Composer Libby Larsen reaches the top of her profession despite working in a field built by and for men
While in graduate school in the 1970s, Libby Larsen was told by a fellow student that she could never write contemporary music for large audiences because she was a woman. “I couldn’t possibly have the intellect to handle the demands of writing that kind of music,” she said with a wink to the Christian Science Monitor in 1983.
Today, Larsen is a Grammy Award-winning composer of more than 500 works, including opera, chamber, and choral pieces. Not only is the quantity of her works impressive, but the organization she co-founded in 1974—now the American Composer’s Forum—is the country’s largest composer service group. She also is the first woman to serve as resident composer with a major orchestra.
On September 25, the Center for the Performing Arts will host the world premiere of contemporary-classical composer Larsen’s You. The Center for the Performing Arts co-commissioned the four-movement choral piece, written for performance by the men’s chorus Cantus, through its membership in the consortium Music Accord.
“You is a musical essay on the human condition of being alone together,” Larsen writes. “It’s about us and we are its theme. You are the subject and recipient of its message. Cantus is our essay’s narrator.” In addition, the work draws inspiration from the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay to frame her rhetorical questions of what it means to be human.
Larsen says she resisted working environments that were not as friendly toward women until after she broke through the male-dominated field.
On her philosophy of music:
My own philosophy stems from my belief that certain ratios and vibrations naturally exist in infinity. I believe that a culture will evolve the sonic forms and instruments that it needs in order to represent life through sound and music. It is my feeling that the Romantic era of music history has only recently ended. So I think that composers working today are in a strange bridging area; we are redefining ourselves. We are philosophizing about the nature of sound in our world today. We are struggling to figure out, in our noise-polluted world, what is sound, what is music, and what is silence.
On why there are fewer women composers:
Orchestral programming is the least innovative it has ever been in its entire history. I bring this up … because the orchestra (not the chorus, not the wind ensemble) is the principal goal of youth orchestra, chamber music, and conservatory training.
Here’s the problem. 1.) To learn to compose at a professional level for these instruments, a young composer must be able to pass the entrance exams of a fine conservatory. These exams favor students who are trained on orchestral instruments—and these days are also trained in technology … . So quite often a terribly gifted young composer, female, who has been able to find her compositional voice through performance art or song, is excluded from study in college by dint of the entrance exam. The problem is exacerbated by the world fact of male-designed and -dominated technology. It’s becoming a well-known fact that in school girls are encouraged to defer their learning time on technology to boys, and boys are generally hogging the school computers nationwide. Ergo girls find other outlets, ergo they form only a small part of the technological pool of student composer candidates.
2.) Composers need, and have always needed, strong, consistent, and true champions of their work. Historically these champions are conductors, performers, and patrons. Women have been steadily learning how to find and maintain artist/champion relationships, but it really only has been the past twenty or so years that our society has allowed itself to accept female/male-artist/champion relationships in which the artist is the female, the champion is male, and the relationship is about the work and nothing more.
3.) In our culture, to succeed in maintaining a consistent public platform for one’s artistic work, an artist must learn business skills and practice them respectfully and dispassionately. Music schools traditionally neglect teaching business skills as part of their curriculum, so students must come by their business knowledge in other ways … . There are many more business mentors for young women now than there were when I was in my twenties.
4.) The orchestra, opera, and chamber music business in our culture is suffocating in general because, as a field, it has no research and development mentality. Does this hurt the programming possibilities for up and coming young women composers? You bet it does!
5.) Finally, notated composition from which we are descendants was invented and evolved in monasteries. At its heart, it’s a monk’s art form, and its archival system is a monk’s archival system … . In the ’70s and ’80s, if a student wanted to look up a woman composer in the library system, she could not be found by name under the category ‘composer.’ Instead the student had to look under ‘woman–composer.’
On being a successful composer in a field dominated by men:
I had the most trouble with discrimination and stereotyping while I was in school … . I found that being a living woman composer in the academy often (and still does) put me in the position of the ‘specimen.’
On being a feminist:
If thirty years of consistently working in public, on a national and international scale, and speaking my professional mind out loud in public combined with raising a family can be considered feminism, then yes, I consider myself a feminist.
Answers are reprinted from the Frequently Asked Questions section of LibbyLarsen.com.