Libby Larsen’s “The Supreme Four” will debut June 26 as part of the Sunflower Music Festival in Topeka. The Grammy winner is a member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. (Ann Marsden)
TOPEKA — Libby Larsen remembers how it felt in 1981 when the first woman was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
She was 30 years old and one of the country’s few women music composers with a PhD — “that has it’s own backstory,” she says — when Sandra Day O’Connor ascended to a position Larsen views as the most powerful and important in government.
“I felt at the time that the door had opened to the next 200 years,” Larsen said. “It takes several generations to really make a change, incrementally, over time, over time, over time.”
Now a celebrated Grammy-winner and a member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, Larsen is set to debut a new work celebrating the first four women to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The June 26 performance will conclude the nine-day Sunflower Music Festival, which begins Friday, at Washburn University in Topeka. All events are free to attend.
David Woods, a festival board member, planned a lineup of events to honor women in music for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The festival was delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Larsen met Woods 25 years ago when he was at the University of Oklahoma and she was traveling with a group of women brass players. When Woods asked her to take part in the festival, Larsen said, her mind immediately went to the Supreme Court.
“I suppose it rings true to me, to some center of me, since in music there are many, many laws — natural laws, physical laws, and then culturally derived laws. Like how Bach sounds is a system of laws. How Chuck Berry sounds, that’s another system of laws,” Larsen said. “If we have a system to guide us into new iterations of being, then there’s something essential about that. So I think I’ve connected on that level.”
Is Larsen’s sound a law? Probably, she says. Her work is the subject of several PhD thesis.
“I learned quite a bit about what the laws are that govern my own work from the people who study it,” Larsen said. “I don’t know what they are — they just exist within me. So that’s quite different from being a Supreme Court justice.”
Her composition, titled “The Supreme Four,” took seven months to complete.
Larsen hired a research assistant to learn as much as she could about O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. She was surprised to learn how clear and passionate each of the women were about law. Then, Larsen teamed with a writer to try to capture the essence of how each justice thinks about the law. They formed a script that includes a minute-long introduction for each of the four justices.
Larsen said it was easy to find personal details about Ginsburg because she has been “in the popular eye” for so long. The others were more challenging.
O’Connor’s approach to the law was shaped by her experience growing up on an Arizona ranch, and the importance of carrying out routine chores.
“What I kept coming back to again and again,” Larsen said, “is the quote that we use to introduce her, which is: ‘Do the best you can in every task, no matter how unimportant it may seem. No one learns more about a problem than a person at the bottom.’ ”
Larsen completed the work before the pandemic. Larsen has considered expanding the work to add the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, following Ginsburg’s death last year.
Larsen says she made “a musical motif,” presented by the French horn, that represents the law.
“You’ll hear that motif in different ways in each of the portraits,” Larsen said. “You’ll hear a full orchestra, with the strings and the percussion and woodwinds and the brass. You’ll hear an orchestra piece. But you’ll be able to follow the idea that we’re talking about something important here, and that is the law. And here are four human beings, extraordinarily bright, passionate human beings, who have dedicated their life, really given their life, to the law. I think this is what you’ll hear.”
The performance will be narrated by Gov. Laura Kelly.
Woods secured a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help produce the festival, which takes place at the university’s White Concert Hall and will be live-streamed. Performances feature jazz, piano, chamber ensembles and Scottish folksong.
There is a theater production of “Woman on a Ledge,” a new play with music, written and directed by Rita Costanzi. Her story explores the vulnerabilities of a female musician torn between artistic needs and those of her husband and children.
An exhibition of artwork by women during the suffrage era will be featured at the university’s Mulvane Museum of Art.
On the final night, WIBW-TV’s Melissa Brunner will moderate a panel discussion with Larsen, Kansas Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Wilson, and Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubosfsky, a graduate of Topeka High School. Other panelists are conductor JoAnn Falletta and Washburn University president Jerry Fraley.
“There’s just so much for people to enjoy and to learn during this festival,” Woods said.
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