The World Premiere of Ellen Reid

Interview with a Wunderkind

By Bill Kennedy

Just two composers will be heard at each of Los Angeles’ “big four” musical performance organizations in 2018.

One of them is Ellen Reid.

Reid’s Petrichor, part of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment original composition series, had its world premiere in February at the Alex Theater in Glendale.

Mother’s Day saw another Reid world premiere, entitled dreams of the new world, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

She will be providing a sound installation as part of the LA Phil’s kickoff of its Centennial Season in September.

And finally in late November, LA Opera will present yet another Reid world premiere, Prism, part of LAO’s Off Grand series in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects.

So just who is this wunderkind who has burst across L.A.’s musical skyline like an unexpected comet? Who is this artist whose work as a composer on The Industry opera company’s 2015 Hopscotch was hailed as “ineffably moving” by Mark Swed of the LA Times and “radiant” by Alex Ross of The New Yorker?

Start with a high school senior in Oak Ridge, a small city of about 30,000 in East Tennessee, a teenager of broad interests, intent on moving to New York City and pursuing a liberal arts degree.

Send her to Columbia University in uptown Manhattan where, during her first week, terrorists bring down the World Trade Towers, smoke and dust clearly visible from the campus.

Reid had a musical background but was by no means headed for a musical career. However, as she says, her distance from home and the experience of seeing her world under attack somehow drew her to compose. “Music is related to time and the body,” she says. “Music allowed me to sit with the unknown, with the complexity of the universe.”

From those beginnings, Reid, whose energy and enthusiasm seem barely contained within her petite frame, was able to leap into all the various musical and music theater offerings New York had to offer.

Unconstrained by any single genre of music, she studied Eastern musical traditions in Thailand after graduation, an experience that cemented her interest in musical storytelling, which she sees as central to her compositions.

Her unwillingness to be pigeonholed led her across the country to Cal Arts and its broad exposure to music of all forms. There she received her MFA in 2011 and fell in love with the City of Angels. Reid now sees herself as bi-coastal, splitting her time between L.A. and New York. Wherever she is, she says, “I love writing music, and in those two cities, I’m in a really great place.”

Within the storytelling framework, Reid focuses on “new and different ways of expressing tension and resolution in musical terms.” She is intrigued by “different sounds and complex rhythms.” And she is at heart a collaborator, more at home working with others than scribbling alone in an upstairs garret.

These characteristics will all be evident in both dreams of the new world and Prism, both collaborations with others.

dreams of the new world is built around the aspirations of people living in three American cities – Memphis, Houston and Los Angeles – at three different times in their histories. Based on a libretto using the contemporaneous voices of people in those cities, Reid’s piece focuses on striving for freedom, prosperity and the frontier – the American Dream.

Prism, by contrast, is more personal and narrower in scope, an opera dealing with “the depth of destruction, loss and violence against a young girl’s body,” as Reid explains.

The work of Ellen Reid is both deeply personal and broadly universal – perhaps reminding some of the body of work of the only other composer whose works are being heard at each of the “big four” this year. His name?


PHOTO CREDIT: James Mathew Daniel

Author: Thomas Lady

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