Category: Arts and Entertainment

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Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition.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.

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

The demon barber of Fleet Street has arrived in New York, and he’s come with a vengeance. With performances starting on February 14th, the Tooting Arts Club Production of Sweeney Todd has opened off-Broadway after previously playing in London. In following the style of the London production, which was hosted inside of Harrington’s Pie shop, the team has completely redecorated the Barrow Street Theatre in a similar fashion.

Indeed, upon entering the small theatre, one goes from a standard entrance into what looks and feels like an actual pie shop. This experience is intensified with a special addition: the option to purchase a pre-show pie and mash. Best of all, the pie and mash is created by none other than owner of The Perfect Pie company and former White House pastry chef, Bill Yosses. The pies come out hot and fresh and were a fantastic experience as audience members get ready for the show.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

As quick as Yosses dishes out his signature pies, the pie shop quickly switches into performance mode as the actors begin mingling with the audience and preparing to take over the kitchen.

After clearing customer dishes, the lights dim and the actors get ready to start the show. For this production, the orchestra is pared down to the bare necessities: a piano, a violin, and a clarinet. Even though they were small in number, the orchestra performed beautifully, adding the perfect musical flair that helped to convey the tones of any given scenes.

The show’s interactive format worked fantastically with this Sondheim classic: actors walk along pie shop tables and are entering the theatre from numerous entrances. From the start, the viewer feels as if they themselves have been thrust into the lives of these character struggling to seek revenge and find love in an unforgiving world. In this musical thriller, Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker) is a loving husband and father and professional barber until a Judge Turpin, enamored with his wife, sends him off to Australia. Upon his return several years later, he learns his daughter, Johanna, is a ward of the Judge and, after finding his old shaving razors, enacts a plan with nearby pie show owner, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, to kill many of his customers and turn them into pies as he waits to seek revenge on the Judge that ruined his life. Indeed, the show represents many of these horrific scenes with a stunning combination of music and lighting in order to showcase the power of the characters and add significance to the scenes in which these people–who have their own lives and experiences–are turned into cheap pies sold to anyone.

Within the show, the actors themselves phenomenally portray the characters they play. In particular, Siobhán McCarthy plays her character Mrs. Lovett astonishingly well as she effortlessly develops the character from a optimistic pie shop owner to a woman clearly gone mad, clinging at anything she can to keep her devious plan with Todd alive. 

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy star as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett respectively in the production of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre. (© Joan Marcus)

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy star as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett respectively in this New York City production of Sweeney Todd. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Her performance is equally matched by Jeremy Secomb, who drives fear into even the audience in his chilling take on Todd. Within every scene he appears, Secomb quite easily asserts his character’s dominance in the theatre while also beautifully revealing the complex layers of Todd, a man heartbroken over the loss of his family yet driven by anger and blood hungry revenge.

With its intimate environment, phenomenal casting, and great pie to boot, this show is one that every person should run and see.

Tickets to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be purchased at sweeneytoddnyc.com with tickets currently being sold through August 13th.

                                Image via DailyMail

That now infamous mess-up at the Oscars literally made my heart stop.

For some context, I had been anxiously awaiting 7pm all day. I stayed up late the night before, I finished all my work, I showered and ate dinner– nothing was going to come in my way of Hollywood’s most important night. As movie lovers will understand, the Oscars are the Superbowl of all things entertainment. And you don’t miss the Superbowl.

The night was going very well. I thought Jimmy Kimmel was an extremely tasteful host with a nice balance of political (but non-offensive) jokes and your average dig at Matt Damon. At one point, he even surprised a real LA tour group with a trip to the Oscars, a move which had me cursing my parents for planning our family vacation to LA at the completely wrong time. There hadn’t been any real surprises of the night by the time we got to Best Picture, with Emma Stone and Casey Affleck taking home the night’s top acting prizes, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis taking supporting actor awards, and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle becoming the youngest person ever to win Best Director (he’s 32, even though you might think from first glance that he’s 15). Even though Lin-Manuel Miranda lost the Best Song award he so clearly deserved, the night went on pretty much without a hitch– until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took the stage to announce the night’s most coveted award, Best Picture.

From the start, Best Picture was really the only contended race of the night. La La Land was the early favorite, but Moonlight had recently begun to clean up at award shows, which left many wondering if it would steal the Oscar at the last minute. Plus, with all the backlash from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, could the Academy really get away with awarding its top prize to an all-white film over an all-black one? Would they dare?

So when Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, everyone took in a breath of confused emotions: Did Moonlight ever really have a chance? La La Land was great, but I guess I was kind of hoping for an upset. Is this racist? Am I happy right now? And then, when Oscar producers stormed the stage and we saw Emma Stone gasp and mouth the words “oh my god,” it was a whole different range of emotions entirely: Holy crap, did they say the wrong name? Holy crap, did La La Land not win? Holy crap, this is so awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved. HOLY CRAP.

Okay, maybe that was a little specific to my thoughts, but you get the picture. Next thing we knew, the poor producers of La La Land had to stop in the middle of their speeches and announce that in fact Moonlight had won, and then we all sat uncomfortably, not knowing how to feel, as the Moonlight crew took the stage and gave their own speeches. Luckily, Jimmy Kimmel was again extremely suave, jokingly taking full responsibility for the blunder and easing the tension. But holy crap, was that a way to end.

I’ve always looked up to the Oscars, as has anyone who’s ever dreamed of working in the entertainment industry. It’s the ultimate goal, the final sign that you’ve made it. It’s glittery dresses and fancy sets and funny hosts and golden trophies– it’s literally the night at the ball that every Cinderella dreams of. So it was a shock for everyone watching this year to find out that, in fact, the Academy Awards are not perfect. They are run by human beings– accountants who, like anyone else, could accidentally give Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. Famous actresses like Faye Dunaway could ramble off the name from a card which was clearly wrong, and just like that the magic of the night is lost.

I think, really, that my heart stopped that night because I was struck with this reality for the first time as well. Despite being twenty years old, I still thought the Oscars were a glittery and perfect night at the ball. Obviously, the Oscars remain a (likely untenable) dream, but this past Sunday, some of the ethereality and perfection dissipated. Now, when I look at the industry I dream of going into, I am reminded of its humanity, and that pushes me to work harder, but in a different way than I did before. Instead of striving for perfection, I’ve realized I have to strive for realness.

And, honestly, maybe that’s for the better.

The Must-Binge List: It’s flu season, so if you’re stuck in bed for a couple of days, try out Netflix’s Grace and Frankie: a comedy about two older couples who divorce upon discovering that the two men have been having a secret affair for years. It’s hilariously written and has an all-star cast (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, AND Sam Waterston!!) Check out the first two seasons online! My grade: A-

 

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

The Varsity Show is Columbia’s annual student-led, theatre performance that is the one of the biggest hits of the Spring semester. This year will mark the Show’s 123rd performance, and its purpose serves to be both “subversive and sentimental,” as per its mission statement.

During the “West End Preview,” I was able to catch a sneak peek of some portions of the Show; it absolutely lived up to the hype! It captured the #struggles of a Columbia student, from being stuck in an EC wall to our fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude that dominates campus culture.

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

Photo courtesy of The Varsity Show.

Because the songs and acts were performed out of context, I was unable to decipher the plot of the show, though I did discover some nuances that will give an insight into the 123rd Varsity Show.

The Show featured the head of Public Safety not only as a pseudo narrator for the audience, but also as the main instigator of mischief and chief critic of Columbia’s administration. The most detailed act of the preview revolved around a newly admitted General Studies student. Besides being ~20 years older than the rest of Columbia’s undergraduate population, there was very little to separate him from a typical first-year. As he falls in love with Columbia’s perks–from Tom’s Diner to Surf ‘n Turf–he quickly realizes that all is not well with Columbia.

Unfortunately, that’s where the preview ended! I hope this information gives you a little taste of the hilariously exciting preview I had a chance to watch. The 123rd Varsity Show will perform from April 28th to 30th. Hope to see you there!

Emily Nussbaum is a television critic for The New Yorker. With her analytic and sharp pieces of television criticism across various genres, Nussbaum has made an impressive name for herself. Since becoming The New Yorker’s television critic in 2011, Nussbaum has won two national awards, the National Magazine Award in 2014 and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016. She has written about a multitude of TV shows including “Mad Men,” “Scandal,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The Pulitzer Prize website characterizes Emily Nussbaum’s work as “television reviews written with an affection that never blunts the shrewdness of her analysis or the easy authority of her writing.”

President Lee C. Bollinger and Emily Nussbaum

President Lee C. Bollinger and 2016 Criticism Prize Winner Emily Nussbaum

I had the honor of interviewing Ms. Nussbaum in October. Nervously I asked Emily Nussbaum the first question I had prepared.

“Did you always know you wanted to write?”

Nonchalantly she responded, “Well I wrote in college.” She was a creative writing major at Oberlin College. She later did her master’s in poetry at NYU. “I always knew I wanted to write, just wasn’t sure how exactly, but I knew I wanted to write,” Nussbaum told me.

My next question proceeded naturally. “Did you ever imagine yourself as a television critic?”

“Not really,” Nussbaum replied. Emily Nussbaum went on to tell me she became very interested in television in the late 90s, when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aired. She told me that was a transformative time and a very transformative show. She filled her passion for television through various mediums. At Television Without Pity, she was involved (although distantly) in vehement debates and “wild” discussions that they held about television content. Nussbaum told me she would mostly write about academic issues while she pursed a graduate degree. She later got a job at Slate, but only wrote about TV when something truly interested her. She began to focus more on television at New York Magazine, where she was a writer and Culture Editor for seven years. From there, she went on to her current role, as the New Yorker’s television critic.

“Slowly television criticism has become a more respected arts medium,” Nussbaum told me as I asked how people reacted when they found out she was a television critic. Ms. Nussbaum said that at the turn of the century, with shows like “West Wing” and “The Wire,” television criticism became a more sought after enterprise.

I followed up the response with asking how she felt since winning the Pulitzer and what had changed. Nussbaum openly said, “I was more nervous than anything at first.” With increased visibility, Nussbaum told me, she felt her pieces were in more scrutiny. “After a couple more articles, however, I went back to my normal work,” Nussbaum added.

In recent years, television has been changing. Nussbaum reminded me, however, that television on Netflix or on cable was the same fundamentally.

“TV has changed, yes, but just the visual medium, TV remains TV.” Nussbaum qualified her response, saying that Netflix has provided different ways of viewing television, with the recent addition of the “binge watch” into our television culture, and these changes do come with required new forms of adjustment. These changes are not entirely unprecedented, she stated, as she brought to my attention the shift that DVR caused, as people could now suddenly record and pause shows, and thus alter the traditional viewing experience.

For those who might want to pursue a similar career as Nussbaum, I asked her if she had any advice to give to young people. Her response was quite simple, “Things are changing so much. I would recommend talking to an editor, and asking him/her how the current conditions are predicted to be for the specific field one wishes to pursue.” Nussbaum offered more of her knowledge, saying that one of the most important ways of moving up in journalism was developing strong relationship with editors. “Demonstrating your passion for the work you do is always important,” Nussbaum highlighted. She warned, though, to make sure one checks in to see what job opportunities may be available before becoming fixed to a specific career path.

As the interview was coming to a close, I threw out the last question.

“What is a piece that you are most proud of?”

Nussbaum responded confidently, “I wrote a piece about ‘Sex and the City’ that I really liked.” She went on to say that in this piece she explored how comedy could be held at the same level as drama. “It was more of a statement piece,” she mentioned. Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post summarized this piece as, “an essay arguing that ‘Sex and the City’ was just as important as ‘The Sopranos’ in expanding the idea of what was possible on television.” Nussbaum discussed how pieces that challenge her and “don’t come natural” are her favorite work overall. Expanding on the question, Nussbaum said that work that created conversations and developed a relationship with her audience often offered the most satisfaction.

Emily Nussbaum has been a trailblazer in her field, helping raise television criticism to prominence. Nussbaum is the second television critic in almost 28 years to have won the Pulitzer. Examples of her work can be found here.