Author: Libby Larsen

Brilliant, Funny, and Fueled by Passion—Remembering Dominick Argento (1927-2019)

Dominick Argento in the audience for a performance in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence and Boosey & Hawkes)

If you were a kid growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and you were a kid with an intense hunger to create your own music, you found yourself growing up in a kind of Coney Island of creativity There was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a big old barn of a place where every weekend you, and as many of your friends as you could pack into your car, would dance to music of the hottest young rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. Minneapolis was ground zero for the big bands of the Upper Midwest like The Trashmen and the Underbeats.  Some of your friends were even in those bands and they were producing big hits like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Foot Stompin’”.  It seemed that everyone was creating their own original music.

Every church in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had at least one choir and everyone sang in at least one of them. If you had season tickets to the performing arts series at the newly opened Guthrie Theater, no matter where you sat you were no further than 52 feet from the stage you were awash in the energy and musical air of Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Mose Allison, and Miles Davis.

When you went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, the music for each play was newly composed and performed live.  If you had student season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, yes of course you would hear standard repertoire, but your head exploded with new works by Penderecki, Legeti, Skrowaczewski, and Lutosławski.

If you loved opera, you wrangled some tickets for the Center Opera (which you knew always produced new work) where you heard Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Carl Orff’s The Story of the King and the Wise Woman (Die Kluge), Eric Stokes’s Horspfalseason after season of newly conceived work.

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!  He was a founder of the Center Opera company, opening their first season with his Masque of Angels and creating numerous chamber operas for them, including Postcard from Morocco, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A Waterbird Talkand many more.

At the Guthrie Theater we heard Dominick Argento’s scores for Shoemaker’s Holiday and House of Atreus. On the Guthrie Theater’s music season we heard Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers and on the Minnesota Orchestra’s seasonDominick Argento’s Variations for Orchestra and Ring of Time. Not only did we hear his music, but he was always in the audience, listening, talking with people, part of the same world he was addressing with his music.

Being 17 years old then, and certain that I would go to the University of Minnesota, study voice, and become the next, biggest star of the Metropolitan Opera, it didn’t occur to me that Dominick Argento was also on the music faculty there.

At age 19, discovering that I loved to compose and, if I would take myself seriously, I could study composition with the master composers at the University of Minnesota, Dominick became my teacher and I became his student.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor. He passed us in the halls, smiling (shyly?) but rarely stopping to engage any of us in conversation. We admired his focus, and his devotion to his work.  We students jockeyed for coveted positions in his classes, especially his History of Opera class. His lectures were brilliant, funny and fueled by his passion for and love of opera. Class after class he regaled us with stories about each opera, always colored from his composer’s perspective. He loved the human voice and would praise various singers who inspired operatic roles in the works we studied. He loved composers who loved the human voice. Be it Verdi, his hero, or Gounod, not his hero, we were transported into each composer’s world and immersed in the circumstances that influenced the creation of each opera.  I learned the operas, of course, but perhaps more importantly I learned that a passion for something can light a powerful fire. Dominick’s passion for opera and the human voice resulted in 14 operas, numerous mono-dramas and song cycles, his Pulitzer Prize, and the Center Opera Company, now the Minnesota Opera.

Such a ferociously quick wit Dominick had!  No gathering of Dominick’s students goes by without one of us re-telling the story from his orchestration class on percussion. On one particular day we were immersed in the lecture on metallophones. He held up a vibraslap, looked at it for a moment, looked at us and said “elephant contraceptive.”  We were too in awe of him to laugh, but we’ve been laughing ever since, and we all know and orchestrate the vibraslap in original ways.  Or the lesson on harp, one of his most beloved instruments. In just one class we learned that the pedals were D-C-B-E-F-G-A, Dominick for “D”, Argento for” A” , plus “your pinky finger is for tea drinking, not harp” and “you never hear the attack of a note, only the decay—what you hear is the air.”

Dominick believed that it wasn’t possible to teach composition.  Rather he worked to guide a (student) composer’s natural gift to its best iteration.  You couldn’t look to him to tell you what to do or how to compose. You were expected to establish your own practice techniques and work habits and arrive at your lesson with your piece in shape.  Individual lessons with him were an adventure in silence.  I would bring him my score, which he would lay out on his desk and read to himself before making any comments.   He expected me to come ready to spar with his huge intellect, his razor-sharp wit, and his undeniable professional experience. And spar we did—only the conversation between us took place in my head as I perched on the wicker chair with the blown-out seat that he set by the side of his university-issued grey metal desk, and I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer. I thought, “Will that damn ash fall into that glass ashtray?  No, no, concentrate on the composition he’s reading!”—which he read to himself, not out loud, not commenting. But then he would zero in on the one, most important issue in the work that day—which I knew already because I sat there questioning everything about my work as I tried to imagine what he would say. It took me a while to understand that his teaching style instilled in each of his students three essential gifts: creative courage, critical evaluation, and self-confidence.

I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer.

The lesson ended always with good humor, his cigarette snuffed out, and a deep sense that we, teacher and student, had met at the cross-roads of respect for the art form we both hoped to serve.

I think the most important lesson Dominick gave to me, and to all of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, is that there is a profession – composing music – and while it poses deep challenges the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.  The pleasure lies in the community of musicians, performers, writers, concert producers, and audience who come together in a huge joy-fest around the composers’ work.  He modeled this for us every day and continued to model it throughout the years. Many late nights, as I work through a difficult part of my composition, not feeling pleasure in the moment, I invoke his lesson—the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

As I joined the profession and became a musical citizen contributing to the community by panel work or sitting on a Board of Directors, more often than not during a discussion which begged the advice of people who were not in the room at the time, Dominick’s name would be invoked along with a bit of his advice and wisdom.  Always sage and ethical, his advice was remembered, quoted and always welcomed.

Libby Larsen, Dale Warland, Dominick Argento, and John Neuchterlein seated at a table in a restaurant.

Dominick Argento (top right) and Libby Larsen (bottom left) with Dale Warland (top left) and then ACF President & CEO John Neuchterlein (bottom
right) at the St. Paul Hotel Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014.

Over the past forty (really…forty?) years I would often run into him during intermission at concerts.   These were happy, brief encounters, where our talks were always shaded with his insight and wit.  We asked after each other’s health. He always asked what I was “working on” and I always asked him the same, because we both knew that we were always “working on” a new piece – that was our mutual bond.  We would exchange thoughts on the latest compositional trends.  We would pat each other on the arm and head back into the concert hall.  During the last few years, when Dominick’s hearing began to fail, our intermission and lobby encounters were still happy and brief though his verbal witticisms were shorter with their meanings understood through our years of association.

The work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

Now, as I finish a letter of support for the University of Minnesota Archives to document his work on digital technology, I recognize again and permanently Dominick Argento’s mastery of his talent, his times and his culture and his determination to put his music into his world.  In doing this he taught  each of us who had the good fortune to work with him how a professional classical composer in this country lives and works, how work is pleasure, how pleasure is in community, how community contributes to life, how life is joy, how joy is music.   Thank you, Dominick.

Intense, Hardworking and Fun Loving—Remembering Stephen Paulus (1949-2014)

Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus at the American Composers Forum's 35th Anniversary celebration (immediately after their joint keynote address).

Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus at the American Composers Forum’s 35th Anniversary celebration (immediately after their joint keynote address) in 2008. Photo courtesy Craig Carnahan, American Composers Forum.

Who could imagine what would come from two student composers talking about life while walking between classes? I am certain that neither Steve Paulus (I’ve never been able to call him Stephen) nor I could. We were just kids then. Midwestern kids. Midwestern kids who shared a passion to compose music and a pretty fierce belief that we composers had a right to authentic voice.

During those walks between Russian history class, across the Washington Avenue Bridge at the University of Minnesota (often in sub-zero temperatures), on our way to the music building, Steve and I would take on world topics in composition. Those were intense conversations. What did we think about this or that new piece? What is the value of a closed pitch system in a world of infinite sound? What is the life of a composer if not employed as a faculty member? Is there an audience for new, abstract compositions? Where could we learn how to do business as independent, professional composers? What would life be like? Intense questions. And we came up with an intense answer: if there wasn’t a professional life waiting for us to join it, we would build one for all of us.

I listened to my friend, and got to know Steve as a guy with a big brain, an admirable work ethic, a sense of fairness, a generous spirit, and best of all he was funny. I liked him. We all liked him.

The first 12 years of building the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composers Forum) was a vortex of creative energy. There were mountains of work to be accomplished. It was a joy to work with Steve. He was fearless about contacting people for meetings. We had our act down when we made a meeting. Before opening the meeting door, Steve would quip “Ars longa, meetings brevis,” and we would enter laughing. Steve would lead off the conversation. Then he’d pass it to me and I would talk about the essential place of the composer in the world. Then back to Steve, who would elaborate and throw in a joke or two, always funny, always on point.

The staff of the Minnesota Composers Forum in 1977. Photo courtesy Craig Carnahan, American Composers Forum.

The staff of the Minnesota Composers Forum in 1977 (from left to right: Randall Davidson, Stephen Paulus, Monte Mason, and Libby Larsen). Photo courtesy Craig Carnahan, American Composers Forum.

Steve was tremendously disciplined. He composed every day, whether he wanted to or not. He completed everything he started. He made lists and checked off each task when it was done. He helped a person when they needed help. You could always count on him for conviviality. You could count on him for advice. He gave me the best financial advice of my professional life when he said “Just envision the amount of money you will need next year, believe it, and it will be there.” He was right.
Steve was intense, hardworking and fun loving. But he was at his absolute best when he met Patty “Tutz” Stuzman. He had found the love of his life and his energy lined up with the stars. The two of them together were a wonderful couple.

But the thing I admire most about Steve is Stephen Paulus, the composer. All the traits that made Steve Steve are present in his music. His music is layered in meaning. It invites you to return to it and when you do, there is always something deeper, richer, delightful to discover. I admire his ability to compose a beautifully constructed lyric line. It’s maddeningly difficult to create a highly original and memorable lyric line. At this, Stephen is one of the best. His musical signatures—quick rhythmic bursts, elegant uses of minimal percussion, a well placed chord which resolves in an unexpected and highly emotional way and, of course, his masterful ways with text setting—make his music his, and his alone. In his music, Stephen met his goal—to be authentic. His music lasts, and will last for many years to come.

Over the last 30 years, Steve continued to live his credo, composing as a profession and contributing to the profession as a musical citizen. His work with the ASCAP board of directors was a part of his life I know he valued greatly. As a visiting composer at numerous colleges and universities he was an important model for young composers who aspired to live their lives composing music. Stories about Steve abound and I hear many of them in my own peregrinations.

My friend, colleague, collaborator and professional partner, Stephen Paulus has passed away. I was standing in line in Zone 5, waiting to board a plane when Joel Revzen, a mutual friend of ours, called with the news. For those of us who were near Steve during the fifteen months following his stroke, the news was expected, but still very hard to bear. But the heart is made lighter by the sixty-five years Steve was with us.

Stephen Paulus at the piano during a rehearsal for his ChoralQuest piece.

Stephen Paulus at the piano during a rehearsal for his ChoralQuest piece Through All Things in March 2011. Photo courtesy Craig Carnahan, American Composers Forum.