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Libby Larsen, In Flight

October 14, 2016

Libby Larsen, who might be called the Joyce Carol Oates of current American composers, is best known for such pieces as her Symphony: Water Music (1985), her Grammy winner, The Art of Arleen Auger (1993), and then the likes of Holy Roller (1997), Bid Call (2002), and Womanly Song of God (2003), which at one time served as a kind of anthem for the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Other signatures include Ring of Fire (1995) and the opera, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1990).

In addition to being a composer, Larsen is also a music philosopher and once noted her predicament, “Composers working today are in a strange bridging area; we are redefining ourselves. We are philosophizing about the nature of sound in our world today. We are struggling to figure out, in our noise-polluted world, what is sound, what is music, and what is silence.”

It was on that point, about redefinition, in general and for her in particular, that we recently drew her into an adventurous conversation. She was visiting with the Eureka Symphony overseeing the debut of a commissioned piece called Dancing Man Rhapsody.

Larsen, who lives in Minnesota, has a dry sense of humor and an associative kind of intellect, alternately serious and whimsical, and ever willing to play and explore. She began by saying that she’s always thinking about the place of music in our lives and about the kind of music we need, as individuals and as a culture, to “reflect ourselves most fully.” For her the kind of music she needs “quiets the soul.”

“I think my soul has ADD,” she said, suffering through what sounded like pneumonia. “It’s hyper-curious and becomes easily provoked.”

In mid thought she went off in an unexpected direction: “This election, for example. All these absurd things are happening. Actually, for a week or two when the campaign started, I thought (Trump) was doing it all just to help Hillary get elected, but then as the primary season wore on I just became more and more horrified at human behavior. Have we no sense of who we are as individuals, as a community, as members of a global culture? What kind of dark mirror is this? But finally I decided I just have to believe in humanity. I just do. And no matter what happens, eventually it will be fine. It may take many years, but eventually, things will be fine.”

Vatican II And the Bread That Lasts Forever

Larsen has not always been so irrepressibly optimistic. “As a small child I was raised in the Catholic church. This was before the Vatican II Counsel (1962–65). So we were taught to believe that we’re all part of original sin and life was never really going to be fine, and the best you could do was keep yourself in check and your soul clean. And so it was about this time, in midadolescence, that I decided this doesn’t make any sense. Why are we here then if just to suffer feelings of guilt? But then along came Vatican II and all the rules changed: one week you couldn’t eat meat on Friday and the next you could; it all seemed so arbitrary ...”

Larsen’s conversion away from Catholicism sped up in sixth grade when her teacher, Sister Marilyn, “an oxymoron considering the time,” had a mental breakdown. “I realize now as an adult that that her world must have seemed to be collapsing and she was most probably having a crisis of faith.”

Larsen, 68, has suffered her own crises of faith, one of which began at the dinner table, growing up, with her father, who worked as a food chemist at Pillsbury, the Minneapolis-based company bought out by General Mills in 2001. She remembers her father holding forth on how one could manipulate the ingredients of bread to enable a longer shelf life, and how that led to her rebellion against the sense of entitlement people seemed to feel about Nature. Her interests became increasingly tied to environmentalism and how she could use music to show people what they were taking for granted, along with the consequences of ignorance.

Her crisis lead to the writing of the Missa Gaia: Mass for the Earth (1995), which incorporated Biblical texts, Native American poems, the writings of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, as well as Wendell Berry and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Larsen once noted that the theme of circles “permeates the entire work. The music uses the circle of fifths both as a melodic theme and as an instrumental motive.”

In our conversation she said, “I don’t believe in dominion or hierarchy, but if I don’t believe in that, then what do I believe in? That became another crisis of faith. That’s the problem: other than perhaps the Bahá’í faith I haven’t found a religion without a hierarchy.”

The Dancing Man

Her newest commission, Dancing Man Rhapsody, is an extension of her longing to portray a sense of oneness through her music, a drawing together of all processes, hierarchies, contradictions — and abilities. “Rather than trying to write my magnum opus, and putting together all the techniques and tricks I’ve learned in that last forty years, I wanted to write a piece about us.”

To that end Larsen went so far as to enlist Eureka Symphony board members to join in creating the piece. In one email she wrote,

Today, I am musing on what I find so compelling about Robert Longo’s “Dancing Man Series”. The stylishness and composition of the photos are attractive and magnetic, to be sure. And each photo invites, maybe even begs, the viewer to imagine a narrative around the subject of the photo.

But what fascinates me is the center of gravity in the dancer, so evident and yet not conveying heavy gravity. I search to describe it and the best I can do is to make an analogy to a gyroscope. The center of the gyroscope and the pivot point are unmoving while the motion of the gyroscope moves dynamically around it. I feel this center/pivot point/dynamic motion when I consider the dancer.

So here’s an artistic question I pose for our new piece. What musical forces are “the center/pivot point” and what musical forces are the “motion”? Is the orchestra the center/pivot point and the solo violin the motion? Or vice-versa? What does “the center/pivot point” sound like? What does the “motion” sound like?

I’ve been looking at many kinds of dance – tap, jook, ballroom, ballet, square dancing, stepping, etc. Watching Shirley Temple dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is a fun study in the “center/pivot point”!

Questions? I’m at the ready!

Board members did not reply, perhaps overwhelmed by the gesture, itself, or perhaps stilled by her sincerity. After all, the presumption in the Arts is that true creativity is not to be shared; indeed the process cannot be shared.

“Maybe I’m being subversive,” Larsen said, “but I don’t believe in this scenario where you commission a work and send the composer off to an ivory tower. In this piece I wanted to be inclusive in every sense. I also wanted to find an image to celebrate the creative process, but also the way we find ourselves through music, I wanted to incorporate so many things, and it all lead to this idea of a dancing person, this guy dancing his way through the world, doing a conga and a stroll and there’s a Lenny Kravitz moment; it’s all a cornucopia of music and motion.”

Inside the Wave

But what about the audience in all this, we asked, how far do you go to include them in your democracy?

“I don’t care if the audience gets it. What I want is to engage them in the energy of the piece. Like in my first symphony, Water Music, I wasn’t writing about water; I was writing water. So you feel like you’re right inside the wave as it breaks. And if just one person in the audience can go with me, then I’m fine. Because I know that not everybody can do it. All I can offer is this big invitation: ‘come inside and feel what it’s like.’”

“The Peculiar Case of H.H. Holmes”

Libby Larsen’s prolificness suggests a likeness to Joyce Carol Oates, but also her interest in crime and her willingness to consider — contradictory to her world view — what is not fine, and can never be fine. Among her inquisitions of demons, both her own and those at large, is the 2009 opera, The Peculiar Case of H.H. Holmes.

Herman Webster Mudgett, known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, was among America’s first notorious serial killers. He confessed to 27 murders, including women and children, but may have been involved in as many as 200. In Chicago, in 1889, he built a block long, three-story hotel, which became known as the “murder castle” — an elaborate Bates Motel of crooked passageways, stairways to nothing, and basement rooms fully equipped for a grizzly stay. Holmes was eventually caught and executed, albeit in a botched hanging. It’s all told in Erik Larson’s 2003 best selling history, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed the World.

Larsen became fascinated by Larson’s account, did extensive research and wrote an 18-minute song cycle for baritone and prepared piano, which begins, in the voice of a ghost Holmes, “A room unused since I used to reside there; in it a stove that still bears traces of fire ...”

“I began with the idea,” said Larsen, “that I didn’t want to put a frame around him. I wanted him on stage. I didn’t want to lessen the darkness in any way, because it feels like it’s so easy for us to embrace really horrible things by holding them at arm’s distance. We do that a lot as a culture and that greatly interests me. If we put a frame around the shooting of a six-year-old child, can we hold it at a distance, it appears we can.”

“So, it’s dark,” she said and added, “By not putting a frame around him, it meant that if I used music of the time, I couldn’t use it as appropriated music, I had to use it as a part of his own being. So, for instance, I used a gallop written to celebrate (the Swedish soprano) Jenny Lind’s tour of the United States (1850–52). And it comes across as this very light, bouncy kind of thing, and so you might think, ‘Oh isn’t that’s precious, cute, and fun.’ But I used the gallop as a way for him to catalogue how much he enjoyed becoming a serial killer. And it works.”

She added that it was fairly difficult to find someone to sing the part of Holmes: “I’ve had several baritones read it and say to me, ‘I can’t sing this. I can’t become this guy, I don’t want to go into that kind of darkness.’"

She prepared her piano by putting a bolt between two strings of the same pitch and then similarly prepared certain notes in the bass. “I used the idea that you feel comfortable with the piano, but then in a run you shift two of the prepared notes, which jangles your nerves like crazy, and then add to that the sight of a grand piano itself — but you don’t hear the sound of a grand piano, you don’t hear what you expect from an instrument that you know so well.”

She paused for a moment to conclude. “There’s a lot that’s dark about all this but what’s really dark is that serial killers” — she listed several — “they look completely normal, and will speak to you as a completely normal human being. It’s difficult to reconcile the idea that there’s a whole other person inside there. It’s completely jarring ...”

There was a long silence. She sounded as though she wanted to add something — more about the ironies of appearance perhaps, or about her obsession with closing distances — but she didn’t, and she’ll do that, she’ll leave a thought unfinished, let silence punctuate. Anyway, time had run out. Rehearsal was about to begin and off she went, once more in flight.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.