Music of Fred Lerdahl

Music of Fred Lerdahl, vol. 2

Various Artists

Bridge Records

Cross-Currents – Odense Symphony Orchestra; Paul Mann, conductor
Waltzes – Rolf Shulte, violin; Scott Nickrenz, viola; Fred Sherry, violoncello; Donald Palma, contrabass
Duo – Rolfe Schulte, violin; James Winn, piano
Quiet Music – Odense Symphony Orchestra; Paul Mann, conductor

I first learned the name Fred Lerdahl in the context of my grad work in music theory. His and Ray Jackendoff’s generative theory of tonal music was more familiar to me than any of Lerdahl’s music and, while I knew he was a composer, I was curious how his analytical theories informed his compositional choices. It might be an unfair generalization (as all generalizations are), but I wondered if Lerdahl’s music sounded like it was written by a theorist or a composer.

This recording of Lerdahl’s brings together orchestral and instrumental chamber music spanning almost a quarter of a century. The opening track, Cross-Currents, is a smooth and organic work for full orchestra. The opening brass motive is stretched, expanded, troped, and mutated in a variety of guises that would make most of the mid-century American Symphonists proud. The liner notes express a relation to Bartok and Debussy, but I hear a significant amount of Roy Harris and William Schuman. The pitch language of this work, as well as most of the others, is quasi-tonal. There is a sense of pitch foundation, but not one expressed through triadic harmonies.

The dozen Waltzes, for a low string quartet, are surprisingly dense for their apparent lightness. Each miniature has its own flair but the flow from one to the next is so logical and natural that it could be heard as a prolonged deconstruction of triple meter. The timbre of the ensemble keeps the works dark and somber even though there is some humor around.

The newest work on the disc, Duo for Violin and Piano, is far and away my favorite. The language is more spiky and tense, the ideas are a bit more sparse and spacious, and there is a stronger narrative arc to the movements. The first movement, Disputation, is rocky and jagged while the second, Elegy, is hauntingly lyrical and smooth. The two movements balance each other extremely well. The elegy particularly contains the most explosive emotive power on the disc. Rolf Schulte’s distinct edgy tone is a perfect fit for this music and his effortless technique scampers all over the notes. James Winn has great power against Schulte’s boldness and still manages to display impressive amounts of grace in quieter filigree passages.

The last work, the bookend of the earlier orchestra piece, is Quiet Music. As expected, the piece is subtle, somewhat subdued, and loaded with spritely energy. A solid rhythmic pulse pushes the music past mere lullaby country. Rich melodies, dark harmonies, and colorful orchestrations propel us on a lyrical journey through softness. This is quiet music indeed, but not somber or restful.

So what about the Theorist vs. Composer judgment? I must conclude that Fred Lerdahl is the best blend of both. He has used his generative ideas as a springboard for compelling and creative compositional uses. The music on this disc stays true to itself throughout and does not stray into idle areas. Everything fits nicely together, but not in a way that precludes surprise. Lerdahl’s theoretical ideas and compositional strategies are one in the same. Long story short, you aren’t hearing a theory lecture. You hear really good music.

One Response to “Music of Fred Lerdahl”
  1. I enjoyed this review. I wondered if the author would offer some insight as to Lerdahl’s theoretical work in comparison with other contemporary music theorists. I ask because Jackendoff’s work in linguistics is remarkable in both its scope and its vision, and I would like to know whether this translates in the context of his collaborations with Lerdahl. Thanks!

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