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This interview is taken from PN Review 211, Volume 39 Number 5, May - June 2013.

Words and Music: A Conversation with Elena Ruehr Reena Sastri
A graduate of the Juilliard School and the University of Michigan, and a faculty member at MIT, Boston-based composer Elena Ruehr has created works for chamber ensemble, orchestra, chorus, wind ensemble, opera, dance and silent film. Rhythmically intricate and melodically graceful, her music has seductive surfaces which belie its complexity. I met with Elena Ruehr in January 2012 to discuss her recent cantata, Averno, based on Louise GlĂŒck's 2006 volume of that name, and to learn more about setting poetry. The conversation took final shape in a subsequent exchange of emails, but grew out of a warm and animated exchange in the composer's living room last winter.

REENA SASTRI When did you first set poetry?

ELENA RUEHR: I first set poetry when I was about twelve and it was my own poetry. I wrote about sixty songs in a kind of pop style. The first time I set poetry by another poet was when I was nineteen and wrote four songs based on fragments of Sappho.

Your most recent recording includes settings of three poems by Emily Dickinson (Cricket, Spider, Bee, 1996) and of part of Langston Hughes's Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (Gospel Cha-Cha, 2000), together with the title work, Averno, which premiered in 2011. What drew you to these poets?

Musically, what drew me to Dickinson was her sense of rhythm, which is both regular and a bit peculiar, and her pithiness. I first ...
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