restricted access 1. Libby Larsen and the Cultural Moment

From: Libby Larsen

University of Illinois Press colophon
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1 Libby Larsen and the Cultural Moment During an open forum at Florida State University in May 2014, Libby Larsen identified the period from about 1948 to 1962 as “the most radical portion of [the twentieth] century.”1 Her remark puzzled many in the audience, twenties-something graduate students whose births in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant they had little knowledge of what she was referring to beyond secondhand accounts told to them by their parents, many of whom were born in the 1960s. Weren’t the sixties supposed to be the decade of radicalism and revolution, and the fifties the decade of stability and prosperity? But those who had experienced the long decade that Larsen referenced understood her characterization. The Cold War, civil rights, television, car culture, and youth culture shaped the second half of the century, and 1962 became a pivotal year on multiple fronts. The Second Vatican Council, informally known as Vatican II, commenced three years of meetings on October 11 of that year. The changes it instituted rocked the world of the devout twelve-year-old. Looking back on the event, Larsen calls Vatican II “the defining moment in [her] life and consequently in [her] work.”2 A second event overlapped with that defining moment. October 14 to 28 of 1962 were consumed by the Cuban missile crisis, an occasion of political brinksmanship between the USSR and the United States that brought the world to the edge of nuclear holocaust. On October 22, President Kennedy addressed the nation in a somber televised speech to announce the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States and his decision to establish a blockade of Soviet ships coming to the island nation. For most of a week Americans wondered whether they should go about their business or stay home and await vaporization. On the fifth day an agreement was reached, and both countries stepped back. The following day the crisis was over.3 The game of chicken acted out by Kennedy and Khrushchev would remain in the back of Larsen’s mind when in 1969 a draft lottery reduced the question of who would become soldiers and likely die in Vietnam to picking balls out of a tumbling barrel.4 A third event, one that spoke of a different kind of 2 chapter 1 holocaust, had taken place very quietly on September 27 that year. Although unknown to Larsen at the time, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published that day. The book, a thoroughly researched and informed poetic exposé of the irreversible dangers of certain aerial-sprayed chemical pesticides, would eventually result in a congressional hearing, the selective banning of their use, and wide-scale questioning of our place within a larger ecosystem. In 2014 Larsen was commissioned by the Toronto-based percussion ensemble Nexus to write an environmentally themed work. She composed DDT, a piece that uses Morse code rhythmic patterns to embed select words from Carson’s book in the music.5 The composer dates the roots of her general distrust of systems (religious, political, institutional, cultural, and musical) to the cultural turbulence that characterized her first twelve years. Although the United States debuted as a military power during the SpanishAmerican War in 1898, and the nation had eventually helped win World War I in 1918, World War II catapulted the country to a preeminent position on an international stage. It was US-led troops that had liberated France, caused the collapse of Germany, and it was the United States that destroyed the Japanese threat by dropping bombs on two of its cities, thus ending the war and ushering in the atomic age. Over 16 million Americans had served in the military. In 1950 it was hard to find an American family that was not still personally affected by the war, and Larsen’s was no exception despite the fact that her father had not been among the fighting troops. But the nation was ready to move on. The simultaneously heady and reflective atmosphere of the victorious postwar years resulted in changes that would impact every aspect of the culture. Industries at home had supported troops overseas, and women had swelled the ranks of factory workers. But women’s welcome in factories was rescinded when the war ended and millions of troops returned. With the termination of their jobs, women were assigned a new composite role: wife and mother. They would become full-time homemakers. For large numbers of them, their...