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 chomping 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
Delaware) is one of America’s most performed living composers.
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.
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
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
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
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; it's 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 life — of acoustical
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 and the listening habits of my of
me and my friends changing as quickly. 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 years — which is what I'm hoping
for — and is there a life beyond that.
Now, the clearer and clearer part is looking at what is a rapidly
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
BD: So you haven't
abandoned the idea of writing for acoustical instruments at
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
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
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
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.
BD: Do you view your music,
then, as exploratory or
Exploratory in that I'm looking for
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
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 music — is moving in
different directions at once!
LL: Yes, it is!
BD: How do you avoid
becoming schizophrenic, then?
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
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
BD: Then, of course,
comes the ultimate question: how far
is too far to push?
LL: For me, it's a
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!
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.
LL: Yeah. I'm doing
that now. But I don't abandon
them. I think about all my pieces probably too
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
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
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
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?
[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
BD: You obviously feel
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
superstructural work from the very outset, I can provide whoever it is
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
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
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
BD: And remember, we only
have twenty minutes. [Hearty
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?
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
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 tap — the
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
it makes me frustrated that I can't write a chord where I need
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
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
the voice. I could be happy writing opera if opera could be happy
with contemporary composers.
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
BD: Is it more than just
LL: Yeah, it's the
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
gestures — which 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
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 companies
— and 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,
too — is 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
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
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
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?
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
[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
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
BD: Let me ask a balance
question. In your music, or music in general, where is the
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
accessible — are 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
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 art — whether it's music, painting,
architecture, whatever — has 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.
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
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