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4 Larsen and Nature Tutoring the Soul I first came to Libby Larsen’s music through her nature-related compositions. I was struck by the number of works whose titles claimed a connection to water in all its forms, the seasons, the earth, the atmosphere, gardens, animals, light, the upper Midwest and its particular cold climes, or that revealed a broad awareness of her place within a larger ecological endeavor . She was a perfect subject for a book that explored women’s responses to “nature” in musical composition. For that earlier project I wrote on her Symphony: Water Music, Missa Gaia, and Downwind of Roses in Maine. Over the years I uncovered still more pieces whose references to nature were not obvious in their titles but whose affinities were no less real. Nature-inspired pieces, like religious ones, are present in every decade of Larsen’s composing career, and I discovered that it is often impossible to separate the two. Larsen’s engagement with nature was and is wide ranging and deeply personal. Conversations with the composer over a seven-year period have reinforced that reading: Larsen has always been aware of the natural world and valued it above everything else. It speaks to her senses and her soul. It allows for infinite possibilities of thought and structure. It has no boundaries. Nature invites and reinforces Larsen’s all-encompassing approach to life. The composer has reflected on the connections she understands to exist between her music, nature, and religion: You could say that nature equals religion. If the grace of religion is to inspire reflection on being, then that’s music. Music is reflection on being, which is in all of my pieces, whatever the piece is. Why else do we need to contemplate ourselves in a system of worship? There are a lot of reasons, but isn’t the greatest reason of all to understand and become comfortable with the fact that we are. I would say that nature is religion, which means that all music is sacred; at least I approach all music as being sacred. . . . [Hence], Veni Creator Spiritus.1 68 chapter 4 Larsen’s attunement to nature became obvious when she was young. The distant thud of horses’ hooves and their movement through space are among her earliest memories. This makes Larsen’s awareness of her environment as old as her conscious being, and like her cherished memories of religious practices, it is closely aligned with sound. Her sensitivity to sound valorized both nature and religion. She heard her world. The young child’s need to be listened to within her family becomes more understandable: being heard conferred meaning. Larsen explains her simple desire for consanguinity with nature: “I don’t want to look at it, or comment on it, I want to be it. Yes, I want to be it. I want to be the wind, be the heat, be the fragrance, be the wheat, be the snow, . . . which is impossible, it’s all impossible, physically.”2 When I asked the composer how she might visualize her ideal relationship to nature, she recalled a line drawing that she’d bought years ago from a young Chinese artist who had recently immigrated to the United States. As Larsen described it: there was a large chasm with a river at its base, “and she drew herself into the rocks. She’s in there, and it’s just beautiful. And that’s what I want to be. I want to be it.”3 It is no coincidence that Larsen named “nature” second only to religion among the most important forces in her life; not only was it imprinted in her aural memory, but it was also, quite literally, to nature that Libby repaired when she left the church. Nature and religion are inseparable in her thinking . Scalded by Vatican II reforms and unwilling to endure the removal of all divine mystery, Larsen began a new Sunday-morning ritual around age twelve. She would ride her bike to the nearby park, climb a favorite gingko tree, and sit in one of its crooks to reflect and commune; there she found the transcendence she craved.4 Rejecting the institution that Libby felt had rejected her and impatient with limited opportunities for women within the church’s fold, she escaped to what she saw as an ungendered, unhierarchical place: nature.5 Male, female, young, old, nonhuman others, and inanimate objects are coequals and mutually dependent inside nature. If the church...


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