Connect with us

All Articles

Composer Portrait: Fred Lerdahl

Claire Sabel reviews last night’s concert at Miller Theatre.

Lerdahl, via Miller Theatre

The work of Fred Lerdahl, the Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition at Columbia, was showcased last night in the second of Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits, a monthly staple of their 2010-11 season. Lerdahl, a Guggenheim fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has also written extensively on music theory, and emerged as an influential figure in new music in the ’70s.

The first half of the concert was composed of two works of about 20 minutes each: Time After Time, performed by notable new music group the Argento Chamber Ensemble, and Third String Quartet, premiering for the first time in New York and performed by the Daedalus Quartet, by whom it was also commissioned. Both pieces shared a tumultuous intensity, respectively described by the composer in his notes to the program (available here) as “explosive” and “turbulent,” and each structured around two central interwoven streams.

The second half focused on the renowned Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who performed the US premiere of an exhilarating work for solo cello, There and Back Again. Navigating “400 years of music in four minutes,” the piece was based on a 17th century cello piece by Giuseppe Colombi, and written as a 50th birthday present for the cellist.

The diversity of these three pieces served as an excellent introduction for the composer to take the stage for a brief conversation with Robert Sirota, president of the Manhattan School of Music, and a former pupil of Lerdahl’s. For an audience member lacking any formal training in musical theory, this was a welcome interlude, and a chance to reflect on a varied and challenging program.

Sirota highlighted the complex eclecticism of Lerdahl’s music, describing it as “kaleidoscopic polyphony of sound.” Discussing his recurrent motif of interweaving patterns that he calls his “spiral forms,” Lerdahl elucidated some of the anatomy of his composition. He gave a broader overview of his intentions, explaining that he always seeks the “right form to go with the right expression.” This was subsequently illustrated in the final piece of the concert, Arches (a world premiere this time!) Performed by Karttunen and the Argento Ensmble, Arches was written as a dialogue between the cello and ensemble, rather than a traditional concerto. Informed by the structure of Gothic cathedrals, the entire piece consisted of arches within arches, tracing individual phrases and across the entire piece.

The most approachable of the four pieces performed, Arches was a very satisfying conclusion to the evening. Lerdahl had described his frustration with the impenetrable theoretical structures of some new music, “systems nobody could hear.” The aim of his compositions was to lay bare his systems in a way that still enabled the listener to appreciate a beautiful surface: “of course my music is complex, but I wanted there to be an access point for any listening. The best music is one that sounds completely natural.” The late pause in the program allowed for reflection on the works already played, and an intimate introduction to the lyrical arcs of the concluding one.

Miller Theater wants you! Tickets for all performances are reduced to $7 for students, and promotions are frequently available for free tickets through the Music Department.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.



  • Ugh says:

    @Ugh Please…grammar….

    Also, “There and Back Again” was a US Premiere, not a World Premiere (“Arches,” however, was)

    1. Claire says:

      @Claire Grumbles justified! The pre-proofread version was posted by accident. Apologies!

  • Ew says:

    @Ew The WORST professor I’ve had at Columbia.

    1. What says:

      @What Did you take with him

    2. Worst may be off says:

      @Worst may be off But most uninspiring is a pretty accurate description for his music hum course…

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Theatre is the original English spelling of the word, reminding us that it was actually stolen from the French. It’s still spelt like that in Canada too.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Dear Ew:

    Back off.

    True, Fred is not necessarily going to showcase his teaching abilities in class. But if you’re curious enough to approach him, he’ll give you some of the most inspiring guidance you’ll find at Columbia.

  • Femanon says:

    @Femanon Our theatre arts teacher told us that “Theater” means the building, while “Theatre” means the art. She seemed to know what she was talking about. I guess the reversal of “e” and “r” makes it more artsy or something.

  • Have Your Say

    What should Bwog's new tagline be?

    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

    Recent Comments

    Love love love (read more)
    Bacchanal (But In Your Bedroom)
    April 8, 2020
    I knew Tom when he worked as an organizer for low income people in Knoxville, Tn in the 1990s. He (read more)
    Former Barnard Faculty Member Tom Waters Has Passed Away
    April 7, 2020
    The Cathedrals around Columbia are magnificent. (read more)
    Bwoglines: Cathedrals And Courts Edition
    April 7, 2020
    I shaved mine off after a week. No hair to worry about. (read more)
    A Quarantine Crusade To Change Your Hair
    April 7, 2020

    Comment Policy

    The purpose of Bwog’s comment section is to facilitate honest and open discussion between members of the Columbia community. We encourage commenters to take advantage of—without abusing—the opportunity to engage in anonymous critical dialogue with other community members. A comment may be moderated if it contains:
    • A slur—defined as a pejorative derogatory phrase—based on ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or spiritual belief
    • Hate speech
    • Unauthorized use of a person’s identity
    • Personal information about an individual
    • Baseless personal attacks on specific individuals
    • Spam or self-promotion
    • Copyright infringement
    • Libel