Libby Larsen is one of the most prolific and honored of American composers. Her music is lively, inventive, and in search of the new without seeming incomprehensible to an average classical audience. She is particularly admired for her vocal writing and her skill as an orchestrator.
She was born Elizabeth Brown Larsen in Dover, Delaware. When she was three, the family moved to Minnesota; she still lives in the same house. Her first musical experience came that same year, standing with her chin on the piano as her sister played it. Feeling the piano moving and vibrating, she then stood on the piano stool and "wrote a piece."
Her earliest music teachers were the nuns at Christ the King School in Minneapolis. All students learned to sing Gregorian chant and to sight-read using "movable do." Her piano teacher, Sister Colette, was remarkable in assigning young children a wide variety of music from Mozart to Bartók and Stravinsky and Japanese music and boogie.
Larsen obtained her bachelor's, master's, and doctorate at the University of Minnesota. Her composition teachers were Dominick Argento, Paul Fetler, and Eric Stokes. The director of the opera program, Vern Sutton, offered to perform her first opera if she wrote one. While at the University she co-founded (with Stephen Paulus) the Minnesota Composers' Forum (now called the American Composers' Forum) in 1973. The organization has become a major resource and advocacy group for serious American music.
In 1983, she became the composer-in-residence for the Minnesota Orchestra, for which she wrote her brilliant First Symphony, "Water Music." She was the first woman composer to hold such a position with a major orchestra.
Larsen has never sought an academic position, being able to support herself on commissions from nearly the outset of her career. Her music attracted favorable attention for its energy and positive spirits. It has lyricism despite its modern approach to harmony. She describes her style rather precisely: "My music is built around tonal areas that are vaguely modal and reinforced through pedal tones in the bass. The key to my music is to hear tones that aren't articulated and to be able to listen to low tones."
Since obtaining a Bush Scholarship in the late 1980s she has often added electronic sound to acoustic instruments. She has written in all genres, including opera. As a record producer, she won a 1994 Grammy Award for a recording with Arlene Augér including her Sonnets from the Portuguese. While not counting herself a "radical feminist," she has often used lives and works of women as subjects or sources for her music. Larsen's music has been widely recorded and is available on such labels as EMI, Koch International, Nonesuch, and Decca.