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Creating Music from Russia to the U.S.: Interview with Composer Elena Roussanova

Earlier this month, we highlighted Elena Roussanova as one of the 5 women composers to know in celebration of Women’s History Month. Born and raised in Moscow, Russia, Roussanova showed exceptional talent and interest in music at an early age and went on to study Composition at one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world, Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory. She is not only a composer and a pianist, but also an educator, currently holding the position of Professor in Composition at Berklee College of Music. Social Media Team member Zhihanna Liu spoke with Elena Roussanova about her creative process, her experiences in the classroom, and her piece “The Great Chaplin”, which Concert Orchestra will perform this spring.

What inspired you to begin composing?

When I was younger and practicing piano, I remember after playing I’d get some time to relax and improvise whatever came to my head. As I got older, I would get more time off from practicing to come up with my own things. It was going from practicing piano to playing something just for myself when I was around 12 or 13 [that I began composing]. When I was 18 or 19, I was talking to one of the piano professors and told them I really loved composing, and she told me I needed to show my work to a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. So that’s how it started, and I would go on to play piano while studying as a composer. It was great timing to meet the right person at the right time and be absolutely sure that was what I wanted to do. But being a pianist was an incredible help, and it’s one of the most important instruments for any composer to play.

“Exposure to different music is like forming a library in your head, and when you’re ready to compose…it all comes together and hopefully you develop your own voice.”

What is your typical process for composing a new piece?

First of all, I have to get inspired, and inspiration can come from different things. It can be visual—pictures of nature or paintings. It can be motions. It can be meeting different people. It can be an event, or something you heard about and want to write about. This is what we call the “impulse.” You have to have an impulse to begin thinking about what you want to compose and what would be interesting for you to express with music. I usually start just getting ideas together, so whatever comes to mind. I would start writing just little notes here and little notes there.

I’m always composing with a pencil and music paper. It’s like a puzzle. A friend of mine jokingly said, “If anybody wanted to steal something from you, they would not know how to put it all together!” I always think about form, which instrument would be played, and what makes sense here to use a counterpoint against this instrument. I think more in layers. It’s not like, ““This is my melody and this is my harmony.”

One of the things that’s challenging is when you have so many ideas. For example, I can write multiple measures that are the same but with slight changes here and there. I’ll drive myself crazy! So I give myself two days off and then come back. When I return it always comes to me a bit easier.

Roussanova playing the piano as a baby.

How have cultural influences or international experiences shaped the character of your music?

Cultural influence is very rich in my background. I was born during the Soviet Union and Soviet Russia was a multicultural country so many people had mixed origins. I have a lot of different nationalities in my ancestry—Ukrainian, Russian, Tatar— and everyone was from different parts of the Soviet Union. My grandmother was singing Ukrainian songs to me, my mother was singing Tatar songs. My grandfather was Russian, and I’m from Moscow, so Russian was the language I was speaking. My parents also loved Italian opera and I would always hear it at home too. I was exposed to a lot of those types of music, but I was also hearing Bach, Beethoven, symphonic, and piano music. Then from another side, my brother who was 10 years older than me was really into English and American music, so I listened to jazz and other American groups. When I was five, it was the Beatles, then Credence Clearwater Revival, and actually, one of my favorite rock groups of all time is the band Chicago.

I always have multiple things happening in my head, and as a child, I was like a sponge—getting all of the sounds first, then growing, and identifying what I like more. That exposure to different music is like forming a library in your head, and when you’re ready to compose, you have to have a taste and ability to truly feel what you want to use from all this information over the years. Then it all comes together and hopefully, you develop your own voice.

There were a lot of things that shaped my language. The Great Chaplin, which CYSO will be performing, has a very American sound because it does not carry any of the stylistically Russian motifs. It’s all about the great Charlie Chaplin. I think that the ability to reflect on what I already have and use the correct style or vocabulary for a particular piece helped me to create, and I made it long before even knowing that I would now end up in the United States.

As a professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music, how do you bring your music experience into the classroom and what aspects of composition do you like to emphasize with your students?

I constantly try to make them be, first of all, open-minded. They have to listen to a lot of different things. When I use the great classical repertoire, I have to teach both the studying of techniques and show them how things were created, especially this evolution in music. I purposefully always find great examples of contrapuntal writing. It’s actually something you can find in all styles of music, and of course, in jazz. So we listen for counterpoint, not just studying counterpoint or writing contrapuntal.

Students listen to examples from jazz, to Bach, to classical music. Then they have all these ideas they can use in their minds. You cannot even imagine how many students come to me and say that the class has opened their minds. The happiest days of my teaching are when I see the students and have that “yes, they got it” feeling. When they are hearing all these different styles and deciding what they like and find interesting, that helps them find their voice.

I also teach them how to criticize. When you’re writing or listening, you have to be able to say not just if you like it but exactly why you like it. I try to open up their ears so they hear things in layers, the big picture and also the little details. I would say listening to a lot of different styles, criticizing, and understanding what exactly you like or don’t like is key. So being able to hear and train yourself—not just listening but also practicing to write in a different style.

At Berklee we have a class I teach, Techniques of Tonal Writing, where students have to write in different styles. I have them bring a theme and I sit at the piano and improvise using their theme. For example, how it would sound if Mozart wrote it. Then they understand why it sounds a certain way and how to take their ideas and shape them into this specific style. It’s a lot of listening, practicing, and trying to understand what you want to do in music.

Roussanova teaching

CYSO’s Concert Orchestra will perform your piece, The Great Chaplin, at their Spring concert. Are there any specific nuances or details within the piece that you would like audience members to pay particular attention to?

When I was in the Moscow Conservatory studying as a composer, the Russian National Orchestra was doing a concert. I was talking to one of the trombone players, and he said “Elena, you need to write something for us! Something nice and fun to listen to!” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” I remember at that time I always loved Bernstein. I saw one of the programs and he’s conducting with his face and not using his hands. But the nature of the piece was so much fun, and I wanted to write something with a fun nature.

I was thinking about Charlie Chaplin and how funny he was walking and his movements, and that’s how the spirit of the first movement came to my mind. In fact, the first movement was so easy to write that it only took around a day or two. But while I was writing for the brass part, I thought that I would write it for an orchestra. I thought it wasn’t long enough, and I needed to make it a bit bigger. So I decided to do two more movements, with the second being a more slow, lyrical part.

The first movement was “Just Kidding Around”, and the second movement was “Sometimes Sad,” so it was a lyrical movement showing Charlie Chaplin as not just this funny guy, but a real person with a full range of emotions. A lot of his movies were coming to my mind when I was writing, so I built the composition like a collage. I would remember a movie, and that would shift the composition in a modular way. Then in the third movement—”Lights, Camera, Action” I was wondering what style to use and thought, “Ragtime! Why not?”

I didn’t spend too much time writing that piece, but I had so much fun writing about Charlie Chaplin so it was easy for me. Then in 2013, when I was expecting my son, I was doing the orchestration of it, and later my son said that that piece was his favorite. I told him he was sitting inside me listening to it a lot, so that’s why it was so natural for him to like it! It’s still played a lot, and I’m thrilled that CYSO is going to play it.

Roussanova with composer, pianist, and leader of the Union of Soviet Composers, Tikhon Khrennikov, during a lesson at the Moscow Conservatory.

Looking ahead, are there any specific projects or compositions that you’re currently working on that you’re excited about sharing with the world?

Well, I’m on sabbatical right now and I am writing a composition for orchestra and opera singers. It will probably shape into an opera later on, but right now I’m trying to build it into a story. I love writing for voice, it’s something I wanted to do during my sabbatical.

Lastly, do you have any advice for CYSO students, whether they want to become composers or instrumentalists? 

Practice, practice, practice! Study, practice, collaborate, listen, enjoy music, and always try to find new music. Make yourself a musician of the future. You cannot only look straight ahead; you have to be flexible. You have to be able to write in different styles and try out different things. But again, the first thing you have to do is study!

Thank you to Elena Roussanova for speaking with our young musicians! Don’t miss out on the Concert Orchestra’s performance of “The Great Chaplin” at the Concert Orchestra & Jazz Orchestra Spring Concert on May 5th at 6:30 PM. You can learn more about Elena Roussanova’s story and her other compositions on her website.

Special thank you to Marisa Lin for transcribing this interview!



Zhihanna Liu is a junior at York Community High School and a violinist. This is her third season participating in CYSO’s Social Media Team. Aside from playing the violin, Zhihanna loves reading, spending time with family and friends, and being outdoors.



Marisa LinMarisa Lin is a violinist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra and junior at Lyons Township High School. When she’s not practicing, you can find her developing new recipes for her baking blog or taking goofy pictures of her dog.



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