Larger Than Life
- 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.
- Vikram Paralkar would appear to be a mass of contradictions: a novelist whose work confronts mortality, a cancer physician who constantly helps others deal with death, an atheist who is married to a minister. Yet his joy for life is
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.
Vikram Paralkar is a preeminent cancer physician and medical researcher and a celebrated novelist whose work explores mortality and the philosophy of life.
Paralkar was born and raised in Mumbai, India. Both his parents were doctors. After earning a medical degree from Seth GS Medical College in Mumbai in 2004, he relocated to Philadelphia, PA, where he is a professor of medicine and practicing oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on blood cell production and leukemia.
Paralkar’s novels are deeply grounded in both medicine and philosophy. His first, The Afflictions (2014), portrays an aging librarian who discovers a centuries-old compendium of bizarre supernatural diseases. It has been translated into Spanish, Italian, and Russian. Night Fever (2017) details a disaffected Indian physician who tackles corruption while raising the dead. It was named on recommended books lists by Time magazine, The Week, and The Guardian, among other publications.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the useful truths that art explains so well.
And on this episode of Articulate, Larger than Life.
Ellen Reid has a lot to say and the music of the softly spoken Pulitzer Prize-winning composer speaks volumes even when it means confronting her own worst experiences.
Ellen Reid: I can go into this gritty, very emotional, very depth, deep and raw place with my art where I don’t wanna be in that world all the time it’s too, it’s too much.
Vikram Paralkar would appear to be a mass of contradictions, a novelist whose work confronts mortality and a cancer physician who constantly helps others deal with death, an atheist who is married to a minister, yet his joy for life is palpable.
Vikram Paralkar: All of us know that we are going to die. And the fact that we do is in some ways, both the tragedy as well as the beauty of the human condition that we know that we have transience lives.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
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.
Vikram Paralkar: We now know that we live in the universe that is 14 billion years old. Now, a galaxy has 100 billion stars, and there are probably 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. How do we reconcile that kind of scale? Put another way, does the cosmos care about the sickness and death of a human being?
For as long as he can remember, Vikram Paralkar has been kept up at night by big questions.
Paralkar: How must a moral person exist in, and conduct himself or herself in a society in which the corrupt are rewarded and the moral are punched.
By day, Paralkar is a doctor who treats patients living and dying with cancer. After hours, he’s a novelist who explores the limits of mortality. His supernaturally tinged fiction is often grounded in medicine, but like the author himself, he’s most concerned with philosophy. His debut novel, 2014’s The Afflictions conjures up a world where illnesses infect souls as well as bodies.
Excerpt from The Afflictions:
I remember wondering how the difference between health and disease could be contained in such tiny bottles. In one state, man is free to walk and speak. In the other, he’s flat on the ground. How can the red liquid correct this difference? Even now, I marvel that two substances when mixed can lose their individual qualities and become a third substance that is entirely new. It makes me wonder what we find if we could distill a human being. How many elements mixed in what proportions? Would one of those be the element of the soul? And could you distill even that one further.
Paralkar was raised in Mumbai, India, in what is described as a marginally religious household. Hinduism was largely cultural, and when at 13, he announced he was an atheist, it wasn’t a big scandal. His parents had both rebelled against their own more orthodox upbringings, and each became the first doctor and their respective families. And while Vikram was growing up, they ran their own clinic from inside the family home.
Paralkar: As a kid, I would actually go to the operating room with them and look at surgeries. I was fascinated by biology from a very early age. Whenever we would get fish home to eat, I would dissect the fish and dissect the brain of the fish and do all these medical things. So I was just drawn to medicine from early in life.
But Paralkar could follow only so far in his parents footsteps. In 2001, after finishing medical school in Mumbai, he struggled with the idea of leaving India for the West. Yes, he would be able to become a physician scientist, someone who would get to treat patients and do research. But that was just the first of his motivations.
Paralkar: The second was my abhorrence of the casual public corruption that existed. I just realized how difficult it was to live in India without bribing someone, how difficult it was to just accept a traffic ticket and then spend hours and hours in the police station trying to just pay your fee and leave as opposed to just slipping $100 bill to the traffic cop with your ticket. And the third was the fact that I was gay—I am gay and I did not want to live a life in India where I would constantly have to either hide my sexuality or live as somewhat of a gossiped-about pariah. And those were the three decisions that led me to move to the Western world and I considered either the UK or the US, and eventually I ended up settling in the US. That said then, you’re living in a country which is a superpower, which is performing as a nation state actions around the world that now are on your shoulders, because now I’m a voter in this country, and I have to be responsible, ethically and morally for the decisions of the country,
Paralkar sees moral quandaries everywhere, and wherever he finds them, he can’t help but address them. Today, Dr. Paralkar works at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, spending about 80% of his time in the lab, and the other 20% with patients who are often staring down death.
Paralkar: Every patient that you see with acute leukemia has a seven in 10 chance of not making it the next three years. And there are these conversations we as leukemia specialists have to have with patients who have just learned a day ago that they have leukemia cells in their blood. And then we have to be the ones to go into the room and explain to them what they have, why they have it, and what the implications of this disease is. And I’ve seen different doctors approach this challenge in different ways. One kind of way is to cloak everything in jargon. And that is a defense mechanism for doctors where they feel as though if they can throw out some buzzwords, then they have done their job and conveyed information to the patient. And then the patient can just stick with the plan and keep moving along. I try my best to explain in as clear and simple language as possible, understanding fully well that the patient is not going to be able to retain everything that I’m saying, is not going to be able to process everything that I’m saying and this will be something that will have to be reinforced again and again. My approach has been that I’m treating not just the patient but also their family. I’m trying to do my best to save the patient’s life or prolong the patient’s life. But there will be patients who will not make it. And then the family has to move on with memories of what that treatment experience was like.
After a full day at the hospital and before sitting down for a night of writing, Paralkar can often be found unwinding at home with his husband, Nate, a Unitarian minister. When they met in 2009, the two immediately connected despite their apparent differences.
Paralkar: It was really interesting when I first met Nate, and it became clear that this was becoming a serious relationship. I would often find myself, talking to myself, “am I really dating a minister?”
Vikram married Nate in 2020 in a nondenominational ceremony that reflected the couple’s shared and diverse interests, including an Einstein quote, custom vows, a Hindu prayer. And though he doesn’t personally follow any religion Paralkar does hold dear the questions that live at the heart of all faiths.
Paralkar: Questions about morality, about meaning, about purpose, about value. These are the questions that religions try to answer, but I just don’t find the solutions that religions come up with particularly satisfying. And that was what led me to become interested in philosophy. Because I did feel that science and scientists often tend to be somewhat scornful about these questions and the rejection of religion sometimes leads to a wholesale rejection of the questions that drive it. That is not a position that I hold.
These questions and more drive his 2017 novel, Night Theater. The story of a disillusioned surgeon working at an isolated rural clinic in India, as he battles government corruption, and ultimately is tasked with resurrecting the dead.
Excerpt from Night Theater:
“It couldn’t be, it just couldn’t. Why have you come to me?,” said the surgeon. “Go find a priest, a sorcerer, leave me alone.”
“We need you to fix our wounds, Dr. Sahib. At sunrise, our bodies will fill with blood again, and we will no longer be walking corpses.”
“How? Why? How is that possible?”
“The answer is long and complicated, Sahib, and I don’t understand everything myself. I can only tell you now that an angel took mercy on us. I’ll explain everything else later. We have so little time, I know nothing about surgeries, but I’m sure that injuries as severe as ours will take you all night to stitch up.”
On the page, Vikram Paralkar processes the kind of existential anxieties that he faces in his day job. He imagines life, interrogates death and ultimately finds a way to embrace mortality.
Paralkar: All of us know that we are going to die. And the fact that we do is in some ways, both the tragedy as well as the beauty of the human condition that we know that we have transient lives, that we are flecks of dust in the amber of deep space and deep time and accepting…
AJC: But we feel so important to ourselves.
Paralkar: Yes, we do. And we feel important, and we are important to ourselves. And if you think about it, imagine the coincidences that went into creating us, imagine the number of chance encounters and DNA divisions and sperm and egg fusions that had to happen since the beginning of time for us to exist, And the geological changes and social changes and population shifts that had to happen to create us. And so that’s an immensely privileged position to be in. Now, of course, I could be ungrateful and say that, “Well, this is not enough. I exist and I have my 80 or 90 years of existence, but actually what I want is immortality.” And I don’t think the universe owes that to us. And so what we can, we can mourn the fact that we don’t have immortality or we can celebrate the fact that we exist at all.