Composer Libby Larsen visited Colorado in late October to celebrate the release of a new CD of her songs, Songs of Her Self. Self-produced by Liria Duo, comprised of soprano Emily Murdock and pianist Sara Parkinson, it features the premiere recordings of her 2011 piece Donal Oge and the 1987 set ME (Brenda Ueland), as well as the set Songs from Letters (1989) on letters from Calamity Jane to her daughter. Larsen was last in the area for the CU NOW workshop of her upcoming opera A Wrinkle in Time, and is familiar to Colorado audiences as a former composer in residence with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Carver sat down with Larsen to talk about her works for voice, the recording process, her inspiration and selection of texts, education, and much more.
Larsen is an ebullient and thoughtful speaker - eager to share some of the ideas that have spurred her own success and remarkable output of works.The conversation began by discussing the qualities of a good producer for vocal music recordings: someone who ideally has an ear for tone and how the overtones of the voice interplay with the piano on her delicately-colored art songs. She explained, "I want storytelling. I don't want singing in the concert hall. We're here to tell some stories in the microphone."
RC: Is that quality something that's missing on other recordings of your song cycles?
LL: It depends on the singer. Yes, in some instances. I'm not present at most recording sessions. I don't have control over it, nor would I say I want to control it. But I'm not there to, say, offer an insight here or there, into the song, something I was thinking about when I wrote the song. There are some really fabulously beautiful recordings that maybe could do a better job of bringing the words to life, if that makes sense. It's a choice, every singer makes a choice of how they approach the words in the song.
RC: You've written many song cycles that focus on female characters, including the selections on this new CD. Is that something that you intentionally do - do you try to get into the mindset of these female characters and historical figures like Calamity Jane?
LL: When I first started composing song cycles, no, I would've said no. I was very young and had just so much joy writing, and it was really more about me. That's youth- just reveling in the fact that you're doing this thing.
RC: Because composition is a self-generated craft?
LL: Yeah, and I see it in almost every young composer. It doesn't matter what the genre or the skill level. They're just like wow- getting in a race car and driving away. It didn't take long before I began to understand that if I was going to pair with great poetry or great prose, that there was a level of work that needed to happen, and that needed to meet at the point of respect for the work that had already been done on the words. So I found myself more naturally attracted to the writer's voice with women; not because I felt that I knew women or they knew me, but something about the voice that it a little more direct. It doesn't put frames around things, or distance. There's a really interesting grasp and not-from-a-distance. In the struggles in Virginia Woolf, you feel the struggle there, not putting distance on the words, it's right on the surface. Yet her training is a distanced training. Willa Cather is another whose training and word-smithing and word craft comes from a formalized, distanced point of view. But the struggle, one of the things that gives Cather her voice, which is genius, is that she found ways to be direct. It's not a new thing. You know the troubadours? There is also a whole literature of the troubaresses [female troubadours also known as trobairitz].
RC: Which you don't read about so much in Music History 101.
LL: [laughing] Not too much. No. But the language was, and remains, absolutely direct. There is none of the "on the pedestal" language. It's the same subject matter, but the way they treat it is different. So I continued to be drawn to the authenticity of authors. And with females, I do try to get into their heads now. I'm not looking for women to write about. I'm looking for texts that speak for themselves and need me. For instance, when I set Emily Dickinson, I try to spend a great deal of time - while going on long distance runs - understanding the investigation that she gave herself for a particular poem. So that I at least can come to peace with the fact that she wrote the poem.
RC: Alone in her little room.
LL: Yes, and yet [the] poem opens the centuries, the millennia, and the world. And usually you follow the vowel; the progression of the particular vowel is the metaphor for the particular poem. What happens, is the music that is there for it, is a collaboration. It's not me saying, "Oh, Emily Dickinson is in a room, writing." Lately, I have begun to understand and find texts that are prose and poetry that are male. Now I know what it is that attracts me to the female. I can say, all right, Walt Whitman is not for me.
RC: He just doesn't speak to you in the same way?
LL: Not the same way. It is genius, but there's this formalized distance in so much writing, that doesn't really work well with the voice [for art song].
RC: For your perspective?
LL: Yes, from my perspective. The singer makes himself vulnerable, opens the mouth, and sings. And if the words...[pauses] I tried to find texts by Charles Lindberg to set as part of a commission, so I read every, every, everything I could find.
RC: Nothing quite stuck?
LL: I found one line, and I used that. But there's that control and distance, that I find over and over again.
RC: Have you found any male poets who don't have that distance?
LL: [Pablo] Neruda. Oddly enough Shakespeare, but I happen to think Shakespeare was a woman. [laughs] We'll never know for sure. There are many poets, but Neruda, I just get it. It comes from the heart. Tom McGrath is a contemporary poet. I share a sense of humor with a philosopher-poet by the name of Keith Gunderson, who teaches philosophy. For some reason, he's able to not put a frame around it and present it. If I had to say the difference I found, and am now looking for, is there's a difference between presenting your words and offering your words.
RC: Something about your songs remind me of Hugo Wolf's songs, which just sort of appear, and then they're over. In your stylistic approach to setting these texts [on the new album], did you ever think about having a melody that repeated, and fitting the words to that, or has it always been that a more through-composed free style approach works better?
LL: Well, my choice is to set the words naturally. I of course can do melodies and strophic kinds of things, and have done them under pseudonyms.
RC: Aha! That's why we haven't heard them!
LL: Yes, because that's a particular skill, and I've practiced that skill. It's much harder to set a text naturally. Because it feels like you're losing control - because we're given meter, and barlines, and progressions, and all of those things that don't necessarily belong to the way we speak naturally. In fact, they don't.
RC: So were there any texts on this new album that were especially problematic in that respect? Or did they all just emerge naturally?
LL: These texts, except for Donal Oge [an 8th-century anonymous poem translated from the Irish by Lady Gregory], are all drawn from prose. Extracting texts from prose is its own set of interesting problems. You look for end-rhymes, and ways to make the music memorable in other ways than repetition.
RC: So what are some of your tactics for doing that?
LL: [hears Parkinson play a little upward flourish on the piano in the background] That! - so that you're ready to hear the words and you're ready to hear the story being told. Certain ways that I maybe withhold a pitch or present a certain pitch, in the context of the line. I do a lot of musical rhyming with a melodic shape, that is not what we would traditionally call a melody. I will create a shape within the longer shape, and rhyme it with another shape. You're not tapping your toes singing "Happy Birthday to you," but you're able to connect -
RC: The ear subconsciously connects the patterns.
LL: That's it. Yes. I build to high points or low points, or reserve certain phrases that sum up everything that's going on.
RC: What instrument did you train on?
LL: Piano. And harmonica. My 7th grade nun taught us all harmonica.
RC: Instead of recorders?
LL: We did recorders too, but that particular nun was so smart and so wacky. She had this 7th grade class, and her way of getting us to focus was to play the harmonica. You have to have breath control, you have to focus, it's physical. We played Irish tunes on our harmonicas and we gave concerts for the school. Isn't that bizarre.
RC: In Minneapolis?
LL: At the Christ the King School. Which was a wild place and wooly place in the late 50's and early 60's.
RC: So writing for the piano in your art songs is a very natural thing for you?
LL: It is. I love to write collaborative piano work.
RC: Do you sit at the piano when you write?
LL: Yes, I'm there working it out, making sure that there is a way to do it technically. I like to do a lot of intricate fingerwork, many layers of meaning in one hand, in one song passing hands. Consequently, my piano parts are generally very satisfying for pianists, but are a little bit too hard for general consumption - sometimes a lot too hard! My vocal works, male or female, tend to be always aimed at very fine college or professional level singers, not for beginning undergraduate voices.
The conversation continues tomorrow - Carver and Larsen discuss the career of a composer, Larsen's discovery of her compositional gift, and the philosophy behind many of her vocal works.