Libby Larsen is an active composer of works in several genres, including orchestral and solo works. As a female composer, she strongly promotes an increased role for women in music. She has also encouraged composers to have a role outside of academia through her co-founding of the American Composers Forum. In works such as Deep Summer Music, Solo Symphony, and Marimba Concerto: After Hampton, she redefines the role of the musicians as well as that of the listener in addition to specifically exploring the meaning of “soloist.” Her use of lyrical melodies amidst a more modern freedom of tonality along with her compositional philosophy of exploration and redefinition of “solo” certainly warrant a place in the Canon.
Deep Summer Music, written more than ten years before the other pieces on this CD, contains a rather traditional use of the soloist, as the trumpet solo “recalls the presence of the individual amidst the vastness of the landscape” (Program Notes, Libby Larsen). This solo (which is encapsulated neatly in the middle of the piece, evoking a feeling of enclosure) emphasizes the limited scope of a single performer or person when considering the larger ensemble or scene. Larsen’s lyricism is most clearly evident in this piece, opening with a soaring melody in the strings accompanied by varied wind instruments that pop in just to change the color of the melody. One cannot help but imagine the colors of different crops in the landscape as the winds fade in and out. Larsen stays away from a primary tonal center for the most part, letting her melody meander through differing keys unhindered. This programmatic approach to music as well as the “individual in the wilderness” theme is quite reminiscent of the Romantic period, but her free tonal center (formed more by overlapping scalar melodies than triads) and use of scattered color shifts clearly define her work as modern.
Larsen’s exploration of the role of a soloist begins to develop in Marimba Concerto: After
This redefinition of “soloist” is particularly evident in Solo Symphony. Larsen specifically points out this definition in her program notes for the premiere: “A solo is a group. The effort of many becomes the effort of one to produce a unified sound, a unified music.” The spirit of this quotation is clearly audible, beginning with the first movement, “Solo solos.” This movement begins with short solos passed among the clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, and trumpet. At any given point the listener can hear the soloists passing the melody, and as the density of the piece builds, it moves among larger sections playing as choirs in unison. This growth shows the extension of the definition of solo from that of the individual to that of the group. The second movement, “One dance, many dancers,” transforms a theme introduced by the trombone into several different styles, ranging from a heavy funk beat established by the low brass to a swinging clarinet solo. While this movement does not so blatantly reflect the role of the soloist, it does reflect that a singular dance may comprised of several dancers (and styles), just as a single solo is comprised of several instruments (paralleling her “group” definition).
Preceded by the brief movement “Once around,” which features the orchestra’s instrumental choirs, “The Cocktail Party Effect” (the fourth movement) requires the listener to pick out the designated “solo instrument” from the chaos of background music. The solos in this movement function not as melodies that rise to the fore, but as hidden tidbits for which one must search. This function takes the spotlight off of the soloist and gives more prominence to the orchestra as the whole being the solo group to which the audience listens. This still is not the end of Larsen’s redefining of “solo;” she sums up her program notes with the words: “In fact, the listener is the true soloist.”
Larsen’s identifying the listener as a soloist depicts a trend in the arts to involve and engage the audience to a greater degree. She writes melodies that retain enough lyricism, even in their lack of tonal center, to be aesthetically pleasing to the average audience. Larsen’s willingness to question standard definitions and conventions in music is similar to that of many modern composers. In stretching the definitions of “musician” and “listener” along with writing lyrical melodies, she produces many appealing works. It is her specific explorations of “soloist” in the pieces on this CD that set her apart from some of the others as she places her solo instruments in varying situations. Larsen executes these explorations excellently in her music, which makes her very deserving of a place in the Canon.