Ellen Reid is unafraid of breaking through barriers, whether she’s helping other women composers smash through the glass ceiling that still exists in much of the classical and new-music worlds or by ignoring genre rules in the methodically mad way she creates powerful music that is melodically memorable yet also has the capacity to shock.
The native of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is the first composer to have had work commissioned by all four of Los Angeles’ leading classical-music companies (L.A. Philharmonic, L.A. Opera, L.A. Master Chorale, and L.A. Chamber Orchestra). Reid, who divides her time between Highland Park and New York City, is also the first composer to have had world premieres performed by all four groups, as well as the first female composer to have her work interpreted by all four.
She’s a composer and sound designer who has written film scores and chamber, choral, theater and pop music. Reid’s work is often site-specific. She turned a swing set into a musical instrument (the interactive sound sculpture Playground), and members of L.A. Phil had to be arrayed on several floors of Disney Hall to enact a febrile and bracing string-laden instrumental (Thought Experiments in F# Minor). Reid collaborated on a jazz score with wind instrumentalist Vinny Golia for the Getty Villa (Prometheus Unbound), and she was one of several composers to contribute musical vignettes for Yuval Sharon and The Industry’s Hopscotch, an L.A.-centric opera that took place inside 24 cars and across multiple locations.
For Reid’s first full opera, Prism, she and librettist Roxie Perkins ventured into even bolder territory. The opera centers on the enigmatic relationship between a mother (mezzo soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb) and daughter (soprano Anna Schubert) who are isolated from the outside world in a large glass cube, as the daughter recovers from a sexual assault and begins to question the warped version of reality that surrounds and confines her. Produced by Beth Morrison Projects with Trinity Church Wall Street and presented by L.A. Opera’s Off Grand series in an inventively cramped staging by director James Darrah, Prism received its world premiere at REDCAT in November 2018.
Reid’s score alternated between lush melodic grandeur and darker, eerier new-music experimentation, and its dreamlike passages were infused at times with pop-music hooks and electronic effects. The music was so distinctive that Reid was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Music. “It was a huge shock, a major life event,” she recalls by phone from New York. “I found out because I got text messages from friends. My phone started blowing up. I started yelling … I think Prism is an important piece on so many levels, and I’m so glad it will be seen by many more people.”
Reid, 36, hopes that the award will inspire the young composers she works with as part of Luna Composition Lab, a program that she runs with fellow composer Missy Mazzoli. “It’s possible to have your voice heard,” she says. “There’s a massive gap that we’re trying to fill and raise awareness about. People who identity as women, non-binary and gender nonconforming are majorly under-represented in classical music. Less than 3 percent of the music performed in concert halls is by female composers.” In fall this year, Reid took up a new role as creative advisor and composer in residence for L.A. Chamber Orchestra, and in May 2020 she’ll pair Luna Lab Fellows with mentors in a program of new music for LACO.
Prism, which has been staged in New York and São Paulo and will be performed in Washington, D.C., will briefly return to L.A., albeit as a highly mutated video flashback. As part of L.A. Opera’s festival early next year surrounding the world premiere of composer Matthew Aucoin and librettist Sarah Ruhl’s new opera, Eurydice, a sound installation will be located in the lobby of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion running “an epic 30-minute loop” with two arias from Prism in “an immersive soundscape,” Reid promises.