Artist Feature: Alex Ruger

Alex Ruger

You can only change where you are by truly knowing where you are, questioning your motivations and why you’re doing what you’re doing, being brutally honest with yourself. There’s no room for self-deception or ego in an artist’s life.

– Alex Ruger

Leading off with some basics, where are you from? And where are you at?

AR: I grew up in central Indiana, studying piano and guitar and a bit of viola. I played in some bands–progressive rock, funk, jazz, lots of stuff. There wasn’t really a point where I “decided” that I’d be doing music for a living–it was just the obvious choice and always has been, so I went straight to Boston’s Berklee College of Music after graduating high school. My first two years at Berklee were mostly spent studying jazz guitar and working towards being a sort of jack-of-all-trades guitarist, but after a horrendous bout with tendinitis nearly ended my career before it had even began, I changed my focus to what, in retrospect, was my passion and goal all along: composition (and more specifically, writing music for movies, TV, and video games). After a couple years adjusting to my new trajectory, I graduated Berklee and moved to Los Angeles back in September 2013. Since then, I’ve been working for a few composers–including Bear McCreary and Penka Kouneva–and as a freelance composer, as well as balancing the odd producing, arranging, or mixing gig. I’m falling in love with the cultural and artistic melting pot that is LA–and the fact that I can go surfing pretty much any day is a nice plus.

What does Reflection and Response mean to you?

AR: Refinement. Self-awareness and mindfully whittling away the unnecessary is an important and ongoing process for me–not just in my music, but throughout my life.

With regards to writing music, John Mayer said it better than I can. I’m paraphrasing, but he once said something to the effect of, “When you write, it’s like when you were a kid, throwing glitter on to a plate covered with glue. But it’s only when you shake off the glitter that doesn’t stick are you able to see the pattern it’s making.” That’s the fun part–shaking off the stuff that doesn’t stick.

When making music, that process is fun, but when you’re whittling away at yourself, it’s hard, and only recently have I begun to the see the patterns–thought processes, motivations, etc. You can only change where you are by truly knowing where you are, questioning your motivations and why you’re doing what you’re doing, being brutally honest with yourself. There’s no room for self-deception or ego in an artist’s life. And none of that introspection matters if you don’t have the courage to change and put what you’ve learned to work. It’s all about working towards a more refined version of you, and hopefully your art will reflect that.

How does your piece “Christmas 1914 in No Man’s Land” fit in with that definition?

AR: A great example of this is actually one of my non-film pieces, entitled “Christmas 1914 in No Man’s Land” (inspired by the Christmas Truce of World War I). It was a beautiful near-miracle that occurred right in the middle of what is quite possibly the nastiest war in human history–the two sides stopped fighting and enjoyed Christmas together. But it’s also a sad story–they began fighting again the next day. So the crux of the piece is an emotion that’s hard to describe–bittersweet comes closer than anything else, but it’s still not quite right. I guess that the saying, “Where words fail, music speaks” isn’t just some dumb phrase to put on refrigerator magnets!

To achieve this weird intersection of emotions, I really had to reel myself in and make sure that I wasn’t stepping on my own toes. Certain phrases needed room to speak, while others needed to be interrupted by the next one. Every note really mattered–it took a lot of “shaking off the glitter” to come to the end result. Even though I recorded it nearly a year ago, I’m still very happy with it. The number of things I want to go back and change is unusually low.

Alex Ruger - Conducting What else have you been working on recently? What are you looking to work on next?

AR: As we speak I’m currently in between films, so I’m finishing up a record I co-produced back in Boston with my good friend and engineer, Andy Rumschlag. It’s called “Adventures in Faking This” and is a collection of songs by one of the most insanely creative people I know, Teague Chrystie. It’s been especially fun for me because each song is a completely different genre and required an entirely unique approach. For example, one song required a gorgeous, over-the-top Disney-esque orchestral arrangement. The next song required me to channel my inner Brian May on guitar. And at one point in the next song we were banging on a trash can while taking swigs of vodka (trust me, it’ll make more sense when you hear it!)

Beyond that, I’m looking to work on my next film score, whatever it may be.

Who or what inspires you?

AR: Any and all art that’s made with honest intention. I might get tired from writing music for the day, but the moment I read a great book or go to an art museum, I’m reinvigorated to go back at it again. Recently a director friend and I went to go see costume designer Michael Wilkinson talk about his work and his creative process at the LACMA. I know nothing about costume design–I’ve never really given it a thought in my life. But it was amazing! It’s incredible how much one can draw from a field so far removed–yet so close, in so many ways–to my own.

I’m inspired by so many musicians, but here’s just a few:

John Williams. This man will forever be my number one, both as a composer and as a human being. His music just works with the film on so many levels, his melodies are unforgettable, his orchestrations perfect, and he’s so humble, forever a student. He’s a living legend.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sheer honesty and pure expression. When we smile or cry or yell, that’s the kind of expression we don’t think about, right? It’s effortless. He somehow found a way to make writing music just as effortless. His 10th Symphony in particular is a continuous stream of shivers for me.

Gavin Castleton: Every time I show him to a friend of mine, they freak out and ask where to buy all his records. He’s honest, intense, fearless–everything I crave in music. His album “Home” in particular is a masterpiece.

Jonny Greenwood: His work with Radiohead is already legendary, but more and more people are catching on to his film scores. He and I share a lot of influences–Krzysztof Penderecki is a big one–so I was immediately drawn to his work on There Will Be Blood. He’s such a breath of fresh air in a medium that’s becoming a victim of stylistic inbreeding and repetition.

My friends. My Facebook feed is a wall of inspiration. Seeing them killing it wherever they are–here in LA, across the country in NYC or Boston, or on tour–keeps me honest with myself. It’s a privilege to know so many incredible people, and every day I love and miss the ones not here with me in LA.

Is there anything else you would like the Collective to know?

AR: I challenge Stephen Colbert to a Tolkien Showdown. I’m a pretty huge Tolkien nerd, and I feel I could give him a run for his money–unlike James Franco. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to…

Shout out to…?

AR: My family. Encouraging your child to do something as crazy as pursuing music as a profession takes enormous amounts of trust and love. They’re the best! I just need to convince them to move to California so I can see them more.

Alex Ruger Reflection and Response.

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