Category: How Eye Hear It

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Admittedly, I was surprised when I learned that he was interested in tonal music, which is perceived as outdated in the world of contemporary composition.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

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

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken’s Fight for “New” Music

As two star-crossed lovers sang pleading lines of despair, I took a survey of the audience around me. Besides the gentleman fast-asleep on my right (he got started five minutes into Act I) and the three composition students I recognized from Music Theory III, there was a noticeable dearth in the Met Opera’s seats. Maybe it had something to do with it being a lethargic Wednesday night, or perhaps it was indicative of declining ticket sales. More likely, though, the timeliness of the opera was to blame: it – Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin – was written in 2000.

Contemporary music is thwarted by negative stereotypes. Concert-goers think of it as generally unpleasant and discordant – something to be avoided as much as possible. Concert programming confirms these negative beliefs. “Beethoven, Mozart, and ever more Beethoven!” ticket sales scream.

So, what is a contemporary performer to do? The pianist and musicologist Marilyn Nonken (GSAS 1999, Historical Musicology) believes acceptance problems can be solved through education.

Nonken’s recent book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age, challenges the “unmusical” claims about modern music.

“I think there are misconceptions about what contemporary music is, that newer music simply isn’t musical in the same way,” she explains with a tone that shows her passion for the music.

“I suppose why I talk so much historically about contemporary music relating to the past is to try to get away from that idea.”

Nonken presents challenging ideas in her work. She believes that musicians can look back at composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy and find “through-lines” to the present-day. Their music works through ideas similar to the ones electronic music composers are grappling with today; “New” Music is not as new as some may think.

Not many musicians see “New” Music the same way that Nonken does. Instead, most musicians prefer to play what she calls “great” music, i.e. the standard, traditional repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al. Nonken believes pedagogues are responsible for this trend.

“Within any music school there will be teachers who will tell their students don’t waste your time [playing contemporary music]. Don’t do that, it’s not worth it,” she tells me, sarcastically pantomiming the uneasiness of teachers telling their students not to touch “New” Music.  

“There’s this idea that if the player is really gifted and really talented that they should be playing ‘better,’ older music.”

What Nonken describes as the “business of piano” – to prepare for and win competitions – is the culprit for these teachers’ beliefs.

“You can’t play Feldman for the Van Cliburn,” Nonken jokingly gibes.

Pianists will not prepare programs including much music written post-1945, such as Feldman’s works, for the Van Cliburn competition because of the ideas on what “great” music is. They simply won’t win if they do.

As the Director of Piano Studies at NYU, Nonken fights against misconceptions about contemporary music. For instance, she requires graduate piano students to play a work written after 1945 for their auditions. One student, who did not have any music post-1945 in their repertoire, suggested “playing” an especially famous silent work.

“Someone wanted to bring in Cage’s 4’ 33” — I would take it!” Nonken enthusiastically yet with a hint of frustration exclaims.

“Bring that to your audition just to make that statement — if that’s the best you can do, play that! It’s the mindset, so I think that’s something always to fight.”

Nonken’s interest in championing new works began while she was at The Eastman School of Music. Unlike many of her peers, who were spending hours practicing “great” music, Nonken was giving life to the scores of her classmates — in practice rooms, dorm rooms, and cafes. She was excited by these collaborations.

“I actually found that this music was really interesting — this process of working with composers is interesting. You can actually make a difference, you could play a piece that’s never been played,” Nonken fondly recalls.

Without her, their music would have remained black dots and lines on a page. By realizing their works, Nonken gave her classmates the chance to develop their skills.

She even won competitions for her peers with her recordings. Nonken found value and meaning performing their works — an importance she says she would not have felt as “the nine-millionth person that year playing” famous, traditional repertoire.

Nonken has continued performing and premiering new works since her years at Eastman. When I walked into the lobby of her East Village studio, I was amazed by the number of CDs on display. Recordings of modern works by Morton Feldman, Tristan Murail, and Joshua Fineberg stared back at me – all physically representing Nonken’s support for modern music.

CDs on Shelf

Nonken’s recordings become the definitive versions of each new work. With that she sees a definite responsibility – a duty perhaps not as apparent in playing the standard repertoire.

“I don’t think that responsibility is there when you’re playing music of Chopin or Beethoven because there’s a million recordings out there,” she explains to me, recognizing that that may sound sacrilegious to many musicians.

“But if you go out there and play a piece that people might not have another chance to hear and don’t really do it well, in a way that’s representative – if you turn people off – you’ve blown that opportunity for that composer to make their case.”


Recent portents seem to indicate newfound acceptance. Despite Nonken’s quip, the 2017 Van Cliburn competition is commissioning Marc-André Hamelin to write a piece for the preliminary round. Miller Theatre is continuing their “Composer Portraits” series this season, which highlights the works of living composers. And the Met Opera, ever a bastion of “great” music, has staged works by contemporary composers, such as John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, and the aforementioned L’Amour de loin, in recent years.

Yet, these are exceptions. Musicians and audiences still maintain a preference for “great” music. They want it to be played as much as possible in concert halls, with “New” Music ousted as a distantly removed, unapproachable Other.

Nonken continues to crusade against the notion that “New” Music is not worthwhile to listen to – in her teachings, writings, recordings, and performances. Championing the music of today, Nonken is building the “great” repertoire of tomorrow.

She encourages you to hear her play music by Tristan Murail at Spectrum on February 11 at 7 PM. Come listen as she continues her fight against misconceptions about “New” Music.

“How Eye Hear It” runs alternate Sundays. To contact the writer or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com