I started writing music for instruments while I was in college. It was for musicals and theater. If classical means instrumental, that started in college and it was [music written] to support another story.
What led you to write operas specifically?
I got a job teaching music in Thailand, and I had a wonderful experience working at a school. The second year, I worked at a theater in Bangkok that did Thai and Western fusion operas. The room between opera and theater in Thai traditional and folk music is way blurrier than here. Because their language is tonal, there’s a fuzzier line between those things. I loved theater and writing music for it and it was super interesting to bridge that with another set of musical rules.
And to work with different instrumentalists who were coming from a different place. We were making operas and it was interesting to me. There were different parts of storytelling, such as where sometimes you had a masked dancer onstage and their voice was from a chorus offstage. It made me more excited [about] opera than I had felt by traditional Western operas. It was coming from a place of storytelling, theater, and religion — all blurred together. It was so rich. It wasn’t Western opera put into a different tonality: The function was completely different. There is music created for functions and music created for casual listening. This kind of opera sat in a different place than Western opera.
There are many sonic worlds I feel I’m inhabiting when I listen to your work, among them fantastic magic and gritty reality. Will you speak about those two worlds?
Those are elements of growth and imagination. I wouldn’t set them as two separate things. I think of them on a spectrum where fantasy is a limit of imagination and reality is the grounding element. So what’s everything in-between? How are we moving? To grow, we have to imagine and then the whole work is moving our reality into that growth. The whole point is to move reality into and unite it into imagination so they become your lived reality. The reaching has to start with the imagination.
And the sonic surround of stories told based on personal memory, history, facts or science?
I see them all as grounding elements and from those we can spring further. Because it’s rooted in something current. What does that mean? Facts and science and personal experience are rooted in the now. It gives grounding for creative work to jump off from.
There comes a time in your creative process when editing or directional choices are made. Do they mostly happen in early development stages, periodically all through the process, or in final sprints when completing a score?
As far as editing choices related to instrumentation goes, there are two different ways. Sometimes a group reaches out and says here’s the instruments we have. Within that, there’s a little bit of negotiation, like, do you have an extra percussionist or can your piano player play a set? For the piece I wrote for Kronos Quartet [SOUNDWALK], it was inspired by the ensemble [itself] and is written for them as individual players.
In other works, where the ensemble isn’t given by the commissioning entity, then it’s something that happens really early in my process. It’s one of the first things I like to decide. Then you have something to work within, it helps to figure out the whole sound world, because those instruments move in different ways. If it’s a bunch of woodwinds, I can’t write things that gliss very much. Also, instruments have connotations. For example, in p r i s m, I decided to go with Romantic-sounding instruments to give a dreamy kind of feel. And then those instruments have to be able to contort to make something else later. Those decisions are directed by the story or the palette. It’s somewhere between the palette, the possibilities of the project in terms of numbers, and my phone book, my contacts. Who’s going to do a great job and who do I know?
Selecting one of your compositions, will you talk about the use of human voices and the importance of that element in your work?
I love writing for voice; it’s just that simple. When I’m writing for other instruments it usually comes from the human voice, even if it’s not an actual voice. Like when I’m writing for violin or horn, it still comes from a vocal place. One example of a piece that uses human voice in an unusual way is a piece I wrote for the New York Philharmonic called When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist. It’s for full orchestra and treble voice soloists. I wanted a sense of otherworldliness, adding vocals with no text, just oohs and aahs and muttering. The voices blended with the strings and woodwinds that created a haze around the piece that only the human voice can do. We’re trained as listeners to hear the voice in ways like no other. If there is a whole orchestra and then one voice comes in, we hear that voice. Our brain hears and prioritizes voices.
Are there both pitfalls and advantages to writing lyrics that tell stories? Do words inhibit a work or force literal interpretations of a work?
One kind of work, if you have lyrics, they usually take and center conveying the story of the text as the priority and define what the music can do. Another kind of work, if there are no lyrics, the listener creates their own world and own story. You know, even with lyrics and a strong story, the listener still creates their own story. But then, it’s so much more extreme. One person can say a piece resonates with them and then another person can say it resonates with them because of something completely different.
If the lyrics are conveying the story, I like to work closely with the writers to illuminate as much of the text as possible. There are works that need lyrics, but I also like writing works without lyrics that become more about timbre. I see lyrics and timbre more as a relationship with how you are using the voice. Is it voice as an instrument, or voice as a storyteller? Do you have to hear the words; get the story from what the person is saying? Or is the voice just a color? The story is then in the music and up to the listener.
When developing and composing film scores, what are the practices you hold onto and do the specific requirements and guidelines dictated by the artform (like time) stimulate your creativity or lead to unexpected solutions?
I like writing for film. It doesn’t feel different from writing for theater or opera or interstitial music. You’re drawing out what’s happening visually. In film you leave more room for the visuals than in opera. The music shouldn’t pull as much attention in a film. Because then it’s not supporting the image. It’s intuitive, knowing if something is too dense.
When you’re scoring a film, you’re looking at and feeling the image, feeling the pace, trying to bring out the action through the music. If it’s too heavy-handed, it doesn’t come from the storytelling of the film. It comes from somewhere else and doesn’t make the visual stronger. You want the experience to be unified. There’s only so much energy and you want to be giving, not taking, from the image.
Let’s talk about Luna Lab: What new directions are you pursuing and what will ensure it remains exploratory, authentic, vital to fellows and alumni composers?
Luna Lab is one of the most important things I do, and it’s so fulfilling. We’re bringing education to young female nonbinary and gender nonconforming composers. We’re bringing their work into the spotlight. Their work is so excellent that people are shocked. Some of our alums have been commissioned by St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and Louisville has commissioned another one of our alumni.
Needless to say, the gender gap in music, especially in composition is huge. There are problems with the pipeline. We’re making sure our fellows and alumni are set up to apply to colleges with excellent recordings of their work which is a huge thing. We work with international contemporary ensembles and professional orchestras to record and perform the work of the alumni. Then they can apply to colleges with that work. That is powerful. They are getting into great composition programs. They’re set up to have a real career. They will be more savvy because they’ve been exposed to things and have a whole professional network to connect to.
We have an alumni fund where fellows can apply for support for things that help them like composition lessons, a keyboard so they don’t have to walk across campus. We’re committed that all fellows can have theory class if they don’t already have it. Music education is obviously all over the place, depending on where you’re from. It’s important to have young talented artists connected with programs that are going to help them grow. Through the program, the alumni fund, and the network, we’re trying to get the young composers into professional positions. Our call for scores is even part of the mission. Some young kid is living where there aren’t female non-gender-conforming composers. When they hear that’s even a thing, maybe a seed is planted.
About the Pulitzer: So you win it. Then what do you do? Will it open doors for you and what do you want to do when you are “in the room?”
It’s such a crazy and wild experience and honor to win an award like that. I was totally… surprise isn’t the right word, but it was a positive trauma. It was 2019, and I got it, and then, shortly thereafter, COVID hit. But people are more interested in my work and in p r i s m and I don’t have to explain who I am as hard as before the award. It makes it easier to have ideas that are out[side] of the box.
People believe what you’re going to do is going to be good. A lot of concert music has been on pause for a while, so it’s meant both being able to create exciting outside of the box ideas and to have awesome collaborators like Kronos and the LA Philharmonic. To have an amazing team of groups and individuals who have championed SOUNDWALK ... It’s so amazing; are you kidding me?
As a composer, do you set specific artistic goals for yourself or do you cast wide nets and follow the flow?
I set very loose goals. So much of being a freelancer and a creative person is being a collaborator with what’s around me. If something crazy comes in, I still have time to do it. I like to change it up, so I like working on an orchestral piece, and then a film score, and then a piece for dance. I like to move between different ways of making music so I structure my work for change or it starts to make me feel less excited. Exploring those different aspects of music making; the core music made in different ways is more exciting than doing the same things back-to-back.
Do next or new projects have you scared or unsure of where you might end up, even with the success you’ve experienced?
It happens every time, even if it’s something I’ve done before. If I wrote one orchestra piece and I have to write another one, it’s totally terrifying. With SOUNDWALK, there was a lot of unknown because it was working with a new technology. There’s always an aspect of thinking I can’t do it, even if I’ve done it before. Before the ideas start to come, there’s that blank page. It’s complete blank for every project before I start.