Fred Lerdahl’s Quixotic Music Fascinates

Lerdahl Vol 1

LERDAHL: Time After Time / Columbia Sinfonietta; Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor / Marches / Antares / Oboe Quartet / La Fenice / Waves / Orpheus Chamber Orchestra / Bridge 9191

As I mentioned in my earlier review of Fred Lerdahl’s music, I had somehow missed him on my radar in the past, but now that I’ve learned how good he is I wanted to hear more. Well, here is more—Vol. 1 of Bridge’s ongoing series dedicated to his music. Released in 2006, in includes a performance (Waves by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra) licensed from Deutsche Grammophon, who released it in 1992.

This disc begins with Time After Time (2000), written for the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society in New York. Two strings (violin & cello), flute, clarinet, percussion and piano, all playing a strangely swinging piece built around some terrific syncopation. The flute, clarinet and violin sometimes swoop down in their ranges to produce interesting timbral mixtures. As in the case of so much modern music the tempo is somewhat rigidly set—the title of the first movement is quarter=ca. 90 and the second quarter=c. 70—thus the manner in which they play it can only vary in terms of the swing or lack of it. Lerdahl’s own liner notes take a much more cerebral view in describing the music:

The main challenge in writing for this combination is its timbral heterogeneity…I sought a more homogeneous treatment, so that the bright sound of the total ensemble refracts in constantly shifting colors. Both movements employ a spiral form in which a simple and stable musical idea proliferates, becoming longer and more complex with each cycle.

This is the kind of writing you do when you’re a professor at a University, as Lerdahl is, and have to justify your work in intellectual terms, but I think deep down he just enjoyed playing with this combo in his head and had fun with it. Eventually in the first movement, undulating figures take over, creating small waves of sound that reminded me of the old salt-water-wave pool at Palisades Park. In the second movement, Lerdahl eases up on both the momentum and syncopation, creating a quieter, more mysterious environment for the instruments to play in. Soft percussion, ostinato piano and a mixture of soft clarinet and cello form the underlying cushion, over which the flute, violin and clarinet come and go in nicely-timed interjections. At one point the percussionist plays syncopated figures on woodblocks and other such things, sounding a bit like Sonny Greer in the old Duke Ellington “Jungle” Band of the 1920s. Eventually things heat up, gongs and chimes are heard, and the other instruments react by complaining in short grousing figures that weave in and out.

Marches, from 1992, was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a combination like that of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (violin, clarinet, cello and piano). Lerdahl explains that he wanted to write something “as different as possible from that famous predecessor” while also avoiding “the sound of a conventional march.” He refers to it as “a phantasmagoria of overlaid march-like ideas, some apparently familiar and others arising from an inexplicable inner source.” That being said, the opening is indeed very march-like in tempo and pace, though the melodic line is rather strange and the harmonic base even more so. Soon enough, however, the tempo doubles and the quartet plays (once again) syncopated figures that at the very least resemble ragtime if not jazz. (I wonder if Lerdahl himself is aware of the similarities of his music to early jazz?) A rocking motion is set up in the accompaniment with a syncopated figure based on dotted eight notes, but this, too soon morphs and changes as Lerdahl eventually moves into tempos and rhythms that have little or nothing to do with a march as we normally recognize it. As I noted in my earlier review, he seems to delight in displacing time, not as so many modern composers do by completely changing the tempo and/or direction of the music but rather by more subtle means. It’s as if you were doing a normal march (ir waltz, or jib, or whatever) when suddenly you realize that the rhythmic rug has been pulled out from under you and you’re suddenly in a different place where it sounds all nice and good and regular but when you start counting you realize that you’re lost. Eventually we reach a point where the gentle humor of the piece is replaced by a more serious vein, not quite dramatic but certainly less frivolous. Lerdahl is a musical changeling and never lets us rest as we listen!

Indeed, he continues this vein, in an even quirkier manner, in the Oboe Quartet from 2002. Here, it is played by the same group that commissioned it, La Fenice, headed by the excellent oboist Peggy Pearson. Lerdahl admits that in his early years he, too, had been “a moderately accomplished oboist,” thus he wanted to write something for this instrument. Since La Fenice consists of an oboe with a string trio, Lerdahl had some fun mixing and matching the instruments, sometimes having the oboe stand out and sometimes blend into the ensemble. Here his music bears no resemblance to ragtime or jazz but is still quite rhythmic, although the rhythms shift so often (separately from the tempo) that one hears the music as a succession of brilliant ideas patchworked together. But of course he never loses his place, and that’s what counts! Quirky figures come and go, some chorded, some rapid triplets and many serrated, interspersed and juxtaposed as the music keeps moving along at its own jolly pace.

We end this excursion into Lerdahl’s musical mind with Waves (1988), played by the famous Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. I noticed that oboist Peggy Pearson was the principal oboist in this edition of the orchestra. The title of the piece says it all: quickly-paced, undulating music that just keeps coming at you in a sort of perpetuum mobile of sound and color. The Orpheus orchestra was only one of three who commissioned the work, the others being the St. Paul and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestras with additional support from the NEA Consortium Commission. The present recording, licensed from DGG, is now out of print on its original label, so it is good to have it back in circulation. I was interested to learn that the title “refers less to the sea than yo shapes of musical energy,” which I rather suspected since it has less of a water-wave motion than Time After Time. Here, the composer creates a real perpetual motion piece, and in doing so is able to make the music “jell” more and sound less like a mosaic of ideas. This is made possible by a strict application of a “spiral” technique, the beginning of each cycle “signaled by four upbeat sixteenth notes.” It’s even more tonal than the other pieces presented here and thus more accessible, and enjoyable, to average listeners who have little proclivity to stretch themselves to engage in more complex scores.

All in all, this disc is a wonderful introduction to Lerdahl’s musical world and a must-have for those who already know and enjoy his work.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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