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Friday, October 30, 2020

Listen Here

From the Vault Dept.: This was one of the most compelling talks I’ve ever attended, and I’m grateful to have my review of it linger as a souvenir. Libby Larsen had a distinguished reputation when I saw her in 1985; she has gone on since then to write a multimedia work based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and won a Grammy as producer of a recording featuring her setting of Sonnets from the Portuguese. She also continues to speak about music, and, in 2010, won a George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America.


ARE YOU LISTENING? According to composer Libby Larsen, we may not be as good at listening to music as we could be. She described her own experience observing an audience listening to a work of hers – she is composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra – or not listening, as seemed more evident. “It made me frustrated and angry,” she said, “so I put together this program on creative listening.

Libby Larsen | Photo: Ann Marsden
The program is a one-hour presentation that she gave at the Desmond Americana Friday morning under the auspices of the Albany Symphony Vanguard. And it was a program that every auditor of this or any other symphony orchestra should experience, because Larsen suggests many useful ways to cut through the fear and prejudice that inform so many of us who get hit over the head with the modern stuff without sufficient warning.

The talk dealt mainly with the symphonic form, although the techniques described are certainly adaptable to other musical stylings – and to sound in general. Asked to define music, Larsen, who qualifies herself also as a former physics professor, called it “any arrangement of sound over a space of time.”

“You don’t need to know much about music to listen to it,” she began. “You just need to know how to listen.” And, pointing to the ubiquity of background music, she said, “We spend most of our lives tuning it out instead of tuning it in.”

The presentation included musical examples that tied in with the various techniques of listening Larsen offered, techniques that began with familiarity.

“We all know this one,” she declared, and sang the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. “And we can react to it: for myself, it makes me feel noble.

“Familiarity is a window that lets the music in, something we rely on so much it almost becomes a crutch.” By discovering familiar elements in an unfamiliar work, she went on, we are drawn a little closer to the music.

Another technique is comparative listening. Using a selection from a contemporary symphonic work by Eric Stokes (the work is titled “The Continental Band and Harp Report,” the movement dubbed “No Deposit, No Return,”) we heard an ensemble of four different bands playing jazzy licks simultaneously.

“It’s the cocktail party effect,” Larsen explained. “Like when you’re at a party talking to someone you don’t care to talk to, trying to listen to a more interesting conversation going on beside you.”

With her good sense of humor and energetic style of speaking, Larsen caught and held the interest of the gathering, breaking down barrier after barrier as she explored her field.
Elements of melody, rhythm, color, texture, and gesture were explored, always with examples drawn from recordings, and in one case with a selection from Larsen’s own enchanting “Water Music,” used to Illustrate her use of orchestral color.

‘It is very important to relate our listening to our own personal experiences,” she said. “I guarantee you that every piece of 20th-century music has something to do with who you are in the world today.”

And then we got a chance at making some music ourselves. Each participant was given some item of paper or plastic and told to explore the sound-producing qualities. It was tentative at first, a rustle here, a snap there, until someone in the back exploded a baggie and the whole room laughed and began to crumple and tear with brio.

Larsen then chose three soloists – a Paper-Ripper, a Pouch-Squeezer, and the Baggie-Exploder –  and divided the rest of the group into Crinklers, who merely mashed their instruments, and Poppers, who gave noisy pulls to polymer products.

Then, conducting the ripieno of Crinklers and Poppers with hand signals for volume, she began the two-minute work with an introductory forte, brought down to pianissimo for the concertino to enter. We moved through swells and silences as the previously-discussed aspects of color and texture were made more and more sense; then, with a cue to the final soloist, the Baggie-Exploder concluded the piece with a bang.

“We didn’t make anything like a Mahler symphony here,” Larsen confessed, “but you do now understand that music is much more than just a tune you can hum.”

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 6 September 1986

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