Famed composer's latest work uses words by Alaska poet

Mike Dunham
Minnesota composer Libby Larsen has written a cycle of choral pieces, "Alaska Spring," using poetry by Tom Sexton of Anchorage, former Alaska poet laureate. The music premiered Saturday and will be performed again today with the Alaska Chamber Singers.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

On April 7 Anchorage set an all-time record for snowfall in a single season. It was the end of a winter that seemed a little too long for many.

Two weeks later, most of that snow is gone. Long-buried dirt, dead grass and leafless branches replace the drifts. Water replaces ice. Daylight increases to encompass most waking hours. And Alaskans exult with a sense of rebirth nicely captured in the conclusion of Tom Sexton's poem, "April."


this is what it means

to be holy, so

this is what it means

to be saved.

That poem is one of five by the former state poet laureate featured in the latest work by one of America's most respected and performed serious composers, Libby Larsen. "Alaska Spring" received its world premiere Saturday night by the Alaska Chamber Singers in a program that will be repeated at 4 p.m. today at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River.

"I believe in renewal," she said. "What I found in Tom's poems is his ability to look for the slightest sign of life -- the wing of the raven, the fiddlehead fern just coming out. He has an extraordinary ability to extract life from what appears to be death. Even though there's a darkness in many of the poems, I find an intense ... uh ... I don't have a word for it. But I do have a chord."

She outlined the notes of the chord in her head: E-flat, G, B-flat, C, D, F and A. That, with a little tweaking, is every note in the diatonic scale. It should sound like mush. Instead it comes out as a luxuriously augmented, friendly E-flat major chord.

Such sounds -- elegantly thoughtful yet as stimulating as a great lungful of fresh air -- are something of a hallmark in Larsen's work. And there's a lot of that work. She counts more than 500 pieces in her catalogue, in every genre from solo instruments to operas (one based on "Frankenstein").

No one writes that many compositions without having a lot of other musicians wanting to play them. As prolific as she is, Larsen has more requests for commissions than she can possibly handle.

So when Alaska Chamber Singers director David Hagen contacted the Grammy-winning composer about writing something to celebrate the group's 25th season, he expected to hear a firm, "No."

"I didn't give her much notice and didn't think she'd be available," he said. "But she said she was in the middle of writing a new opera and needed a break."

In a phone interview, Larsen likened writing an opera to "building a whole skyscraper and decorating all of the office suites by yourself."

She also admitted, "I love to write for fine choirs, so I was thrilled with the idea of creating a piece for the Alaska Chamber Singers."

Another reason for taking the job had to do with where the request came from. "I have a personal mission, and that is to set the poetry of one poet from every state in the union," Larsen said. "Alaska makes number 24."

Hagen sent Larsen samples of verse by Alaska poets and she found herself zeroing in on Sexton.

"As I read the poems, it struck me that there was a piece emerging -- a cycle. I just passed 60, so I'm thinking about cycles."

She called the new piece, titled "Alaska Spring," "a cycle of renewal."

Spring theme

Hagen was delighted with the results. "Someone with her reputation, we were expecting maybe a two-minute choral piece. Instead, 'Alaska Spring' is a main part of the program. It's 10 minutes long and includes a string quartet."

There's a temptation among writers of choir music to treat any instrumental accompaniment rather perfunctorily, he said. "But Libby put as much thought into the quartet as she did to the singers."

The selected verses, all from Sexton's 2009 collection "For the Sake of the Light" (University of Alaska Press), link together in a common theme.

"April," the first number in the set, reflects on the slow awakening of the world from the "coffin" of winter into the ecstasy of resurrection. "Extending Range" notes the departure of ravens and the coming of hummingbirds, "their small wings wild with desire."

In "Fiddlehead" the poet marvels at the beauty and resilience of the fern as he prepares to harvest the first spring heads. "Juncos" imitates the tapping of beaks on bark by "the first sparrows to return." The final poem, "Walking the Marsh," lists the marvels of Alaska wilderness from berries to bears and concludes with the author's rapturous declaration that he has "fallen in love with the world."

Larsen consciously selected the opening and closing poems for the similar mood of their climaxes. "I wanted to close the loop," she said. "A song cycle is different from a collection of songs."

She found rich musical fodder in the images in the text. "I'm delighted when I discover in a poem opportunities to enhance the image with duration and pitch." It's not a matter of "gross, literal" musical depiction, she said, but rather trying to construct "a fine architecture that shows the words well."

In "Alaska Spring" one hears the lumbering of mastodons and the soft curl of an opening fiddlehead. "The fern spiraling toward the light is extraordinary," she said, "because it doesn't unfurl quickly."

And then there are those juncos. "I kept trying not to set that poem. I kept looking for another bird poem." Sexton's collection also features poems about gulls, dippers, owls, ptarmigan -- a whole aviary. "But how could you pass up an opportunity with the 'dit-dit-dit'?" (Sexton's imitation of the bird's telegraphic pecking.)

"It was like juncos were landing on my desk -- and in my head. In the end, I could not not set it."

Watering the roots

Renewal has been a theme in Larsen's life's work in yet another way. She was among a small core of Minnesota musicians in the early 1970s who launched what would be come the American Composers Forum, an organization that has facilitated new music performances throughout the country.

At that time atonality ruled the realm of contemporary serious music. But, 50 years after the introduction of that sound, listeners had not warmed to it. Minimalism and neo-romanticism were considered oddities and widely dismissed as lacking the intellectual heft of Arnold Schoenberg's analytical scores -- intriguing to musicologists, often unpleasant or, worse, tedious for listeners.

"The roots planted by the generation of American composers before World War II became dormant for a while," Larsen said. "The place those composers made for themselves was graduate departments at universities. There they were under pressure to do original and innovative work. The problem arose that there was this lack of desire in audiences to learn the language of every single composer.

"When I was in grad school, we looked around and saw a kind of loneliness. The question for the new generation was: How can we create a community for composers to work with each other and work with performers to develop music that speaks directly to the abstract essential human emotions of an audience?

"We started the Minnesota Composers Forum (later the American Composers Forum) as a way to put on some concerts. But, even in the first year, found out that this was a nationwide need. And the need was to write music that tries to communicate what it means to be alive."

Music like Larsen's, said Hagen. "She has a sound that most people can appreciate fairly easily," he said. A sound that would have been snubbed by musical academia in the 1960s but increasingly dominates the realm of new music. Most of the pieces commissioned by Musica Nova, a group that fosters new music premiered by the Anchorage Symphony, owe more to Larsen than to Schoenberg.

She's not inclined to rest on her elder stateswoman status, however. She's presently working on a song cycle on words attributed to Mary Magdalene in ancient apocryphal Coptic texts ("kind of a theater piece for one woman," she explained), some chamber pieces, including one for oboe and banjo ("a great deal of fun") and that new opera, details of which will not be made public until next month.

Away from the composing desk, she maintains an exceptionally active lifestyle. She recently finished the Twin Cities Marathon with a time of 3:58:04, fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

"But I won't be in Boston," she noted, "because I'll be in Alaska."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News