Libby Larsen 2023 Interview for the American Harp Society

Laura Sherman: Welcome, Libby Larsen. It is such an honor to speak with you today. We at the American Harp Society want to thank you for your willingness to share with us. Thank you, and welcome!

Libby Larsen: My pleasure Laura, I’m really honored and happy to be able to have this conversation with you about an instrument that I really love. You know, I love all the instruments, but I have a special place in my heart for harp.

LS: Oh, that’s fantastic! I very much look forward to investigating that more because it comes through in the way that you write. Let’s start first with a brief introduction.

You are one of America’s most performed living composers today and have written over six hundred works in almost every genre, including fifteen operas.

You were also the first female composer in residence with a major orchestra, with the Minnesota orchestra. In 1973, you and Stephen Paulus, who has also written for harp, co-founded the Minnesota Composer’s Forum which is now known as the American Composer’s Forum. This organization has been a tremendous resource for the past five decades, nurturing thousands of composers and bringing music to half a million middle school students, and many other wonderful opportunities.

And we harpists feel very fortunate because you have included our instrument in many of your works, including a harp solo that we are going to talk about today, Theme and Deviations, written in 1973 and dedicated to Lynne Aspnes; Concerto: Cold, Silent Snow, a flute and harp concerto written in 1989 and commissioned and premiered by harpist Sara Cutler and flutist Linda Chesis; and several chamber pieces, your Trio in Four Movements for flute, viola and harp, and two recent commissions, Sun Strider, for harpist Bridget Kibbey and violinist Alexi Kenney, and …snow haze, moonlight for harpist Jaymee Haefner and violinist Matt Milewski. I also noticed that you have included harp in your orchestra, choral, ballet, and opera works as well. We are very grateful that you write for harp so often.

Before we get “harp specific,” I’d like to explore how you got started composing and your views on composing. In particular, there is quote of yours that I find intriguing, and I’d like to begin by sharing it with our audience:

“Music exists in an infinity of sounds. I think of all music as existing in the substance of the air itself. It is the composer’s task to order and make sense of sound in time and space to communicate something about being alive through music.”

I find that incredibly beautiful. Can you please elaborate?

LL: Yes, I am happy to try, and maybe it will answer some questions about how I got started composing.

I grew up in the 1950s in Minneapolis, Minnesota and went to a Catholic school before the Vatican II council. Now what that means is that every child in my school learned to read and write Gregorian chant in first grade, and then kept it up for the eight years that we were at that school. One of the things that we did with Gregorian chant is we learned to read and write it not necessarily with the end goal being performance. However, all the children in the school sang high masses, low masses, sang Gregorian chant in a space that has evolved to receive the sound of voices in the air. Unaccompanied, no instruments, just voices in the air. I say that now, with a great deal of knowledge about what that experience was. What it was for a group of third graders, singing the Dies Irae at a funeral from the balcony at the back of the church into this resonant space - was exactly what I think the sacred experience can be. Music doesn’t accompany the sacred experience, it’s part of the totality of a sacred experience. And who knows what that is? But it felt, from an eight-year-old point of view, reverent in a truly innocent way. Also we knew, and I’m speaking about “we” because the chant is “we,” – we were striving to be unified, so beautiful, so impossible. When we sang Dies Irae or Subveníte, (I’m talking about the funeral mass right now), or the In Paradisum, in an acoustic space evolved for chant, the music hung in the air. The decay time is very long and the tones combine and recombine. In those recombinations and the decay of sound, we eight-year-olds could feel the emotion. The healing power, the compassion, the empathy, and the essential human emotions were all hanging in the air. The air itself held not only what we call music, the tones and all that, but it also held the ritual of emotional human beings in time and space. Everybody who was there as part of the ritual was there in the moment of the decay of In Paradisum to silence. An extraordinary experience.

So how do I get from that to music is infinite in the air? Because it is! The combination and the recombination of timber, tone, and other elements we musicians say is music, that’s only a small part of music, what we are able to steward into the air is infinite according to the person and the day, the time and individual circumstance. The air itself is an infinite pallet for constructions, for perceptions that we call music. Does that make sense?

LS: It does! I love how you describe it with the Gregorian chant in the setting of where it was written, that makes a lot of sense to me.

LL: Thank you. I’m glad, because when I try to describe this in words, I am often at a loss. And yet we all know it, the moment we excite the air with whatever we’re using to excite it with: a harp, a voice, a sousaphone, whatever! The air does become excited, and we as human beings begin to react with it, not to it, with it. And then in the dying out of the sound, the air settles, making itself a calm sea of invitation. But we, who have experienced this sound in motion, are left with something internally that doesn’t go away. It’s not magic, it’s real, and that’s probably why I spend my life with it.

LS: How does it get from your perception of it, from the air, on to a piece of paper? You talk about sensing figures, or shapes and things in the air, and my first thought was what does the harp feel like to you? I’m very curious about how it gets from where we are now to on the page.

LL: Me too! I’m endlessly curious about how this happens. All I can do, I think, is to try and talk about it. Maybe it’s best if we talk in terms of pieces. That way we can talk about some pieces at the same time.

LS: Sure.

LL: Theme and Deviations, is a piece I composed in 1973. We must talk about Lynne Aspnes (professor emeritus of the University of Michigan), as we talk about the piece. I’ve known her since high school and became totally enthralled with harp when she performed the [Britten] Ceremony of Carols in one of our Christmas Concerts. I loved it. So we were both at the University of Minnesota, Lynne was studying harp and I was studying composition. In my orchestration class taught by Dominic Argento, (who also has a passion for harp and writes beautifully for it) I began to study the technical possibilities of the harp. The harp just made sense to me right away. Its’ tuning made sense to my ears, as well as its pedal system.

Just a little bit closer to the modal system than it is to equal temperament. Whenever I hear a harp and piano playing together, my ears are always going “No, no, no!”.

LS: I agree with you there, one hundred percent agree. I’m not a fan either. (Apologies to Carlos Salzedo.)

LL: I just don’t want to hear it!

So Lynne and I were both studying at the University of Minnesota. No one asked me to write a piece for the harp. It wasn’t an assignment, it was an evolution. I can’t remember if Lynne asked me or if I asked her, but we decided to collaborate. And Lynne said, “Yes that’s great, I’m going to show you everything the harp can do.” Which is the best thing a performer can do for a composer, to show us, not tell us.

With every piece that I write, it’s really a combination of considering ideas in relation to the idiom of the instrument I am working with. Ideas come into my brain all the time. They come in a rush of energy and they vie for attention, which can be annoying.

But I love it! So while I am actively composing I explore my ideas, respecting them and being open to them, while also being willing to edit them out of the process. It’s not easy to do. It’s a process of considering the ideas, considering the technical possibilities for the instruments at hand and then coaxing the shape of the piece into being. Does that make sense?

LS: That absolutely makes sense and is fascinating. Lynne mentioned that you would come to her practice room at school after you wrote parts of the Theme and Deviations and showed them to her. I would love to hear the story behind your interaction. It sounds like it was an important part of this particular piece.

LL: Yes, and you know it still is for me. The piece I’m working on with Bridget Kibbey and Alexi Kenney, is a good example of this. We kept refining the piece up to the first performance. There is so much to learn about the harp and just observing Bridget at close contact – her inventiveness and technique and how she applies it in real-time performance – changed the piece in interesting ways. Then they performed the piece with an audience. You need an audience as part of the process because the piece isn’t complete until the communal energy of composer/performer/audience receives it and responds to it. I respect audiences, very deeply.

LS: One of the many videos on your website is about collaboration. I highly recommend all of the different themed videos, but found that the one on collaboration was insightful in trying to understand how you approach composing as a collaboration. You mentioned having gratitude to a lot of faculty members when you were a student. And I have read that you’ve written solo works for every major instrument. That’s quite an accomplishment.

LL: Yes, yes. Not every, but most. It’s something that I set out to do for personal reasons. It’s my way of understanding each instrument including its physics, how and why it has evolved over a number of years, as well as the challenges and the joy of performing on that instrument, and the passion performers bring to it. I have composed solo pieces for all of the traditional orchestral instruments, though not every single percussion instrument.

LS: Lynne also mentioned that you have two other solo harp works. I didn’t see them on your website, so I wanted to check with you about them.

LL: Isn’t that interesting, because in your questions you asked about the other two pieces, and I thought well just look at the website. So I went on the website, and you’re right, they’re not on the website! There are two other solo pieces, one of them is called Traige. I composed it in 1977 for Lynne. It’s a three-movement piece which explores three distinct emotional moods (traige) that often are used to describe Irish folk music. There is Suan Traige which means sleep music, Gol Traige which is sorrow music, and Gen Traige which is joy music. The piece came to me when I was browsing the stacks in the Walter Music Library, which was a place I adored. For me just reading about the three traige immediately inspired music for harp.

LS: Lynne loves this piece and she said make sure to you ask you about it, because Lynne thinks that it really should be part of our canon.

LL: Oh, Lynne! You know what? I think my friendship and collaboration with Lynne may be why I love the harp so much. When Lynne and I collaborated, it was about the harp. It wasn’t about our friendship, it was about the Harp. I forgot that Traige has been sleeping in my file cabinet! It’s time for the piece wake up! The score is hand copied, beautifully. The best place to find it through me,

LS: Excellent!

LL: There’s another piece, Welsh Harping Airs, which I wrote for troubadour harp. I can’t find the score, I think I filed it away in my student composition box, and I certainly can take a look at it. But I would rather write a new piece for troubadour harp. Lynne was also the energy behind this piece.

LS: I’m glad I checked in with her because I didn’t know about this. At some point, do you expect that Triage will be available on your website for purchase?

LL: Yes! Probably not next week, but within six months it will be. [Update - here is Traige]

LS: Fantastic! We love your music and to have another sonata for the harp is very special.

Getting back to the Theme and Deviations. One of the reasons why I wanted to interview you today is that I’m creating a series to help young harpists who are preparing for the 2023 American Harp Society competition. As you know, your piece is on the repertoire list, and this is the second time it has been on an AHS competition repertoire list. Lynne reminded me of this. She said that in 2017 it first was on the list, and that you were the composer in residence for the Young Composers Project that year. And while this is the second time it has been on the list, it is now a new, younger generation of harpists who are learning it. Essentially, your piece is becoming a part of our canon, which is very exciting. I am wondering what kind of advice or tips you might have for this new generation who are learning the Theme and Deviations.

LL: Well, first you need to learn the technical aspects of the piece very well. That’s basic. But then become seriously curious about the piece in other ways and follow your curiosity. For instance, the form of this piece is theme and deviations. We all are familiar with that traditional form. But the title of the piece is Theme and Deviations. Ask yourself some questions, like what does this mean? How does the title show up in the music?

I deviate away from some traditional expectations of a Theme and Variations. Instead of mimicking the tradition, each one of the movements takes an abstract element of the theme and develops that into a variation. If you as a performer search each variation to discover what’s deviant about it, letting yourself explore, imagine and decide what you think the deviation is, you can then characterize it in performance and make the piece your own.

LS: That is excellent, and it’s really inspiring! It’s going to be very individual, too, which ultimately is the best, right? With music, we always have the piece, and then we make it our own while respecting the composer’s wishes, of course, but to have that freedom to be able to investigate and then articulate your own idea about what the deviations are.

LL: I wish I could have summed up what your question was exactly the way you did.

LS: We collaborated on that answer! It is interesting that throughout history the harp is often used to depict love, heaven, angels, and such. Occasionally, a composer might explore something darker, such as when Puccini uses the harp to depict the poison that Suor Angelica drinks near the end of that opera. But that type of use is rare. Hopefully having “deviations” in the title might inspire young performers think about this piece in a fresh way.

LL: Yes, I hope so. When I decided on the title of the piece, I was caught up in my own generation’s desire to break free from the pressure to conform to expected norms of behavior. After all, I was a young woman defining myself as a composer in a profession in which I was not welcome! Theme: composer – Deviation: Woman. The title, Theme and Deviations, is an invitation to the performer to make the piece their own.

LS: Because we’re on this topic, Lynne mentioned that she was at the NASM (National Association of Music) conference thirty-five years ago, when you gave the keynote speech. She said that you were “thirty-five years ahead of your time” in terms of your discussion about inclusion, gender parity, and many of the topics that are very much discussed today. You are a woman ahead of your time is my point, in composing, philosophy, and societal issues.

LL: Thank you very much! But isn’t it true that if each one of us is present in the day we’re in, and if we open ourselves up to what’s going on that day, we all actually do live in the world we are in. I just reported what I saw then. That was thirty-five years ago of course, when all the leaders of the National Association of Music were thirty-five years into their experience in the profession than I was, right? So their reality was not my reality and my reality was that of my own generation, eager to be part of the future. It is important to me to say what the truth is, through the music, for the sake of the truth, not really expecting action.

LS: It took a lot of courage for you to articulate that at the time. And that is very helpful about the Theme and Deviations. Might you be willing to speak a bit about two recent chamber works, Sun Strider and …snow haze, moonlight?

LL: Yes, of course!

First, about Sun Strider - Bridget Kibbey is her own brand of harpist. You know she’s phenomenal and passionate about the harp. When she strides onto a stage (she does stride!) she is saying something about the harp that is long overdue – that as a solo instrument the harp is taking its place, front and center, on the world concert stage. She loves to collaborate with extraordinary performing musicians. Sun Strider was commissioned for Bridget and violinist extraordinaire, Alexi Kenney. The idea for the piece was inspired by their musical partnership. I was marveling at their talent and was feeling grateful that their generation of musicians is taking the reins of the classical concert tradition. I started thinking about cyclical time. We create cyclical time measured in concert seasons, days, weeks, months, years, etc. For some reason I started thinking about myths that cultures create to tell the story of the daily cycle of the sun – its rising, traversing the sky and setting - for instance the journey of the Greek god Helios; the Norse legend of Sol and her pursuer the wolf Skoll; the Egyptian sun god Ra, sailing Mandjet, the Boat of Millions of Years, across the sky and the Cherokee legend of Utenka and the daughter of the Sun. I decided to compose a musical myth, Sun Strider, with harp and violin as Sun Chariot and Charioteer blazing across the sky. It’s a one movement, 12 minute work (12 minutes, for the 12 hours of the day).

…snow haze, moonlight is a different kind of work from Sun Strider. …snow haze, moonlight, translates into music the unique northern winter experience of a person alone, in pitch dark, standing in the middle of a frozen lake in the midst of a pelting snow-mist storm. The music is composed of details, dynamics, affects, hints at shapes and silence. The program note for the piece is also the form of the piece - “…snowhaze, moonlight…begin in darkness, stillness, silence, space. Snow, falling. Crystalline down, a million frost-pins pricking skin – so cold they’re hot – each an infinitesimal life’s span. Felt, unseen, until moonlight.” If at all possible, the first minutes of music should be performed in a completely dark space and light gradually coming up throughout the rest of the piece. It was commissioned with funds from the American Harp Society, by Jaymee Haefner and Matt Milewski, an established duo (Crimson Duo) who have been performing together since 2012. The music they make is profoundly attuned to each other. They work deeply into the layers of the music they are rehearsing, searching for just the right articulation, just the right dynamic, just the right phrasing, just the right moment of time to shape a transition. I think of them as watercolor artists, painting the air with precise, subtle musical nuance.

Again, the best place to find these scores is through me,

LS: That’s fantastic. The last piece I’d like to touch on is your work, Trio in Four Movements for flute, viola and harp. When one of my graduate students here at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami was learning this recently, we paid very close attention to your program notes because they are evocative in a way that composers don’t often write, or they don’t phrase in the ways that you do.

You write: “in the Trio in Four Movements, I set about to use clarity of gesture and economy of texture, to create an elegant vehicle for lyric expression.” In each of the movements, you explore different ideas. In the first movement, the flute is mostly highlighted, while the viola and harp accompany it. Then in the second movement, you describe the texture as “doily,” which the trio and I enjoyed exploring. Technically, doilies are crocheted lace with intricate patterns, but we spent time pondering how doilies could be a texture in music.

LL: Oh, that’s so interesting! Well, because there’s air, right.

LS: That’s what I should’ve said!

LL: Oh, because I didn’t say that. I should’ve said “infinite doily”, meaning an infinite, or quantum, pattern of attacks, decays and the waveforms they create in the air.

LS: I showed them my computer and said “see, these are doilies; this is what a doily looks like.”

LL: That’s so funny, now we go to the computer. Interestingly enough the doily, the kind that my grandmother crocheted, were everywhere. Especially in the parlor, where the harp often was. Maybe this “doily” we are talking about is sort of a metaphor for the evolving role of the harp in our culture from the parlor to the concert stage.

LS: I love that because it’s absolutely how our instrument has evolved in society. I just wanted to say that we thoroughly enjoyed learning this piece. I think it’s right up there with the Debussy Trio, and I think it should be included in the standard canon for flute, viola, and harp going forward. It was my first time coaching it, and I am in love with this piece.

LL: Well Laura, that’s really interesting. It took me a long time to work up the guts to write a piece for this trio because of the Debussy. It’s held up as like a “nobody can touch this.” And for a composer that’s frightening. For me it was and still is because I still don’t know if the piece does stand up “with” the Debussy, not “to”. When I was composing this piece, that was the change in me, I wanted it with, not to, in the repertoire with the Debussy.

LS: Before closing, I would like to remind harpists who are preparing your Theme and Deviations for the AHS 2023 competition, that there are a couple of errors in the part and that the errata list can be found on the American Harp Society’s website, on the competition page.

And finally, are there any other thoughts about the harp that you’d want to share with us? It’s very special to be able to talk to a composer who has written so much for our instrument and to hear your thoughts about it.

LL: I want to explore the lower strings of the harp in a rock and roll kind of way.

LS: Yes! I think that’s awesome!

LL: There's so many reasons, but I want to explore the low, in the powerful way, not just in the turn of the century pedal tone that is so often used.

LS: My students are going to laugh when they read this because I’m always saying more left hand. Pretend you're a bass player, electric bass player! They will see that it’s not just me who thinks this.

LL: Me too!

LS: Well, this has been absolutely wonderful, and again, we thank you for your inventive harp writing and for taking the time today to speak with me. Your work, your compositions, and your mentoring through the American Composers Forum are all so inspiring. And I highly recommend that readers visit your website and watch the videos about the different themes, such as nature, energy, collaboration, time, mysticism, and more. And to check out the wonderful biography about you, written by Denise Von Glahn.

LL: Denise Von Glahn, yes, she is a brilliant woman.

LS: You are such a multi-dimensional, brilliant person and composer. We're just so honored to speak with you today. Thank you again!

LL: Thank you Laura. Much love!