The Beauty of Art as Process
Interview with renowned composer
by Karren Alenier


LIBBY LARSEN is a world-class composer with over 200 Works that include nearly every type of music composition from the art song to opera and from small chamber ensemble pieces to full-scale orchestral works. Widely recorded on such labels as Nonesuch, Decca, and Koch International classics, her recorded works have been performed by prestigious groups such as the London Symphony Orchestra.  

An ardent advocate for classical music and a groundbreaking leader (she was the first woman appointed as resident composer with a major orchestra), Larsen co-founded with Stephen Paulus the Minnesota Composers Forum, now known as the American Composers Forum. Her composer-in-residence appointments include the Minnesota Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, and the Charlotte Symphony. Larsen, who studied with Dominick Argento, is the recipient of many awards, including a 1994 Grammy as producer of the CD: The Art of Arleen Augér, an acclaimed recording that features Larsen's Sonnets from the Portuguese.

In April 2003, she was the first person to occupy the Papamarkou Chair in Education and Technology in the JohnW.KlugeCenter at the Library of Congress.


Let me begin by thanking you for your time. I realize that you have done many interviews. This might be a silly question, but have you ever turned down anyone who has asked you for an interview?  

There have been a couple. But usually I try to be as communicative as I possibly can since I am a composer and an advocate for music as a language in our culture.  

Is it possible that interviews are part of your Global Green Room approach for arts cross-pollination? [The Global Green Room is Larsen's Papamarkou Chair project that will bring together leading practicing artists to identify issues concerning "the soul" of America's culture and to create ways in which artists may regularly interact with each other and with the population at large through technology.]

Yes, it is as a matter of fact. The idea of the Global Green Room came about because we have the technology now for artists to speak directly with people who would partake of their art. As opposed to previous times when artists have spoken through mediation, whether that be through reviewers or interpreters or through history books and, at times, [through] generations. There has always been a mediation of the artist's intent of the work that takes the artist out of the direct one-on-one communication with a person who might be listening, [for example], to my music and me. The idea of the Global Green Room is to create a network in which we use technology to make the artists available to those who would partake of the art.

Did the idea of the Global Green Room come about in line with your work as the Papamarkou Chair at the Library of Congress?

Yes, it did. When Bob Saladini and Prosser Gifford were talking to me about the possibility of my becoming the Papamarkou Chair in Education and Technology, they asked me what my interests were in that position and I immediately said my interests were in making ways to connect artists with those who would partake of their art. I have been spending 30 years of my life as a professional artist independent of an academic institution so I'm out and about all the time. Whenever I speak to my colleagues, especially in the performing arts and [among] my composing colleagues, we privately lament to each other that we have little access to just the everyday person. We have a lot of access to our managers, publishers, press and media [people], but we have little contact with the people with whom we are trying to communicate.

So the idea of the Global Green Room came about through hundreds of conversations with my colleagues. All of us wishing for a way that we could, for instance, pick a date: February 2 would be Libby Larsen Day. I would be available though the Global Green Room online to field questions about how to compose or about a piece of my music or what have you.  

We had the idea that we could create through technology a 365-day roster of artist availability. The idea being that artists in our culture are more and more and more removed from the culture at large and art is more and more and more turned into a product, because we live in a commercial culture. I fear and almost all of my colleagues fear that people become confused about art as product and art as process. So that we value the product more than we value the process. We as artists know that what is wonderful about art is the making of art, whatever it is whether it is furniture design or preparing to sing a role in an opera or perfecting your golf swing. The essential beauty of art is the process, not the product. The product is lovely and wonderful but it is the process that benefits the culture and without this process our culture would stagnate and lose its vitality.


This leads right into what I want to talk about next, which is the definition of success from the composer's point of view. You talk about composing being a monastic art and you have addressed in your public advocacy of contemporary music the problems of how under-appreciated this art form is. How does a composer walk the line between being true to his or her art and commercial success?  

In a commercial culture, which ours is, sometimes happily so, sometimes not so happily so, we tend to think of our definition of success as commercial viability—meaning: your work is owned, heard, experienced by as many people as possible. That is the communications philosophy that our culture has been developing since the 1850s. The definition of success is how many people partake of whatever you do, whether you make widgets or symphonies. The other part of the definition of success is how much money do you make? Now that's a very dubious definition of success. How many people you reach and how much money you make. That is one definition of success in a commercially viable lexicon.  

There's another definition of success. How well does the person who is endeavoring to complete the task complete the task? Is it done thoroughly, well, satisfactorily? Have all the stones been turned over in bringing that task to fruition? Was it holistically completed? Have the benchmarks been reached and how successfully?

I am a marathon runner. For marathon runners, the whole point of running a marathon is how well you run the race, not how fast you run the race. That is the same for me in composition—how well have I written the piece, not how many people like the piece. I have found over the decades that it actually doesn't matter how many people like the piece when the piece is first presented. If the piece is successful—meaning, on my terms: have I done a good job writing that piece—then over time, the piece becomes successful in numbers of people also. Am I making sense to you?


This is the definition of success, which I hope for the rest of my life to reintroduce back into our culture. I'm not the only one who feels this way. I represent a large proportion of [people] who feel our cultural definition of success has swung way too far towards quantitative success, meaning numbers of people reached and dollars earned. And way too far away from qualitative success—how well has the task been accomplished? What are the consequences of the task being accomplished? Are the consequences of the task helpful in society? How many people have benefited and how deeply from being associated with the task? These qualities of success are essential to cultural growth. I believe the time is right for those of us who think and practice success less in quantitative and more in qualitative terms to renew this philosophy in the culture at large. It's sort of the opposite of No Child Left Behind.

I find your approach delightful because having been a Civil Servant for 27 years in my past, there was never any mention of the qualitative. I worked with technology and my managers didn't care that much about the qualitative, which is ridiculous, but that is the way government has operated.

I found that right away when I started working within the government at the Library.  I knew that quantitative success is an efficient way of measuring things but it's also an impersonal way of measuring. But the lack of qualitative [measuring] really stunned me.  

I have been deeply thinking about qualitative success and the benchmarks for qualitative success since the overhaul of Public Radio in the early 1980s when the Denver Public Radio station decided to conduct a study to see if it could attract a mass audience for radio programming. Based on that study, the programming practices of public radio have entirely changed over the last 20 years. All the measurements for success are quantitative.

I was reading about the modal concepts of radio programming. [Modal radio programming says listeners only want to hear short compositions.]

Yes and they're all quantitative. You have to deliver numbers to your board of directors. As I sit in my little artist's studio here looking at the lake, I just think, Wow, this is theater of the absurd! But, of course, it's not; it's the way the culture is now. Quantity equals success. When actually quantity equals nothing. It [just] equals quantity. While it does deliver other numbers, like larger numbers for funding, I'm not sure it delivers anything else. I'm not sure that quantitative delivers anything more than quantitative.


I understand the libretto for Barnum's Bird [the title refers to opera singer Jenny Lind who was promoted in America by the circus magnate P.T. Barnum] was a collaboration between playwright Bridget Carpenter and you. Could you talk about how Barnum's Bird came about and is this story your metaphor for how under appreciated classical music forms such as opera are?  

The story came out of my brain. I became interested in Jenny Lind when I came across a letter that she had written to Harriet Beecher Stowe while she was on tour in America. I was researching heroes. It was the time of the O.J. Simpson trial and I was very upset that some how O.J. Simpson was an American hero.  

I started researching heroes and thinking who has made differences, but just in the fact of them being alive. I came across this letter that Jenny Lind had written to Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was a letter of admiration for Stowe's contributions to abolition. Jenny Lind sent her funds to help her [Stowe's] efforts.  I was floored because I had known about Jenny Lind as the Swedish nightingale and a soprano, but I had never read anything about her philanthropic life. I began researching her life and her American tour of 1850 and '51.  


I got sidetracked right away. I found the story of Barnum's association with Lind to be exactly what I felt I needed to articulate the problem of the crossroads of arts and entertainment in our culture. Most of us who work in the fields of art and entertainment are continually at the crossroads concerning the intent of a piece. Is it intended beyond its hearing and viewing? How much beyond its viewing? A year beyond its viewing? A generation beyond its viewing? How deep does the intent of a piece go?  

I started researching very deeply the cultures that were at work in the 1840s that led to the Jenny Lind tour. I then decided what I wanted to do was create a grand essay in the form of an opera. The essay would explore the European musical culture, as it existed then and the American musical culture as it also existed then. The result of it is Barnum's Bird. Of course, in the 1840s and '50s, the Leipzig Conservatory was just being formed in Germany, which, of course, became the basis for the classical core in the United States through a series of events. But people in the United States didn't really hear much German or western European music at all. A few touring shows, but the basic music in our culture was very potpourri.  


I took my idea to Bridget Carpenter. I had a commission to write the opera. I said: Does this interest you at all? Can you do anything with this, you, yourself, as an artist? She spent two or three months researching on her own and then came back and said, yup, let's do a piece. So Bridget invented the entire story that is the frame for the grand essay.  

We would meet wherever we were in the country. sometimes we met in New York, sometimes in Minneapolis, couple of times in Los Angles. We then worked on the libretto. She wrote the libretto, and I would feed her ideas. There were two ideas I fed her. I taught her about western European music. She really comes from an American background. A typical American background in music does not include western European music. It never has.

What composers are in that category?

Beethoven, Brahms, etc. In grade school these composers might be mentioned and you might hear snippets of their music on TV commercials. The exposure to western European classical music in the mass population has done nothing but grow in the last hundred and fifty years. Yet in the mainstream music of American culture, it has never been a very large percentage.   


Although, at the same time, we have an educational system built on the music of western European culture. We [also] have the notion of an ideal culture, a culture that the community aspires to be, that has been part of every community for 200 years. And western European music is included in the definition of the aspirations of a community —so you aspire to have a symphony orchestra, you aspire to have an opera company or a dance company, or a theatre company. Yet even those people aspiring to build those companies don't necessarily know or listen to the repertoire. It's fascinating, isn't it? Like the Houston Symphony for example. The board of directors of the Houston Symphony is very supportive of the Orchestra, but it's very typical for the greater percentage of the board of directors to never have gone to or go to any of their concerts.


The other idea I talked to Bridget Carpenter about was the development of the opera diva. She understood Barnum and Thom Thumb and all of the characters of the opera very deeply, but she was unfamiliar with opera singers. An opera diva is an opera diva. One has to protect the voice very carefully. Since the voice is so vulnerable for an opera diva, be it tenor, baritone, soprano, or mezzo. When that aria is sung, that is the ultimate exposure. There is nothing else that you can lean on if you are the singer, just your voice and your voice is psychological.  There are no keys you have to press down. You just have to believe that you can do it.

I spent a great deal of time talking with Bridget about why the diva personality develops and the care and feeding of the diva. So she could understand in a much more subtle and complex way the relationship of Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum. It was a brilliant relationship. The two of them were hardheaded business people and both of them were brilliant at their own particular business.

Will this opera be performed again any time soon?

It will be performed at BaylorUniversity April 1 and 2 and then again at LutherCollege in early June. Oxford Press tells me there are several [productions] in the offing.


It was ideal working with Bridget. She is a very successful young playwright and her sensibilities are the best of popular sensibilities.  And mine are the trained monastic, western classical sensibilities. So when we both agreed to work with each other, we both opened ourselves up to the other's sensibilities, which is the key to collaboration. All collaborators ideally need to open part of themselves up to be changed by the other collaborator. That's what happened in Barnum's Bird and this makes it a terrific collaboration.  

The other thing is once we get into performance in theatre, generally many things change in the rehearsal process when you are preparing a new play. In opera generally hardly anything changes when you are rehearsing a new opera. But in this instance, because it was such a hybrid of both processes—we worked with Philip Brunelle and John Craney, the director who directed many fine performances at the Minneapolis Children's Theatre which is a fabulous theatre that just won a Tony this year—but all of us agreed to really look at the piece and try to allow moments of change to happen in the rehearsal process. That would make the piece other than it was on paper and better than it was in rehearsal, which again is part of a great collaboration. Everybody is willing to let the piece be better than anybody involved.


I'm a fan of Eric Satie and I noticed your composition "Evening Walk in France" is labeled a Gymnopedie. Does this mean that this song was inspired not only by May Sarton's poem by the same title but also by Eric Satie and his compositions that are called Gymnopedies?  

A gymnopedie is a turn of the century form that is slower than an adagio and was used, for example, by dancers warming up at the barre or for athletes during their stretching exercises.

I have noticed in the small experience I have with composers who are based in Minnesota (such as William Banfield and Steven Paulus) a proclivity for lyrical composition that is influenced by French composers like Satie and his contemporaries. Could you talk about the character of music coming from Minnesota, the Midwest and America in general? Where I'm going with this is how does Virgil Thomson, and his lyrical music figure into the lyrical music coming from today's composers?  

In states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, you find the heart of choral music and from that music comes the lyricism associated with the spoken word. To my way of thinking, there are numerous languages that we experience every day that include verbal, body, and technological languages. Did you see the movie Fargo?


Do you recall the really exaggerated accents [in that film]—the Germanic, Scandinavian, and Irish inflected English? Those were real waves of immigration. Our Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, Irish, and French. Minnesota was first settled by Native Americans and second by Leif Erikson, and then it was settled by the French. Next it was settled by the revolutionary army. The fifth settlement of Minnesota was German, Scandinavian, and Irish.  All this is to say is English as it is spoken here has a lilt to it.  

My own personal philosophy of music comes through the language of the people who are speaking at the time—that could be the verbal language or the body language or the technical language or a combination of all three. The ear of the composer that develops here feels very kindly towards the lyrical lilt that is available in the air here and we all love to sing.

If there is a bent toward lyricism that comes from Minnesota or in Iowa/ Wisconsin, which is the NorthLand area (it's really not the Midwest here, it's the NorthLand) that might be partly why. The other part being the choral and vocal tradition—after all, we spawned Garrison Keilor. The storytelling tradition is very strong here and much beloved.


How does Virgil Thomson fit into this lyrical trend?

I have a book that Virgil Thomson signed to me when I was young. I was studying his approach to music very carefully. Virgil Thomson was a man of words, extraordinarily gifted with words. Quite naturally the music that came out of him came through the developing languages of the culture and therefore has its own lyricism about it.  

If you develop music from the technical standpoint of mechanical instruments, then you never need to think about lyricism at all. If you are looking for lyricism in the culture at large, then you will find it in the various languages that we use in our culture to communicate. Thomson was a man of words. He genuinely loved words and the music they produced. Who else could write Four Saints in Three Acts if he didn't have a true passion not only for music but also the words of Gertrude Stein, the syntax, the rigor of how those words went onto the page, and the poetry. So in many ways, Virgil Thomas is one of our pipelines in the search for American lyricism. By the way, American lyricism is much more rhythmically based then it is pitch based. Much more defined by its rhythmic curve than its pitch curve.


So much of the musical art form that the [American] culture has generated, Rock 'n' Roll being one and rap another, comes out of the rhythms of our language than they do out of functional keyboard harmony. That's really post World War II American English finding its own music.

Any idea how much of your work is inspired by words?

It's probably about a third of the work but all of the work is with rhythm. I may not have made this entirely clear, but the languages we have around us, one of them is verbal. Another one is body language and full of complicated rhythms. Another is technological language, which is always chattering. You can hardly be in any room where there isn't at least one, but usually about three, electronic drones.

Oh, I see, you are saying sound from electronic things!

I'm talking about the sounds in the air that are generated from technology. We live in a 24/7 nonstop verbal onslaught of technological sounds—street lamps, car beeps, car alarms. It is a language telling us we're safe. All the alarms we have now. That's a language of safety. It's false safety but nonetheless, it's safety. If you are walking down the street and you hear a street lamp buzzing. You know that light is on. There it is. You hear a car alarm go off. That's a language, it's telling you a lot about the culture. Telling you a lot about your vicinity. How you are, if you are safe. You're in a room, your computer's on, it's a language. You hear it. You understand your computer's on. You think things subconsciously. Your body reacts to the sounds in the air. That particular web of technological language is hugely influential on composers these days.  


This technological language is where your work-in-progress book of essays enters the conversation, isn't it?

Yes. By dint of circumstance, what I have been doing for the last ten years is talking in just this way—giving speeches about large patterns in the culture over the past 150 years and how those large patterns have become part of our everyday life and what those patterns might mean to music. [This is] always through the filter of a composer who has trained in the classical western European tradition. Every time I give a speech, people will come up afterwards and say, are you writing a book? You have to put this in a book. I want to read it and think about this more.   

About three years ago, I said to myself, OK, I'll do it.  I have been working toward this book of essays and part of the work as the Papamarkou Chair at the Library of Congress is towards the book. The book will be organized in basic themes. The themes are the five signposts of a changing musical era, which always happen from one era to the next like from Renaissance to Baroque or Baroque to Classical or Classical to Romantic.  

Five things always happen. The instruments start to change. Some of the instruments that are available evolve into the next iteration, some of them go away, some new ones are invented. That always happens. Then the makeup of ensembles within the culture start to change because the instruments have changed. Then the music starts to change because the ensembles have changed because the instruments have changed. Then the delivery venues for the music start to change, which makes perfect sense. Then the audience habits start to change. Their preferences for how they relate to music start to change. It usually takes about forty years for this all these changes to morph in such a way that you know you're in a new era.

I think that the past forty years, which we have been calling post-modern, are really the end of the Romantic era. It's been this fudge period where all five of these things have been happening. We're just now beginning to understand what this next musical iteration might be. So I've organized the book out of these five signposts, which then allow me to talk about this technological language like we were talking about. The classical western ensemble, that being the symphony or the opera company, and what that means in the culture— what it was 150 years ago and what it is now. So the book will be essays and all of it under this title The Concert Hall That Fell Asleep And Woke Up As A Car Radio.

The first chapter is an introduction. The second chapter is interviews with young musicians in their twenties. I'm looking for five. I've got three already. [They] simply tell what their life was like up until the point of where they're at now. There's one budding concert star. There's one very successful guy in Texas who started his own band. He went through music education and he talks about what it gave him. He also talks about what it didn't give him. Then he talks about how he learned what he had to learn in order to have a successful band. Success meaning qualitative. He's beginning to experience quantitative. He's much beloved. People are clamoring for his music, [but] there is no record company behind him.  

So that's the book. What it will be I hope is a real think piece for people who are interested in music in our culture through the lens of what's happening in classical western European music.


Before we leave the subject of your book, are you literally talking about transportation in this book?

I'm literally talking about transportation and the major waves in transportation systems and how the concert hall was affected and developed with each major wave of transportation. There are four major waves. The first one is river and canals. So that would have been the 1600s into the early 1800s. The second one is early railroads which were short commercials lines, mostly on the East coast and that spawned the development of small opera houses and multipurpose houses. The third is the transcontinental railroad push and that was the era in the late 1800s in which we built our Carnegie Halls and our great concert halls. Mostly because we could move the lumber around.

We could move large ensembles and people around in ways that allowed us to codify the classical culture. Then the next wave is the building of roads and the proliferation of the car. I have statistics and all kinds of interesting data and observations. It's really clear that transportation patterns, especially since the invention of the automobile are at the heart of how we are experiencing classical music today.

Here's a quick example. Our symphony halls by and large are built in the center of our downtown areas. And they were built in the 1880s at a time when the culture evolved around a spoke and wheel. Meaning you came downtown to the center for your culture. Maybe your farm was outside this center. It's a European model. However, today 120 years later, the average person who lives in the suburbs, and 70 percent of our audience members live in suburbs, makes thirteen car trips a day and none of them to the inner city. So orchestras who are worrying about what's happening to our audiences, other than worrying about they must really want to hear Beethoven, might do well to consider they are competing for the fourteenth car trip. And furthermore seventy percent of the audience members who travel around the core but never come in, do most of their classical music listening on their car radios.

And that's a shame because it's very difficult to get the new stuff on that classical music station if you can even tune it in.

Yes, it is very difficult. It's not that people don't want to listen carefully to music, people love music. The car is one of the only places where you can actually close yourself in to listen uninterrupted to music. You've got your concert hall around you rather than putting on your best bib and tucker and heading downtown. But then you are at the mercy of radio stations or you [the composer or musician] have to figure out how to get your CD to people who would love to listen to new music in their car. It's a different way of looking at the whole question of classical music in the culture.  

It's amazing the conversations that start up whenever I start to talk about transportation affecting the way we think about classical music. It hasn't been looked at much before and it's not my idea. The McKnight Foundation in St. Paul published this study last year on art in the suburbs. What it looked at was transportation patterns and demographics with the Foundation wondering if it ought to be seriously funding arts centers in the suburbs, [thereby] shifting its paradigm of what is and isn't art, based on the way people are actually living today. It was quite a startling study. The Foundation had to admit it had begun the study with a prejudice that it wasn't aware of. Thinking how could art possibly exist in the suburbs? At the end of the study, the Foundation had been transformed by saying here's the reality of how people are living. What does it have to do with the way we think of classical [music] and high culture—western European art? I read that study and then went to a talk given by the woman who prepared the study and since have been talking to her quite a bit. I said to myself, I'm not alone in my thinking. So I've been really pursuing a way to talk about these things as part of this book of essays.


I'm fascinated that you and your schoolmates were taught to write music in elementary school. How widespread was or is this approach to music education in Minnesota?  

I learned to write music in first grade just like everybody else in my school, but then I was in a rather rare environment. I went to a Catholic school in the late 1950s and graduated in 8th grade in 1964. In that Catholic school, we were the church choir—every class and grade. We sang for the daily masses, weddings, funerals, and high masses. We sang Gregorian chant. We could have been taught it by ear, however, we learned solfege. We learned to write at the same time we were learning solfege, so by the time we were given the chant, we could already read it. We learned to read music by knowing how to read music, if that makes sense.

It's just like how you learned to write letters to write words in text.

It's exactly parallel. It's such a simple solution and so effective. Music was taught for centuries in this way. It has its own kind of logic, which is parallel to the other logics of the well-educated mind. I just happened to have fallen into this environment. I know in my heart if we would teach children to write music in the first grade, the same time we are teaching them letters and to distinguish colors, mathematics and English—that we would develop that unused part of the brain.   

Everybody's always talking about the problem of getting young people to classical music concerts or operas from the back end.

Yes, it's back loaded. It's a big problem to get people to come to an art form that they are completely illiterate in. They can hear it and it might move them emotionally, but that's it. We have shut the door on their accessibility to music.


I was talking to Anthony Tommasini about this problem and he was saying one of the things that has really revolutionized opera audience is the surtitle.  All you're getting with the surtitle is an explanation of what the foreign language or the language you can't quite hear in English is about. You aren't getting anything about the music.  

You are getting a bigger quantity of audience though. So if that is your definition of revolutionizing opera—there are bigger audiences—then I suppose surtitles have done that. That's quantitative again. I experienced a new and acclaimed opera recently that was in English and done with surtitles. Afterward, I polled some acquaintances who went to see it to hear what their experience was. Three of them said,I just loved reading the words because it brought me back to the book.  So I said, what about the music? And they said, I can't remember the music.

That's a big problem. I just saw Mother of Us All in San Francisco. Everybody was annoyed with the surtitles, because that's all you were doing was looking at the surtitles.

The setting of The Mother of Us All is brilliant. There's a question of why you need surtitles for an English piece?

Yes, and you did need the surtitles. The singers were not projecting the words. They didn't seem confident about the words.

Well, you know they're taught to sing Italian. It's very difficult for opera singers who have been taught to sing bel canto, which is a vocal technique that best serves Italian, German, and French. It's very hard for opera singers to use bel canto to sing American English.  

Does bel canto require more power?

It requires a certain shaping of the mouth and throat. It's a very different vocal production technique [to sing] American English. Fine art song and top-notch opera singers like Suzanne Mentzer or Barbara Bonney know what they need to do in order to sing American English so that it's understood. I've worked a lot in opera and with many wonderful opera singers; very often while we are working on a role, we need to retrain them to be able to sing American English. In many ways, surtitles make sense for American English, but they really shouldn't be needed for opera that is sung in our own language.


How do you get young people to the concert and opera halls?

This may sound too easy, but in the end you must have great excitement coming from the stage. People like to feel themselves being projected from the stage. If you have passionate performances, which you have in opera, young people will go. But they must feel themselves coming from the stage.


Special thanks to Carl Banner and the Washington Musica Viva for initially introducing me to the music of Libby Larsen, including such pieces as "Four on the Floor." Thanks also to Prosser Gifford who lent me several albums of Libby Larsen's work from his private collection and for paving the way at the Library of Congress so I could hear a recording of Barnum's Bird. – Karren Alenier

To read about Karren Alenier's on-going experience in the process of creating an opera, Click Here.

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