Ruders takes the long route to composing career

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When Poul Ruders made his first visit to Aspen, in 1980, he came to wander in the woods, a backpacking tourist from Denmark communing with the beauty of Aspen.

But Ruders at the time was also wandering in the woods artistically. A self-taught composer, Ruders had been writing music for more than a decade by then, with little to show for it, artistically or otherwise.

Neither the literal wandering nor the metaphorical would last long. The backpacking trip was a quick two or three days. And on that trip to Aspen, Ruders had brought with him the penciled scores he had just completed in Los Angeles, while staying with his sister. The music he was working on would become “Four Compositions,” Ruders’ breakthrough piece. “Four Compositions” premiered in Denmark, a performance that the composer calls unsuccessful. But unlike his earlier work, this piece would get some attention.

“It reached the ears of Oliver Knussen, the British conductor, who performed it in 1982 with the London Symphony Theatre,” said Ruders. “That enabled me to hear that my intentions could actually be carried out.”

What Ruders heard in that performance was his emerging compositional voice. “In the music I wrote before, I tied a lot with quotations and rearrangements of earlier music. Especially medieval music, which for me was very fun,” said the 54-year-old Ruders. “But it wasn’t very original; it wasn’t me finding my voice.

“Over the last 23 years, it’s been a steady and quite patient honing of my own style. The music I’m writing today, even though it is many-layered, you can make a direct line between `Four Compositions’ and `Fairytale.'”

Ruders’ “Fairytale” will have its U.S. premiere on Sunday, June 29, performed by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, with Music Festival music director David Zinman conducting. Ruders, a composer-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival this season, will also see his “Tattoo for Three” performed as part of a chamber music program on July 13.

“Fairytale,” said Ruders, is not as gentle a piece as its name suggests. Premiered in 2001 in Sweden, and performed by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra as part of a South American tour last year, it is based on one of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s lesser-known stories, “The Wind Tells about Waldemar Daa and his Daughters.”

“It’s called `Fairytale’ not because it’s a nice little piece,” said Ruders, who describes his 10-minute adaptation as a tone poem. “It’s a huge allegory, where the wind is blowing through the life of a family, which is almost destroyed by its own vanity and greed. The wind is death, sweeping through the landscape. And it eventually takes with it everything – the foliage, the apple blossom. The people too.”

The seven-minute “Tattoo for Three” has nothing to do with the American idea of a tattoo. The title of the piece refers to a Scottish tattoo, a sophisticated military drill done for entertainment purposes. “So it’s a sophisticated drill for cello, piano and clarinet,” explains Ruders.

Weighty works

That “Fairytale” turns out to be a chilling, adult number is consistent with Ruders’ output. A good portion of his reputation has been built on weighty music, centered around serious themes.

Ruders’ best-known work is the opera “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which premiered in Denmark in 2000 and had its U.S. debut last month in Minneapolis. The opera, with a libretto by Brit Paul Bentley, is based on the Margaret Atwood novel. In Atwood’s story, the America of 2006 has been taken over by Christian fanatics who deny women any rights and force certain women, “handmaids,” to carry babies for the theocratic regime.

“It’s a warning against intolerance, in any shape or form,” said Ruders. “It’s a cautionary tale, a nightmarish vision of a U.S. that has been taken over by a sort of Christian Taliban regime.”

Ruders says that the spook factor of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has grown since he composed it. “In the present climate of the U.S., these guys are there, just waiting,” he said, referring to the current Bush administration. “And that makes the story so frightening. It can happen.”

Ruders’ next opera, scheduled to open Copenhagen’s new opera house in the spring of 2005, is based on Kafka’s novel, “The Trial.” The story of “The Trial” indicates a thematic connection to “The Handmaid’s Tale”: in Kafka’s unfinished masterpiece, the protagonist Joseph K. is arrested for an unspecified crime. A year later, he is executed, still in the dark about why he has even been tried.

Ruders, who collaborated again with Bentley on the “The Trial,” says that the similarities between his two recent operas are only on the surface. “`The Trial’ is a comedy – it’s full of jokes, very funny, absurd black humor,” he said. “`The Handmaid’s Tale’ is serious all the way through. `The Trial’ is more universal, not political as such.”

Struggles and successes

The biggest factor behind Ruders’ slow start as a composer was the lack of a teacher. He studied organ at the Royal Danish Academy. But by the time of his graduation in 1975, he had already been experimenting as a self-taught composer for several years. And though he would receive instruction in orchestration and notation, he would never have someone to guide him in composition.

“I was a long time on the road, so to speak,” said the tall, white-haired, good-humored Ruders. “I’m self-taught, through having listened to tons of music and seeing lots of scores.”

To Ruders, the only loss has been time. Even without formal training, Ruders has become a composer whose works get regular performances. His Concerto in Pieces: Purcell Variations, commissioned by the BBC for the tricentennial of the death of Henry Purcell, has been performed in London, New York, Beijing and elsewhere. Next June, the New York Philharmonic is scheduled to debut Ruders’ “Final Nightshade,” a work for full symphony orchestra that follows the composer’s “Nightshade” for chamber group and “The Second Nightshade” for chamber orchestra.

Even with the decades of success, Ruders recalls well the years of struggle. And even the years since his breakthrough with “Four Compositions” have had setbacks. In 1987, Ruders debuted his first opera, “Tycho,” based on the life of Renaissance Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

“It was a very lofty subject, to put it mildly,” said Ruders. “It bombed. So I learned a lot about what not to do. I regard it as an apprenticeship in learning how to write an opera.”

The “Tycho” experience reminds Ruders that a composer never fully arrives. “You’re never finished improving yourself,” he said. “There’s always doubt. There must always be some doubt to keep you awake.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is