Photo by Elizabeth McQuern
"Women in composition is such a hot topic. I feel lucky to be writing right now, especially as a queer female composer."

March 19, 2019

Interview with Composer Elizabeth Rudolph

National Women’s History Month

"Women in composition is such a hot topic. I feel lucky to be writing right now, especially as a queer female composer."

Interview with Composer Elizabeth Rudolph

National Women’s History Month

Chicago Fringe Opera asked composer Elizabeth Rudolph about her career and personal perspectives as a woman in music today.

What inspires you as a composer?

So much. I don’t have one favorite composer, I love Messiaen, Mozart, R. Strauss, Gesualdo, Wagner, Steve Reich, Tallis, and John Adams. I do tend to like either Renaissance music or high Romantic or later. Baroque and Classical music tends not to “spark joy” for me. Of course, Mozart and Purcell are the exceptions. I tend to like chamber and vocal music (including choral, art song, and opera) better than purely orchestrated works. My musical aesthetic leans toward tonal/modal and minimalist-influenced.

Who stands out as a role model?

I have been very lucky in my life. Despite the fact that neither of my parents had musical training, they enrolled my sister and I in piano lessons at 5 years old where I was taught me music theory. I was lucky to meet Dr. Alan Hirsh who encouraged me to start writing. From there, I had the opportunity to go to Interlochen Arts Academy for high school where I met Dr. Elaine Broad. If I hadn’t had those two great mentors, I might have quit writing when I went to the University of Illinois. When I was there I encountered some extreme misogyny in the mid-’90s. I pushed back against it before transferring to St Olaf where I finished my bachelor’s degree.

If you could study with any composer who would it be?

Almost all the 20th-century greats studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. I WISH. If I had a time machine, that would be my first trip.

How do you balance your career as a vocalist and as a composer?

I’m still working on that. I was quite a prolific composer during high school and college. Afterwards, I wrote almost nothing from 2000 to 2010, and then only minimally until the last couple of years. I focused on singing for many years. I spent all my energy on trying to “make it” as an opera singer. Nowadays, I sing because I love singing and I can’t stop. I don’t audition for everything and I only engage with projects or people I really want to work with. If I don’t like working with someone or I don’t find the project enriching, I don’t do it again. I’m extremely lucky that my “actual work” doesn’t take a lot of time, so I can more easily balance the two. 

What is your creative process?

It depends if I’m writing something with lyrics. Often, a short musical motif comes to me and I use compositional techniques I learned along the way to expand that into a bigger piece. I also use the shape of speaking the lyrics to inform the setting. Most of what I write is art song, so my pieces tend to be between 3-20 minutes. I’m currently working on my first opera, which was a very intimidating project to take on. However, it’s working out to be almost like a series of shorter pieces (scenes) linked together by musical motifs and harmonies.

What advice would you give aspiring young composers?

Study music theory. As much as you can stand. Even if you plan to break all the rules, it’s a good idea to learn them. You’ll be grateful for it later. Theory is language. You wouldn’t expect to be able to write a novel or a poem without having studied literature, even if that study is private and not in a formal academic setting. Read books about composing/orchestration. Read books about music theory. Read biographies about composers. Read interviews with composers. Listen to music while actually looking at the score. Also, find yourself a mentor-composer. Having another set of eyeballs/ears to look over your work and advise you is useful even after you’ve been writing for decades (as I have). And then WRITE. Even if it’s bad. WRITE. As much as you can. WRITE.

What is your perspective on the climate of women in composition?

Women in composition is such a hot topic. It makes me feel lucky to be writing right now, especially as a queer female composer. I wish we had more non-white-male voices from the past. Additionally, I wish the historical women’s music we do have wasn’t (still) being filtered through the minds/artistry of white male directors and producers.

However, I think things are shifting. More and more composition competitions and calls for scores are blind, so people aren’t being judged by their names. And judging panels have started to be more diverse, so a wider variety of voices have a better chance to be heard. Even some producers and directors who might not otherwise have considered programming female and minority composers are being asked to do so by their audience, which is great. That said, the academic world of composition/theory (as well as conducting) is still overwhelmingly dominated by white males.

How do we resolve this? We need to get more women and minorities through universities with batons in their hands. We need to push for more public funding of the arts so that women and minorities have more opportunities to be producers, composers, and conductors. It’s a simple solution, but difficult to implement. Especially in our current political climate.

Supported by The MacArthur Funds for Arts and Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, The CityArts Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, & the Illinois Arts Council Agency. Chicago Fringe Opera is an Opera America Partner.