Lerdahl’s Music a World of Its Own

Lerdahl 5

LERDAHL: Episodes and Refrains / Windscdape / Quiet Music / Quattro Mani / Times 3 / Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio / Time and Again / St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, conductor / Bridge 9484

Fred Lerdahl (1943 – ) is a name I know I’ve run across before in my years as a reviewer, and liked his music, but my now-faulty memory plays me tricks nowadays and I can’t recall where or when I heard him. Nonetheless, this disc, which is Vol. 5 in an ongoing series of his works on Bridge, is so striking in its originality and so striking in its unusual use of timbral blends and harmony that I know I shall not forget him again.

From the opening bars of Episodes and Refrains we are plunged into his sound world. Lerdahl uses both wide intervals and close ones in a unique way; indeed, I would go so far as to say that the harmony not only dictates the top line but also the mood of each piece. Of course, in this instance he is blessed to have an outstanding group of musicians to play his music; in the case of Episodes and Refrains it is the wind quintet Windscape, which includes the brilliant flautist Tara Helen O’Connor whose CD I gave an enthusiastic review to last year, as well as the excellent French hornist David Jolley, another name I’m sure I’ve seen before. In Times 3 the piano trio includes the outstanding violinist Mark Kaplan, whose Bach Sonatas and Partitas also got a stellar review on this blog last year. Thus in nearly every instance, Lerdahl is fortunate to have some of the very best professionals playing his music.

Although Lerdahl’s music never quite resolves itself harmonically, there are moments when it sounds as if the harmony is resolving. It’s an aural illusion, one he creates by virtue of letting the other instruments fall away, thus exposing the lead line which in itself “resolves” in the listener’s ear. It’s a fascinating way of writing, and one that I can’t recall anyone else doing.

The same principles can be heard in Quiet Music, played by the piano duo Quattro Mani (Steven Beck and Susan Grace). Here, Lerdahl avoids some of the angst in the first piece by lightening the texture (which, as I stated above, leads to the ear resolving his chords) and simplifying the music by using less notes and more space. It’s difficult to say exactly how Lerdahl processes these elements of his music while writing it. The liner notes quote him as saying that he incorporates “cognitively plausible modes of organization” that “accept the past and express inwardness,” but that’s fairly cerebral and doesn’t really address the issue. By the middle of this piece, despite its relatively quiet and simple aesthetic, the harmonic clashes between the two pianos begins to disorient the listener in terms of where he or she is both rhythmically and harmonically, but soon enough Lerdahl straightens things out again. The steady, almost monotonous rhythm and limited harmonic movement in this piece suggest minimalism, yet the music is richer than most minimalist pieces.

Also, you could never really call Times 3 a minimalist piece. Here, working with a piano trio, Lerdahl is almost forced to use the instruments in a traditional sense, yet in the context of the score they almost never play together or even in a coordinated manner, but rather they play against each other continually. At times the music here put me in mind of Marius Constant, the underrated French composer best known for his Twilight Zone theme. Sometimes the music is quiet, almost questioning; at other times, it sounds like a cat chasing its tail. In one of the more intriguing passages, the violin holds long notes while the piano interjects staccato chords and the cello plays an edgy, repeated motif at various moments. It almost sounds spontaneous. At another point, the piano plays the edgy motif while the strings play an almost wistful-sounding series of strummed chords. In this way, Lerdahl plays around with space and time.

An interesting aspect of Time and Again is that, although it is written for a chamber orchestra, you don’t automatically realize this when it starts, for once again Lerdahl is writing in terms of discrete sounds. What I mean by this is that the strings, winds, horns etc. all play their “own thing” independently of each other, only occasionally interacting. Although this is not so uncommon in chamber works, it is extremely rare in orchestral music. The peculiar pacing of the music—once again, including stops and starts, abrupt rhythmic shifts and thematic material that seems to abut each other but not always develop logically—keeps the listener on edge. I can also imagine that it keeps the performers on their toes. This particular recording was made available to Bridge by Minnesota Public Radio, since it stems from a 2015 broadcast.

I will certainly be interested in reviewing anything by Lerdahl that comes along in the future; this is one amazing and original composer!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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