The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers

Taken from the The Norton/Grove dictionary of Women Composers

By Julie Anne Sadie, Rhian Samuel

White, Ruth (S.) (b Pittsburgh, 1 Sept 1925).  American composer, pianist and educator.  She received a classical training in piano and briefly studied a variety of other instruments (violin, cello, harp, clarinet, and horn), which laid a foundation for her later writing for orchestra.  She completed her first composition at the age of eight and since she was 15 she has produced a steady stream of works for diverse media in a variety of styles and genres.  White began formal composition studies with Nikolai Lopatnikoff at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University: BFA 1958, piano and composition; MFA 1949 composition).  She continued her training with John Vincent at UCLA (1950-54): during this time she met George Antheil and became, from 1951 to 1954, one of only three students he ever accepted.  White credits Antheil with making her fully aware of the principles of classical sonata form, which provided ‘the key to writing larger works that were logical and structurally sound’.

White’s involvement in electronic music was precipitated by a belief that all experiments in traditional media, from impressionism to atonality, polytonality, and the like were closed paths – that ‘this medium, with its fundamental key relationships, has been exhausted, had reached its zenith by the end of the nineteenth century, and, since then, its basic principles were being systematically destroyed’.   She also found much early electronic music ‘chaotic and senseless’, eventually concluding that those ‘unshaped and arbitrary sound being made were noise and just that’.  After building her own electronic music studio (1964-70) now on display at the Kenneth G. Fiske Museum of Musical Instruments) she developed her own brand of electronic music, which explored new timbral and harmonic resources without renouncing the order and logic instilled by her classical training. Short Circuits, among her best-known electronically orchestrated versions of familiar pieces by composers from Couperin and Scalatti to Shostakovich.  Other electronic works, such as Pinions, Seven Trumps from the Tarot Cards and Flowers Of Evil, are notable for their inventiveness, power of communication and  (somewhat rare in contemporary music) melodic appeal and memorability.

Her career has followed many paths, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially.  She has stated: ‘I never do the same thing twice.  Some composers get bogged down on repletion and slight changes in the name of perfection.  I do something, as well as I can do it, then go on to do something else’.  Throughout her career she has been involved in creating material that teach children through music, producing teacher-training films, dance recordings and other resources intended to both educate and entertain.  She also has been on the cutting edge of new technologies, such as ‘analog animation’ (the manipulation of visual sound waves) and other video and electronic music combinations.  One of her art pieces, Steel, animated to an original score, received an Atlanta Film Festival award (1971), and she has received other recognition for her varied endeavors.  Among White’s recent project is an opera-musical theatre trilogy, for which she is writing both text and score: using acoustic and electronic music, as well as a variety of special effects, this work represents a convergence of different paths in her career, a reopening of past doors through which new vistas can now be seen.  Many of her works have been recorded (chiefly by Rhythms Productions and Limelight/Mercury records).

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