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A Conversation with Composer Shulamit Ran

Jennie Brown | June July 2021

Reprinted From Flute Talk magazine, January 2015

    Among her many awards and honors, Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran was the second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in composition. She is a long-time professor at the University of Chicago and has been a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Works for flute include Voices, Sonatina for Two Flutes; East Wind; Mirage for flute (piccolo and amplified alto flute), clarinet, violin, cello and piano; and Birds of Paradise for flute and piano.

    Shulamit Ran moved to New York City at the age of 14 to become a scholarship student at the Mannes College of Music. She won the Pulitzer Prize in composition in 1990, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is also the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music at the University of Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Avi Lotan, a recently retired ear-nose-and-throat, head-and-neck surgeon, and is the mother of two sons.

When did you become interested in music?
    My earliest memory of music is from when I was going to school in Tel Aviv, Israel, and I had developed a love for reading, around the age of perhaps seven. I was reading books, not necessarily for little children, but for young people. I would come home from school and I would read the books I was learning in school to my mother. When it came to a point where a character would sing a song, I would sing it to my mother. She would ask me, “Where do these melodies come from?” and I would point to the book and say, “It’s right here!” As far as I knew, the melody was there. She would say, “I don’t see the melody; I see the words. Did you learn this melody in school? Where does it come from?” I kept pointing and saying, “Right here!” As far as I knew, the melody was part and parcel, part of the words I was reading. I felt anyone reading this would hear the same melody. It really was not something I felt I was inventing, but rather this melody was there, it was part of being.

Was your perception of the melodies cued directly from the text, as words or letters to pitches?
    My perception of music at this point was very intuitive, a very natural process. I would hear the characters’ singing not as an isolated event, but as part of the greater narrative. The melody itself, however, was attached to the words I was reading.   
    One afternoon I went for a visit with my parents to the home of new family friends. They had a little spinet piano. I had never encountered a piano until then. I spent the afternoon playing on this fantastic toy that was a musical instrument and really loved it. I came home and said to my parents, “I really would love to have a piano.” I offered them a bargain and said, “You don’t have to get a babysitter for me anymore (remember, I was seven years old); instead you can put that money aside each time, so you can buy me a piano.” If they had taken me up on this offer, they would probably still be saving up for that piano. I think I probably still needed some supervision as well.
    They bought me a nice upright piano, and I started to take piano lessons. They were never pushy as parents. However, they did give me the sense that the sky is the limit. I owe very much to my parents. It was always about my own effort and sense of commitment. My parents found a piano teacher, a gentleman who lived on our street and taught the neighborhood kids. He was quite a wonderful pedagogue. In the beginning, without us giving it much thought, he would write down all the melodies I would sing. At this point, I was just learning musical notation, so I didn’t know how to write them down myself. 
    I would come to my lessons, play through piano melodies, and sing for him. These songs were often settings of poems. The great Israeli poets of that era also wrote poetry for youngsters, which was filled with great imagery. These were the inspiration for my songs. My teacher wrote these down and without telling us sent some of these songs to the Israeli Radio. To my surprise, I received a letter saying that two of my songs would be performed by a children’s choir on a program called “A Children’s Corner.”
    I was attending summer camp just then, and all the kids were gathered around a big box radio. At the designated hour, there came my songs as part of this program. It was the most amazing experience. I remember that afternoon very vividly. Hearing my music coming out of the radio, there was a sense that these songs had an independent existence from me. They were mine, but in some way, they also had their own existence. It was a wonderful feeling, and I knew right then and there that I wanted to replicate this over and over again.

How did you begin to develop a more serious, intellectual, and eventually more professional interest in music?

    I became quite a serious student of music, both piano and composition. After about a year of study, my neighborhood teacher advised me to go to other teachers who could perhaps take me to a more advanced level of study. I then had the benefit of studying with some of Israel’s most renowned musicians, composers, and piano teachers. Obviously, I went to school and took it very seriously. However, I spent a good bit of time practicing and composing. If you want to be a musician, this is not something you can just do on the side.
    I recall the day, I was 10 or 11 years old, when a gentleman knocked on our door and introduced himself. He was the principal second violinist of the Israel Philharmonic, and he lived close by. He had heard about me and asked if there was something that he could do to help me. He introduced me to many of the great conductors and performers who played with the orchestra. The encouragement I received from these great artists was incredibly meaningful at that stage. 
    There were other things that I pursued purely out of a sense of “this is what I want to do, and this is the way to go about it.” Initially, I either sang my songs, or composed small piano pieces. Then I started to do these full productions where I would play the piano, sing, and in some cases narrate a particular subject of interest. These were things I learned in school, tales from the Old Testament of the Bible, some really incredible stories that I was drawn towards, with tragic underpinnings and epic content.
    When I was 12, I felt the time had come to compose for an instrument other than my own. My very first work for non-piano and voice, such as it was, was the Sonatina for Two Flutes. It has had quite a remarkable performance history. As a child, I really wanted to hear the piece played, but I did not know any flutists. I often went to hear the concerts of the Israel Philharmonic, and I noticed that the person who wrote the program notes for the orchestra was the principal flutist. I knew that he did not live far from us, so I decided to tell him that I had written a work for two flutes. I hoped he might consider loaning me two of his students to read the music for me. 
    I was very nervous and wrote down everything I wanted to say, trying to sound very formal. I called him and breathlessly went through my little speech. At the end of which, he said, “What did you say?” My heart sank, but I repeated everything all over again. He was really very nice, and in the end, he did lend me a couple of his students, both of whom had the first name of Rina. I gave them copies of the music, and they came to my home and played for me. Remarkably, two flutists of the Jerusalem Orchestra, a broadcasting radio orchestra, then picked up the Sonatina. They not only programmed it on a major concert in Tel Aviv, but they also took it on a tour of Israel, so it was performed in many different places. That was an extraordinary thing. That is the kind of thing that gives one the encouragement to keep going, to keep stretching and working harder.

Do you find that you still gravitate towards compositions with a literary connection?
    Yes and no. The no is that if you look at my catalog of works, you will see that music with voice takes up a certain part of the catalog, but by no means its lion’s share. However, I feel very connected to writing with text. It allows me to address topics, that are important to me as a human being. And I love the human voice and just love writing for it. I have one opera, and I am hoping to write more. There are various works for voice in different settings, choral music, a capella, song cycles. Throughout the years, I come back periodically to works with voice because it was such a major way for me to express my ideas, musical and otherwise.
    Certainly, works like Apprehensions for voice, clarinet, and piano, make a grander statement. It is a big work, about 20 minutes, and very ambitious in the demands it places on each of the three performers. It’s based on a poem by Sylvia Plath from her “Winter Trees” collection. It is a single-page poem, and each stanza revolves around a different color. Leading from white to grey to red to black, it is filled with powerful imagery. There is a kind of curve, a very dramatic shape, with a huge climax at its apex. It is a very powerful poem.
    What I did was set each stanza as a movement of the piece, so it is a cycle made of a single poem. I always think of that as a kind of mini-opera, monodrama just for three instruments. The clarinet is in some sense the alter ego of the singer. It is operatic in nature, even if not of the same scale.

How did you come to leave Israel at the age of 14 to study at the Mannes College of Music in New York City?
    I received a scholarship. It was a difficult decision, but very exciting to be in the center of the music world. It was a challenge; it was daunting, difficult, and very exciting. I did not know how long I would go to school or continue to receive the scholarship. My parents came with me and were very motivated to do whatever it took to make it possible for me to reach for and fulfill my dreams. They were truly exceptional people, and the most supportive parents anyone could have.
    I became a full-time student at Mannes College, both in piano and in composition, and simultaneously completed my high school degree through a correspondence course through the American School in Chicago, never realizing that I would one day end up in Chicago. At the time, I was a very serious pianist. Although I was performing, deep down, I was more dedicated to composing. That was where my heart was. Later, the life I would choose for myself would be as a music-maker, rather than as a performer.
    For a few years after Mannes, I was busy composing, performing, learning, and everything you would expect from someone who wants to get better. Then, something quite extraordinary happened. I was given the opportunity to give a recital on a prestigious young artists’ series at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the first half, I played general piano repertoire. For the second half, I presented my own music, and the closing work was O the Chimneys based on the poetry of Nelly Sachs. There was a mishap that occurred at the concert. At the end of the piece, there was supposed to be a minute and 15 second electronic music tape section. But it never came in. Instead there was complete silence, right where the work’s shuddering climax was to have happened – and a new lesson on the realities of live music-making!  
    Richard Kapp, a conductor who was involved with the Ford Foundation, had a special program for recordings by contemporary composers. Thanks to Kapp’s advocacy, an LP with George Rochberg’s Tableaux was released, with O the Chimneys on the flip side. Rochberg was a well-known composer, and this was a special honor for me as a young composer. Not long afterwards, the LP made its way into the hands of Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago. At that point, there happened to be a faculty search at the University of Chicago Department of Music to fill a position for a composer, leading to a phone call that marked a turning point in my life.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Flute Club, you were commissioned to write Birds of Paradise for flute and piano. What is your your concept of the composition?
    Birds of Paradise intersperses music that is brilliant and energetic with the wondrous and songful. Its title notwithstanding, I did not set out to compose a bird piece. Messiaen’s music, which I admire immensely, would seem to render such an effort quite unnecessary. The title does allude, however, to the musical imagery that the music, as I was composing it, was evoking in my own mind, where shifting motion and brilliant color take center-stage.
    Birds of paradise do exist. This fact became known to me thanks to an extraordinary program that aired on PBS in September 2013. At the time I had completed all but the last phrase of the work, and had also settled on its title. My decision to name the work Birds of Paradise was based purely on an imagined vision of a fantastical bird of many bright and amazing colors with the ability to soar high and at different speeds. I also envisioned the flower with that name as well. Imagine my surprise at seeing the stunning photography of the real birds that carry such a proud title.
    The work is structured in three movement-like sections that are played without breaks and that together form a fast-slow-fast shape, more a large A-B-C than true arch form, internally shaped in ways that allow for numerous detours into further contrasting terrains. As the piece progresses, though, several main ideas that emerge early on assert their dominance and help tie together the various digressions and flights of fancy. The three sections are played without break and are sub-titled: Sparkling and energetic, With mystery and awe and Brilliant, articulate, propulsive. (Birds of Paradise was premiered at the 2014 National Flute Convention in Chicago, with Mary Stopler, flute and Kuang-Hao Huang, piano.)

What are your plans for the future?
    I intend to keep composing, always in an effort to say something that will make my listener, and performer, want to take the journey with me. I consider myself truly blessed in that, for many decades, nearly every single one of the compositions I have written was a commission – someone, an individual, or an organization, made the decision to have me write music for them. This continues to be the case, yet how quickly, or slowly, a new work will evolve, remains a mystery. Every new piece is a fresh beginning. One always starts with a blank slate. Exciting and daunting at the same time.
    Some future commissions I look forward to fulfilling are a work for the Tanglewood Festival’s upcoming 75th anniversary next summer, and a quintet for the wonderful Brentano String Quartet with clarinet virtuoso and Metropolitan Opera principal Anthony McGill. In particular, I hope to compose another opera. Composing my first and so far only opera, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk), premiered in 1997, was perhaps the most exhilarating creative experience of my life, as was the process of putting it all together for performance. I hope to be able to compose at least one other opera. So stay tuned!

Home page photo by Laura Hamm