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Prologue A Polyphonic Life Musicians use the term polyphony to describe a musical texture containing multiple independent lines of sound occurring simultaneously. A number of scholars have employed the word to suggest the range of considerations they weave together in their arguments. Jan La Rue referred to “the polyphonic thinking” of his analytical approach as “match[ing] the ambiguities of music”; Gustave Reese imagined a “polyphony in prose” to reconcile warring organizational schemes for his study of Renaissance music; and Michael Broyles envisioned “a polyphony of style” to capture what he heard in Beethoven’s music.1 The word works well: individual entities come together to create a new, larger, thoroughly interdependent entity. The word takes on additional meaning when used in the context of this biography. With its interwoven strands of family involvements and professional activities, spiritual strivings, athletic achievements, feminist and environmental advocacy, academic and administrative accomplishments, and a temperament that compels Larsen to challenge established systems and insist upon being heard, Larsen’s life exhibits a dense polyphonic quality. But unlike musical polyphony, which pulls apart relatively easily for study, the multiple strands of Larsen’s life resist disentanglement. Charles Ives presented a similar conundrum to his longtime friend and associate Henry Bellamann who “cornered [Ives] on the question of his parallel system of life.” In a response that appeared in Musical Quarterly, Ives observed: “The fabric of life weaves itself whole. You cannot set an art off in the corner and hope for it to have vitality, reality and substance. There can be nothing ‘exclusive’ about a substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of experience of life and thinking about life and living life.”2 And the statement is no less true of Larsen and her music than it was of Ives and his. Understanding the mechanisms of a piece of polyphonic music requires unraveling and isolating the parts. Looking at individual strands and identifying their function in relation to the whole contribute to a greater knowledge and, one hopes, appreciation of the work; and that is what the following chapters endeavor to do. By separating aspects of Larsen’s life, I hope that readers xxii Prologue can see important threads pulled away from the larger fabric, although, in reality none of them is free of the others. I have followed my subject’s lead and presented the chapters in the order that Larsen listed as the most powerful influences in her life: family, religion, nature, the academy, gender, and technology. Neither she nor I knew at the time that her list would become my organizing scheme. After considering others—a traditional chronological approach; a life-and-works approach; a more ethnographic interview-based approach—a thematic approach emerged as the most natural and effective. Although the specifics of chronology are occasionally sacrificed to get at an overriding idea, the book follows a general chronological arc. Ultimately, readers are reminded that regardless of where I start, my goal is to weave the threads together again, because the whole, in life as in music, is much greater than the sum of its parts. The whole is the thing. ...


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