Expressivity in Etudes: A Lerdahl/Collage Conversation

"This continuity [with Collage] has constituted one of the most meaningful relationships in my professional life."  
- Fred Lerdahl

By Joseph Sowa

Joseph Sowa: It’s been a little more than thirty years since you wrote Fantasy Etudes (1985). What were your artistic goals at the time and how do you feel about the piece in retrospect?

Fred Lerdahl: Before writing Fantasy Etudes I had avoided the standard contemporary chamber ensemble of “Pierrot plus percussion.” My first thought was about how to make this heterogeneous group of instruments sound good. My second thought was to broaden the syntax of the string quartets that I had been composing. My third thought was to cast my formal method of expanding variations in a new way. My feeling about Fantasy Etudes in retrospect is that it was a watershed piece in my development. 

JS: In the program notes for Fantasy Etudes, you explain how the piece’s construction creates a sense of fantasy. What can you tell us about the other part of the title? What makes the interlocking sections “etudes”? How are these etudes different than, say, Chopin’s piano pieces or Elliott Carter’s wind quartet?

FL: Fantasy Etudes has nothing to do with Chopin (whose music I love) or with Carter except that I wanted to make his practice of tempo modulations perceptually palpable and visceral. The “etudes” in the title refers to my conception of composing expanding variations out of separate musical streams that overlap from one to the next. This was the first piece to do that. Each etude explores a different pitch syntax. The etudes are studies not for the performer but for the composer. The formal unity of the piece comes not from development of a kernel motive but from the similarity of process from one etude to the next.

JS: To NewMusicBox you said, “I got into theory because I wanted to make foundation for myself as a composer.” You then gave the example of how seeking to understand the harmonic syntax of your first string quartet culminated in your book Tonal Pitch Space(2001). How has exploring such theoretical issues affected your composing? What relationship do these technical questions have to your expressive concerns?

Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff

Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff

FL: As a young composer I went through a crisis of style and aesthetics. The contemporary music scene was bewildering. I couldn't believe in any version of historical justification that this or that compositional school propounded. I pursued music theory in order to build a foundation for my musical thought not on historical influence but grounded in the realities of music perception and cognition. My work on A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (written with Ray Jackendoff) and, later, Tonal Pitch Space had a profound influence on my composing, not only in general attitude but also in many technical ways. At the same time, my intuitions as a composer influenced how the theory developed. As for how technical questions bear on my expressive concerns, let me say that without a coherent syntax musical expression can only be crude. The development of the technical side of composing goes hand in hand with what the music can express. In the best music, technique and expression are inseparable.

JS: What has it been like to work with Collage New Music over the years? Is there a specific highlight in your collaboration with the ensemble? 

FL: I have been most fortunate to work with Collage many times. This continuity has constituted one of the most meaningful relationships in my professional life. I think of two highlights in particular. The first was when I conducted Eros with Collage in the late 1970s, both in Boston and at Tanglewood. I wasn't much of a conductor, but they tolerated me and we had a wonderful time performing the piece. The second was when Collage featured my music on its concerts throughout an entire season a few years ago. The performances were fantastic.