Petrichor

Composed by ELLEN REID

Not every great composer starts out knowing that music will be their life’s work. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov served as a naval officer for more than a decade, Igor Stravinsky studied law in college, and Charles Ives had a hugely successful career as an insurance salesman. Sometimes the love of music is present, but the urge or confidence to begin composing takes time. Such was the case for Oak Ridge, Tennessee native Ellen Reid, who grew up playing the piano casually, singing in her church choir, and playing percussion in the high school band. Music was a beloved pastime, but she did not ever anticipate making it her career. She was however, a young woman with an unusual depth and sense of purpose—someone who started a racial reconciliation camp in her hometown, who chose to incorporate her own art and poetry into her application to study at Columbia (and was accepted, despite lackluster SAT scores), and someone who sought solace in music when the Twin Towers fell during her first week at Columbia. It was that experience that prompted her to begin composing, and it did not take long for her professors at Columbia to recognize her talent and unique voice.

Following a two-year stint teaching music in Thailand, she returned to the United States in 2009 to pursue a Master’s Degree at the California Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles. It was here that she found a community of supportive artists who encouraged her to explore her disparate interests and offered her an opportunity to collaborate with other departments within the school. In the years since, she has garnered accolades for her varied projects, including public art “sound installations,” community engagement projects, music for film and stage, as well as choral and chamber music. Her 2019 opera p r i s m, which explores the psychological struggles of a sexual assault survivor, was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Referring to herself as a “sound artist,” her work is among the most innovative and wide-ranging being done today.

Petrichor was composed in 2017-2018 for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as part of their Sound Investment program, which commissions new works from gifted composers. The term “petrichor” is defined as “a distinctive scent, usually described as earthy, pleasant, or sweet, produced by rainfall on very dry ground.” Reid designed the work to be performed in a “spatialized” configuration, in which certain musicians were positioned throughout the concert hall, rather than on stage. The intent is to surround the audience in sound, to make them feel absorbed into the rainforest-like atmosphere. From delicate stillness to colorful waves of sonic energy, the work envelops the listener, creating a sensory experience where sound, color, and even smell begin to overlap.

Reid speaks often about how she views color and sound as being linked in her compositional process—that she often perceives the “color” of a piece, and then searches for the sounds that describe that color. When asked about the “color” of Petrichor, Reid describes it as a deep, dark green. Whatever the process by which she creates her music, Reid’s is a compelling voice, offering a unique and colorful interpretation of our modern world, exactly as composers before her have done for centuries.