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.
- [Narrator] The Pulitzer Prize winning composer,
Allen Reid, is a force of nature,
underestimate her at your peril.
- 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 fairy duster or something.(laughs)
("Orlando & Tiresias" playing)
And I think that's part of my path, I guess,
is to be five feet tall and have a big voice.
- [Narrator] 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.
- 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.
- [Narrator] 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.
- 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.
- You know what, when the decision was made,
that you could be an artist,
what did mom and pop think about it?
- 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.
- [Narrator] 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.
- 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
- [Narrator] 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.
- 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.
- Sing that for me.
- Okay, so super basic western classical is
(Reid vocalizes western classical)
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.
(Reid vocalizes musical piece)
So it uses like time in a different way to create
a sense of release.
- 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?
- 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.
- [Narrator] 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.
- Why put yourself through that?
- If you're an artist, there is no other way.
- Yeah, but art is based on the idea of artifice,
the very thing we're talking about,
you're allowed to make it up.
- 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.
- But you also make yourself extraordinarily vulnerable.
Was it cauterizing in any way?
Did you feel cleansed?
Did you feel like your pocket still...
- 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.
- [Narrator] 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.
- We are able to connect them with people
who otherwise they would have had to hack it
in their careers for 20 years...
- In the way that you guys did.
- 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.
- [Narrator] 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.
- 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.
- [Narrator] 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.
♪ I got on the train with no fare, honey ♪
♪ Police caught me by the hair
♪ Guess who bailed me out with their money ♪
♪ Robert Church, the millionaire ♪
- 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?
♪ Captain Church was my father
♪ He used to have a packet line ♪
♪ My father owned my mother
♪ Were you a slave?
♪ Yes, sir
♪ But my father always gave me everything I wanted ♪
- [Narrator] 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.
- Is that a fair exchange?
Because writing music feels so good and hearing it
and being able to share those emotions.
It's worth it.
- Do you think you're resilient then,
because you go into these dark places
and you emerge from them alive?
Absolutely. - You emerge from them alive
with really nice music.
- 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.
- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.