Composer Interview with Libby Larsen

We checked in with renowned composer Libby Larsen (https://libbylarsen.com/) earlier this month leading up to her debut release on Navona Records, and we’re pleased to share her thoughts on the composing process, her influences, and her favorite instrument (one you encounter every day and may not even realize)!



Your upcoming release, CIRCLE OF FRIENDS (out November 13, 2015) focuses around the performances of some great musicians with whom you’ve developed relationships over the years. Do you prefer to write with specific performers in mind?
When I compose music for my friends and colleagues to perform, I am supercharged and inspired – I know I do my best work for the performers and am challenged by their talent, their energy and their connection with their audiences!  For me, music lives in the relationships it invites.  It’s a person to person communication of emotion.  
How is your process different when writing for specific performers vs. writing for an instrumentation in general?
Since I don’t necessarily have personal relationships with musicians in the ensemble, when I compose for an instrumentation in general, i.e. an orchestra, I find myself thinking about the “ensemble” as one instrument, made up of many instruments.  It’s a kind of playground where my playmates are the musicians, the established repertoire and the many possibilities for us to make music in a fresh way. 
Do you have a favorite instrument or instrumentation?  
Actually, I don’t have a favorite instrument or instrumentation in the way you might imagine.  I do have a favorite instrument.  It’s the air.  I think of traditional instruments as “air exciters”.  It’s the air that holds and displays the sounds, colors and shape of a piece of music.  You might think of the air as a companion instrument to other instruments.  I think of it as the instrument which translates music in your head to music outside of it. Without the air, music could only exist in our heads!

There seems to be an underlying scientific impulse in your approach to the compositional process; how did this approach develop?
I think I’m equally influenced by the humanities and the sciences.   Which of the two is at the center of any given work depends on the piece!
You were commissioned by the Apollo Chamber Players to write “Sorrow Song and Jubilee” which will be featured on their upcoming album (also on Navona Records) – what was the inspiration behind this piece?
The Apollo Chamber Players were creating a program centered on the music of Antonin Dvorak when they asked if I might be interested in composing a work for them.  I was delighted (supercharged and inspired!) to work with Matt, Anabel, Whitney and Matthew.
I’ve been intrigued for many years by the friendship of Dvorak and Harry Burleigh. Burleigh, one of the most respected African American musicians of his day, assisted Dvorak while he enjoyed his short stay in America.  Dvorak and Burleigh dug into the vast repertoire of American spirituals, where Dvorak learned about the sound, rhythms and scales of the music.  Dvorak’s New World Symphony and his American String Quartet would not exist but for Burleigh.
So I wanted to compose a work that honored Burleigh and Dvorak at the same time!  
What was your first composition to be performed by other musicians?       
I composed the class song for my 7th grade class.  I wrote it on the blackboard and we all sang every day for that year.  Pretty nerdy and definitely not the thing to do if you want to be popular in 7th grade!
Of the many awards and accolades you’ve earned since then, which have meant the most to you?  
I don’t know that you would call it an award but the most rewarding moments in my life as a composer come when I meet a new generation composer who has been supported and inspired by their connection with the American Composers Forum.  I have a deep feeling that we composers have a community that did not exist 40 years ago.

What do you think should be done to help generate more attention around new music in general?
Many things, too many to go into in a short space.

We’re all looking forward to CIRCLE OF FRIENDS – in the meantime, you can read all about Libby Larsen’s upcoming release and hear the album’s boogie-woogie-inspired closer “Four on the Floor” at www.navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6014/ (and to help generate more attention around this great new music, we encourage you to share this link with your circle of friends too)!

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