Libby Larsen

• Composers and Lyricists

Libby Larsen (b. 1950)

"I believe that music springs from the language of the people," Libby Larsen has said. "I am interested in how music can be derived from the rhythms of spoken American English." As a composer, Libby Larsen is committed to creating music that is both truly modern and widely accessible. As a woman, she is committed to furthering the careers of women in music. As a human being, she is committed to Earth and to the protection of nature, which inspires her work. Libby Larsen is one of the most prolific, admired and widely-performed composers in the United States.

Libby Larsen was born on December 24, 1950, in Wilmington, Delaware, but she was raised in Minnesota. As a child, she felt an urgent need to communicate her feelings about everything she saw and felt, and her natural language was music. Her childhood was happy and in many ways typical of its time and place. She was encouraged by her parents to play the piano in early childhood, and, like a lot of children brought up surrounded by Minnesota's Scandinavian religious and musical traditions, she sang in a church choir. She attended a Catholic grade school, at a time when Mass was still celebrated in Latin, and Gregorian chant accompanied daily services. She began to write music around the age of seven. "It never occurred to me that not everybody in the world could read and write music," Larsen said in a 1999 interview with Richard Kessler, Executive Director of the American Music Center. "Composing for me was very natural, as natural as drawing pictures and writing essays. It was natural for every kid at our school."

Larsen developed an interest in rhythm. She heard rhythms in words and speech patterns as well as in the natural environment and began to write them down on paper. She was fascinated by the way words in Latin moved through the ancient Gregorian chants, with their total lack of meter. She became concerned with ways in which natural rhythms could function within the series of finite spaces that are bars, and how the technical rigor of the piano could be made to accommodate the sounds she was hearing and notating. But it didn't occur to Larsen that she was a composer until she went to college.

Larsen studied music at the University of Minnesota under the supervision of Dominick Argento (b. 1927), who is considered by many to be the leading composer of lyrical opera. Argento's own music freely combines tonality, atonality and 12-tone writing, and his beliefs that music "began as an emotional language," and that it "begins where speech stops," made him a sympathetic and encouraging teacher for the developing composer. Larsen stayed at Minnesota to complete a second degree under Argento, but when she emerged from academia, determined to make her career as a composer, she was confronted with a number of difficult choices.

"It's not an instinctual thing," Larsen has said of the creative choices that she faced as a young composer in the 1970s. "While instincts inform voice, you choose to write 12-tone, aleatoric (music created by a process of chance, either by random computer process, or by other methods), or like Wagner." It was a matter of language; how best to communicate her feelings about everything she saw and felt, just as she had when she was a child. It seemed to Larsen that the language she chose would determine the place of her music in society. While she admired the severe academic approach of much modern music, she wanted to reach as many people as she possibly could. She went back to listening to the way real people talked, and developed her belief that music originally evolved out of the rhythms and pitches of spoken language-and that musical instruments, like voices, evolve out of a living culture rather than out of established musical tradition. This belief evolved into the controlling aesthetic of her work.

Larsen's commitment to the living sounds of American culture led her to question the validity of inherited forms. Small chamber orchestras, with their genteel strings and tinkling keyboards, may well have been the perfect expression of the Baroque Period, which lasted roughly from 1600 through 1750, but could the American twentieth century be expressed in that language? The symphony orchestra is profoundly articulate, but the sensibility it expresses is, by virtue of its very force and organization, a nineteenth-century European sensibility, and the great symphonies of the twentieth century are expressions of regret for a lost civilization.

Larsen had difficulty finding an original lyricism for orchestral strings rooted in American English. Modern opera too seemed to her to be unable to reach the emotional peaks of, say, Tosca. When an attempt was made, the result ended up sounding either old fashioned, or like the soundtrack to a Hollywood movie.

Larsen remains committed to the concert hall as the appropriate venue for her music, but she seeks to extend the expectations of the traditional concert audience. She is acutely aware that most people's experience of music is through the radio and other electronic means-and that most of the sounds that people experience through these media are also produced by electronic means. Her instrumentation seeks to reflect this by utilizing the subwoofers, which enhance low-frequency sounds and are an integral part of our modern listening experience. She installs electric basses and synthesizers in her orchestral textures, because she feels that they are part of the living language of people's real musical lives.

Larsen's intense awareness of traditional forms, and the way in which the modern composer must understand and adapt them, is perhaps most clearly expressed in her Symphony: Water Music, written in 1985 for the 300th anniversary of Handel's birth. In its four movements, the piece adheres strictly to symphonic form and pays homage to Handel by quoting Hornpipe from Handel's own Water Music. But its scoring and its postmodern attitudes belong strictly to the late twentieth century. Metal percussion, Wagnerian horns, Mendelssohn's strings, and Debussy's impressionistic orchestral nuances participate in a series of shifting textures that seek to find languages appropriate to water in all its moods.

Larsen's continuing commitment to nature finds its fullest expression in her Missa Gaia (1992), which, in her own words, "adopts the form and spirit of the traditional Mass and replaces the texts with words addressing human beings' relationship to the Earth. Missa Gaia is a celebration of those of us who live on this land, a land which can be terribly beautiful and gentle, a land which can be harsh, but which is always giving and renewing." Her commitment to the rhythms of real American voices is apparent in her Seven Ghosts (1995, for brass quintet and chorus), in which Tiger Rag, There's No Place Like Home, and the letters of George Washington, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Lindberg pass like found objects across a haunted landscape that is recognizably pre-millennial America.

Larsen is a vigorous, articulate advocate for the music and musicians of our time. In 1973 she co-founded the Minnesota Composers' Forum, now the American Composers' Forum, which has been an invaluable aid for composers in a difficult, transitional time for American arts. The first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra, Larsen has held residencies with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony and the Colorado Symphony. She is also a tireless advocate for the greater recognition of women in a musical world that she feels is still overwhelmingly and unreasonably dominated by men.

Larsen's awards and accolades are numerous. Her emerging talent was recognized with the American Council on the Arts Young Artist Award. She has received National Endowment for the Arts Composer Fellowships, and has since served on that fellowship's Musical Panel. She was awarded a 1994 Grammy as producer of the CD The Art of Arleen Auger, an acclaimed recording that features Larsen's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Her opera, Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus was selected as one of the eight best classical musical events of 1990 by USA Today. In June, 2003, she was named to the Harissios Papamarkou Chair in Education and Technology in the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. As the composer of over 200 pieces, including five symphonies, ten operas, and extensive chamber, choral, and vocal works, Larsen's music has been commissioned and performed widely by some of the world's greatest artists.