Featured New Release: “Behold the Stars” Lets Us Discover the Music of Composer Rodrigo Ruiz

Who is Rodrigo Ruiz?

Editor’s Note: “Behold the Stars” will be available soon for members of Classical Archives to enjoy! If you would like us to inform you as soon as it is available, please post a comment at the end of this post. 

As is the case with any composer, the answer to that question begins to unfold when we listen to the music he or she has created.

And when you listen to that new release [insert link when available] (newly available in the Classical Archives library), what does his music tell us about him? First, his Violin Sonata tells us that he is a craftsman who really knows how to write for that instrument. A second work, his Piano Trio, reveals that he has studied and mastered the musical language of the great piano trios of the past (Dvorak, Brahms, Ravel, and others). And when we listen to the atmospheric a Riveder le Stelle (“To See the Stars Again” or, “Behold the Stars”), which is based on a quote from Dante, we know that his music is anchored in tradition.

A Conversation with Rodrigo about His New Release

Classical Archives’ editor Barry Lenson and Rodrigo Ruiz recently discussed Behold the Stars. Here are edited excerpts from their talk.

Barry Lenson: Can you explain how you named your new CD and the thinking that went into that?

Rodrigo Ruiz: The album’s title comes from the last line of Dante’s Inferno: “We then emerged to behold the stars again.” Reading this you can almost feel the freshness of freedom after the stifling pits of Hell have been traversed. The stars they emerge to behold are the ultimate goal of Dante’s journey; one he eventually reaches in Paradise. The relation of the album to this journey will later become apparent.

B.L.: How did you work with the performers during the composing process? Did you write the works and then give them to the artists, or work with them as you wrote?

R.R.: When I received Kerenza Peacock’s commission for two violin works, the first thing I did— besides jumping up and down with joy—was to study the violin sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. This helped me lay the foundations of my work. Then, I produced the initial sketches for the sonata. At that point, I realized I wanted to incorporate scordatura into the violin, tuning the G string a full step down to F. It’s unbelievable how a tiny detail can like this can completely change the sound of the instrument. When I asked Kerenza about it, she was delighted and remained undaunted by the challenges it would bring. Later on, once I had a full draft of the violin sonata, we met in L.A. to work on refining the violin writing together. We spent the most time on the opening of the sonata. I was afraid we might have to change a lot more in those first four bars, but we managed to find a solution that kept my original idea almost intact. You have no idea how hard it is to begin “cold,” in an extremely exposed passage, with the violin on its own playing gnarly double stops. Kudos to Kerenza for playing it exquisitely!

B.L.: What is the tie between your work and Dante? And why are you now living in Italy?

R.R.: I moved to Italy six years ago, but my love and fascination for Dante preceded my Italian sojourn for a long, long time. For years, I’ve been coming back to the Divine Comedy. So it happened that one time, as I was rereading Inferno’s last canto, its first lines sparked my imagination. I heard a chilling chant. As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. That’s how a riveder le stelle, the title track of Behold the Stars, was born.

B.L.: On first hearing your music, I thought you had a neoclassical approach to composing—a friendly melodic and harmonic approach. But is that accurate?

R.R.: I would say that’s fairly accurate. To be honest, I never consciously think of what musical language I’m using, but it seems that my muse’s natural expression is tonal, in broad terms.

B.L.: When composing songs, do you start with the words? And if so, how?

R.R.: If there’s text involved, I always start with the words. I cannot stress this enough. I recently finished writing Venus & Adonis, a song cycle after Shakespeare, commissioned by Grace Davidson; the text is the heart of the music. Now, in Behold the Stars, none of the works are songs, properly speaking. Still, it turns out that (as I mentioned before) A riveder le stelle did spring from a literary source. It was new territory for me. I had never stepped into the realm of programmatic music—that place that lies somewhere between purely instrumental music, and sung text.

B.L.: Are there certain kinds of compositions that you haven’t written yet, but which you would dream of writing?

R.R.: Certainly! You should see my project index—that’s where I keep all my past, current, and future projects. It’s a very long list. On it, you might find string quartets, symphonies, masses, operas, and even operatic cycles (like Rama & Sita). I often wonder if I’ll be blessed with enough time and energy to finish everything I wish to write.

B.L.: What are you composing now, and what will you be working on next?

R.R.: I’m working out the final details of a cello suite in F minor, and continuing work on Tattvas, a work for orchestra and elemental nature, as I like to call it, musically embodying the five elements of ancient lore: fire, water, earth, wind, ether. I’ve also just started preparing the Nahuatl text for Quetzalcoatl, a choral work commissioned by Tenebrae. This choral composition will retell the story of “the feathered serpent,” the Aztec hero who immolates himself and becomes a god.

B.L.: Are there certain composers who have exerted the greatest influence on you, and how?

R.R.: Beethoven, primarily. Since I was a kid, I felt a close affinity with him. My respect and awe of him have only deepened over time. Brahms’ influence may also be perceived, although to a lesser degree (perhaps). It’s hard to say, though, how much ends up in my music. I wonder if listeners have the same impression or perceive other influences I may not be consciously aware of.

So Let’s Ask Again, Who Is Rodrigo Ruiz?

Let’s return to the question that started our post today, and find answers in these excerpts from his biography, as it appears on the American Composer Forum . . .

Rodrigo Ruiz was raised in Tijuana, Mexico, where he enjoyed playing with his friends, as all children do, but also loved music and literature. Although barely able to reach the keyboard, he was drawn to a small Steinway spinet that his great-grandfather had gifted his mother for her twelfth birthday. While studying piano under Zarema Tchibirova, and only fifteen at the time, he wrote his first piano sonata, which later received the Outstanding Composition Prize (2008) by the state of Baja California.

Even if many of his early compositions were naturally works for solo piano, his creative efforts also extend into the realm of art song and chamber music. One of his most recent compositions, Venus & Adonis, a song cycle written for Grace Davidson after Shakespeare’s homonymous poem, was sparked by their collaboration in An Everlasting Dawn, Rodrigo’s first album, released independently in 2017 after a successful crowdfunding campaign, which also featured Christopher Glynn and Alison Farr. His first album for Signum Classics, featuring a piano trio and violin sonata performed by Kerenza Peacock, Laura van der Heijden and Huw Watkins, will be released in March 2021.

An avid reader of classics, he is currently preparing his own Italian translation of Shakespeare’s King Lear which will be the basis for a new opera libretto, early sketches of which already populate his sketchbook next to drafts for a string quartet.

After earning his Bachelor of Music cum laude from Lawrence University, Rodrigo was offered a scholarship at University of Michigan’s orchestral conducting program where he completed his Master in 2014. During this time he was assistant conductor in the recording of Milhaud’s L’Orestie d’Eschyle for Naxos Records, a project that was nominated for the 2015 Grammy Awards for Best Opera Recording.

We know you will enjoy listening to “Behold the Stars” on Classical Archives. And we predict that you, along with us, will be looking forward to exploring more of Rodrigo Ruiz’s music in the years ahead.