BOOK REVIEW - Published in the the Journal of the International Assocation of Women in Music (Volume 24, No.2, 2018): Denise Von Glahn: Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life
Denise Von Glahn opens her new book on composer Libby Larsen with a quote from biographer Leon Edel to frame the essential mission of a biography: “Discover the overlap between what the individual did and the life that made this possible.” What Von Glahn discovers and presents is not so much an “overlap” between work and life, but an intimate warp and woof, a tightly-woven integration where life is work and work is life. Von Glahn’s is not a typical composer biography, neatly mapping the artist’s work into the musical history timeline. There is no critical argument for Larsen’s leanings toward Ives rather than Copland, toward innovation rather than consolidation of tradition. Instead, there is a kind of friendly critical mirroring of Larsen’s own musical project: idiosyncratic, eclectic, personal. Von Glahn’s book tells Larsen’s story in feelings and images, not within the confines of what could be called “patriarchal” musical-historical discourse, but in alignment with what Hélène Cixous termed “Écriture féminine”: woman writing herself.
The book is organized into chapters on topics intimately connected to Larsen’s life and values: Family, Religion, Nature, Gender, Technology, and Activism. While Von Glahn manages to tell Larsen’s story more or less chronologically, her personal and professional growth is tracked through alignments to these topics rather than to dates. In an opening essay on family, Von Glahn explores Larsen’s early home life: born in 1950 Minneapolis, the middle of five daughters, inclined to verbosity, but made to keep quiet: “seen but not heard.” In Larsen’s bottled-up childhood, sounds of all kinds spoke to her like Galileo’s “book of nature”: horse hooves outside in the winter snow, the clank of silverware, rock and roll music on the radio, and the rumble of cars. All sounds were meaningful to the young Larsen. Von Glahn explores the confluence of these factors in an analysis of Larsen’s 1983 composition “Four on the Floor,” a composition for piano and strings inspired from joy-riding in the Larsen family’s yellow ’57 Thunderbird. Von Glahn includes generous score excerpts, in this case using a score segment that provides Larsen’s instruction to the pianist: “Jerry Lee Lewis!” The contrasting family experiences of dinner-table silence and open-road racing to rock and roll were formative influences on Larsen’s compositional sensibilities.
Next, Von Glahn moves to explore two of the strongest influences on Larsen: Religion and Nature. Larsen’s utter commitment to orthodox Catholicism is explored in detail. Larsen’s first musical training was, in fact, from her Catholic School nuns—Sister Collette was a special figure in Larsen’s musical development, bringing Bartôk, Stravinsky, and Japanese music to lessons rather than the usual Czerny exercises. The overriding influence of Catholicism to Larsen was the reverence, mystery, and awe that the religion inspired. When, in an effort to become more relevant in the modern world, the church revised their ecumenical and liturgical platform in 1962 with the Second Vatican Council, Larsen became disenchanted with the disappearance of reverence, mystery, and awe. Indeed, Larsen became an atheist, though she maintained her own personal sense of the lost Catholic values. Von Glahn chooses one of Larsen’s Catholic-inspired compositions, “Saints Without Tears,” a song-cycle valorizing saints Anthony, Bridget, Francis, Theresa, and Sir Thomas More, to examine Larsen’s expression of her religious character. Continuing, Von Glahn moves on to the topic of Nature, where she foregrounds Larsen’s personal relation to Nature: “I don’t want to look at it or comment on it. I want to be it. Yes, I want to be it. I want to be the wind, the heat, the fragrance.” In her discussion of Larsen and Nature, Von Glahn analyzes Larsen’s “Ulloa’s Ring,” a composition conjuring the musical equivalent of an uncommon celestial phenomenon. Rather than provide a traditional musical analysis of the piece (addressing genre, harmony, its place in musical history, and other traditional critical categories), Von Glahn uses metaphorical and poetic description, connecting the musical gestures to human feelings. Instead of citing parallel fourths and fifths, we get “spins, bends, waves, and weaves.” In fact, Von Glahn seems to take more from the history of literary criticism, rather than musical criticism. Von Glahn finds in Larsen what literary critic R.P. Blackmur called “gesture”: the outward and dramatic play of inward and imaged meaning. Von Glahn is able to provide for readers how the “outward and dramatic play”—the pitches, rhythms, and timbres—embody feelings and the meanings connected to those feelings. Von Glahn also uses the chapter on Nature to dive into Larsen’s decision to make her life in Minneapolis (her B.A., M.A. and PhD are all from the University of Minnesota), as opposed to more typical centers of music like New York or Los Angeles.
Von Glahn continues through the next several chapters to explore Larsen’s life and music as it relates to gender, technology, and activism. Von Glahn gives generous time to the wide range of Larsen’s oeuvre, recounting her troubled operas based on Charlotte’s Web and A Wrinkle in Time, through her experimental works incorporating computer technology (“Now I Pull Silver,” “Emergence,” and “Love After 1950”). Readers also get multiple examples of Larsen’s multi-media work, which take its cues from traditions going back to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, through Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, to the post-modern assemblages of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg. Von Glahn is liberal in her use of score samples and photographs, and she manages to cover what is indeed a broad range of musical output from Larsen. Considering Larsen’s range, Von Glahn also addresses one of Larsen’s recurring criticisms: that she is a “trend hopper,” safely tucked on the “Minnesota bunny slopes.” While Von Glahn includes criticisms of Larsen, she does not argue against them. In fact, coming as they do at the end of the book, the criticisms fall away like rain off a mallard’s tail.
By the book’s end, Von Glahn makes clear that Larsen is a singular composer, committed to realizing her own vision, not hopping trends, and not finding safety on the “Minnesota bunny slopes.” Instead, readers get a well-researched look into a uniquely American composer (Larsen sees herself more closely aligned to John Cage and Carl Stalling—composer of the Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies cartoon music—than to Aaron Copland), whose work/life is exuberant and fertile, and who forces the double question: “What is Music? What is Life?”
Robert Black is an independent scholar and songwriter. He holds a BFA and MA from Kent State University and a PhD from the University of Washington (Seattle). Additionally, Dr. Black has studied music composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. His portfolio includes original music for plays by Aristophanes, Brecht, Picasso (yes, Pablo Picasso!), Sartre, and Shakespeare. He adapted Godard's film "A Bout de Souffle" ("Breathless") for the stage, which he directed at Kent State University. He recently completed composing a theatrical song-cycle based on James Joyce's novel, Ulysses.
Robert Morris Black © All rights reserved.