Vivaldi goes in a time machine (and then to Alabama)

Hearing Vivaldi’s Spring piped over the stereo at an upscale department store in Chestnut Hill Mall, MIT composer Elena Ruehr had an epiphany. It was winter 1995, and she was working on a piece for strings commissioned by Metamorphosen for their premiere season. Ruehr recalls, “It was my first year teaching at MIT. It was a big break for me because Metamorphosen was a professional group and really fine musicians. I had seven weeks to write the best piece I’d ever written. I was very anxious about it. I was sketching out all sorts of things, and none was good enough. I was frustrated, and I finally got to the point where I took all my pages and threw them up in the air and stomped out of the house.”

Being the typical Boston winter, the mall seemed the best place for escaping her creative block. Ruehr says, “I was walking around frustrated, and they were playing Vivaldi Spring on the stereo. I stopped in my tracks. You hear Vivaldi Spring in shopping malls all over the country. It’s a standard piece. I had just been working on this string orchestra piece, and as I listened to this music, I thought, ‘My god, this music is so beautiful. Why can’t I write something like this?’ Then I started daydreaming a little bit and thought, ‘What would happen if Vivaldi suddenly got transported in time to this place – standing in this shiny shopping mall with all the skylights hearing his music played perfectly coming from the heavens?’ And I thought, ‘That’s it! I’m going to write the Vivaldi-goes-in-a-time-machine piece.’”

Alan Pierson and Elena Ruehr with the Alabama Symphony, 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the Alabama Symphony.
Alan Pierson and Elena Ruehr with the Alabama Symphony, 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the Alabama Symphony.


The resulting piece, Shimmer, not only reveals something about Ruehr’s relationship with the 18th century composer, but also intersects meaningfully with her relationship to her friend and former student, Alan Pierson. Pierson, the founder of Alarm Will Sound, was a Physics and Music major at MIT.  During his first year at MIT, he was in Ruehr’s music theory class, and he founded a student orchestra. Pierson recalls persuading Ruehr to let him perform a piece by her: “I forgot how she ended up showing me her music, but somehow I saw a score to her piece Sky Above Clouds, which she had just finished as part of her doctoral program at the University of Michigan, and I just fell in love with it. It hadn’t been premiered yet, and I ended up conducting the first performance at MIT with a student group I put together. Elena wanted to be sure I was up to conducting it, so she gave me a little audition: having me conduct some 5/8 for her, since that’s the time that goes for much of the piece. I gave the first performance of that piece and have loved her music ever since. When we started Ossia (the group that spun off Alarm Will Sound) at Eastman in 1997, we did Elena’s Sky Above Clouds to open our very first concert, and she came out for the performance. Elena and I have been very good friends for years now, but that was the last time I played her music.”

He attended the premiere of Shimmer in the mid-90s and admits to becoming “slightly obsessed” with the piece. Unbeknownst to Ruehr, he made a detailed analysis of the score while he was in her class (which he shared with her a couple months ago), but until recently, he had not performed Shimmer.

In February, Pierson was invited to conduct the Alabama Symphony, and the opportunity finally arose. He recounts, “The Four Seasons was already set, and Pierre Ruhe (the orchestra’s Director of Artistic Planning) asked me what else I wanted to perform and suggested something contemporary. Elena’s piece, Shimmer, was inspired by Vivaldi and was the perfect contemporary piece to include on the program that would feel connected to the Four Seasons. It’s also a piece I’ve wanted to do for years.”

It was the first time Shimmer was performed with the Vivaldi piece that inspired it. Pierson claims, “I had forgotten that Elena wrote the piece consciously thinking about Vivaldi. It’s just that the energy and character and sound of the piece seemed to fit that world. So, it just seemed appropriate. Then, when I looked back at the program note, I saw that she actually talked about Vivaldi; it seemed like a homerun.”

Both Ruehr and Pierson make compelling points about their relationship to historical works. Ruehr’s dialogue with the past transcends mere mimesis: “It’s not that I took Vivaldi’s music and ripped it apart or anything like that. It was just this little moment when I wanted to recapture Vivaldi but in the time that we live. Whenever I listen to Vivaldi I’m always so conscious of the time that it came from. So I wanted to flip that listening experience on its head and listen to something old from a new place.” And furthermore, she explains, “Shimmer was written for 15 virtuoso string players. I became increasingly interested in the idea that if I were going to be writing for people to play in this tradition that had such historical importance — the instruments themselves are ancient, the way they’ve been taught to play them is imbued with an incredible sense of history — then maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to throw that history away. Incorporating that history into what I do is at the essence of what I’m writing. And not every one of my pieces has that sense of history in it, but many of them do. My latest CD, which is called Lift, has pieces that all refer to some other kind of music — Scarlatti, Bach, and influences like that.”

For Pierson, who mostly conducts works by contemporary composers with his group Alarm Will Sound, the opportunity to conduct works by earlier composers like Vivaldi has a certain liberty: “I think what both new music and early music have in common is that both demand a lot of creativity and imagination to really play at the highest level. Of course all music demands creativity, but when you come to a piece of contemporary music—especially one that’s not been played before—you don’t have a recording to go off of, and you have to figure out for yourself how to make it work. Similarly with early music, there’s so much stuff that’s not on the page. And what that “stuff” is is very much up for discussion. The music is meant to be spontaneous, fresh, and flexible in a way that isn’t necessarily what you see on the paper.”

From their first meeting in Ruehr’s first-year music theory class in 1995 to the present day, Ruehr and Pierson have had an extraordinary working relationship that goes beyond the typical teacher-student exchange. Ruehr is quick to point out how her first group of MIT first-year students shaped her teaching: “Alan was one of these great kids. These students didn’t just want to do exercises, they wanted to write their own work. And it changed the course for me. Now I teach students to write string quartets in the style of Mozart instead of just doing exercises. And it’s because of that class I had – because they were so eager and wanted so much. It really raised the bar for me.”

Posted on April 7, 2015 by Sharon Lacey