Watch World Premiere Recording of Libby Larsen’s “The Peculiar Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes”

As we announced last week, the Florestan Recital Project announced  the release of its world premiere recording of  Libby Larsen’s The Peculiar Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes, based on Rick Geary’s book, The Beast of Chicago.

We also got a chance to chat with Aaron Engebreth, the Artistic Co-Director of the Florestan Recital Project about how this project came into existence.

What was the genesis of the project?

The project has a number of different ‘genesis’ points, actually.  Florestan Recital Project commissioned the composer Libby Larsen to create a new work for one of our past projects, the American Vanguard Festival.  Vanguard was a three-day celebration of contemporary American Art-Song which took place at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in March of 2010.  Florestan was completing our final year of a three-year position as Artistic Ensemble in Residence at the College, and the festival was a culmination of our time and experience there.  Libby was interested in creating a piece that would focus on violence in America, and we thought sounded interesting, important and timely.  We really had no idea that she would set the confessions of H.H. Holmes until much later, and we were very taken with the direction.

For a year or so, here and abroad, we presented various performances of the piece in traditional recital form.  When we began the process of recording the piece, we really were determined to make it a cross-disciplinary “event” rather than a conventional CD release.  I wanted very much to release the piece free of charge, in hopes that more people would hear it, and we thought that the story and the music practically begged for a visual component.  The setting of the World’s Exposition in Chicago is evoked in Libby’s music in an alarming and very direct way, and we began thinking of ways to create this visual atmosphere without detracting from the music and words themselves.

Pete Goldlust and Melanie Germond, our marketing and design partners extraordinaire, immediately let us know about Rick Geary.  They knew Geary’s work and that was really the genesis of the visual collaboration.  Rick and his publisher were extremely supportive and interested in the project, and thought is was a great fit for his incredible illustrations, so after we read his book, there really was no more to say.

It was a perfect fit, artistically.

Had the music already been scored and the book was a match or did the book itself inspire the soundtrack?

In this case, the music came before we, or Libby Larsen, knew about Rick’s novel.  In many cases with classical song composition, the reverse is true, but this time Libby’s libretto and music were the impetus for us to go and find out more about H.H. Holmes.  And did we ever.

The project reminds me a bit of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, using music to literally illustrate the story.  Was that an inspiration?

Peter and the Wolf was not a direct inspiration for this project, though it and pieces like it find similarities because of the non-traditional approach of combining seemingly unrelated art forms.  At its core, Art Song does indeed use music to illustrate a story.  That story can be a narrative, poetry, prose or many other written forms.  Florestan Recital Project began was founded in 2001 with the firm belief that words and music, if you let them, can quite simply make us better people.

Words and music augment our ability to gain perspective into characters, emotions and places that we might otherwise never dare venture, and thereby augment our constant state of becoming.  Holmes is a rather extreme example of a character to gain perspective into, but the fact remains that whether one is listening to French poetry set to music, or the confessions of a madman set to music, the experience can enter you and change you.  It’s an inspirational art form.

Are there any other mashups like this planned, or any particular comics that you’re hoping to adapt in this method?

We’re up for anything.  We have nothing similar to this release planned in the future, but we very much hope to do more.  Interestingly, Geary wrote an entire treasury of Victorian murders, so there is plenty of opportunity within that thread.  We would welcome suggestions and inquiries for future projects and we hope to have more comic collaborations in the future.  To be honest, this would have seemed a highly unlikely combination to me even six months ago; classical art song-meets serial-killer-meets graphic novel.  But now that we’ve merged them, I find myself wanting to do many more.  It’s my great hope that readers of comics will find this as interesting and illuminating and we are confident our classical music listeners will.


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