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December 9, 1997

Modern Composers

Libby Larsen. Water Music. Water Music; Parachute Dancing; Lyric Symphony; Ring of Fire. London Symphony Orchestra, Joel Revzen, conductor. (KOCH, CD # 3-7370-2) 1997.

Libby Larsen (b. 1950) grew up in Minnesota, where she also studied music. This bit of biographical data is important to know about Larsen, because much of her music is animated by that background. Though Larsen's work is often included in discussions and analyses of contemporary feminist music, that is much too narrow a category in which to place her. Her output includes orchestral compositions, dance works, opera, choral, theater, and chamber works. USA Today reports that she recently completed an opera titled The Underwear Opera about the history of underwear. Though she has written a number of works that deal with feminist themes, she is preeminently an American composer. Writing about Larsen's music, the critic Russell Platt notes that "Minnesota is known as a state which places a high value of social concord, and [Larsen's] music...seeks to invite [the audience] directly into the energy of creation, as if its independent existence were an abhorrent possibility." The kind of involvement that Platt refers to may be hard work for audiences, but hard work is central to the traditional middle-American view that Larsen's music represents.

This new album from KOCH records contains four pieces written by Larsen from 1984 to 1995, each of which typifies not only her unmistakably American voice, but the high-voltage energy that she injects into her work. Larsen has been described as "one of a number of composers who emerged in the 1980s to reenergize American concert music," and her work can inject energy into any listless concert program. She sometimes uses allusions to European romantic composers in her work, but most of the overt references one hears in her work are American. Even some of her titles evoke American music icons. Two of the three movements in her Lyric Symphony are titled "Deep Purple" and "Since Armstrong" (and she doesn't mean Neil).

Larsen has an interesting vision of American music. "It occurs to me," she says, "that in all of our [i.e., American] genres..the dominating parameter of the music is rhythm. Rhythm is more important than pitch. This is a fundamental change in the composition of music in our century." In search of the lyric in our times, she said she believes that "the great American melody" of today can be found in the music by composers as diverse as Chuck Berry and George Gershwin, Hank Williams and Aaron Copland, Dolly Parton and Walter Piston -- in music by "composers who create melodies which are defined more by their rhythm than their pitch."

Rhythm is thus a deliberately critical element in Larsen's work, and this can be seen in the works on the present album. The Water Music symphony from 1984 was written partly as an homage to Handel on the 300th anniversary of his birth, but apart from the title, Larsen's treatment has very little obvious relation to Handel. The four movements, titled Fresh Breeze, Hot & Still, Wafting, and Gale, do not attempt to portray nature in its various states, but evoke feelings associated with those states of nature. The work is built not on traditional motivic development but on complex elaboration of "texture and gesture" and a virtuosic handling of "propulsive musical fragments." This Water Music is an invigorating work by a major young American composer.

You can hear the "Water Music" symphony of Libby Larsen on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, December 18 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.


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