The "grand grounding": That's how composer Libby Larsen sees her life since COVID came to town.
"Being grounded in the teenage sense, like you can't go anywhere," she said via Zoom from her Minneapolis home. "But I've also experienced a kind of grounding that's been really lovely. The last 25 years, I've been on the road much of the time. … I'd come home from a great residency somewhere, throw stuff in the washing machine, and try to ground myself with the solitude needed for composing. But the bag was always packed."
That's what life is like when you're among the classical music world's most performed living composers, a Grammy-winning holder of two honorary doctorates who's been commissioned to write new works relatively constantly for three decades. While Larsen has called the Twin Cities home since her family moved here in her childhood, 2020 gave her a chance to stick around — a chance she relished.
Larsen marked her 70th birthday on Christmas Eve, inspiring three local classical organizations to join forces and celebrate her artistry. The Schubert Club, VocalEssence and the Source Song Festival will present a concert of Larsen's music that will be streamed at Schubert.org at noon Thursday and available on demand through Feb. 7.
"It's wonderful they're doing this. But, being a good Scandinavian, I'm kind of at a loss for words. It's like, 'No, no,' " she said, her head sliding down into her jacket.
A loss for words might be hard to imagine during a conversation with Larsen, a high-energy woman who speaks swiftly and enthusiastically. She clearly thrives on human contact, which doesn't fit the typical image of the solitary composer scribbling at the piano.
"When the grand grounding happened last March, I was really disoriented for almost a month [from] non-interaction with human beings," she said. "In the same room, with the same energy, working on the same thought, each in our own way. And I did a little bit of grieving, and a lot of experimenting, as we all have, with Zoom, thinking: How can we get that experience? And the heart of the matter is: We can't. That is an experience that no technology is going to replace, much less better.
"So, once I wrapped my mind and my heart around 'OK, we're going to communicate the best way we can,' then I found that a different kind of time set in. … I started to think about what could happen in a piece of music in a different way."
Part of that "different way" was bringing new visual components into her music.
"Listening to music is kind of like reading. From an audience point of view, your brain gets active and you conjure an ecology. Characters and colors and smells and all the five senses get busy. …
"Music does the same thing in the brain. It gets the brain conjuring and working in an abstract way. It can invent narratives, it can invent times of day. I don't think it's possible to just listen to music.
"So I've been trying to find opportunities to create pieces that are visualized. … I've been able to think about it more over the past year, in terms of the technology we have available now. When a new commission comes in, I have been sort of saying" — here, she opened her jacket as if offering something from an inside pocket — " 'You want a visual?' "
Among Larsen's first forays into combining her music with visuals was the 1983 film "Four on the Floor," which will be part of this week's concert. The concert will also feature performances from St. Paul's Landmark Center and Minneapolis' Plymouth Congregational Church, a VocalEssence presentation, recordings from outdoors and various visual elements.
Among the performers is mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski.
"As a singer of her songs, I've been many characters, I've improvised to wolf howls," Osowski said. " 'Raspberry Island Dreaming' is featured in the virtual concert, and, in addition to being a love letter to the Schubert Club and the community, it's an overview of her: mystical, nostalgic and neighborly."
Philip Brunelle will not only conduct the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers as part of the concert, but will perform a solo organ piece.
"Libby is a composer with lyric beauty coupled with a sense for setting poetry and prose of multiple styles," Brunelle said.
Larsen is also co-founder of the American Composers Forum, a professional resource for composers. She's never become an academic, having made a living exclusively through commissions, performances and recordings of her work for over 40 years.
But don't mistake the 70th birthday concert for some kind of valedictory. Classical organizations are starting to reschedule concerts canceled in 2020, and her commissions are returning. Retirement isn't on her mind.
"The signposts of linear time — you retire at this time, then you go to Florida, which nobody should do these days — those kinds of expectations are not part of what we do [as artists]. We don't really work in chronological time."
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
'Happy Birthday, Libby Larsen'
With: VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, organist Philip Brunelle and others.
When: Noon Thursday, Jan. 7. and available on demand through Feb. 7.
Where: Schubert.org; free