HOUGHTON - Growing up in South Range, Elena Ruehr recalls spending hours and days just playing in her backyard, rolling around and enjoying nature.
Although her world has gotten much bigger since then - becoming a renowned composer, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now releasing her fifth CD- her latest collection of compositions brings her back to those days in the Copper Country.
"This CD is all American poetry," Ruehr said in a phone interview. "There's all this natural imagery ... and the senses of us being in nature all the time.
"That comes from rolling around in the forest (in South Range), walking on Lake Superior, that great feeling of being a little person in a giant world."
Ruehr keeps busy these days, starting with her work at MIT. She teaches what other schools might call "music theory," although it is more hands-on at MIT.
"We study Mozart and Beethoven string quartets," Ruehr said. "Then the students write a Beethoven-style string quartet."
Over the last 20 years, Ruehr has also become a vaunted composer in a number of venues, including chamber ensemble, orchestra, chorus and even opera. She recently debuted her first cello concerto, and is currently involved with the TenFourteen Project, a commission for chamber works from an international group of 10 distinguished composers, according to a press release.
"It's an unusual project," Ruehr said. "This is 10 different composers all working together. ... As we write our pieces, we stay in touch with each other and have influences on each other."
When all is said and done with the TenFourteen Project, the work will be performed in San Francisco in 2014 by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.
"It's cool because the conductor and the group is in San Francisco, and the group is really good and highly renowned," Ruehr said. "Everybody's excited about working with them."
This April, Ruehr will release her fifth CD, "Averno," which is a long time in coming, as the pieces stretch across her complete works for chorus and orchestra. It features New York music ensemble NOVUS NY and the Trinity Choir, and also includes solos from baritone Stephen Salters and soprano Marguerite Krull.
"It's a huge project," Ruehr said. "The CD coming out is 15 years of work, as the first piece is 15 years old, the second piece is eight years old and the last piece I wrote in the last couple years."
The work of "Averno" hearkens back to Ruehr's roots. The daughter of a pair of amateur musicians - her dad a jazz pianist and her mother a folk singer - she learned music from a young age. In addition to her parents, Ruehr credits Melvin Kangas - current adjunct instructor of music and drama at Finlandia University - with mentoring her.
"He was my teacher in high school," Ruehr said. "It was with Melvin I started composing."
After getting her bachelor's degree in music composition from the University of Michigan, Ruehr went to Juilliard to get her master's degree. She then returned to Ann Arbor for her doctorate, received her job at MIT and the rest is history.
"I love my job," Ruehr said.