|Main||Essential Library||Archives||Resources||Composer Bios|
The Wide, Wondrous
World of Poul Ruders
With his hip command of American slang and his tweedy English looks and manners, Poul Ruders is clearly a citizen of the world. Born in Ringsted, Denmark in 1949, he graduated from the Royal Danish Academy as an organist in 1975. As a composer, he is mainly self- taught--a fact that probably accounts for the uniqueness of his work which manages to be strikingly modern, yet devoid of the prevailing dogmas of European modernism. Although he has written some chamber works, Ruders is predominantly a composer for the orchestra, having composed a vast number of grandiose orchestral works, which the composer compiles under the description "symphonic dramas."
The last decade has seen major Ruders commissions for a range of compositions including: two symphonies (Symphony No. 1 for the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered at the Proms at Royal Albert Hall in 1990; Symphony No. 2 for Riverside Symphony, New York); the huge Solar Trilogy (recorded by the Odense Symphony Orchestra and Michael Schønwandt; a Viola Concerto for Yuri Bashmet and The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Cello Concerto No. 2 ó Anima for Heinrich Schiff and Northern Sinfonia; a Piano Concerto for Rolf Hind and The London Philharmonic; the Guitar Concerto Psalmodies for David Starobin and Speculum Musicae; Credo for chamber orchestra, clarinet and two violins in celebration of Yehudi Menuhin's 80th anniversary; and, Concerto in Pieces commissioned by the BBC, which, was broadcast and televised worldwide at Last Night at the Proms, London, in 1995.
These days Ruders is getting even more attention thanks to the success of his full-scale opera for The Danish Royal Opera on Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale. With a libretto (in English) by Paul Bentley, and a production directed by Phylida Lloyd, the opera premiered in March 2000 to widespread critical and public acclaim.
the interview with Sequenza21 that follows, Ruders talks about how he became
a very big composer from a very small country.
S/21: What were your earliest musical influences? Whose work has influenced you most and how?
PR: I'm pretty sure that must have been my father's rag-tag collection of old 78s and a couple of LPs, which started to emerge in Denmark in the mid-fifties. Vivaldi´s The Four Seasons I remember vividly. Songs by Purcell with the counter-tenor Alfred Deller, some Haydn and one 78 with organ music by Buxtehude. One must not forget, that the 78s normally had only room for one piece; in this case I clearly remember it being Prelude and Fugue in g-minor, and there's no doubt that particular record became instrumental in my then slowly emerging absorption with organ music. Later on, in my mid-twenties I actually passed my degree as an organist from the Copenhagen Royal Conservatoire, and that at a time(I was 26)when my interest in the instrument was waning rapidly. But one had to live, and in Denmark a organist-position will carry you over nicely financially. It´s the perfect job for a composer - it leaves you with plenty of time for composing.
during grade school, I was a member of the Copenhagen Boy's Choir, which
gave me access to actually perform in the great choral masterpieces of
the baroque and classic era.
S/21: Can you recall the moment when you realized that you had music inside your head? Can you describe that feeling?
PR: Not really, but it must have been pretty early on. I was more or less "coerced" into having piano lessons from the age of 7, before music started buzzing in my head round-the-clock. That happened, I'd say, in my early teens, probably when I began taking organ lessons, this time entirely out of my own volition, being totally sold to the "cause". The notion of wanting to become a composer didn't occur until, say, my late teens, 16, 17 years of age, the instigator being (I think) repertoire pieces like The Rite of Spring, Berg´s Violin Concerto, that sort of stuff. The real watershed, however, was when a cousin of mine played for me on a newly released LP (must have been 1965- or -66) Penderecky´s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. I was completely steamrolled by that one, and my then very nebulous toying with the idea of composing got boosted no end, the exact outcome of that experience being my Opus 1, Three Letters From The Unknown Soldier, a piano piece, which, lo-and-behold, I still stand by and which is, even today, performed occasionally. My next piece was for organ, not surprisingly, Requiem (at the age of 19! Oh dear...), and, incidentally, that's my one-and-only composition for organ!
S/21: You have said you are essentially self-taught and yet no one is better at achieving sophisticated orchestral colors. How did you learn orchestration?
PR: Well, I did seek out a teacher, Danish composer Ib Nørholm, for guidance. I knew absolutely nothing, could hardly notate. I think these lessons went on for a couple of years, but I really can't claim to have "learned to compose"(one can't, you merely acquire a "methode"), but in all fairness I did pick up the basics of notation, without which, needless to say, you are DOA as a composer.
As to orchestration, now, there's a different story. During my training as an organist I took up lessons in orchestration with Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen (my senior by only 2 years!). He was, is, a phenomenal teacher, and together we pored over a ton of scores, always corresponding with the actual sound from records, broadcasts and live-concerts. There was a new "cause" for me, I can assure you; my first orchestral piece Pavane was written in 1972, a terrible piece from a compositional point of view, but it was evident, even to me, that I, as I've recently said in an interview for UK-broadsheet The Independent, that I discovered that I possessed a ´"knack" for writing for the orchestra. But that, obviously, doesn't make you a composer, so, from that period (early 70s) I sort of "vanished" and embarked upon, what I today call my "apprenticeship". I could have chosen to go abroad and study with some big "name". Had I done that, there's no doubt I'd have come of age as a composer far earlier on than I did.
back I don't regret not having done so; I took the long road, wrote a lot
of awful music, learning the "trade" by trial-and-error, groping in the
dark for a decade, not to "surface" till 1980, when I emerged "out of the
woodwork" with my Opus 1 no 2, as I, a bit tongue-in-cheek, call the Chamber
Concerto for 9 Instruments, Four Compositions. I'd finally found the beginning
of my own voice. In a roundabout way, the piece reached the ears of Oliver
Knussen, who performed it with The London Sinfonietta back in 1982, the
year when my second, and real life as a composer began; the origin of a
career, I guess one could say, but I was "old", 33, and, well, apparently
it's never too late. I was in no particular hurry and with hindsight I'm
pretty sure my tortuous way toward becoming a composer is an advantage.
But that, of course, depends entirely one's personality and psychological
make-up. At least it worked for me, so, yes, I'd still maintain that I'm
S/21: Your work is modern, yet highly individualistic. Being a European, how did you escape the influences of the Boulez Gestapo?
PR: Hah! Well coined! The thing is, that Danish musical life in the 1960s- and 70s was incredibly isolated from what went on south of the border. Composers from the generation before me, Nørholm Nørgård, Gudmundsen- Holmgren actually did go to the famous (and notorious) summer classes at Darmstadt in Germany (the then hot-bed of avant garde invention) at some point in the early 60s, to check out the scene; they returned, visibly shaken, dabbled a bit in the new "dogmas", but at the end of the day, hard-core European modernism did not, could not catch on in isolated, provincial Denmark. "What a pity!" some would say, but, on the contrary I'm sure that the inherent Danish stubbornness and healthy suspicion of totalitarianism means, that contemporary Danish music is - not better, I'm not saying that at all - but different, less cowed by international trends, perhaps even recalcitrant."
S/21: What attracted you to The Handmaid's Tale as the subject for an opera? How did it come about? To what factors do you attribute its enormous success?
PR: Margaret Atwood's novel from 1985 is not only frighteningly prophetic (think of Afghanistan and the more-than-willing spirit of the American extreme Christian-right), it's also a real and human story, with everything: love, hope, betrayal, huge processionals, public executions, misery and un-requited emotion, the works. It's one hell of a tale and without a great story-line opera, at least modern opera is useless. So, if The Handmaid's Tale has reached a certain level of success (a dangerous word), then it's due - beyond the shadow of a doubt - to the quality of the story, Paul Bentley's fabulous libretto, and if you twist my arm, I just might confess that the music plays a not entirely unimportant role in that particular package..."
S/21: Tell us about your day-to-day life, your family, your work habits, and how you achieve a balance between your career as a composer, and your family life?
PR: My day-to-day life is frightfully boring. My wife Annette goes to work (she's a lab-technician and runs a department at a big laboratory) every day, 7:15AM, sharpish, and I aim to sit at my desk by 8 o'clock. We have a nice cottage in the country, and I've had a Porta-kabin put up in the garden; that's my study. I can't hear the phone and it's only me and "them notes".
For hours...my only company is our coarse-haired dachshund Laura, who's still a trainee as my "assistant". Our former dog, Susie, was a mature composers-associate, lying faithfully on the floor, ready to comment on what daddy was doing. But only when asked...!"
S/21: Simon Rattle remarked in an interview with us that there are few periods in history when so many kinds of music were being produced at the same time as today. Do you see any patterns that suggest a trend or direction?
PR: The composer "is" the trend today, so Rattle has definitely a point there. I'd add, that "never before have so many written so much.......for so few" I'm sorry to say, for even though we have composers today writing exciting pieces completely blasting the common notion of modern music as academic and esoteric, powerful composers such as Linberg, Adams, Adès, Rihm, Knussen, McMillan, Andriessen, the prejudice is still very much with the proverbial "man-in-street". Perhaps opera is the answer. The times have never been more visual than today - perhaps the ability to "just listen" is going down the tubes. Hmmm...don't know."
S/21: What are you working on now? How is it going?
PR: In the Porta-kabin my dog and the odd fly-on-the-wall have daily access to see me composing a biggish orchestral piece for the Berlin Philharmonic. It's a tone-poem based on an uncommonly beautiful poem by the 17th-century poet and essayist Joseph Addisson. A line from the poem goes "...and nightly to the listening Earth/ the Moon repeats the story of her birth". Hence the title: "Listening Earth". the premiere is scheduled for November 2002, for David Robertson's (and my) debut with that fantastic orchestra.
that piece is finished (I'm two-thirds of the through), then a new opera
will keep me off the streets for 2-3 years. Franz Kafka´s The Trial.
No less - and with libretto (needless to say) by Paul Bentley, premiere
for the inauguration of a new opera house in Copenhagen, fall of 2005.
S/21: This is a tough question, but what would be your five Desert Island disks?
Oh no!...well, I'll shoot from the hip then; Monteverdi: Vespers. Bach:
Concerto for 2 violins. Schubert: Gb-major Impromptu. Berg: Wozzeck. Messiaen:
Turangalila. And a dozen other fabulous numbers....ha,ha!"
List of Works
Handmaid's Tale (1997-98) - 150'
Pian'e Forte (1978) - 15'
Abstraction (1982) - 20'
Saw Saint John (1984) - 11'
no. 1 Himmelhoch Jauchzend - zum Tode betrübt (1989) - 33'
(1990) - 5'
Second Nightshade (1991) - 20'
(1992) - 8'
Solar Trilogy I (1992) - 17'
Solar Trilogy II (1992-93) - 25'
Return of the Light (1994) - 11'
in Pieces Purcell Variations (1994-95) - 17'
Solar Trilogy 3 (1995) - 21'
no. 2 Symphony and Transformation (1995-96) - 28'
(1999) - 9'
for Clarinet and Twin-Orchestra (1985) - 15'
Drama Trilogy I (1987) - 24'
Drama Trilogy II (1988) - 32'
Drama Trilogy III (1988) - 25'
(1989) - 30'
Concerto no. 2 (1990-91) - 30'
(1993) - 21'
Concerto (1994) - 28'
Concerto (1994) - 26'
(1996) - 4'
Concerto (1998) - 20'
Spite of (1999) - 6'
(1999) - 16'
Variations (1999-00) - 16'
Corda (2000) - 3'
Ensemble (7 instruments or more)
- 10' ES
(1979) - 12'
Compositions (1980) - 20'
(1980) - 8'
Concertino (1982) - 10'
Dances in One Movement (1983) - 18'
Cum Figuris (1985) - 20'
(1987) - 10'
(2000) - 23'
& Brass Ensemble (7 instruments or more)
Caravan Solitude (1999) - 4'
Ensemble (2-6 instruments)
Quartet no. 3 Motet (1979) - 7'
Abstraction 2-piano reduction (1982) - 20'
in Rama (1983) - 10'
(1984) - 7'
(1984) - 7'
For Three (1984) - 7'
D'amore (1986) - 25'
(1988) - 13'
Profundis (1990) - 16'
Set of Changes (1994) - 5'
(1998) - 25'
Tiny Pieces for Great Friends (1999) - 7'
(1968) - 5' ES
no. 1 Dante Sonata (1970) - 23'
(1973) - 1973'
Studies (1976) - 15'
Recitatives (1977) - 17'
(1980) - 7'
Cha Cha (1981) - 15'
no. 2 (1982) - 26'
(1983) - 8'
for One (1984) - 6'
Postludes (1988) - 23'
And Love Fugue (1990) - 6'
The Precipice (1990) - 25'
Suite (1990) - 10'
With Changes (1993) - 4'
And Ricercare (1994) - 12'
(1996) - 4'
Horizon (2001) - 4:53'
86, Herr, Neyge deine Ohren 3 Motets (1985) - 6'
Nunquam Excidit 3 Motets (1988) - 5'
Death of Queen Dagmar (1990) - 6'
City in the Sea (1990) - 18'
(1992) - 3'
Bells (1993) - 19'
Suite Songs, Interludes and Postlude from the opera The Handmaid's Tale
ES = Engstrøm & Sødring SAMF = Samfundet til Udgivelse
af Dansk Musik