Ellen Reid Packs a Punch
Ellen Reid has a lot to say. The music of this softly spoken Pulitzer Prize-winning composer speaks volumes, even when it means confronting her own worst experiences.
Ellen Reid is an innovative composer and sound artist. She’s the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her opera p r i s m—one of just eight women to receive the prize since 1943.
Raised in Tennessee, Reid received her BFA from Columbia University. She taught in Thailand for several years before returning to the United States for a master’s at CalArts. Inspired by music from all over the globe, her work includes opera, chamber music, immersive and site-specific sound design, and scores for film and theater.
Many of her pieces are multidisciplinary collaborations, with wide-ranging originality in sound and subject matter. Her collaborative chorale composition dreams of the new world explores the American idea of Manifest Destiny. Her award-winning opera p r i s m traces the psychological aftermath of sexual assault. Reid is the cofounder of the Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship program for young female, nonbinary, and gender non-comforming composers, and the composer-in-residence for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Ellen Reid, is a force of nature, underestimate her at your peril.
Ellen Reid: I’ve had people listen to my music and say, “Oh, that’s really loud, that’s really powerful.” And they had assumed it would be like a fairy duster or something. And I think that’s part of my path, I guess, is to be five feet tall and have a big voice.
Reid doesn’t shy away from delicate, complicated, even painful subjects. She fearlessly dives into her most intimate emotions, and some deeply traumatic memories in service of her work. But she says she must be careful about how and when she enters this mindset.
Reid: I don’t want to always lead with my feelings. I can go into this gritty, very emotional, very depth, deep and raw place with my art, but I find a solace of being with my friends and with my family and with people close to me where I don’t wanna be in that world all the time. It’s too much. It feels like my work by myself and nobody needs to be there. You know, nobody needs to go into that.
Ellen Reid grew up in the south, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Her father, an ophthalmologist, her mother, a pharmacist. The young Ellen never even dreamed that she could make a life writing music. Women composers, such as they exist to then, were all but invisible. And in her real life, she’d never known a working artist. So music was for her, just a joyful hobby.
Reid: I was a theater kid. So I loved being in shows. I took piano lessons and played in band but nobody around me was doing it in a way that was for anything but fun. And so it felt like luckily for me, I got to love music from the place I wanted to love it from, which I think a lot of kids whose parents push them into the competition of that competition world, it feels really pressury, while mine felt like absolutely my choice.
AJC: You know what, when the decision was made, that you could be an artist, what did mom and pop think about it?
Reid: Both of their career paths were super straight and super direct, and I think there was a lot of anxiety around the fact that I chose something with zero job security.
When Reid went to Columbia University, she had no belief that her future could lie in composing. She studied musicology, learning to analyze other people’s music. But before long her professor, the celebrated composer and trombonist, George Lewis, told her in no uncertain terms that she had something original to contribute to the world. It came as quite a shock, and forced her to acknowledge the power of a voice she had never even known she had.
Reid: Without George Lewis, I wouldn’t be a composer. It wasn’t in the realm of responsible decisions, or even decisions I should even consider. And when someone who I really respected, that I felt had my interest at heart said something like that, it really changed how I saw my future
After graduation, Reid decided she had to go abroad. Understanding that the best way to find out who you are, is to venture far from where you’re from. She chose Thailand, a place where she didn’t understand the language or the culture, first teaching music, then working as a music director of the theater in Bangkok. Two and a half years there, expanded Reid’s mind and abandoned her assumptions about music.
Reid: Even the idea of what is the composer or in Thai classical music, that doesn’t exist. You have like a phrase that each instrumentalist improvises on in their own way, and it’s kind of like meditation and you do it until you can’t possibly do it any faster and then the song, that’s the composition.
AJC: Sing that for me.
Reid: Okay, so super basic western classical is It’s over, right? That’s the universal symbol, it’s over. So here’s an example of something that could end in another way. *Sings* So it uses like time in a different way to create a sense of release.
AJC: Do you feel that every day what you just now? Was it a mindset that had changed or was it a musical thing that had changed?
Reid: Well, I think it’s a bunch of things that changed, I think it is powerful to know nothing, and to be in a place where you’re truly a beginner, and I got to experience that. And it was really great to be an idiot in that situation.
Ellen Reid came home changed yet there was still much to learn. She made it into the elite master’s program at Cal Arts in Los Angeles, the first of many hurdles to come. Female composers are chronically under commissioned across the board, in classical music, in film, in opera. Reid knew that she would have to hustle twice as hard to even get heard.
But she was determined, believing she had something to say that nobody else could. She was right. And 2019, Reid’s opera “Prism” won the Pulitzer Prize for its gut wrenching portrayal of an emotionally manipulated teenager who suffers a sexual assault despite the efforts of her obsessively protective mother. The story was drawn from Reid’s own worst experiences, herself a survivor. She says she relived much of her own trauma while writing the opera.
AJC: Why put yourself through that?
Reid: If you’re an artist, there is no other way.
AJC: Yeah, but art is based on the idea of artifice, the very thing we’re talking about, you’re allowed to make it up.
Reid: I do think that there is a specific power if it’s your experience, because it takes less, more of the work can be used to go deeper versus to imagine.
AJC: But you also make yourself extraordinarily vulnerable. Was it cauterizing in any way? Did you feel cleansed? Did you feel like your pocket still…
Reid: No I mean, yes and no, I think if I am, I am glad to not have to be working on it on a daily basis, but I think some experiences will be there, and it’s about if they’re active or dormant at that time. They’re never gone.
Today, Ellen Reid is one of only eight women to have won the Pulitzer Prize for music in it’s 76 year history. She’s also the first and so far only composer to be commissioned by all four of the major classical music institutions in Los Angeles, The Opera, Chamber Orchestra, Master Chorale, and Philharmonic. But Ellen Reid wasn’t content just to be the exception. She wanted to change the rule. This is why in 2016, she and fellow composer Missy Mazzoli founded Luna Lab, a fellowship program to nurture female and other underrepresented, up and coming young composers.
Reid: We are able to connect them with people who otherwise they would have had to hack it in their careers for 20 years…
AJC: In the way that you guys did.
Reid: Exactly, in the way that we did and it feels so good for us to be able to have a connection and then immediately turn around and give it to a younger generation. I think the Luna Lab fellows are just gonna skyrocket past all of us.
But why would Ellen Reid be so keen to give away the advantages she’s worked so hard for? Because she says her version of an ideal world has plenty of room at the top for everyone.
Reid: What if the American dream became eliminating inequity? That almost makes me emotional to say it. There’s no reason that couldn’t be the new American dream.
Reid has also explored the idea of the American dream musically. In 2018, the Los Angeles Master Chorale commissioned her, librettist Sarah LaBrie and anthropologist Sayd Randie to travel the country interviewing Americans about Manifest Destiny, the 19th century idea that the expansion of the US was both justified and inevitable. The resulting composition, “Dreams of the New World” explores what happens when we spend so much time looking towards the next frontier, that we neglect to invest in the present.
Reid: There is this longing, this idea that also feels very embedded in a Christian mindset, that somewhere else, there is a better place. That, over there it’s better, finally, when we get there, it’ll be finally better. And that can alienate you from the world that you’re in right now. Like the radical opposition of that is, no, the people in this room are the most important. And maybe this is as good as it’s gonna get. So how can we work with this? How can we make this the place where we wanna be instead of creating another place that is inherently flawed and farther away?
Ellen Reid’s work addresses complex, often difficult subjects because she believes that music has a role to play in difficult complex conversations. A champion of excellence and opportunity, she’s a role model for the next generation of creators. When she meets adversity, she innovates. When she feels pain, she embraces it, when she finds hope, she shares it.
AJC: Is that a fair exchange?
Reid: Absolutely. Because writing music feels so good and hearing it and being able to share those emotions. It’s worth it.
AJC: Do you think you’re resilient then, because you go into these dark places and you emerge from them alive?
AJC: You emerge from them alive with really nice music.
Reid: Thank you. Well, I think so. I also think that I appreciate the light when there is light, because I’ve been in the darkness too.