For Libby Larsen, composing is just one part of a happy life
St. Paul, Minn. — Libby Larsen is a working woman. Every morning she gets down to work at eight , toiling over the dining-room table in her Tudoresque house here, or upstairs in the simple order of her workroom. About noon, she quits to burn off some energy with some physical activity (like basketball or weightlifting), and then she's back at it until dinner time. Occasionally, she will work again from 10 to 11 p.m.
At the end of a year of such labors, she will have produced, perhaps, an opera; a few cantatas; some short orchestral pieces.
Ms. Larsen is a composer. And one might as well go on to explain that she travels among the spheres, picking space flowers from some distant galaxy for all most of us know about what it means to be a composer.
More important, what does it mean to be a diminutive young composer, surrounded by the trappings of normalcy, next to the city where Mary Tyler Moore used to throw her hat in the air as Mary Richards?
If a woman intends to make it in this stronghold of men, shouldn't she at least develop a bit of angst and live among urban misfits? Or is it better to be a misfit to the social outcasts, to write music that is defiantly accessible, to catch a bit of Minnesota sunshine in your smile - to be, in short, a woman with a talent, instead of a rampaging talent dragging a woman behind it?
One look at Larsen and you know how she answered these questions. She obviously feels that composing is part of living and not vice versa.
She was born and raised here in the Twin City area. By choice, she studied music here. She came to composing by natural means: She was singing and got frustrated because there was not enough good contemporary music to sing. So, she started writing music for herself; others became interested in having her write for them. And so it happened - easy and unforced.
''I think composers take themselves far too seriously,'' she says. ''I just don't want to be an unhappy person. I have been poverty-stricken, and I may be again. But I don't want to be an unhappy poverty-stricken person.''
The antique-and-plush feel of her home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood here gives the impression that neither she nor the handsome young lawyer (her husband, James Reece) whose picture sits on a nearby bookcase will fall under the poverty line anytime soon.
Doesn't Larsen believe in suffering for her art?
''Well, I've suffered. But enough is enough,'' she answers quickly. Something about her manner as she speaks intimates that she's not kidding. There is a sudden flash of head-on seriousness in her eyes, and you sense a determination to overcome what needs overcoming - an observation borne out by the statement she has tacked on the wall of her workroom:
''Discipline gives us our checks and balances.
''And from these we get our perspective.''
Not exactly the theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore Show. But Larsen's song runs a bit deeper than that. ''Some people can't hum, but they sing all the time ,'' she says, talking about the universal impulse to make music. What makes Larsen different from the person who simply sings is that she works at the song intensely, fashioning it into music with structure, intention, meaning.
''For a while, it's horrible,'' she says of the whole process. ''I sit at the piano, and I can't get it going. I'm thinking about the shape of the piece, the end result. . . . Then, there's always a point at which it starts to go. From then on, it's just a joy. At that point, the piece just takes on a life of its own.''
A life that in some way mirrors her life. If you ponder Larsen's music while walking through the Minnesota woods, you understand something about this mirror. There are few hard edges in it, few places where it is in conflict with the world around it.
And, yet, there is a melancholy about it, too. ''There's something incredibly lonely about seeing the way the light hits at five in the afternoon. Seeing something so beautiful - and for a moment being part of it - and then knowing you are not part of it,'' she says.
One way of hanging onto the moment is to write music about the experience.
The kind of music Larsen writes from such experiences runs counter to everything that has gone on in mainstream contemporary composing during the last few decades. It is soft, inviting, frequently pretty. In that way it fits with the renaissance of lyricism and light over harshness and dark struggle currently afoot in music. Still, she argues that one wins few friends among contemporaries for this kind of music.
''It's an incredible risk to write music like this,'' she says. ''Composers depend on their colleagues for work; and 'accessible' is a pejorative term.''
Her ideas can't have hurt her too much. Larsen is currently composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra, which gives her a year in which to compose and help other composers get a hearing from the orchestra. She also has commissions from a respectable string of musical organizations.
So there is little bitterness in her voice when she remembers the fellow student at graduate school who told her, in a kindly tone, that she ''wouldn't be able to compose for large forces, because I was a female, . . . so I couldn't possibly have the intellect to handle the demands of writing that kind of music.
''I'm a pretty good basketball player, even though I'm short,'' she adds, remembering that she felt the same way when someone told her she was too short to play basketball. She never went on to a professional basketball career, but Libby Larsen has written operas and is working on a symphony without any apparent strain on her intellect.
Sitting here, with this endlessly quiet Minnesota neighborhood lying just outside the window, she seems, like her music, to be a natural part of the surroundings.