Libby Larsen is one of only 20-30 people in the country who make their living purely from composing music for orchestras and operas.
Most people hold down a second job — most as a teacher at a university — but Larsen is one of the most frequently commissioned American composers, and also is in demand as a speaker. She has written more than 400 works, including operas, songs, orchestra and chamber music, and has more than 50 recordings of her music.
"I like to keep busy. There are so many ideas to pursue — and life is short," she said.
The Larsen work that will be performed by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra on May 22-23 is "Atmosphere as a Fluid System." Maestro and Music Director Kim Allen Kluge picked the piece because it fits into the season’s theme: "Inspired by Nature."
Larsen described how a plane ride led to the music: "One day, years and years ago, I was flying somewhere, plastered up against the window watching light on the clouds, and I saw a rainbow cone in the clouds, and although we were moving, the rainbow was moving with us, and I could see right down the center of the cone," she said. "I was fascinated by it, because I had never seen anything like it, and I began to study, I wanted to find out what it was. Turns out it was something called Ulloa’s Ring."
Larsen said "Atmosphere" is meant to transport the listener into a cloud.
"Along the edges and in the middle of clouds, this fluidity is dynamic and we get tornadoes and hurricanes from this kind of thing. I wanted to write a piece from the inside of a cloud, and that’s what this piece is — it moves all the time, it is very fluid and moving and full of shifting colors, so it’s as if you as an audience member were inside the cloud, moving with the atmosphere."
Nature is where she most often turns to for inspiration. She described the piece for two violas that she is currently working on: "It’s really about the moment of quiet in the night where the stars are bright. It’s a suspended moment in eternity."
Despite working in an industry that values the voices of dead European men over productive women who work and live among us, Larsen said that she feels like there is certainly room for growth and ground-breaking music on American stages.
"It’s an industry that has become a repackaging industry, and those of us who can add to that — contribute to the canon — are vital," Larsen said. "It’s less than from the public, that perception of boards of directors and marketing departments that an audience will not come to a performance of something they don’t know. It’s not the accepted thinking in any other form of art — not music, movies, art — but really only the classical music world who have bought that mythology hook, line and sinker."
However, Larsen says she understands the restrictions that orchestras are often under, and how little time musicians have to learn a new piece of music.
"I like to challenge myself to make music that is interesting and idiomatic for the performers and resonates with the audience, in the way the notes are arranged. I don’t try to write music people simply ‘like,’ but are engaged with."
She said being a woman in this demanding — and sometimes isolating — profession can be difficult, but she maintains contact with other women composers such as Jennifer Higdon, who just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for composition.
"We have a wonderful community network, where we all e-mail. There is a league of women composers and wonderful trade associations. I support them where I can, but best of all is to be in communication, so we support each other," Larsen said.
Larsen said she respects other composers and musicians and is pleased when they enjoy her work, but she said she is thrilled when her work inspires audience members to reach out to her.
"I’m always delighted when someone who has heard my work goes out of their way to be engaged — sends an e-mail or says something to me in the grocery store. Because composition is when you make a shape out of sound and time, in order to communicate what it’s like to be alive. When someone communicates with me about my music, it’s because I made this sound, and I feel like the work I do — which is an odd way to spend your life — has meaning."
Larsen, who lives in Minneapolis, said she took up long-distance running a couple of years ago in order to get out of the head space where she often loses time to music: "The sound is in my head, I hear everything in my head, and work in a different kind of time when I’m writing. Two or three days can go by, and suddenly, I realize I really need to get out of the house and talk to people who are living in flat time."
Larsen said that keeping her life well-rounded only enhances her music.
"One can live an artful life, and the products of that artful life can be food, music, a perfect run, a fine interview, (art doesn’t imitate life), they are one in the same. If your life is an artful life, you live a mindful life, where mind and emotion are in balance."