Denise Von Glahn is the Curtis Mayes Orpheus Professor of Musicology at Florida State University, where she is also the coordinator of the Musicology Area and director of the Center for Music of the Americas. She recently answered some questions about Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life.
Q: What makes Larsen stand out from other composers or musicians?
Von Glahn: Libby Larsen has made a mark on American music culture in multiple ways. She is first and foremost a remarkably productive and performed composer. Her works are heard around the world and beloved by amateurs and professionals alike. Beyond her primary work as a composer, however, she is also responsible for having co-founded the American Composer’s Forum, originally the Minnesota Composers’ Forum. This organization continues in 2017, more than 40 years after Larsen and Stephen Paulus created it as graduate students at the University of Minnesota. Today Larsen is one of the nation’s greatest advocates for American music and American composers. Her participation on numerous arts’ boards and her tireless efforts on behalf of American music culture in its myriad forms makes her stand out from other composers whose energies are turned more inward. In dozens of interviews with her collaborators each spoke of her tirelessness and generosity. She is among the most selfless people I have ever encountered.
Q: Describe your personal experiences upon hearing a piece of Larsen’s music. Does it tell you a story, convey an emotion or transport you somewhere?
Von Glahn: Depending upon the piece I’m listening to, I can be focused exclusively on the sound world Larsen has created, with no thought to extra-musical programs or imagery, or upon a scene she is capturing and musicalizing, or follow her through a highly pictorial work. There is no single way to listen to Larsen’s music, and no single way to listen to a single piece of her music! Each work invites multiple engagements, and that is what makes it worthwhile listening to in the first place. I can listen to a flute solo with no knowledge of its title and luxuriate in the sounds, or I can acknowledge the title and reflect upon how the piece is an “aubade.” Like the best art, Larsen’s music invites and rewards multiple engagements.
Q: When did you first become interested in Libby Larsen as a composer and as a subject for writing?
Von Glahn: I can’t remember the first time I heard Larsen’s music; it has been a part of my sound world for a very long time. Interviewing her for the first time in 2009, however, and discovering the depth of her personal integrity and musical being convinced me that I wanted to include her as one of nine composers in a book I wrote on women who composed the natural world. Her investment in her upper Midwest environs and the ways her fidelity to place informs her music struck me as needing to be explored. Her appearing to be the model I never had for how a woman musician negotiates the gendered world of professional music composition and music making made me want to learn more about her.
Q: How was writing this biography different from your experiences writing other books?
Von Glahn: In the process of writing Libby Larsen’s biography, I realized that I was writing the book I had wanted to read when I was a young girl looking for models of people who looked like me and did what I thought I wanted to do. It became so clear how desperately we all need models! I’ve written 3 books previously and while each taught me lessons I didn’t realize I needed to learn, this book has been epiphanic; I’m still learning from Libby Larsen’s life. I appreciate the many lives we all lead. Although I had initially worried about writing a book on a living subject, and one with whom I had much in common, I quickly realized there was no issue with my confusing my subject with myself. My close-in position provided me with empathy and understanding, but it also clarified who my subject was.
Q: What were some of Larsen’s greatest obstacles as woman in this field?
Von Glahn: The book provides numerous answers to this question. When Larsen entered the field of music composition, there were not a lot of models for her to emulate. She was not taken seriously by many of her faculty and colleagues. As she persevered she encountered subtle behaviors intended to discourage or prevent her from continuing. She was dismissed by some and diminished by others. She felt she was not supported by her university. She was questioned whether she composed something because it was too good. But Larsen never questioned her talents when it came to composing. She thinks in music. She composes. Perhaps the greatest obstacle Larsen had to contend with was what she characterizes as “false choices.” And the most devastating of those choices was “You can be a professional composer or a mother.” Libby Larsen dismissed the false choice and elected to be both. In this regard, she has demonstrated that no one needs to be limited by the imaginations or rules of others who can’t fathom what you are capable of doing or being. Her greatest obstacle as a woman in this field is the same obstacle that all people face who are not in positions of power face: how to show that unfathomable things can be done every day! Limitations are in the minds of those who are themselves limited. Libby Larsen rejects false choices and encourages others to do the same.