Composer  Libby  Larsen
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Probably the best word to describe Libby Larsen is "energetic."  This includes both her demeanor and her music.  It's as though she is champing at the bit to put everything into each phase of her life and work.  There's a wide-eyed eagerness and vitality, and this is immediately apparent not only in her music but also when she speaks.

All the details of her works and recordings, as well as reviews and candid photos can be found on her website.  From that site, this is her "short biography"...

Libby Larsen (b. 24 December 1950, Wilmington, Delaware) is one of America’s most performed living composers.  She has created a catalogue of over 400 works spanning virtually every genre from intimate vocal and chamber music to massive orchestral works and over twelve operas. Grammy Award winning and widely recorded, including over fifty CD’s of her work, she is constantly sought after for commissions and premieres by major artists, ensembles, and orchestras around the world, and has established a permanent place for her works in the concert repertory.

As a vigorous, articulate advocate for the music and musicians of our time, in 1973 Larsen co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composer’s Forum, which has become an invaluable aid for composers in a transitional time for American arts.  A former holder of the Papamarkou Chair at John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, Larsen has also held residencies with the Minnesota Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony and the Colorado Symphony.

In April of 1988, she spent a whirlwind day in Chicago.  She'd flown in, had a world premiere (which was given on a competing radio station), and then drove to my studio for this interview before jetting home once again.  Much has happened since that time and her career has expanded and prospered in every way, so it's even more fascinating to see how much she knew and how solid was her thought much earlier in her career.

Bruce Duffie:  Let's talk first about composing.  How strange is it to be a composer in the late '80s?

Libby Larsen:  Well, it's getting...  Hmm.  Depending on the way you look at it, it's getting stranger and stranger, or clearer and clearer.

BD:  Tell me about stranger and stranger part. 

LL:  When I got my Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1978, I looked around and saw that there were certain avenues that I could take, as a composer, to be happy.  One was to teach in a university situation; another was to write music for performance.  I chose the route to write music for performance, to try not teaching for a while and see where that led me.  I went about getting to know the best performers I could so that I could write the best pieces possible.  But in 1978, we didn't really have synthesizers yet; there was the Moog and the Arp, but not the DX7 and the Yamaha; and computers were not as prolific they are now.  Studio recording was not yet an instrument in and of itself; it was a means to an end at that time.  And musical tastes, in terms of popular music, were maybe two generations old.  But in the last ten years, the whole notion of musical taste, and how musical taste has formed has, to my way of thinking, undergone some really great changes, most of them having to do with technology.  So the stranger and stranger part is that I was trained as an acoustical composer and imagined a life
and a life beyond my own lifeof acoustical music.  What I'm realizing now is that I may be the Renaissance composer at the end of the Renaissance, writing for crumhorns and recorders.  I see the musical world around me changing so quickly, as well as the listening habits of my friends and me.  We are listening to mixed sounds and saying that that's right, and when you can't hear the flute, that's wrong.  Those kinds of things have made me stop and think about whether I have a life composing acoustical music for the next fifty yearswhich is what I'm hoping forand is there a life beyond that.  Now, the clearer and clearer part is looking at what is a rapidly changing musical palette.  The only way for me to deal with it is to be as clear as possible about what I'm doing, and that is writing the best acoustical music I possibly can and just having faith that indeed there will always be a place for acoustic instruments.

BD:  So you haven't abandoned the idea of writing for acoustical instruments at all?

LL:  Not only have I not abandoned it, I'm re-embracing it with great vigor.  [Both chuckle]  Yeah!

BD:  You don't feel you're looking backward?

LL:  No!  No!  I question if I am looking backward, and respond, "No."  What I am doing is trying to tap into this kind of energy that is changing our world so quickly, and to bring that energy into the music that I write for acoustic instruments.

BD:  Is it really the place of the composer to bring the world forward with him or her, or should the composer just write the music that is felt from within, and then hope that the world finds a way to it?

LL:  That's a good question!  I'm not sure that you can separate the two.  How can you tell the dancer from the dance?  [Both chuckle]

BD:  Well, how do you tell the musician from the music?

LL:  I don't view composition as an isolated intellectual activity.  I view composition as a generative activity that I approach by living fully in the world and bringing whatever insight I have about the world I live into my music.  In that way I can't separate myself from my music, nor do I separate myself from society.  I don't expect that society would have to come to my music; since I'm part of society, my music should be immediately part of that society.

BD:  What do you feel is the purpose of concert music?

LL:  I think it is to bring an immediate, visceral, logical response into the lives of people who are listening to it.  Does that make sense to you?

BD:  In a way, but I want to pursue it.  What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of your music?

LL:  I expect them to come with open ears and an open mind, and ready for anything.  I expect them to come to my music the same way they come to a new restaurant, expecting something new, but not necessarily expecting something totally different; expecting to make a decision about something that's presented to them that's new, and to tap into it in an emotional way.

BD:  Do you expect them to come to it the same way they would come to Brahms or Mozart?

LL:  No!  I don't.  I expect them to bring Brahms and Mozart with them to the concert hall.  I expect them to then use Brahms and Mozart to listen to what it is that I have to say about being alive in 1988, since Brahms and Mozart aren't.  I'm making the assumption that Brahms and Mozart probably unconsciously made the energy of their eras alive in their music, and that that kind of energy is different than the energy of being a global person in 1988.  And I'm expecting an audience member to bring the experience of Brahms and Mozart to the hall, but then to use that as a springboard to move beyond, into my music; or let my music move into them.

larsen BD:  Do you view your music, then, as exploratory or reflective?

LL:  Both!  Exploratory in that I'm looking for something contemporary.

BD:  Do you know what you're looking for?

LL:  I'm looking for energy.  I'm looking for the kind of energy that exists today; the kind of energy that brings me to Chicago to premiere a piece which is made for radio, and then come and talk to you and then get back on a plane and fly home so that I can fly to New York tomorrow.  This is a different kind of energy, but it's an energy that is pervasive in our society; this moving, moving, always moving kind of energy.  I'm looking for that and I'm exploring how to get that, but I'm also reflecting upon the fact that it's here.  So it's both exploratory and reflective.

BD:  So music
at least your musicis moving in many different directions at once!

LL:  Yes, it is!

BD:  How do you avoid becoming schizophrenic, then?  [Hearty laughter]

LL:  I do it by moving from piece to piece and by organizing each piece around an image, a very well-defined image if I can.  Let me give you an example.  My piece Four on the Floor (1983), which is a piece for violin, cello, bass and piano, is a piece that is both exploratory and reflective.  It's a piece about living faster than you can control.  Its image is of someone speeding in a car that has great power.  "Four on the floor" is a slang term for a stick shift in a car!  I wanted to write a chamber piece that reflected the kind of living on the edge, living in the fast track, almost ready to crash and burn energy that I see around me, and that I experience myself.  I wanted to find an image to explore that, so I chose the image of the speeding car and used a technique of composition which is much like peripheral vision.  As I move through the piece, I go back and pick up material from one or two measures before, but just use it fleetingly in the next phrase so that you should get the effect of peripheral vision, of something that goes by you very fast, but you can remember it three or four times before you discover what it is.  "Oh, that was a stop sign I just went through!"  [Both laugh]  That helps me to not be schizophrenic about this piece.  What is this piece?  It's a piece about a speeding energy; it's a piece about an energy that's moving almost out of control, centered on an image that is well known in this culture.  So I move from piece to piece looking for an image that is as universal as I can find, to explore the question I need to explore.

BD:  Is this kind of a piece with so much energy in it going to speak more to someone who has a lot of energy that they bring to the concert hall, rather than the blue-haired old lady who's been retired for 15 years?

LL:  I don't think so.  I think it speaks equally.  It should!  If it's a successful piece it should speak to the blue-haired lady and it should speak to a three-year-old child in much the same way.  If I've been able to really get at that question of pushing yourself beyond what you are capable of doing, then each person at each age should be able to get that from the piece.  It'd be in different ways, different referential ways, but yes.

BD:  Then, of course, comes the ultimate question:  how far is too far to push?

LL:  For me, it's a question of "so what," in each piece.  I always try to ask myself the question, "So what?"  When I've decided on an image for a piece, I ask, "Does it matter to anybody but me?" and if it doesn't, then I think I've pushed myself too far in my thinking.

BD:  So you always want your music to matter someplace.

LL:  I do!  Yes.  I do.

BD:  If you're always looking forward and going on to the next piece, you don't abandon your old pieces, do you?

LL:  No, I don't abandon my old pieces.  I probably hold on to them too much.  [Laughs heartily]  Actually, in fact, right now I'm going through my last 15 years' output and pulling some pieces because I've let them stay out too long.  There are some that need to be pulled and put away.

BD:  Withdrawn?  Really???

LL:  Yeah.  I'm doing that now.  But I don't abandon them.  I think about all my pieces probably too much.

BD:  Then what do you say to the historian who finds the odd copy that's laying around of a piece that you have withdrawn?

LL:  I don't know!  I'm going to write a letter and make sure that it's with my publisher, explaining why I think these pieces oughtta be withdrawn.  The publisher owns the copyright, so ultimately the decision is up to E. C. Schirmer whether or not they can be withdrawn; but I have good reasons.

BD:  Is the composer really the best judge of that criteria?

LL:  I have to say yes because I know where I'm going.  I'm the only one who knows where I'm going artistically at this point, and no matter who owns the copyright, I own the piece.

BD:  Even if you know where you're going, isn't it possible that someone from the outside would see you better as you pass by?

LL:  It's possible, but I don't think a composer can give up ownership of pieces.  So it's probably better that E. C. Schirmer owns the copyrights just for this very reason.  They may say, "But this is a wonderful piece," and I will say, "You may think so, but I want to withdraw it.  My style is going this direction; I can't be responsible for that piece anymore."

BD:  But are you responsible for it at all, once you've given birth to it?

LL:  Yes!  I feel responsible for every note that walks through my mind, and I feel a greater responsibility once I put it on paper!

BD:  Then you launch it on the world; don't you give it a life of its own and let it lead its own way?

LL:  No.  [Laughter]  It goes its own way, but I feel a parental proprietariness about each piece even though it's living its own life.  I think the issue is control!  Am I control of my own artistic output or not?

BD:  You obviously feel you are!

LL:  I obviously feel I am!  I don't think I can feel otherwise.  I'm the only one who puts on paper what I'm thinking.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let's talk about a little different kind of control in part of the creative process.  You're writing and you have the pencil in your hand; are you controlling the pencil, or is the pencil controlling you?

LL:  [Chuckles]  Boy, you ask tough questions!  In the opening and closing and transitions of pieces, I'm in control of the pencil.  If the piece is working, in between the opening and the closing and the transitions, the pencil's in control.  The material, if it's well prepared, begins to move by itself.  That's very exhilarating for me.  So it's a collaborative effort between the muse and the intellect for each piece.

larson BD:  I assume that you are overloaded with commissions, and requests for pieces.  How do you decide which ones you will accept, which ones you'll postpone and which ones you'll say, "Never"?

LL:  For me, performance is important; I will always look for the best performance possible, so I decide based on which performers I'm going to be working with.  I also decide if I have done too many similar pieces.  For instance, I've done quite a few Christmas kinds of pieces, so I'm not accepting commissions for Christmas pieces.  I need to connect to the particular commission, too, so it's important to me to get to work with good performers in good situations on material that I feel fresh and passionate about.  I decide based on those things; I don't decide based on the amount of a commission anymore.  I thought I would!  When I was younger I thought I would really be making monetary decisions, but that's not the case.

BD:  I see, it's more artistic.

LL:  Yeah.  It's artistic, so I'm pleased.

BD:  It's a luxurious position to be in!

LL:  Well, it's not to say that I'm rolling in dough!  [Both laugh]  I've turned down commissions that are lucrative because the performance situation is not good!  It's very painful to work for a long time on a piece and then hear it badly performed.

BD:  Have you basically been pleased with the performances that you have heard of your works?

LL:  That's an interesting question also, and we're leading back to the piece and its own life
when it's [shouts] away from me!  [Laughter]  Yes! I have been.  I've been pleasantly surprised; I've been elated.  There have been a few instances when I've been horrified but those generally tend to be theatrical experiences, where there is a director or a scene designer or whole different layers of artistic interpretation involved.  But in general I've been very pleased at how well a piece speaks from the page through different performances.  Yes.

BD:  One step farther, then
the recordings.  Those have a bit more permanence and a bit more distribution.  Have you been pleased with them so far?

LL:  So far, but I've also been in the luxurious position of being at each recording session.  I've been a behind-the-scenes producer.  I haven't actually been the producer, but I've been at the side of the producer for each recording, so they're really composer-recordings.  I have not had the fortune of having a piece recorded more than once or recorded away from me, so I can't really fully answer that question.

BD:  Are you one of these horrors that are always screaming at people, "Do this, do that; don't do this, don't do that"?

LL:  No, I don't behave that way.  I try to do my work well on paper, and I also try to be very cognizant of a performance situation.  I don't try to pose more challenges than is possible in that situation.  I always work for a performance, and being a performer myself, I understand the pressure of performance, so I am practical and cognizant of what it is really going to take to get a particular piece up and done well.  So I don't come in with bricks in both hands.  If I've done my thinking work and my preparation well, it's much more fun to be polite and nurturing, than it is to be confrontational.  One gets much better results.

BD:  But music is not all thinking work, is it?

LL:  No!  It's mostly feeling work.  But for me, in any piece that I write there's a superstructure of intellectual organization that goes on first, and almost all of that involves the performance of the piece
the performance meaning the capabilities of the performer, the time frame in which the performer has to work on the piece, the hall, the acoustics, and the administration of the concert.  More and more, I'm finding that the concert producers can, with good preparation, help the art form to grow in a way that neither performer nor composer can.  So if I do my organizational superstructural work from the very outset, I can provide whoever it is that's producing the concert with a means to grow and to help its audience grow.

BD:  But this is not to say that you tailor it in such a way that it becomes an occasional piece, does it?

LL:  No!  No, no, no, no, no.  I try to turn the occasion into an opportunity to express what I'm mostly interested in, which is our contemporary society.  So that is a lot of thinking.  When that's in place, then the issue is writing the piece, and the emotional part begins to join the intellectual part.

BD:  Is that how you approach your pieces, with this kind of fire and energy?

LL:  Yes. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

LL:  [Chuckles in a low voice]  Ho, ho, ho.  [Continues chuckling, this time in a higher voice.]

BD:  And remember, we only have twenty minutes.  [Hearty laughter]

LL:  [With mock resignation]  Ohhhh...  [Both chuckle]  Well, you have to understand that I went to a Catholic school before the Ecumenical Council, so I cut my musical teeth singing chant.

BD:  [With a sly nudge]  Do black patent leather shoes really reflect up?  [Both chuckle]

cd LL:  To me, the human voice is the ultimate instrument.  It's the most reflective, the most personal, the most infinite in its possibilities and the most difficult to write for if you are not willing to accept the fact that the human voice is a kinetic instrument.  The composer needs to approach it psychologically.  For me, the joys of writing for it are that it is infinitely expressive, especially now that we have microphones; we can express the most intimate sigh along with the most noble high C, and, we can mix them into the same piece if we want.  So we are able to get at the human voice in a way that we weren't before we had studios and technology.

BD:  So you're really tapping more potential than we even thought of in earlier generations.

LL:  Yes.  Yes, and that is very exciting for me.  It's one of the great joys that you can tap
and I do try to tap, and will spend years and years trying to tapthe infinite expressive possibilities of the human voice.  The sorrow is that it's a kinetic instrument!  You can't press keys down and get the notes that you want.  So that makes me squirm when I'm trying to write a very beautiful melody.  And it makes me frustrated that I can't write a chord where I need it.  The limits that the voice has are frustrating to me.  When I think of melody, I think in orchestral textures a lot.  I think of Shostakovich, and I think of melodiousness which spans five octaves, and the human voice simply limits what you can do with a melody.  So I'm frustrated by it because it puts so many limits on me.

BD:  Are you waiting for a vocalist who can sing multiphonics?

LL:  No; as a matter of fact I know some and they do it quite well.  But I also was hard to control in grade school; I talked a lot and was just too full of energy.  I have to work so much harder to write a very beautiful, singable melody than I do to write a movement of a symphony that I sometimes get an adolescent frustration at having to work so rigorously hard to make the human voice work in a piece.  But I also find that's where my heart naturally is
in writing for the voice.  I could be happy writing opera if opera could be happy with contemporary composers.  [Chuckles]

BD:  Why isn't opera happy with contemporary composers?

LL:  [Takes a breath, chuckles slightly, then speaks in a kooky, cartoonish "dumb guy" voice]  Duh!  [Hearty laughter all around]

BD:  Is it more than just box office?

LL:  Yeah, it's the convention, I think.

BD:  So the box office is a result, not the reason.

LL:  I do think so.  When I look at the operatic world today, I see a number of not well thought through, rigid conventions in place
such as period costumes, the proscenium stage, certain kinds of operatic gestureswhich have become just ingrained; a very stylized, conventionalized, accepted performance tradition.  Those conventions have very little to do with the way we live our contemporary lives!  The energy we see on an opera stage is not the energy that we see on the street.  The whole proscenium-ness of opera is, to me, becoming more and more foreign; we have large-screen TV available to us where we're allowed to study someone's eyes as they're reacting emotionally.  But the problem is that most opera companiesand I've dealt with university opera theaters where you ought to be able to be experimental and flexible, and I've dealt with regional opera companies; I've not had the good fortune to deal with a large, established company like Chicago Lyric, but I would wager to say that this is probably true there, toois that what is defining opera now are Romantic theatrical conventions, and contemporary operatic composers have a lot more to say, dramatically, than those conventions allow.  I don't think the twain shall meet.

BD:  Should opera just be another reflection of daily life?

LL:  I'm struggling with that.  I'm thinking that perhaps opera in America is becoming what "Noh Theater" is to Japan.  It actually is becoming more and more and more distilled cultural symbol which is becoming set for a reason
that we need to hone and refine our symbols to remind us what our culture ideally should, or could be.  But that means that a contemporary operatic composer can't develop because we're busily turning grand opera into а cultural symbol, and therefore we're setting it in stone!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  In opera, or in concert music, how much interpretation do you allow on the part of the performers?

larsen LL:  I don't allow very much, actually; funny you should ask that.  I try to put as much on the page as I possibly can.  I even stopped writing articulation directions in any language other than English.  I now try to put everything on the score in American English.

BD:  Do you want every performance of any piece to be a carbon copy of the previous?

LL:  No, no, but I want it to be a general road map.  Right now I'm involved at the University of Minnesota improvising an opera!  [Laughter]  Especially in light of this conversation, I'm finding it very uncomfortable because I don't have enough control.  I don't want to be as exacting as Milton Babbitt on the page; I want the performer to be able to have a personality in the piece.  I try to put as much on the page as I can, to take that responsibility, to let the buck stop here as much as it can.

BD:  Are there any pieces that you have revised?

LL:  Yes, there's an orchestra piece that I've revised four times; it's a piece called Tom Twist [a 10-minute musical narrative for small orchestra, narrator, and mime (1975); this work seems to have been removed from the list of works at her official website] and I'm going to revise it again because I need to change some of the language.  There are also some choral pieces that I've revised.

BD:  What are you going to say to someone who says, "We did the first version of this piece, and we think it's so much better"?

LL:  Well,  [laughs]  I will say, "Good!  I like the fourth version."  [Hearty laughter]  The whole issue of who owns the piece is a really thorny one for me.  I actually get kind of hot under the collar on the subject.  To me, it's unthinkable that anybody else owns the piece but me!  It's my thought, but I do understand that everybody that hears the piece, that plays the piece, that conducts the piece, owns it; that the piece isn't mine anymore.  Maybe that's why I'm in the process of going back and trying to reclaim some pieces and pull them off the shelf, to establish this point with myself again as to who owns this music.

BD:  Let me ask a balance question.  In your music, or music in general, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

LL:  I'm currently struggling with that.  Because I have chosen the road of composing for a living, each piece that I write deals with this question of artistic versus entertainment.  When someone commissions a piece from me, I need to be very clear as to what their goal for the piece is.  I have to admit that when I am confronted with writing a piece solely for entertainment, I turn that piece down because to me, the notion of entertainment is a very fleeting kind of notion; it's for the moment, and I need to create music that lasts beyond the moment.

BD:  Even though the sounds have dissipated?

LL:  Yeah, even though the sounds have dissipated.  I think that I'm one of a current generation of composers who are defining the role of contemporary concert music once again in American society.  Those of us who are accused of being "accessible"
and that's an accusation, for a composer, if someone says your music is accessibleare composers who are asking the question, "At what point do we call something art, and therefore not accessible; at what point do we call something entertainment, and therefore too accessible?  What is the fulcrum of accessibility that's allowable, and to let a piece be art but communicate with a greater number of people?"

BD:  Is that fulcrum, then, the point that you aim for, your target?

LL:  That's my target for each piece, and I need to understand why someone is commissioning a piece and what they expect from the piece.  If the fulcrum tips toward entertainment, I start to fight it or turn the piece down.  If the fulcrum tips more towards just purely art, I also question that.  Why do I do that?  With this opera that I'm improvising, the fulcrum is definitely tipped towards art.  It's an improvised opera; there is no score, it won't live beyond the moment
except that we'll record it, so I could, if I wanted to, transcribe the whole thing from the recording, and revise it or do whatever needs to be done.  But having chosen a life out of the academy, I have come to carefully question if something that's fully art is really art.  [Both chuckle]  I think you understand what I mean by that is that the polar opposite of entertainment may be inaccessibility, and if a piece is inaccessible to the extreme, so that it's only accessible to one mind, then it doesn't communicate with enough people to make it art.  To me, a work of artwhether it's music, painting, sculpture, choreography, architecture, whateverhas to have the possibility of being considered over a long period of time.  That possibility of being considered puts that piece of art at the fulcrum point for me, where some people can call it entertainment and some people can call it art, but a lot of people have a way to consider that piece.

BD:  I am glad you are wrestling with all of these conundrums; I'll be interested to see the kinds of solutions you come up with as you progress.

LL:  [Chuckles]  Me, too!  You really ask penetrating questions.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on April 11, 1988.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1995, 1997 and 2000; and on WNUR in 2007.  A copy of the audio tape was given to the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  The transcript was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.