The outlaw as musical inspiration Concert: Billy the Kid's life and motivation are the center a composition being premiered at the Meyerhoff.

March 22, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Libby Larsen, being a creative composer of serious modern music, has a lot of preoccupations. Among them are heroes: "How we define them. How we pick heroes."

Another is violence, or what she describes as Americans' "love-hate" response to it.

Which explains why she has written a piece of music about Billy the Kid. He was violent, after all. And a hero of sorts, or a romantic legend, at least to some: violent people, perhaps, or those fascinated by violence, or trying to understand it.

Violence perplexes Larsen. Mystifies her. She believes it is related to power and territoriality.

"Billy the Kid is a central symbol of violence," she says.

And heroism?

"He was young. He was much beloved. He was polite, courteous. In fact he was civilized as you could be in that time and territory (1860s and '70s New Mexico)."

Larsen is an accomplished American composer of more than a hundred works. Her piece, "Billy the Kid," was jointly commissioned by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the King's Singers (an a cappella ensemble) and the Birmingham (England) Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

It is based on a poem by the lionized author of "The English Patient," Michael Ondaatje, on the late gunslinger, who was born William Bonney in New York City in 1859, but who became emblematic of the wild days in the Southwest.

This work will be premiered for the public at 8 tonight at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, in a collaboration with the King's Singers and the BCAS, directed by Tom Hall.

The inspiration of Ondaatje's "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" has enabled Larsen to do something former composers of work on the outlaw were unable to do: write from within the character. Reading the Ondaatje poem, she says, "is as if you found the diary of somebody who finds himself in a situation that is untenable and the only way out is violence."

Aaron Copland's well-known ballet music on Bonney, Larsen says, approaches Billy from without. "He romanticizes him."

Larsen is a young 48. She is slight woman, with short, dark-brown hair and the tentative manner of someone who likes to be busy, has to be busy. She smiles from her place on a huge white sofa in a huge white room, almost engulfed in a soft blue turtleneck sweater. Her face is clear of lines, or any evidence of personal disappointment or failure.

In fact, her life seems to have followed a straight upward course almost from the moment she decided, as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, to be a composer of serious music. "Once I found out that music had architecture," she says, she knew what she was going to do.

"I was 18. I wanted to compose, and here I am."

Even before starting her career in earnest, while working as a secretary for an insurance company, she was composing. She completed two chamber operas, virtually during her coffee breaks and lunch. They were small operas: "No choruses, no elephants."

She returned to the university for advanced degrees, and early ++ on found a group of musicians who performed her compositions.

"I assumed every composer had musicians eager to perform his or her work. I was incredibly naive."

Now she knows that's not the way it is, even though it worked that way for her.

Instead of turning to teaching, as nearly all new Ph.D.s in music theory do, she gathered together a group of fellow composers and founded the Minnesota Composers' Forum, a nonprofit enterprise. They raised funds, put on concerts, had their own compositions performed. And succeeded enough to support themselves.

She was with this group for 11 years until 1987, when she began four years as composer in residence at the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. During that time she composed one symphony, one piano concerto, two tone poems, and a fanfare for the orchestra.

"A lot," as she put it.

Then she went out on her own, to work strictly on commission. She's been at it for 10 years.

"I write five to six works a year. Larger works. Orchestral pieces, operas," she said. "I need two or three big pieces a year to send my daughter to school and pay my taxes."

Larsen is one of this country's more successful composers in the field of modern classical music. A recording of one of her pieces won a Grammy Award; she's been commissioned by major orchestras. She is an adviser to the American Symphony Orchestra League and the National Endowment for the Arts.

She is also known widely as an interpreter of the American vernacular in her music. Trained, as she was, in the classical European tradition (the music of Bach, Beethoven) she often includes strictly American elements in her compositions, such as jazz, gospel, rock and roll, and sometimes ragtime, which she regards as a bridge between the American and European forms.

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