This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with renowned film composer Ruth Mendelson, who is currently celebrating the release of her first novel, “The Water Tree Way.” We had a lovely chat over Zoom, where we talked about her history and prolific career, as well as her frequent collaborations with zoology icon Dr. Jane Goodall.
For a bit of context to the readers who don’t know me, I’m a Berklee College of Music senior, aiming to finish up my Music Business degree by the end of this year. I’ve met many wonderful professors during my time at Berklee, but few, if any, were as profound and knowledgeable off the bat as Ruth. Our conversation flowed and ranged from the philosophy of life to the state of the music industry today, as well as her career as both a successful composer and the first female faculty member in the Berklee film scoring department.
We began by talking about how she got into music in the first place. I asked what she’d heard growing up that convinced her to pursue music as a career. I was surprised to find out that her first instrument was the guitar, and that she’d been inspired as a young child by sneaking into blues clubs in Chicago. She was a regular at the clubs and was eventually invited up on stage to perform. Ruth recalled this to me fondly, while recalling that the guitarist was so much bigger than her that the strap went down to her ankles. She laughed as she told me how bad she thought she sounded, but how the guitarist had followed her out and convinced her to come back and learn so she could get better. From there, she began to work as a session player.
Ruth’s turning point from guitarist to composer came as a result of a forced break from her instrument: she injured her wrist and had to put down the guitar for around 6 months to heal. For any artist, that’s a lot of time away from your creative vice, so Ruth began to study composition. 6 months later, that discovery changed her trajectory as a musician.
Ruth stressed to me that she was always working on several projects at a time, and was always jotting down new ideas that came to her sporadically. This also meant that she was accumulating a lot of material, much of which she continued to change and improve upon for years before finally feeling comfortable with the end product.
One of my early questions to Ruth was if her parents had supported her career, to which she was initially hesitant to respond. She responded that all in all, her parents are ultimately supportive now, but were skeptical at the time she started, when there were close to zero case studies at the time of successful female composers, especially for media such as film and television. She was also thankful for the eventual opportunities and space her parents had given her to become her own unique artist. I always ask this question, because sometimes people excel in spite of their parents. For Ruth, rather, she excelled in spite of her circumstances.
Ruth’s credits speak for themselves. Aside from her vast film, short film, television and podcast resumé, she is perhaps best known for her orchestral compositions and soundscaping work that she has composed for dozens of art/museum exhibits, and her work has widespread application for health and wellness, as well as early and special education. For an exhibit for the New England Aquarium, she composed a score entitled “Amazing Jellies: Council of the Sea Beings,” which has since been applauded by doctors, teachers, and mental health professionals for its sonic healing abilities.
Given these prolific compositions and her general success in the area, I was somewhat surprised that Ruth is teaching at Berklee College of Music. However, it seems like Ruth herself was surprised to be called for the job. She was an alumnus and knew people teaching in the Film Scoring department. She again laughed as she recounted to me that she didn’t initially want to teach, but was “offered the gig” by the chair in the department. She tried it out and enjoyed it a lot, but realized along the way that there were many things missing from the department. Since she has been a faculty member, the curriculum has shifted significantly to reflect a more modern environment and has also been made much more accessible to women .
While on tour with the One Human Family Gospel Choir playing the 5-string bass, Ruth played at the United Nations in Geneva in 2002. This is where she was introduced to one of her life-long collaborators, Dr. Jane Goodall. Ruth recalls that the two of them instantly hit it off and that their friendship blossomed from there due to mutual interests. The collaborations began quickly thereafter. Ruth is currently producing Dr. Jane’s most recent podcast, as well as contributing frequent music and scoring work to her other projects. Dr. Jane also wrote the foreword for Ruth’s first novel, “The Water Tree Way.”
We spoke a lot about this new book, as it’s what Ruth has been working towards for years. The book itself is, as described by a reviewer on the book’s official website, “thewatertreeway.com”, as “a fantasy book about courage, humility, adaptability, friendship, gratitude, interconnectedness, and above all things, love.” The story follows a young girl named Jai (pronounced JAY) who is guided by mystical forces on an epic journey of self-discovery, delving into complicated topics such as war, fear, loss, and revenge.
Ruth informed me she first had the idea for the book in 1985 but didn’t know anything about writing a book or getting it published. The ideas came in “snippets” that Ruth then stitched together into a fully weaved story, suitable for all ages. While it was initially conceptualized as a book for children of all ages, reader response has shown that the book is a hit with 20-30-year-olds, not only children. Ruth noted that she’s had people up to the age of 92 who have told her how meaningful the book was to them. She’s also gotten many requests to write a sequel, so we may see that come down the pipeline eventually.
According to Ruth, the hardest part about putting the book together was figuring out how to get characters from point A to point B in the narrative. However, there was no challenge getting Dr. Jane Goodall to write the foreword; in fact, she volunteered to do it. On top of that, she’s also read demos for an audiobook version, so we may be lucky enough to hear Dr. Jane read the book to us before too long. Ruth also has several other projects coming soon, including scoring work she did for the movie Taking Down Giants, set to debut in 2022.
To conclude, I asked Ruth what I believed to be the most important question of the interview: does she recommend a career in film scoring, and what advice does she have for young composers and musicians? She responded:
“The most important factor to consider is your motivation. If it’s ego gratification, I’d say that’s missing the point and not likely to be successful at even the most basic material level. However, if the motivation is to be of service with your talents: PLEASE GO FOR IT.
Take the time to go within and know yourself, because the world needs your sincerity and contribution. Your work will carry a remarkable power if you self-reflect regularly and commit to a career that is dedicated to contributing positive energy. Opportunities that would otherwise not be possible become possible when the intention is to be of service. I’ve experienced this several times. This requires patience, determination, and enthusiasm. Don’t give up. See any obstacles you encounter as opportunities to make you stronger.”