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Reviewed by:
  • Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life by Denise Von Glahn
  • Nomi Epstein (bio)
Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life. By Denise Von Glahn. University of Illinois Press, 2017. 355 pp.

Denise Von Glahn captures the life of the American composer Libby Larsen in her new biography, Libby Larsen: Composing an American Life. Larsen, one of today’s most prolific composers, works with a polystylistic compositional language: boogie-woogie, jazz, word painting, chant, and tonal and atonal harmonic practices are all part of the aesthetic she has developed over the last four decades. Since earning her PhD in composition from the University of Minnesota in 1978, Larsen has become a staple of Minnesotan culture through her multitudinous successes as a composer, as well as for her work as a promoter of new music. Living composers all over the United States are indebted to Larsen for her founding of the Minnesota Composers Forum in 1973 along with Stephen Paulus. The organization soon had chapters in multiple states and later became the American Composers Forum, an organization granting funding, opportunities, and other support for composers, commissioners, and those involved in new music. She was awarded Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1981 in Minnesota and subsequently appointed to the State Arts Board, in addition to holding the Minnesota Orchestra composer-in-residence position from 1983 to 1986. A Grammy Award–winning composer, she also received a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and the George Peabody Medal for her work in new music. She holds the Papamarkou Chair at the Library of Congress and has received multiple honorary doctorates (

Numerous articles, dissertations, interviews, and book chapters have been written about Larsen, but Von Glahn has written the first full biography of the composer, and it will take a most welcome spot on the bookshelf of any music enthusiast. Von Glahn carefully outlines what is entailed in writing a biography, the role of the biographer, the possible viewpoints that a writer may adopt, the relationship of the biographer to the subject, and the pitfalls into which a writer may tumble. She aims to portray a set of causes and effects: because Larsen experienced x or finds y fascinating, she writes this piece, or uses this tool, or works with this collaborator. With this perspective, identity becomes Von Glahn’s central thematic focus. The author states her objective to present Libby Larsen as a person whose identity as a composer is only one part. [End Page 217]

Having spent seven years researching her subject and having previously written about Larsen in other contexts, Von Glahn has carefully acquainted her-self with seemingly all available materials about the composer. Over the past four decades, Larsen has kept scrupulous archives of correspondence, sketches, notes, reviews, articles, writings, and lectures and willingly handed these materials over to her biographer. With these materials and new interviews with the composer and her collaborators, family, students, and assistants, Von Glahn weaves detailed justifications for decisions Larsen has made, works that she has written, or the ways Larsen may have reacted to or viewed an event or experience. Von Glahn diligently illustrates the multiple layers of the composer’s identity, demonstrating how each area has inspired and influenced the composer’s work, and it becomes a kind of task for the author to reiterate the identities and their truthfulness, accuracy, and importance to understanding the composer.

Von Glahn organizes her thorough account of Larsen’s life and work into eight chapters in an innovative approach to the biographic form. She avoids the traditional chronological structure; instead, her eight chapters reflect the eight areas of inspiration that Larsen cites as most influential: historical events, family, religion, nature, the academy, gender, technology, and collaborators/critics. She steers us through each particular influence or chapter topic, always directing our focus, prompting us with what to keep in mind. The picture Von Glahn sketches of Larsen does so at the risk of consistent reiteration or reminding readers of the composer’s stated influences. One wonders if the choice of constructing the book in these eight chapters— the influences Larsen herself articulates— has placed the author into...


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pp. 217-221
Launched on MUSE
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