I have come across the name of Libby Larsen every now and then in the music reviews I read; but last night, at the end-of-term Art Song as Theatre recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I had my first opportunity to hear one of her songs. The song was the second of her three Cowboy Songs, "Lift Me Into Heaven Slowly," a setting of the poem "Sufi Sam Christian" by Robert Creeley. (Come to think of it, I knew little about Creeley other than his name and his presence in San Francisco in the late fifties, the time when I first became aware of the City Lights Bookstore.) As Tom Jurek pointed out in some notes available at the Sam Goody Web site, Creeley seems to have had an affinity for the sort of jazz that was achieving an almost iconic status at that time:
The late poet Robert Creeley was no stranger to jazz. His own work descended from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and he provided the link in the new American poetry between the Black Mountain school and the Beats; early on, he composed his work to the music of Bud Powell. Later he collaborated with the jazz musicians preeminent among them: Steve Swallow (whom Creeley collaborated with on numerous live occasions and on the bassist's ECM Home album in 1979, where his poems were sung by Sheila Jordan), and the late Steve Lacy.
"Sufi Sam Christian" has received a blues interpretation by Swallow in his combo with pianist Steve Kuhn and the Cikada String Quartet; but Larsen's approach is more like a latter-day perspective on the traditional "Cowboy's Lament," "The Streets of Laredo." This is not to say that she has imitated or borrowed (or deconstructed in the tradition of Charles Ives); rather, she managed to capture the way in which this particular folk song is mournful without being morose and translate that atmosphere to a contemporary piece of poetry.
The "mission" of the Art Song as Theatre program is to get vocal students thinking about how best to express song texts by imagining them in a dramatic situation of their own making. For this particular song Creeley's cowboy was translated into a (female) victim of an automobile accident. I have no idea what the late poet would have thought of this approach to his text, but it certainly seemed to help the student performing Larsen's piece to achieve an effective level of poignancy in her delivery. As far as the general "mission" is concerned, I would say that sometimes the strategy works; and sometimes it doesn't. The performance of "Lift Me Into Heaven Slowly" was certainly one of the most effective of the evening, providing me with an excellent first impression of the music of Libby Larsen.