Thursday, April 30, 2009

Response to Hannah on Libby Larsen's Deep Summer Music, Solo Symphony, and Marimba Concerto: After Hampton

I enjoyed reading Hannah’s journal entry on three of Libby Larsen’s compositions – Marimba Concerto: After Hampton, Deep Summer Music, and Solo Symphony. Hannah does a good job telling about each piece, and in fact, when I listened to each piece, I was unsure what relevant commentary I could add to her descriptions. What does strike me as something worth exploring more is Hannah’s analysis of Larsen at the beginning of the entry.
Hannah identifies Larsen as one of those composers who write “with a particular philosophical goal in mind.” At this point, more than at any other in the blog, a question jumped out at me: what is Libby Larsen’s particular philosophical goal? Hannah does not explicitly answer this particular question in her blog, but as I listened to and thought about Larsen’s music, I began to form what I think is a valid answer. Whether or not Larsen would say it in this way, all her music seems to be designed so as to make her audience think about that to which they are listening. Within the umbrella of this philosophical goal, Larsen asks different questions with each composition, or asks the same question in different ways. For example, as Hannah showed, Marimba Concerto: After Hampton raises questions about why a solo instrument is chosen and how visuals change the aesthetic experience of a piece. Just by choosing the marimba as soloist in a concerto, Larsen causes the audience (as long as they’re paying any attention at all) to question the nature of the soloist – at least in my experience, marimba concertos are rare. As the piece progresses, the audience is drawn to compare the use of marimba to the use of more traditional concerto instruments, such as piano and violin; clearly the virtuosity possible on a marimba is of a different sort than the virtuosity possible on a piano, even though both instruments are similar in appearance. I am sure that watching a performance of this concerto would leave me with significantly different impressions about the whole piece, because the marimba and the other percussion used in the accompanying ensemble are such powerfully visual instruments. Larsen’s composition is, in a sense, answering the question “how can a marimba be used in a concerto?” but it nonetheless leaves the audience to think about the way a marimba fits into our collective expectations about a concerto and how Larsen’s composition fits or stretches or defies those expectation. Two other examples of the questions Larsen raises were identified by Hannah in her journal entry. Both Deep Summer Music and Solo Symphony question the nature of a solo and suggest (in my understanding) that no perceived solo is ever truly alone, but take different approaches to do so. In Deep Summer Music, a solo horn line is joined to a supportive orchestra texture. In Solo Concerto, the solo seems to be something of a thematic element in itself – the “theme” of having an independent melodic line is passed from one soloist to another to a section, finally ending with the audience member seeming to be alone and independent (solo, so to speak) in his or her attempt to find a melodic line in the texture.
Although Hannah did not discuss Larsen in comparison to other composers, I think Larsen’s creation of music that elicits thoughtfulness and has a “philosophical goal” strikes a chord (no pun intended) with the intentions of numerous other late twentieth century composers. However, unlike the compositions of John Cage, for example, Larsen’s compositions raise questions about musical philosophy, such as the idea of a soloist, without forcing the audience to question what music is. In the era of Rampant Musical Gruel (thank you Dr. Granade for the visual), I think many people find it too much work to think about questioning the nature of music itself, but may be open to compositions by Larsen and other “milder” thought-provoking composers. Perhaps Larsen’s music is crucial to the reawakening of a generation numbed to music. I hate putting the designation mild on Larsen’s music though; mild suggests that Larsen hasn’t pushed her music as far as it could go or needs to go. I think a description I found in the CD jacket fits better: Larsen’s music is not self-consciously avant-garde. In other words, her composition does not reject Western musical heritage for the sake of being new and different, but departs from it or uses it as much as necessary to convey what Larsen needs to convey. If part of her goal (or all of it) is to inspire thought in an audience member’s listening (or watching) experience, what a noble goal to have.
I think Hannah is on to something when she suggests that Larsen’s music may not be in the canon only because now is not yet its time. I don’t know how distinctive or representative Deep Summer Music, Solo Symphony, and Marimba Concerto: After Hampton are when compared to the totality of Larsen’s composition, but I think it is reasonable to suppose that Larsen may eventually play a role in the canon, for the reasons I brought up in the last paragraph. Larsen’s music is a valuable contribution: not only is it new without rejecting the old, but most importantly it makes us think.

*As an aside, I had been curious about the title of Deep Summer Music ever since I heard the name. At first, I thought it might have referred to summer music that inspired deep thoughts or meditations, but a look in the CD jacket led me to assume that deep summer is equivalent to late summer, i.e., the harvest season, when all the fields are golden and idyllic…

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