Ruth Carver and composer Libby Larsen sat down to discuss her approach to vocal music [see part 1 of the conversation here]. Here they continue to talk about what drew Larsen to write for the voice in both art song and opera, how she knew she was meant to be a composer, and what goes into the training and profession of a composer.
RC: So much of your work has been for voice, both art songs and operas. What is it about that mode of communication that drew you to it?
LL: I would say only about 20% of my work is for voice. What draws me to the voice is the possibility....how vulnerable we all are when we open our mouths. To try to express what's in our brains, the inexpressible.
RC: In a way that an instrument can't?
LL: In a way that an instrument can mediate. Say you play the oboe, and you've learned everything, and you get on stage, blow, you get a note. But for a singer, you open your mouth, and you hope. And I think every single human being on earth, at that particular moment of, "I have something to say," connects there. In a way that goes back to the word "direct" [see Part 1 of the interview]. To breathe out, you have to breathe in. We all know that.
RC: When I was listening to this new album [Songs of Her Self], I did some research on writer Brenda Ueland [whose words appear in the cycle ME (Brenda Ueland)]. She had a sort of life philosophy. Is that something that you look for? Since you're advanced in your career and can pick and choose projects a bit more, is a focus on philosophy something you look for?
LL: That's interesting.
RC: Your upcoming opera A Wrinkle in Time also raises a lot of philosophical elements. There are some deep questions there.
LL: Nobody has ever asked me this before. I think the answer is yes. I think I always have been more interested in philosophy than telling the story. The story has to be the vehicle for the mystic. With A Wrinkle in Time - I've been fascinated with zeroes since I was 10 years old. I don't know why. It's the nothing that is. Geocentricity, and all those things that would turn me into an architect or a mathematician. The routes that I could have gone and didn't go, because music is so abstract. You can express abstract, essential things with music much more easily than you can, say, with architecture. Or at least I can. I'm thinking about my first opera based on Charlotte's Web. Before I knew you had to get permission to set the text! I was 20, so there you go. What interested me about Charlotte's Web was, it's a nice story, and the characters are great, and the writing is fantastic, but I was most interested in the fact that the characters were empathetic. That's it.
RC: The most human of qualities.
LL: Yes, the empathy that is at the heart of the book. The story is the vehicle and characters are craft and insight, but it's empathy. I think you're right, I'm attracted to texts that say something. Thinking of my instrumental works, it's the same thing. I composed a piece called Monk's Oboe, which is the oboe, and Thelonius Monk, and string quartet- what do they all have to do with each other. It's dead serious, it's not me trying to do jazz, not at all. It's the question of what can live in the air, beyond the obvious vehicle of the page. I think it's a big question in our culture right now, what is the page. It's changing so fast. Off the paper, and on to the internet. I still write by hand because I want physical copies of the things I write because I'm really concerned about what we lose. Our faith in numbers. Back to zero again- that number can be the container for all of our thoughts. I have this sneaking suspicion, no, it's a gut feeling, that we're going to lose it all.
RC: Music is such a intangible thing, the actual hearing of it. And yet, in order for it to be passed along, we now depend on physical objects like instruments or the voice -
LL: or memory.
RC: Without other people hearing it, does it exist?
LL: Right. All those questions. Those are the questions that actually interest me. So I could easily hole up and just think about those things. But, the challenge that I gave myself when I finished my doctorate was, "Ok, what do you do with this? How do you communicate this?" What it's like to be alive. We're all dancing around all these questions, and what is my place?
RC: In terms of vocal and choral composition, there seem to be those composers who write sacred music, and those who don't. So is your music sacred?
LL: All of it is. Yes. I don't differentiate between sacred and secular. I think if you're doing your work as deeply as you possibly can, that that is sacred, because it respects existence. Respect isn't anywhere near a strong enough word. I don't write sacred music, or secular music. I write music. I have from time to time taken a commission for a sacred liturgy and been given a text from the Bible, and those are the hardest pieces.
RC: Because they have such an association-
LL: They have an association with a system of practice or worship.
RC: Did you also train as a singer?
LL: When I was a freshman in college, I was torn between becoming an opera star or a stockbroker. [Laughs] 17 years old, right?! They both sound good to me!
RC: Both totally viable careers.
LL: [Laughs] Absolutely! So I studied voice for a year and a half, and took myself to New York to audition at elite schools, because I was going to be an opera singer. It was a good thing to do at that point in time. My audition at Juilliard was humiliating. Mannes was a very good audition. Oberlin, they were very honest. They said it was a nice voice, but a very small voice. But they said, "Your testing, your analysis of music, all of your theory is off the charts," and -
RC: So was that the first time you thought about approaching music from a different angle?
LL: Yes, and I was heartbroken. I knew it was music and not stock-brokering by that time, but I was sure I was going to be the next Roberta Peters. I went home with my tail between my legs to the U. of Minnesota. My vocal teacher said "why don't you write your own songs for your jury?" Which I did. And that was it. It was very simple, and very hard at the same time. So then I promptly had my tonsils out, I was 18, and thought I couldn't possibly sing anymore. [Laughs] To be young again.
RC: In general society, people have a kind of vision of what the job of composer looks like. What else about that career has changed for you over time - what is entailed besides sitting at the piano?
LL: Yeah, that's about a tenth of it. [Laughs] Well, it's a profession of many careers, as it always has been, as it was for Bach, as it is for any of us "notators." What's entailed? Being able to communicate what's in your head, before it's written, to people who might want a new piece from you. There's a myriad of communication skills which need to be learned since we think in music first, and the satisfaction is to put it on the page. Then, I had no idea that I would be a troubadour! Travelling all the time, because none of the professors -
RC: Because they were in the academic world?
LL: Because they were academics, and not professionals, they didn't know. They had no idea what the professional life was like. They sure could teach you the basics, the skills of composing, but they didn't know the other. One needs to learn how to be a good musical citizen.
RC: That's great.
LL: A lot of people never learn that. Witness the Minnesota Orchestra which just ate themselves alive. They all forgot about the music. Good interpersonal communication skills could have saved the day there. Neither side had it. How to be a good musical citizen, to understand that we're not about "us," we're about the music.
The conversation continues tomorrow.