“I realized the thing I missed most in my process was people,” American composer Libby Larsen told me recently. She was speaking about her commissioned work YOU, which the vocal ensemble Cantus will perform Wednesday night in its Washington premiere at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
I’d asked Larsen how working on a piece about human connections made her wonder about her own. She said that when she first started taking commissions, it was a communal endeavor. She and the musicians would gather in one room where one person’s gesture, another’s rhythm, and the collective conversation about the instrumentation all informed the ultimate composition.
As digital communication became more commonplace, however, Larsen, who is one of our most decorated living composers, said she found herself increasingly working in isolation: “Now, it really is possible to complete the whole creative process and never deal with people, not even up to the premiere.”
The dilemma of how technology gradually disrupted Larsen’s creative process while simultaneously seeming to expedite it, “raised a lot of questions in my mind,” she said. “I concluded that the next phase of human evolution is that we will want to see each other face to face. Maybe it’s hard-wired into human nature to want to be in close physical proximity with other human beings while you’re doing things together as human beings. It’s not a new thought, but it’s a very different thought now that it’s possible for us to not be together.”
Such ponderings had also vexed members of Cantus, an all-male a capella group of four high and four low voices. Together with the commissioning consortium Music Accord, they approached Larsen in 2018 with the idea for a work that explores human connection in the Digital Age.
The result is what Larsen calls a “musical essay.” It is not sung all of a piece, but in sections, separated by other songs chosen by Cantus, including McCartney and Lennon’s She’s Leaving Home, Beethoven’s Gesang der Mönche, and Dave Matthews’ Gravedigger, among others, all hung upon YOU as an armature constructed from selections of poetry by Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Program notes written by Larsen for the work describe it in terms of an internal existential dialogue of sorts: “Am I fated? What is my meaning? I need! Am I safe? Am I secure? I am security. What is the center of my spirit?”
Cantus tenor Paul Scholtz said the group chose Larsen as their collaborator because of her reputation for asking a lot of singers, while also delivering to them something worthy of those demands.
“There are so many moments where you are counting like crazy, or you have to do these interval leaps that require you to sing at the highest end of your register at the highest volume, and two measures later you’re singing subito piano (suddenly very softly). It feels like gymnastics. It’s so exciting to sing music like that, it’s visceral. The audience sits up and really listens,” he said.
Since YOU‘s premiere at Penn State in the fall of 2018 , Cantus has toured the work nationally to mostly positive reviews.
Larsen’s piece is one of three Cantus commissions on the program. Also included are Steven Sametz’s We Two and David Lang’s Manifesto. Together, the three works are a journey into the heart of what it means to make meaningful connections and to be authentic in a time of texts and carefully curated social media profiles.
“We are able to communicate so quickly and so often, but not deeply. We wanted to reflect on the importance of person-to-person connection,” Scholtz said.
As with Larsen, YOU is deeply personal for Cantus members, according to Scholtz, who uses the occasion to perform it as sing-therapy in a sense. “For me, the work is transformative. As a performer, you are always working from the standpoint of your personal life so you can give of yourself to the audience. This work has me considering my own yearning for connection and my own feelings of loneliness throughout my life.”
As the only artist-led, full-time vocal classical ensemble in the US, the Minneapolis-based Cantus is in effect a musical collective. They work together to choose their music, rehearse it, and perform it without a conductor. While some administrative tasks are completed by non-singing staff such as an executive director, box office manager, and national booking agent, the group co-administrates its artistic direction and commissions, media outreach, and business decisions, although there is also support from an active board and a contracted public relations firm. Tenor Jacob Christopher acts as tour manager. All Cantus singers receive a full-time salary for their year-round schedule, which includes about 30 concerts in Minneapolis and its environs, and an additional 30 to 40 road shows.
“Our personal context is always changing, and so each performance has its own context, both from what’s happening in each singer’s life and what’s happening in the world. It is pretty amazing to get to have the path of the art-making going forward be a part of our personal and shared history. Libby’s work has affected how we think about our work and what is possible for us and for our communities.”
Larsen she says the experience also led her to change how she works with others who commission her.
“It’s in my contract that I must meet in person [with collaborators] at least once if I am going to take the commission. Otherwise, I won’t do it,” she said.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Part of the Fortas Chamber Music Concert Series, Cantus will perform on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.