Category: Column

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Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition.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

I think I read on the Core Curriculum website that it is, in fact, a requirement to self-identify as a nihilist in order to graduate. So, being the ever so proud CU student that I am, I am going to put on my Nietzsche thinking cap and use nihilist inspiration to poetically write about a relatively unimportant topic–yet another step towards my transformation into a hybrid of a “Columbia Sad Boy” and Carrie Bradshaw.

Note: if you’re reading this and do not go to Columbia, what I’m really saying is, “I am going to use a type of philosophy that rejects morals in order to justify trivial everyday occurrences”. But I promise to try and make it (ironically?) enjoyable!

“There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena,” I tell myself as I eat my 11th Oreo cookie of the night, wondering if the same goes for calories. If I were in a movie, there would be a freeze frame, and the narrator would ask, “I bet you’re all wondering how she got here.” (Yes, I stole that from a old meme, and no, I have no qualms about doing so.) Anyway, the answer is midterms. Can you picture it now? Me, sitting without pants on, surrounded by a haphazard pile of highlighted notes, a feral look plastered across my naked eyes. I bet you can almost smell my annoyance and unquenchable desire to say “fuck” after every other word.

Now let’s analyze the events that got me here. I passively surrendered my elliptical to an old man today, WHICH I HAD DEFINITELY RESERVED DESPITE HIS INSISTENCE, texted yet another “no worries” to the most fuck-iest of boys, literally fake smiling through my disappointment at my own goddamn cell phone. *Turn on Carrie Bradshaw voice here* “When did I become this nice girl?”

All right, you can turn the voice off now.  But seriously, when did this stigma of “nice girl” get attached to me? I’m sure some of you are reading this, asking, “This petty bitch thinks she’s nice?” Believe it or not, I am often qualified as the “nice girl”. Sure, I try and hide it behind what is basically a satirical sex column and an edgy nose ring, but somehow this nice stigma keeps rearing its ugly head. That bastard. In reality, I don’t think I have a higher dosage of niceness than any other person. Sure I have that Midwest “charm,” which comes off differently here in the bustling city, but that doesn’t correlate to a legitimate higher level of niceness.

So Nietzsche, I turn to you. Maybe, as you have suggested, niceness doesn’t exist at all. Maybe all this niceness is just Midwestern ignorance caped in hopefulness, an identity concocted up by other people. A label which I, like my frequent meme use, embraced without reservations.

Guess what…. This happens in international politics, too! (Yes… this is where I relate my existential crisis to nukes, or more specifically unconventional weapons and warfare). You see, conventional weapons share this similar perceived niceness as me, whereas unconventional ones have this perception of immorality, or “not-niceness”.

In “A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo,” Richard Price analyzes just exactly how this dichotomy of “conventional” vs. “unconventional” came to be in war. It is a thirty-page article, but in a reductionist summary, basically he traces this idea throughout history analyzing the strategic, tactical, and moral implications of these weapons, and why society developed a taboo against using “unconventional” weapons. 10/10 would recommend reading the article if any of these things sound remotely interesting to you. When you really think about it, there is but a slight difference between the output of these types of weapons. Each “type” has the same dosage of deadliness, so to speak, nukes just are perceived to be more deadly.

Oddly enough, Price goes to conclude his article with a lovely quote by Foucault.

“The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them.”

Maybe it’s the one too many Redbulls, or a delusional sugar induced coma (I’m on my 15th Oreo now), but I found this approach oddly inspiring and applicable to my current situation. I want to exalt these nihilist findings with a solid white-girl confirmation: “YAS bitch”.

When it comes down to it, I am not nice, I just appear to be so. That being said, I am no longer going to adhere to this perceived identity. No more taking my goddamn elliptical. No more playing it cool with the douches lurking in the back of my political science class. Damn straight I am going to adhere to Foucault’s wise-words: invert my niceness and use it against those who see me as such.

Anyway, if nothing else goes well this midterm season, at least this mid-semester breakdown has taught me one thing (yes, in true Bradshaw form, I plan on concluding with a cliche…): maybe I just have to learn to “kill ‘em with kindness.

 

                                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-

 

As the new semester begins, The Lion will be spending some time in Uniquely Human on other people — how we interact with them, how they interact with us, and how those interactions shape our personality. This is the first column in our new series.

Columbia students spend a lot of time in elevators. Imagine – you step into an empty elevator on the top floor of a building. As you descend, one, two, even three people walk into the elevator, an experience so typical you hardly notice. But this time as they enter, something curious happens.

After walking in the elevator, each person faces the back instead of turning around to face the front doors. While one person doing this may go unnoticed, after two or three people perform this strange action you too turn around to face the back.

Although your instinct may be to resist that ending to the story, from its origin on Candid Camera in the 1950s, through multiple scientific studies the result is always the same — the majority of people will adopt the new social norm.

This action of changing your behavior to adapt to those around you is called social referencing, and for decades, its powerful sway over social activities has been confirmed in sociological and psychological studies. That people would adapt their behavior to their social situations is not itself revolutionary, although the extent to which people adopt ‘non-logical’ behaviors to fit in a new social norm can often be humorous.

The truly controversial idea is a much newer one, and comes out of modern neuroscience: not only do you change your external behaviors to adjust to a new social environment, your core personality adjusts to fit with a new social reality.

This brain re-wiring can perhaps paradoxically be best illustrated by when the system goes wrong. Have you ever flinched when you have seen someone get hit in a particularly painful location, or felt warm when you have seen two people hug? Now imagine if instead of experiencing a vague sense of those feelings, you physically felt every sensation you saw in someone else. Every touch is replicated on your arm, with every swallow you see you feel the food slither down your throat, and the pain of another sharply becomes your own.

This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia, and it is one of the most common synesthesias –  an estimated 1.5% of the population experiences the world this way. While the physical aspects of this disorder are fascinating and deserve their own column, where it really gets interesting is in how synesthetes experience emotional reactions.

In a number of mirror-touch synesthetes, the act of seeing someone respond emotionally causes a mirrored emotional response. Because they can acutely feel the happiness, sadness, anguish of the people around them, it can become incredibly difficult for mirror-touch synesthetes to distinguish their own emotions from the emotions of those around them. They find themselves disappearing into others.

As is common in neuroscience, observing such an extreme example of a system going wrong teaches us about how the system should work under normal circumstances. One possible explanation comes from mirror neurons. Discovered a little over a decade ago in monkeys and recently in humans, mirror neurons are cells located in parts of the brain corresponding to sensation and motor activity.

Unlike other cells nearby, these special mirror neurons fire identically both when they are performing an activity, like processing touch or moving your arm, and when observing someone else do the same task. While the purpose of these neurons is still speculative, there is evidence of their role in subconscious mimicry, empathy, self-awareness, and even theory of mind.

Of course, when a typical human observes other people, they don’t acutely feel those external sensations in the same way. That is because there are other inhibitory neurons ‘downstream’ of the mirror neurons, which stop you from acting on their firing. It’s likely that in mirror-touch synesthetes, that ‘turn off’ signal does not get sent, or the original signal from mirror neurons is so strong that it cannot be turned off.

So while mirror neurons might allow us all to understand each other at low levels of activity, cranking their response up causes people to in some ways become other people. Mirror touch synesthetes brings a normally subconscious process to the surface, and they raise some interesting questions in the process.

If we’re somehow experiencing the actions and emotions of other people within our own minds on a subconscious level, do these ‘outside’ factors become a part of us? Do we correspondingly change parts of our core personalities in response? We will seek to explore these very questions in the next column.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

 

Valentine’s Day didn’t go so well? Did Ferris again disappoint? Don’t worry, Werther’s day was equally abysmal.

The Met opened this season’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther on Thursday night. The Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo stars in the title role and the American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard invigorates Charlotte, Werther’s love.

This production, led by Sir Richard Eyre, is mostly identical to the Met’s Werther of 2014. There is even one prominent holdover in the cast: David Bizic again gave a convincing performance as Albert, Charlotte’s husband. However, I noted small changes. For example, Werther in his opening nature aria does not address the looming statue of Charlotte’s deceased mother to as great of an extent. 

The dominant theme of nature’s attractive force is established in Werther’s entrance in Act 1. Here, Werther sings about the beauty of the brook, the coolness of the shade, and the vibrancy of the bursting flowers. His imploring hand movements and facial expressions convey his utter devotion to nature, reflecting wise choreography decisions by Sara Erde. Looming in the back and foreground are long, drooping branches and shadows of linden trees,  which connote nature’s omnipresent power.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role of Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

One of Massenet’s major plot defects is the establishment of Werther’s and Charlotte’s relationship. In the opera, Werther declares his love for Charlotte in Act 1’s clair de lune scene. Later, during Charlotte’s Act 3 letter episode, Werther implores her to remember their times spent together, “Here’s the harpsichord that sang of my joy and trembled with my pain as your voice joined in with mine.” The impression is that Werther and Charlotte completely fall for each other after only one meeting. While this is not uncommon in opera, it does not correspond with Goethe’s original text.

To reconcile the plot hiccup, the prelude could be repurposed. Instead of emphasizing the mother’s death, which feels out of place in context of the work’s focus, Werther and Charlotte could be shown making music at the harpsichord, laughing while playing silly games and crouching excitedly over books—mouthing words to each others’ eager ears. These scenes would occur behind a grey, translucent curtain—hinting at the memories of a blossoming love. In so doing, the Met would give more substance to the lovers’ devotion.

Yes, this addition would disrupt a sense of linear time. However, establishing their relationship is more important to the work than a preservation of a continuous narrative arc.

Eyre stages Acts 1 and 2 with receding, left-tilting rectangles. These outlines disorientate the viewer: Eyre wants his audience to feel Werther’s internal anguish. He achieves a similar effect with Werther’s chamber in Act 4, which looms over the preceding act’s library. Since it is a smaller, intimate space than the prior act’s, it conveys actual and psychological distance.

The choreography during the clair de lune scene effectively communicates Charlotte’s attempts to detach herself from Werther. Werther bends his whole body toward Charlotte, slowly bringing his hand to her shoulder. Charlotte keeps her back to him, afraid of his transformative, dark allure.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Scenes like these make us empathize with Charlotte. Charlotte is tortured by love, torn between her love for Werther and the promise she made to her mother to marry Albert. Werther is oblivious to the conflict he is inflicting upon her. For instance, when she says she must honor her mother’s dying wish, Werther responds by expressing his desire to “keep these [her] eyes all to myself, this charming face, this adorable mouth,” – in essence completely ignoring her problems.

Despite Massenet’s labeling of the opera as a drame lyrique, hints of opéra comique surface. Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, twirls around the stage with a little origami bird – a light blossom intruding on the work’s dark aura. Anna Christy’s performance as Sophie exuded the necessary optimism, but her vibrato and voice presence were too great for the light, jovial role. And, Maurizio Muraro as Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father, brought a Santa Claus-like boisterousness to the role.

In the second act, Massenet plays a musical joke with the drunken characters Johann and Schmidt, who blasphemously sing their praises of Bacchus while outside a church. Spelled out – Johann, Schmidt, Bacchus (J.S.B.) – their tune sounds positively Bachian. These characters were enlivened with besotted revelry by Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson.

Leonard imbued her Act 3 letter aria – “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes!” (Go! Let flow my tears!) – with the appropriate pathos. Each of her notes was conceived with careful thought, dripping with the despair of Charlotte’s streaming tears. Leonard understood that a trembling, vulnerable quality was needed here, not a powerful, confident bravado.

That being said, she still knew how to excite a powerful, Met-Opera-Hall-enveloping sound when she needed to. An example was her crescendoing line, “The emptiness is too great. Nothing can fill it (the heart)…” Here, Charlotte is overwhelmed by her love for Werther, longing for him to comfort her overflowing heart.

I wish Leonard’s diction was a little clearer in parts of her solo, especially when she sang high in her range. The upper register’s vowel-sounds sometimes sounded over-modified, which distorted their meaning.

Werther_5401-s

Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

The saxophone obbligato during Charlotte’s aria did not express the meaning of the libretto. With its contrapuntal, legato line, the saxophone represents Charlotte’s undulating internal tears set against the outpouring of her external ones. To capture the solemn sentiment, faltering yet directionally-aware phrases veiled by a subtle vibrato are requisite. However, the saxophonist’s performance was too loud, without any vibrato, and strictly in time. I recognize that orchestral players are demanded to reach the back of the hall with good, quality sound, however, this sonic goal must always exude the correct character.

Despite the saxophonist’s decisions, the Met Orchestra, led by Edward Gardner, gave a stellar performance. During Charlotte and Werther’s dialogue in Act 2, I watched as Gardner carefully followed their accelerating movements, surging the orchestra to follow suit. Earlier in the same act, there appeared to be a slight synchronization problem with Albert’s solo, but it was quickly resolved.

The orchestral interlude between Acts 3 and 4 was dynamic: trombones, trumpets, and bassoons soared a foreboding, accented triplet figure, foreshadowing Werther’s impending demise. Here, the brass and woodwinds, even after well-over two hours of playing, remained pointed and energized.

Shortly after Charlotte’s tearful epistolary grief in Act 3, Werther storms on stage for his anticipated Christmas arrival. He beseeches Charlotte to remember their pleasant evenings together. Partly to assuage herself and partly to distract Werther, Charlotte gives him the Ossian poetry that he was translating. Grasping it in his hand, Werther begins his, “Pourquoi me réveiller,” aria.

“Pourquoi” was spectacular. Grigolo approached the phrasing – especially the repeated three-eighth-notes rhythmic unit – with an organic sense of time that vitalized his singing. Propelling from these eighth-note figures, Grigolo leaped to emotionally-gripping summits—pleading, shaking, desperately grabbing his audience’s hearts. His solo was rightfully met with an uninterrupted minute of enthusiastic applause and raucous bravos.

During his final bows, Grigolo ripped opened the top buttons of his blood-stained, satin shirt, gesturing with large, circular arm motions stemming from his heart and whirling toward us. Pink bouquets were tossed like footballs by an enraptured concert-goer in the front row.

Two tenor titans within three years for Massenet’s take on The Sorrows of Young Werther: The Met has a lot to be proud of.

Massenet’s Werther runs through March 9, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live March 4, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org