The Composer - Libby Larsen

Composer Emphasizes Rhythm in Her Music

By Matthew Balensuela

Special to the Tribune-Star

From the Terre Haute Tribune-Star
Thursday, September 5, 1996

What do George Washington, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clyde Thombaugh, Charles Lindbergh and Louis Armstrong have in common?

Here's a hint: Thombaugh is the discoverer of Pluto. That didn't help? Here's another hint: The answer also involves the jazz standard "Tiger Rag," the popular ballad "There's No Place Like Home," and contemporary compositional techniques such as "chance music."

This eclectic melange of people, ideas and compositional styles are all found in "Seven Ghosts," a work for chorus and brass quintet by Libby Larsen, this year's featured composer of Indiana State University's 30th contemporary Music Festival.

The mixture of men and women, whites and blacks, arts md science, past and present, classical and popular styles is typical of Larsen's music and thought.

When talking with Larsen things tend to come in groups or in oppositions, as if she is balncing ideas and tensions in her mind.

Take the symphony for examle. On one hand, Larsen admits that many modern symhonies are "vacuous - the traitional symphonic form is perstuated but the content is relavely meaningless or repetitive at best." Yet she still feels "loyal" to the form.

"I believe we still have things to say in the symphony."

When asked to describe her own style, Larsen focuses not on melody or harmony, where people usually expect to find stylistic traits, but on rhythm: "I do have a style, but the style is not recognized in the consistent use of a harmonic language ... My style can be recognized by its rhythm more than anything else. I believe that music springs from language of the people. I am intensely interested in how music can be derived from the rhythms and pitches of spoken American English."

While composing for traditional performances, Larsen is nevertheless aware that our daily listening experiences come more often from radio or TV than from the concert hall. "So much of our listening since 1950 has been with treated sound - either with electronic instruments, or live sounds mixed through a speaker. I want to use these new sounds in the traditional concert setting. What I try do in the concert hall is introduce the sub-woofer, bass enhanced sound that has become so much a part of our listening experience by including electric basses in the bass section or a synthesizer into the percussion section."

Born in 1950, Larsen studied music at the University of Minnesota where she studied with Dominick Argento. She co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum and was the composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra from 1983-87.

Her song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble, "Sonnets from the Portuguese," was the first work on the Grammy-winning recording "The Art of Arleen Auger"(1994).

The ISU Contemporary Music Festival will feature several of Larsen's works. The opening concert Wednesday evening includes "Seven Ghosts," as well as the "Concert Piece for Tuba and Piano" performed by tubist Mark Nelson, for whom the piece was written, and excerpts from "Sonnets from the Portuguese" featuring mezzo-soprano Peggy Balensuela and pianist Beverly Simms.

At the concluding concert of the festival, the Louisville Orchestra directed by Lawrence Leighton Smith will present Larsen's "Symphony No. 3."

From the Program of the Contemporary Music Festival

In the past 20 years, Libby Larsen has become one of the most important and successful composers in the United States. Her works encompass orchestra, dance, opera, choral, theater, chamber and solo repertoire, and are sought after and performed throughout the United States and Europe. Larsen is widely honored, including a 1994 Grammy for the CD "The Art of Arlene Auger" on which Larsen's Sonnets from the Portuguese is featured. Her music explores the American vernacular and its refreshing influence on the concert tradition. Her works are widely written about, and recorded by Angel/EMI, Koch International, Nonesuch and Decca, among others.

In 1973 she co-founded the Minnesota Composers' Forum, a composer's cooperative that became the inspiration and model for much that has haorzenof1 in promoting and establishing composers in America. She has served as composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Charlotte Symphony, and is an adviser to many musical organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, ASCAP and the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Larsen is featured in the 1994 MacMillan textbook MUSIC! and the newly released Pandora's Guide to Women Composers by Sophie Fuller, published by Harper Collins.

Three recordings of Larsen's works were issued this season: her Collage: Boogie recorded with the Baltimore Symphony (Decca), the Missa Gaia: Mass for the Earth (Koch International), and Schoenberg, Schenker, and Schillinger with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (CRI). The London Symphony's recording of Larsen's orchestral works will be available on Koch International Classics in 1996.

Page Created September 10, 1996
Page last updated 9/25/96
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