Professor Fred Lerdahl Reflects on His Time at Columbia
After 33 years of teaching music composition and music theory at Columbia University, Professor Fred Lerdahl will be stepping down at the end of this semester.
“I’m the—by now—oldest member of the department. So I’ve institutional memory,” Lerdahl recalls with a genial trace of his Midwestern roots.
Lerdahl has been an active member in the development of a department: from two disciplines in 1979—Historical Musicology and Music Composition—to four—Ethnomusicology, Music Theory and the aforementioned two—in the present-day. Nowadays, thankfully, old contentions have cooled: the composers and historians apparently couldn’t get along in Lerdahl’s early years at Columbia.
The burgeoning disciplines have affected Lerdahl’s composing. For example, after reading an article on scale types in an ethnomusicology publication, he was inspired to rework these ideas rhythmically in his composing.
Lerdahl’s career bridges music theory and music composition. His 1983 Generative Theory of Tonal Music, co-written with the linguist Ray Jackendoff, is regarded as a seminal text in the field of music cognition.
Exploring tonal theory in that book influenced Lerdahl’s composing. He developed his own syntax of harmony, voice leading, and what he calls “expanding variations” or “spiral form,” a compositional structure that he created.
Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition. When asked about the negative perception, Lerdahl clarified the definition and implications of his tonality.
“I wanted to recover a sense of centricity—being able to depart and to return—to me that’s very expressive and very powerful,” Lerdahl explains.
“My own harmonic and, broadly speaking, tonal syntax is different than the classical kind; I’ve been influenced by certain composers of course, but I’ve tried to make these things new.”
Centricity focuses on departing and returning, difference and familiarity. Like centricity, Lerdahl achieves unity in his favorite instrumental ensemble: the string quartet. Lerdahl observes that the quartet has cohesiveness because of the instruments’ similar sonic realms, yet variation in tone color because of the adventuresome sounds that can be created.
When composing, Lerdahl begins by thinking about the piece’s expression. He calls this opening phase a “dream state,” adding that “it’s like you’re in the dark.” After mentally grappling with his ideas, Lerdahl reaches an “Aha!” moment.
“The really critical moment for me in composing is when I find the good match between the expressive nature of what I’m trying to do and the formal procedures that I’m using,” Lerdahl describes.
“I know after that I may have good and bad days but that it’ll all turn out alright.”
From his theory and composition work, it is apparent that Lerdahl has developed his own artistic voice—he did not just accept what someone else told him to do.
Lerdahl’s path is a model young composers can follow. When asked to give advice to aspiring composers, he emphasized a foundational motivation.
“The most important thing is that you have to really love what you’re doing. You have to—it has to be a necessity for you,” Lerdahl strongly asserts.
“Otherwise don’t do it.”
The next step, like any other profession, is to develop your skills. For composers, this translates to moderate piano abilities, good ear training, conducting experience, score study of both contemporary and past works, and the essential courses in music theory.
A composition teacher is of course beneficial for a growing composer. Lerdahl’s teaching has a twofold focus: craftsmanship concerns—from notational strategies to bass line movement to rhythmic interest—and artistic vision. Lerdahl notes that finding your voice as a composer is a mysterious, variable process: It takes some years to mature it while for others it comes easily.
Soon, Lerdahl will be moving out of Dodge 602, tucked away in the corner of the hallway, so close to the theatre department’s office that he has probably received many an errant knock from mistaken dramatists, taking his numerous articles and books and scores off of the over-filled shelves with him.
Lerdahl will use his newfound time to finish two in-progress books (Composition and Cognition, based off of his 2011 Bloch Lectures at UC Berkeley, for example) and complete composition commissions. In the coming weeks, a duo for cello and piano will be premiered, a series of CDs from Bridge Records will be released, and his “Chaconne”—recently written for the Daedalus Quartet—will be performed. Obviously, Lerdahl will continue to lead an active musical life.