Libby Larsen and Ruth Carver discussed the future of funding classical music, how her songs have changed over time, and the importance of communication skills in the life of a musician [see the first and second portions of this interview here]. Carver probed Larsen on whether these skills can be taught.
RC: Is that something you think can and should be taught in graduate school programs?
LL: Oh yes. The great teachers, like Eugene Rousseau [saxophonist], James Dunham [viola], tend to be great professionals also. I've watched many great teachers do this - their students, from the day they start working, are trained to be musicians, not [just] performers. There's a big difference. Musicians - that is a persona, that is a way of being in your world. You learn how to respect everybody else for what they do, to be humble to your craft, and to understand that music is just fine. It's alive and well. We're just lucky to be given a gift that we can make some music. It's a gift that's not to be toyed with, and also never be arrogant about the gift. No sense in that.
RC: I've found that too - certain things aren't part of the curriculum, and only after being out in the world by yourself, you learn bits and pieces. It makes me wonder if all of the music programs in universities today are really practical.
LL: I've had that same thought many times. Right now, there is a new buzz word in academics: entrepreneurship. [laughs] How to build a website? That's going to make you a great musician?!
RC: One discussion recently is for-profit versus non-profit models for presenting classical music. One example is the Le Poisson Rouge venue in New York City.
LL: It's smart.
RC: They're not making money necessarily from the ticket sales for classical music. They make money from liquor and food. So what does the profession of a musician look like going into the future, when the non-profit model is running dry?
LL: It's not working. The non-profit model was brilliant given a certain funding profile, but that funding profile has changed dramatically.
RC: Especially with continuing governmental cutbacks.
LL: Right. But they will fund joy. [laughs] They will fund good ideas.
RC: So how do we make sure everyone knows about these good ideas?
LL: Talk about the heart of where I am now! It takes a different kind of musician. I really love to hang around old jazzers. They're not uptight. They're just making great music. I wouldn't say they're comfortable with their economic level, but that doesn't matter.
RC: Money is not their concern?
LL: It's not- it's that they make great music together, for anyone that asks them. And it's really great music. There's no pretense. So how do we get that across to more people? Get out there and make more music. Don't wait to be asked. Just make music. And be good musical citizens. I can't say it any other way. It's worked for me.
RC: Speaking of musicians- about this new recording [Liria Duo, Songs of Her Self], was that experience different than other recordings you've been involved with? They are these two younger people, making it themselves through crowd sourcing?
LL: No! Because the way that I love to be involved with recordings is exactly what we did. We all get in there, we've got some music. At that point I don't think of it as "my" music. I think of it as "we're all together, we're a team, so we want the best microphones for the music, everything the best for the music. That's always how I've experienced sessions....One was with Neville Mariner with the Minnesota Orchestra. Mariner is a recording genius. And it was under the tensest of circumstances. The engineers from New York had arrived with their own mixing board, run on batteries! And it was 20 degrees below...we had one day to record a whole symphony. Of course the batteries went dead in the middle of the afternoon session. So we had to go out and find batteries, enough batteries to run the thing, and I just thought "I think I just better sit here and watch because there's not a thing I can do except make it worse." I watched the recording engineers [fuss], and Neville kept the whole orchestra happy, telling jokes, doing all the stuff to keep morale up. 45 minutes later, they came back with the batteries, and we had three minutes to do a single take to finish the piece. That was it. And they did it. But they wouldn't have done it without that sense of real collaboration. Rather than get all tense about, we said we're just making music here!
RC: That's a real skill or maybe an art, as well, to be able to deal with disaster. Something always goes wrong in rehearsals.
LL: Always! Something's gonna go wrong! And so all of the sessions that I've been part of, there's only one that I've been a part of, with a particular conductor, that didn't work. But the others are so much fun- we're finally in the studio, and we're here about the music. Emily and Sara and I, we just had a really great time. If they weren't having a great time, they didn't show it.
RC: They fooled you!
LL: Yeah! I was definitely having a great time.
RC: And it must be exciting to have these songs that weren't recorded before.
LL: Yes, I'm very excited to have Donal Oge out. And a revisit of Songs from Letters, which is so interesting because it was written a while ago, and the piece is changing. With new generations. I've been noticing that with a few of my pieces - it's quite different.
RC: In terms of the interpretation?
LL: Yes, it's really interesting and exciting.
RC: How specifically have the interpretations changed?
LL: For instance, in the song "Greenwich Village," [from ME (Brenda Ueland)] Emily and Sara are probably one generation removed from actually feeling the vestiges of the 20s. The 50s feel distant to them the way the 20s feel distant to me. To the performers who did these songs earlier, [they] could feel that 20s razzmatazz. So we worked on it, to give a more experiential connection to the current performers, and they absolutely both got it.
RC: I studied Songs from Letters in my English song literature class. You're part of the compendium of literature! I just wondered about the vogue of western themes, or for instance your setting of Henry VIII's wives [Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII] with Renaissance history. These historical themes or characters that you've set seem to keep coming back into fashion.
LL: You earlier asked what I look for in texts. And so with Calamity Jane, I was looking for a mother, who is doing the best she could.
RC: And she is so not the stereotypical mother figure.
LL: Not at all. But she's doing the best she can, as so many of us are. And I thought, this is not a "western" character, this is us. She's modern, she's just one of us who's doing the best they can even when they're not with their children. On the other hand, Calamity Jane has a celebrity persona attached to her, so I was willing to listen to her when I came across her letters, to see what I could find in there. She's part of us. The queens, to be honest with you, at the time that I wrote them, was when Bill Clinton was under attack. I just thought, will this never end. And why is it so fascinating to people? And I thought it was time for the queens to speak again. The question of the powerful cast-off.
Larsen has a remarkably generous spirit, saying that "every performance is the right performance." Once her pieces are handed over to performers, she has the genuine ability to let go of ownership over the material and sit back to watch what happens. The knack for writing for the voice, playing with intricate and deeply expressive piano parts, comes naturally to her, and her continuing sense of the joy that comes from learning, reading, and thinking is tangible in her music.