Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life.
When Libby Larsen was a little girl, her constant chatter so disturbed her father's command of the family dinner table that her parents attempted to bribe her into silence. If she could keep quiet during the evening meal for two weeks, they promised her a much-coveted doll. Young Libby tried, but ultimately failed the challenge. In Larsen's words, "I tried so hard, probably only for two days, but it felt like the rest of my life, and finally I just burst out and said 'I can't do it,' and they didn't give me the doll. And I realized then that they didn't actually want to communicate. They actually didn't want to communicate with me.... I just thought at that point, well screw it. I'll go find my own system to communicate" (p. 11).
This episode stayed with me while reading Denise Von Glahn's new biography Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life. In it, one sees the seeds of the life about to unfold. The child Libby, so desperate to be heard, found her "own system to communicate" in the musical notation that the nuns taught her in first grade. Decades later, now a successful composer, communication forms the core of her aesthetic.
Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life is a welcome addition to the growing number of biographics about women composers. Larsen has crafted a career independent of academic affiliation, far from the major music centers on the East and West Coasts. Place is important to her life and work. And Minnesota is her place. She is an outlier by choice, and she thrives.
Von Glahn's biography of this maverick composer is, fittingly, a bold experiment in the genre. Instead of following a straight chronological narrative or a life-and-works approach, Von Glahn organizes her book thematically, its chapters reflecting what Larsen identifies as the most powerful influences in her life: family, religion, nature, the academy, gender, and technology. The author adds a chapter at the beginning to provide a cultural context for the composer's life and a chapter at the end that discusses Larsen's collaborators and critics. The composer is an enthusiastic participant in the project, opening up her extensive archive and sitting for hours of interviews with the author over the course of several years.
Von Glahn admits an affinity for her subject. The two women are similar in age and backgrounds, they are both mothers, and they share many interests, experiences, and values. In a thought-provoking preface considering "the biographical endeavor," Von Glahn writes, "Empathy, while invaluable to any biographer, brings with it its own dilemmas, and separating subject and self requires vigilance and honesty" (p. xv). She is keenly aware that in writing about a living subject the author becomes part of the story, and she maintains a transparency throughout that avoids any suggestion of hagiography. Indeed, Larsen proves to be as critical an observer of her own life as her biographer, and the work is richer for the rapport that develops between the author and her subject.
The thematic organization carries the composer's life narrative well. Larsen grew up Catholic, singing chant and participating in the rituals of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. Although she was only twelve at the time of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the changes it wrought, especially changes to the liturgy she had grown to love, ultimately led her to leave the church. Nature became her religion. In the early chapters, Von Glahn explores how Larsen's experience of religion and nature during her formative years shaped her musical credo. "You could say that nature equals religion," Larsen states. "If the grace of religion is to inspire reflection on being, then that's music. Music is reflection on being, which is in all of my pieces, whatever the piece is" (p. 67).
Larsen the composer emerges during her years at the University of Minnesota, where she earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the 1970s. Realizing that university positions for young composers were few and recognizing a need for an alternative network in which to engage with other composers and promote new music, Larsen cofounded the Minnesota Composers Forum in 1973 with her friend and fellow graduate student Stephen Paulus. Von Glahn asserts, "Had Larsen and Paulus never composed at all after 1973, they would have assured their places in American music culture by founding the Minnesota Composers Forum and providing a unique support structure for contemporary music in the upper Midwest performed outside the expected locales" (p. 120). The forum became a resounding success and continues today as the American Composers Forum. Yet at its start, the faculty composers at the university were "not helpful at all," according to Larsen. "Patronizing pats on the head accompanying halfhearted inquiries such as, How's your little group going?' revealed an all-too-common attitude toward Larsen and by extension the early forum" (p. 119).
While Larsen had her mentors and supporters in graduate school, too often she was marginalized and not taken seriously. In 1974, in fulfillment of requirements for her master's degree, Larsen wrote Some Pig!, a one-act opera based on Charlotte's Web, the popular children's book by E. B. White (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952). Its premiere was highly anticipated, and the local park service had arranged for the production to tour area parks over the summer. But after only a handful of performances, Larsen received a cease-and-desist letter from White. In today's litigious climate it is unfathomable to think that no one on the faculty at the University of Minnesota advised Larsen, a student, that she needed permission to use the story. In the aftermath, the university offered her no assistance in dealing with the matter.
Women composition majors were rare in the 1970s, but Von Glahn does not attribute the struggles Larsen faced in graduate school solely to gender bias. She identifies a culture that permeated academic composition programs at the time, one in which composers were unconcerned about connecting with an audience. Citing the famous 1958 article by Milton Babbitt, "Who Cares If You Listen?" (High Fidelity 8, no. 2 [February 1958]: 38-40), Von Glahn states, "Babbitt's 1958 argument that composers were specialists writing for other specialists resonated in a field that struggled to justify its existence in a newly science-oriented world" (p. 111). Such a philosophy was anathema to Larsen, who sees composing as a social act and readily admits that she writes for the enjoyment of her audience and wants her music to be understood.
Later chapters follow Larsen's rise. Once freed from academia, she quickly established herself as an independent composer, earning accolades and awards, including a residency with the Minnesota Orchestra. The chapter on gender examines Larsen's wide-ranging "women-celebrating works," pieces that set a variety of poets and authors, ranging from the fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich to the poet Rita Dove. Von Glahn resists viewing these works as "self-serving acts of rescue and rehabilitation," concluding instead that "many of the women Larsen has showcased in her music confirm the choices she has made: they corroborate that she got it right" (p. 150).
Music analyses, accompanied by seventy-four music examples, occur throughout the book and are also grouped thematically by chapter. Linear thinkers may be challenged by this arrangement, which at times obscures the chronology of the works discussed. I found myself more than once flipping back and forth between chapters to clarify where pieces fit on the composer's timeline. This could have easily been mitigated with the inclusion of a works list. But writing about the music is Von Glahn's strong suit. Descriptive and accessible, each analysis stands as a musical vignette that brings the composer into focus. In hindsight, by considering Larsen's works thematically, I felt a deeper understanding of the composer and her music.
Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life is part of the broadly defined Music in American Life series published by the University of Illinois Press. It is intended for an academic audience and will appeal to students in both music and gender studies programs. The writing is accessible to general readers as well. The endnotes are worth delving into, as they contain such interesting tidbits as the author's assertion that Larsen "would likely have been a Gnostic had she lived in the third century" in a comment on the composer's work Magdalene (p. 287n25). An important book about an important composer, it is highly recommended.
Library of Congress