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Alive in music: Composer Libby Larsen shares passion for music with students PDF Print E-mail
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor   
Thursday, 15 March 2012 10:58
Composer Libby Larsen
Composer Libby Larsen's intense love of music is evident as she listened to a student's composition Wednesday.
The composer of more than 400 works, she sat listening to Sarah Modene's piece, she gestured briefly as if conducting it, smiled, furrowed her brow in concentration, each measure seeming to register on her face.
The master class with a dozen undergraduate and graduate composition students is part of Larsen's three-day residency at Bowling Green State University as the McMaster Professor in Vocal and Choral Studies. Her residency will culminate with a concert of her works Friday at 8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall featuring music for solo voice and piano and "She piped for us" sung by the Women's Chorus.
Larsen's extensive catalog includes many vocal solo and choral works as well as 12 operas.
USA Today said of her: "She's the only English-speaking composer since Benjamin Britten who matches great verse with fine music so intelligently and expressively."
As busy as Larsen is she loves being with students. "You can feel their passion for making objects of sound, and I know that passion."
The 61-year-old composer recalls being a voice and music theory major at the University of Minnesota when noted composers Olivier Messiaen, Lou Harrison and Donald Martino visited campus. She said such visits "open doors in your brain. ... I feel a responsibility to keep making that possible."
When the native of Minneapolis arrived to begin studying at the University of Minnesota, she hadn't decided whether to be a coloratura soprano or a stockbroker. In the end she found her calling in composition.
"I was restless when I heard new music, unrecognizably restless," Larsen said. "That was the desire to create."
She sees that in young composers.
In discussing the works presented by Modene, an undergraduate, and graduate students Evan Williams and Joshua Bryant, she delved into the craft and business of composing.
Her commentary on the students' work touched on how to set words to music, and the subtleties of language, the difficult of engaging listeners in music written using advanced harmonies and the business of securing permission to set a poem.
She encouraged students to transcribe the rhythms of people talking "Maybe one way to make a piece accessible that otherwise might not be accessible is to use the rhythms of human speech," she said. Larsen urged them to gain familiarity with the natural sounds of instruments. Sit in on instrumentalist's practice session. Ask them what they love and what they hate, she said.
Back in 1978, Larsen decided that she would write a solo piece for every instrument. The most recent was a composition for tuba. What tuba players asked was: "Would you please write a melody?"
Larsen said a composer "cannot just open their mouths" and have their music emerge. Having their music play takes a lot of mediating.
Connecting with listeners involves setting up expectations and then either fulfilling or confounding them, she said.
"What can I build into the piece to help the brain relax," she asks herself. That's the state in which the listener becomes open to "listening in the moment."
American culture has "commodified music," and composers must work against that trend to categorize and limit it. But "music is infinite," Larsen said. "For a number of people, myself included, we think in music first. That's our natural mode of communication."
The music they create, Larsen added, "communicates what it's like to be alive in sound."

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