Ruth Anderson, Pioneering Electronic Composer, Dies at 91


Ruth Anderson, a groundbreaking electronic composer who created a relatively small but prescient body of work, including pieces that used bits of recorded speech turned into music, died on Nov. 29 at a hospital in the Bronx. She was 91.

The composer Annea Lockwood, her spouse and only immediate survivor, said the cause was lung cancer.

Ms. Anderson, who made her living chiefly as a flutist in her 20s and as a freelance orchestrator in her 30s, is best known for having founded, in 1968, an electronic music studio at Hunter College in New York, where she taught composition and theory from 1966 until 1989.

She had been introduced to the possibilities of electronic sound while studying in the 1960s at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where she was encouraged by Vladimir Ussachevsky, the center’s leader.

As recounted in “Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States” (2006), by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner, Mr. Ussachevsky made a recording of a chamber work by Ms. Anderson but somehow missed a few notes. He showed Ms. Anderson how he had electronically inserted the missing notes and demonstrated further transformations made possible by studio equipment.

“This illustration of the possibilities of technology inspired Anderson,” Dr. Hinkle-Turner wrote, and showed her that “all sounds were open” as material for music. Ms. Anderson also cited two other composers, Pauline Oliveros and Ms. Lockwood, for “leading her to her own true musical expression,” according to Dr. Hinkle-Turner.

Among Ms. Anderson’s most widely known works are two sound collages, “DUMP” (1970) and “SUM (State of the Union Message)” (1974). The first, which she created to accompany an outdoor artwork assembled from refuse by an artist known as Tania, mixed recognizable bits of folk songs and pop hits with bursts of electronic noise.

In “SUM,” Ms. Anderson audaciously mined sound bites and catchphrases from television advertisements. She cut up and, in some cases, reordered them to emulate a speech by President Richard M. Nixon. In sound and in attitude, both pieces anticipated later musical developments, like turntable manipulation and digital mash-ups.

Other significant compositions, including the sine-wave meditation “Points” (1974) and the hushed vowel-sound poem “I come out of your sleep” (1979), reflected a philosophy of composition she came to espouse, which incorporated psychoacoustics and biofeedback techniques.

“It has evolved from an understanding of sound as energy which affects one’s state of being,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay, adding that such pieces were “intended to further wholeness of self and unity with others.” That philosophy would lead Ms. Anderson to embrace Zen Buddhism in the 1990s.

Relatively few of Ms. Anderson’s works were committed to record, mostly scattered among rare anthologies and albums now deleted from the catalog. A few key works have resurfaced on streaming services.

In the months before her death, Ms. Anderson was collaborating with Ms. Lockwood and Jennifer Lucy Allan, the English journalist and concert curator who runs the record label Arc Light Editions, to assemble “Here,” the first release devoted solely to Ms. Anderson’s music.

The album is scheduled for release in February.

“The thing I love about this record,” Ms. Allan said in a telephone interview, “is that there’s different aspects of her personality: It’s playful, and focused, and dreamy. This is the most historically important reissue we’ve done, by a mile.”

Ruth Anderson was born on March 21, 1928, in Kalispell, Mont. She was the last of four children of Emil Anderson, a forester with the Montana State Forestry Division, and Louie May (Bienz) Anderson, a homemaker.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in flute performance from the University of Washington in 1949 and a master’s degree in composition there in 1951. She did postgraduate work at Princeton University, where she was one of the first four women admitted to the graduate program in composition, and at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where she worked with Pril Smiley.

Two Fulbright scholarships enabled Ms. Anderson to study composition in Paris with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger, between 1958 and 1960. She also studied flute privately with Jean-Pierre Rampal and John Wummer.

As a flutist, Ms. Anderson performed with the Totenberg Instrumental Ensemble, led by the violinist Roman Totenberg, from 1951 to 1958. She also served as the principal flutist for the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1957 to 1958. As an orchestrator, she contributed to television projects supervised by Richard Rodney Bennett for NBC from 1960 to 1966, and worked at Lincoln Center Theater on the celebrated 1966 revivals of “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Show Boat.”

The Electronic Music Studio she founded at Hunter College — after a previous failed attempt at the Hunter branch known now as Lehman College — was the first of its kind in the City University of New York system, and among the very few anywhere established by a woman.

After the studio closed, in 1979, Ms. Anderson continued to teach until her retirement 10 years later. Even after that, she helped and promoted young composers, and in 2009 the International Alliance for Women in Music established an annual commissioning award, for new sound installations with electroacoustic music, in her name.

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