Composer / Theorist  Fred  Lerdahl

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Fred Lerdahl (born March 10, 1943 in Madison, Wisconsin) studied at Lawrence University, Princeton, and Tanglewood. He has taught at UC/Berkeley, Harvard, and Michigan, and since 1991 he has been Fritz Reiner Professor of Music at Columbia University.

Commissions have come from the Fromm Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Spoleto Festival, National Endowment for the Arts, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress, Chamber Music America, and others. Among the organizations that have performed his works are the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Orpheus, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, eighth blackbird, Speculum Musicae, Collage, Argento, Talea, the Peabody Trio, the Juilliard Quartet, the Pro Arte Quartet, the Daedalus Quartet, Ensemble XXI, Lontano, and the Venice Biennale.

He has been in residence at the Marlboro Music Festival, IRCAM, the Wellesley Composers Conference, the American Academy in Rome, the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival, the Yellow Barn Music Festival, the Beijing Modern Music Festival, the Etchings Festival, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Lerdahl’s music has been commercially recorded on several labels and Bridge Records has established “The Music of Fred Lerdahl” portrait series.

His seminal book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, co-authored with linguist Ray Jackendoff, is a founding document for the growing field of the cognitive science of music. His subsequent book, Tonal Pitch Space, won the 2003 distinguished book award from the Society for Music Theory and an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award. A third book, Composition and Cognition, based on his 2011 Bloch Lectures at UC/Berkeley, brings together his dual activity as composer and theorist.

In 2010 Lerdahl was honored with membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Three of his works composed since 2000—Time after Time for chamber ensemble, the Third String Quartet, and Arches for cello and chamber orchestra—have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in music.

In May of 1992, Lerdahl was in Chicago for a conference, and he graciously took time from his hectic schedule for a conversation.  The serious discussion was mixed with bits of laughter.

Portions of the conversation were used on the radio several times, and now I am pleased to present the entire chat on this webpage.  As mentioned in the biography above, Bridge Records has issued several CDs of his work.  Those are shown at the bottom of this page, and the illustrations within the text show a few of the older LPs which appeared years ago.  As always, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Here what transpired at his hotel that evening . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are both a composer and a teacher.  How do you balance your career?

Fred Lerdahl:   It’s even worse than that.  I have a triple career, because I’m also a music theorist.  That’s why I’m here at this conference!  Sometimes I must spend about half of my time as a music theorist when I’m writing a new book.

BD:   Then how do you divide your time amongst three very demanding activities?

Lerdahl:   With difficulty.  When I compose, I’m very single minded, and I never do anything else except teaching, which I hope I do responsibly no matter what.  But I cut corners where I can so that I can have a regular schedule, and I just compose as much as possible.  When I take long weekends, I don’t let the phone bother me, and in the summer I just work on the compositions.  Then, when I do music theory, that’s what I do.  I never do the two at the same time.

lerdahl BD:   Does the theory help out with the composing?

Lerdahl:   It has helped my composing in the sense that it’s given me a lot of structure to work with, but it interferes because it takes time.  It takes time to write an article, or a book, or to go to a good old conference.  So, it’s a mixed blessing.  When I teach, I’m trying more and more to teach as much as I did before, but to put it into two or three very long days.  I give my all to my students, and then turn back inward into my own work.  I do not mix them, because it’s much easier to live in my creative world if I don’t have people and activities that take me out of it.

BD:   If you overload a few days for teaching and then have other days completely clear, do you overload the composing days, and long to get back to the teaching?

Lerdahl:   [Laughs]  No.  I try to make a routine for myself.  I’m a morning person.  I get up pretty early, and start usually about 8:30 or 9 AM.  Then I just keep working until I’m hungry, and I take a little rest after lunch for a little bit of sleep, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.  That does something to my unconscious.  Then, if I’m really composing well, I work until supper.  If I’m not, then I take a walk, or do errands, or something else to get some reflection on my work.

BD:   Does the composing mostly go well, or does it mostly go very tediously?

Lerdahl:   It’s never tedious, except when I have a lot to copy out.

BD:   But that’s just busy-work of copying rather than creating.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Harvey Sollberger, and Charles Wuorinen.]

Lerdahl:   Right!  I’m not a fast composer, but I’m a very steady one.  My difficulty is that I have this other side.  I’m writing a book now, and I will be writing it for the next six to nine months to get it finished.  That’s the time I’ve set aside for it, so I’ve lost that time for composition.  But it’s important for me to finish these ideas that I have.

BD:   Suppose a couple of months from now, all of a sudden you get a great musical idea.  Will you jot it down and stick it in the drawer to use when you get back to composing?

Lerdahl:   Probably not, because I have a very good musical memory.  I have a whole list of pieces that are in sketch form, or are in my mind.  I don’t forget.  I can even interrupt a piece and leave it for a year or two.  Then, when I pick it up again, I don’t think anybody would know where the interruption was.

BD:   When you return to it, do you have to look at it, or maybe sing it to yourself from the beginning to know where you are?

Lerdahl:   Yes, I must refresh myself about the details, but I don’t have to refresh myself about what the piece is, or where I am in it.

BD:   So it’s a part of you, and when you leave off, you come back and it’s still you.

Lerdahl:   Yes, I suppose.  One of my aesthetic ideals is that a piece I write should have a very distinctive character.  As much as possible, I want each of my pieces to create and have its own world.  Sometimes it’s difficult to find that world, but once I’ve found it, then I don’t lose it.  It’s that world, and I will finish it no matter what.

BD:   When you work on a piece, and then put it aside for a year, will you let the new part of the piece then be part of the ‘new you’, the ‘bigger, better you’?

Lerdahl:   [Laughs]  Whether it’s bigger or better remains to be seen.  Usually I don’t interrupt a piece, and I’m pretty  consistant about carrying out my plan for the piece.  So, that the ‘new or better me’
if there is onewill probably go into the next piece.

BD:   Do you work on just one piece at a time?

Lerdahl:   Very definitely, yes.  I’m a very single-minded person at any given point.  Even though I do different things, it’s only one thing at a time.  I just finished a piece called Marches for a chamber ensemble
clarinet, violin, cello, and pianofor the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  It will be done soon, so I finished it just in time.  That was a piece I first thought of writing ten years ago.  In fact, I wrote a piece called Waltzes, and when I finished that I thought, “Why not write some marches?  [Laughs, then coming back to the older work...]  It’s a set of twelve waltzes.  It’s my own bizarre version of what a waltz is, but still, it’s recognizably waltzes.  I was going to do Marches in the same way, and in that case I did put it off for a long time.  When I finally got around to doing it last summer, I found that I didn’t want to write Marches as a sequel to Waltzes.  I wanted to do something quite different, and it has been affected by a lot of the music that I wrote in between.  I’m pleased to have created a new thing based on a popular dance, which actually has a totally different character.

BD:   You say you’ve got it ready just in time.  Would you have postponed the premiere if it hadn’t been quite finished?

Lerdahl:   It’s more a question of whether the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center would have postponed it, because they schedule things way in advance.  They scheduled this about a year ago, and the deadline was created by me all along.  I simply had to meet it, and I was late with it simply because I had other projects.  I also started a little late, but it worked out well.  I worked hard, and I’m pleased with it.

BD:   When you’re writing, and tinkering, and revising, how do you know when to put the pencil down and say that it’s ready?

Lerdahl:   Difficult to say.  Every composer comes to his or her own conclusion about that.  I’m a perfectionist by nature.  When I was a young composer, I revised a lot.  In fact, I still revise some of my earlier pieces to make them technically more feasible, or to improve them in some way, but always in terms of the original conception.  Now, however, I seem to know exactly what I want, and I revise very little, if at all.  Maybe there are a few passages in this piece that I was a little hasty with because I was under a deadline, but probably not.  It’s going to be more or less the way it was when I finished it a week ago.  There are always small adjustments in dynamics that one makes, but I hear my music really well, and I’ve had a lot of experience.  So, it is what it is!  Some composers are extremely productive, and maybe don’t hold themselves to a high standard for any particular piece, and other composers write fewer pieces but hold themselves to a very special standard.  I tend to be in the latter group, maybe to a fault.  If I don’t feel happy with what I’m writing, it’s almost physically painful.  I can’t write something that I don’t care a lot about.

*     *     *     *     *

lerdahl BD:   You get a lot of commissions.  How do you decide which one’s you’ll accept, and which ones you’ll turn down?

Lerdahl:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t accept commissions for pieces I don’t want to write.

BD:   This is what I’m trying to find out.  How do you decide?

Lerdahl:   Decide what is it that I don’t want to write?  These things are very odd.  A while ago, somebody asked me to write an oboe concerto.  I’m a former oboist, and I like the oboe, but I wouldn’t want to write an oboe concerto.  So, I said no.

BD:   You’re too close to it?

Lerdahl:   It’s partly that I don’t think it’s a good concerto instrument.  Historically it hasn’t been, and there’s a reason why.  It’s a beautiful instrument in the orchestra, but it’s not a beautiful instrument as a soloist, like a violin is.  The other part of it is that I don’t really feel an affinity with the concerto.  I know a lot of people do, and that’s something that composers think of as important
to write a concert for so-and-so.  That’s great, but for me the concerto is a nineteenth century medium which has rarely been addressed successfully in this century, and personally I don’t feel much affinity with it.  Maybe I’ll change my mind, but until now I haven’t had any reason to write a concerto.  A lot of composers spread themselves thin because they take whatever comes along.  What’s really important is that the composer writes what matters.  If it’s really good, then that’s the whole thing.  I want to pick and choose.  Elliott Carter is very good about that.  He could have written anything he wanted to for the last thirty years, but he chooses only what he wants, and I think he’s right.  This attitude appeals to me.

BD:   Do you have any pre-conceived ideas of what will excite you, or when a commission comes in, do you think, “That would be exciting!”?

Lerdahl:   My appetite at the moment is orchestral.  I’ve written two string quartets, and I probably will be writing a third before too long.  I do want to write a set of string quartets throughout my career.  It’s a medium that I want to keep returning to at various points.  An opera would be very difficult for me to write, even though I love opera.  I love to go to the Met in New York, where I live.  I’m a real opera fan, but I don’t see myself writing an opera for reasons that maybe are a little hard to explain.  It’s such a hybrid medium.  To write an opera is such a huge thing to do, and there are so many obstacles.  I admire my colleagues who do it.  There are many more failures than successes, and, in fact, the number of real successes in this century in opera are very few.

BD:   However, all of a sudden we seem to be having a few more successes lately.

Lerdahl:   Yes, but it remains to be seen how long it’ll last.  I’m glad that new operas are being commissioned.  That’s wonderful.  I love the human voice.  I’ve written a lot for it, and I intend to do so again.  Maybe my musical language is too concentrated and too intricate to write opera.  A composer really has to adjust to a medium, and an opera is a full evening of music that can’t be too hard, or too intricate, or else a catastrophe awaits.  I don’t think that I want to simply burden myself in quite that way.

BD:   For whom do you write?

Lerdahl:   First of all, I write for myself in the sense that I have to be pleased with it because my feeling about what I write is almost physical.  I see my work as not just one piece after another, but a body of work that has its own coherence.  Whether anybody else sees it that way is not for me to say, but how I plan from one work to the next is a total enterprise for me.  I try to write music that appeals on many levels.  One level I wish to appeal to is a very immediate level to the normal music lover who has an open ear.  Also, I want to write music that has the capacity to be heard many times with different levels of meaning.  When you go and see Hamlet, it’s a great story, but it also has all these levels of richness, and that’s what I like.  The best music really has this as well.

BD:   You want the impact to be immediate and long-lasting?

Lerdahl:   Yes.  Maybe my sensibility is not as immediately popular as I wish it were, but I keep trying!  I write pieces like Waltzes and Marches, and although those are pieces that players love to play, my musical language is naturally rather intricate.  Maybe I don’t succeed as well as I would like on the popular end, but I try.

BD:   You’d like to have a piece of yours on all kinds of programs all the time?

Lerdahl:   Take Debussy, for example, whose music on the surface is extremely available.  Once he became popular at all, he became quite popular.  His music has a beauty and a sheen to it that’s immediate.  At the same time, he’s one of the most sophisticated composers in the history of Western music, and the more music of his that I know, I admire more and more in a very sophisticated way.  My own sensibility is only partly Debussyan, but it’s that kind of thing that I would like to achieve.

BD:   Was he trying to be sophisticated, or was he just innately sophisticated?

Lerdahl:   I think he was trying to be all those things that he is.

BD:   Are you trying to be multi-faceted and multi-leveled, or do you just write the way you have to write?

lerdahl Lerdahl:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s an impossible question to answer because it’s important to go with what one is.  But, at the same time, one always strives for certain things artistically.  I want to write music that has a beautiful form, that’s beautifully written for the instruments, and that is on one level very accessible, and on other levels has all kinds of things that people keep discovering.  It should be music that’s both formally very precise and very passionate.

BD:   Is it art or is it entertainment, and where is the balance?

Lerdahl:   It’s both.  People say, “I don
t like this, but I think that’s great!”  I never felt that way.  I always think that what I like has what’s great.  That’s too simple, but the point is that I don’t make a sharp distinction between art and entertainment.  I think it’s a continuum.  I should add that for me, what entertainment is, is probably not what it is for the public at large!  For me to listen to Debussy, or Beethoven, or even Boulez sometimes, is pleasure.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So, music should be pleasurable???

Lerdahl:   Oh, sure!  Music should have a beautiful sensuous surface, and it should be immediately pleasurable.  It should also resonate in many ways.

BD:   Is that the purpose of music
the resonance?

Lerdahl:   I’m not prepared to say what the purpose of music is.  It’s just one of those things that one does!  [Both laugh]

BD:   You were trapped and had no choice?

Lerdahl:   That’s right.  I started composing when I was fourteen, and improvised my composing before then.  It’s just an appetite of mine.  It’s something that if I don’t do for a while, I begin to feel out of whack.  It’s a natural expression of myself, and I could try to psychologize and explain why that’s so, but that would be speculative.  If it’s a vice, it’s a pleasurable one for me.  I enjoy composing a lot.

BD:   I’ll write to your shrink and see what he says!  [Much laughter]  You’re approaching fifty.  Are you at the point where you want to be at this time in your life?

Lerdahl:   No!  Because I do music theory
which is also very important to meI’ve fallen behind my aspirations in my composing.  I’m very happy with the pieces that I’ve written.  I’m very proud of many of them, but I haven’t written as many as I would like, simply because I have these other commitments.  So, I’m planning to phase out the theory work, and just be a composer as much as possible.  I think my best music is ahead of me.  I feel that I can do pretty much anything I want to technically at this point, so it’s just a question of focus and hard work.

BD:   Is it possible that you could focus too much, too single-mindedly on it?

Lerdahl:   Probably not, because I’m interested in a lot of things.  I enjoy my teaching.  It always takes me outside of my work, but I don’t have any limit to my ideas that I feel that at this point.  It’s just a question of getting them out, and since I don’t compose as quickly as some people do, I always work hard for what I achieve.

BD:   Is it all worth it?

Lerdahl:   Oh, sure!  It has a great meaning for me.  That question wouldn’t even arise to me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Before you leave it, let’s talk a little bit about the theory.  You’re working on the theory of music.  Is this something that you find out after it’s happened, or is it a leading indictor of what is going to happen?

Lerdahl:   My music theory work in general is a kind of theoretical music psychology.  I wrote a book with Ray Jackendoff, who is a theoretical linguist, called Generative Theory of Tonal Music.  It models how people listen, what people hear when they hear and understand a piece, and what the principles are by which they hear it.  It is rather formal theory, and, to a large extent, I’ve separated the two activities professionally.  Because I’m rather well-known as a theorist, a lot of theory people wonder why I spend all that time composing, and it’s certainly true that the people in the composing world wonder why on Earth I’m spending all that time doing music theory!  [Laughs]  But for me, they’re actually very closely related, and maybe that will become more evident at some point.


BD:   Are they two separate things, or two sides of the same coin?

Lerdahl:   Two sides of the same coin.  I got into music theory psychology because I felt that contemporary music didn’t have an adequate foundation, and I wanted to make one in the theory of musical listening and how people cognize music.  That seemed to me to be the only viable foundation for composing.  As a student growing up I went to Princeton, and total serialism, and the other -isms of the
60s and early 70s seemed quite arbitrary to me.  I suppose I was a post-modernist in the making.  They all seemed like arbitrary systems, and I wanted to recover for myself, intellectually and compositionally, things that felt natural, and that I had a reason to believe in.  So, that’s how I got into music theory.  The book that Jackendoff and I wrote was about classical tonal music, because there’s a lot of music theory about it, and it was music that were both expert listeners in.

BD:   I take it you think the books that were written previously are either erroneous, or just plain wrong?

Lerdahl:   No, there’s been a lot of great theory, but to make a psychological theory that predicts what the structure is that a person would hear when you play a Beethoven minuet is a new idea.  So, there’s a lot that’s completely new in our theory.  I’ve been working on this book that I’m writing right now, and it extends the theory up to contemporary music.  I published a lot of articles about the structure of contemporary music, and about timbral ideas in recent years, so this new book puts all those recent ideas together.  The connection with composing should be more clear, but, in any case, whenever I develop a theoretical idea, the chances are that it was something that I needed as a composer.  A lot of my theoretical ideas really come out of that creative need, so the composing helps create the theory, and at the same time, once I develop a theoretical idea, I will probably use it in some way in my composing.  There’s actually a very close relationship between composition and theory for me.  I suppose I’m unusual in that way.

BD:   Do most composers write their ideas down, and later figure out what they’ve done?

Lerdahl:   It’s hard to say.  Most really good composers are much more self-conscious than most people think.  That’s a price of the modern era, when the musical language has changed so much, and so little is taken as given by the culture.  Composers really have to think through their material technically and aesthetically.  Some composers like to talk about it a lot, and others don’t.  In my own case, I’m rather private about how I use my ideas in terms of my own work
at least until this pointbut I’m very public when I make my own theory work, and then I divorce it from my composing.  That’s how I deal with it, but every composer does it differently.  I also think that in most cases, composers in the past were much more self-aware than most people think.  Any artist has to think a great deal.  It doesn’t mean that the music is passionless and not spontaneous, when, in fact, to create really means that you’re in a kind of a zone where you’re intellectualizing, and your feelings and intuition are almost the same thing.  One works to achieve that Zen-state where everything just works together.


See my interviews with Vinko Globokar, Anders Hillborg, Betsy Jolas, Roger Reynolds, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Steven Stucky

BD:   Are you always controlling the pencil, or are there times when the pencil controls your hand along the page?

Lerdahl:   A lot of times things happen for reasons I don’t fully understand, but I have a very acute intuitive sense of whether that’s arbitrary and stupid, or if it somehow is right.  The piece that I just finished has a lot of things in it that I never would have predicted, and that have even puzzled me.  But on some level, some of my best music is puzzling to me at the time that I’m composing it.  I have so many techniques, and I’ve thought through my idioms in so many ways that I know I have a lot to rely on.  I’m not a beginner.  I’ve thought through where I am creatively.

BD:   You say it’s puzzling.  Does it all become clear as the writing is finished, or does it only become clear when you hear it?

Lerdahl:   Sometimes it never becomes totally clear.  I was just out in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, and I had a piece called Cross Currents done by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  It’s one of my best pieces, but it’s a very puzzling piece to me, even now.  I wouldn’t change a note, but I don’t fully understand it.

BD:   So if some critic, or some other theorist says they understand it exactly, they’re crazy?

Lerdahl:   [Laughs]  Well, maybe they do understand it.  I don’t know... don’t ask me!  [Much laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

:   Where’s music going today?

lerdahl Lerdahl:   Nowadays, music is very confusing because the avant-garde no longer exists in any meaningful sense, the way that it did from Wagner to Stockhausen, for example, where there was a cutting edge that could more or less be agreed upon.  There were advances people set down that seemed coherent in terms of the cultures as a whole.  But when you keep innovating, after a while anything becomes possible, and that’s what happened to the musical language.  By around 1960 with John Cage, and Stockhausen, and many others, it was no longer clear how music should progress.  Boulez is a very good example in this respect.  He really lost his direction, his path into the music of the future about that time, which was when he concentrated more and more on conducting.  I’ve often thought that he had to create IRCAM, his contemporary music center in Paris
where I’ve spent a lot of time, actuallybecause he was seeking a technological solution to the aesthetic impasse of the avant-garde.  In other words, if there’s no way to progress in any obvious way in terms of musical language, when the twelve-tone idea seems to have exhausted itself, then one seeks the solution through new sounds that are only possible with the new technology.  So, it’s not at all clear how music is progressing.  My own feeling is that the new technology is and will become more and more important to music.  This will include computer music in all its forms, which are not just the pure direct synthesis anymore, but all kinds of interactive programs with live instruments, and sound-playing, and manipulation of sound samples, and so on.

BD:   Have you worked with some of them?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Milton Babbitt, Bethany Beardslee, and David Epstein.]

Lerdahl:   Yes, and I hope to do more in the future.  I’m not truly a computing musician, as much as I would like, but I’ve a lot of ideas that can only be realized that way.

BD:   When you need it, you use it, otherwise you just don’t bother with it?

Lerdahl:   Yes.  I’ve been working on a project that converts a sample reading of poetry slowly into music, stage by stage.  On one hand you have a normal voice reading a Shakespeare sonnet, then gradually the values of the structure of the poetry become music, and in the end the words will disappear, so it becomes pure music.

BD:   [Musing about this prospect]  I wonder if The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner will come out to be La Mer.  [Both laugh at the prospect!]

Lerdahl:   Certainly, there’s a different sense of the sea between the Coleridge and the Debussy, but no, the kinds of sounds that I’m seeking are truly new, and only possible in this way.  Many other people are on the same quest with totally different means or goals, so that’s really important.  ‘Minimalism’ has been an important stage in contemporary music, and although minimalist composers are becoming less and less minimalist all the time, certain textures and procedures of that school are entering into a lot of composers’ vocabulary.

BD:   It
s a stage we had to go through?

Lerdahl:   For some more than others.  I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist at all, but I’m interested in certain techniques and procedures from those composers.  It’s becoming part of the parlance, so to speak.  Tonality is a permanent fixture in our music.  This is
‘tonality in the general sense, not in the sense of the common-practice tonality of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but tonality in the sense of a pitch-center, and a scale of distance away from that in various ways, where you have degrees of tension and relaxation, of consonance and dissonance.  Those are general features of music from which the atonal period extended for about fifty or sixty years.  There are many great composers who went that way between the Wars, but more or less from World War I until 1970 or 1980, when tonality was the exception rather than the rule.  I don’t mean that we’re going to revert hopelessly to neo-romanticism, but there are certain structural possibilities in having a home-center, and a way of departing from it and returning to it.  It would be reinvented in many ways, so I expect it to be a permanent fixture of music.

BD:   I assume that this is something that the general audience will relish with glee.

Lerdahl:   It’s a great resource for music that people love, and has a great expressive possibility, yes.  Likewise, one can’t have syncopation if there isn’t a beat.  There are structural possibilities that one wants to take advantage of, and I’ve certainly tried to, and continue to try to in my own ways, in new ways.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works over the years?

Lerdahl:   Yes, I’ve been lucky most of the time.

BD:   What about the recordings, since they have a little more permanence and a little more universality?

Lerdahl:   There’s only one recording that I’m not happy with, and that’s the one that I conducted.  [Laughs]  It’s a piece called Eros.  I’m very proud of the piece, and the recording is accurate, but because I was not in the recording booth, I wasn’t able to control the quality of the sound.  It’s actually a piece that has a huge sound in concert, because it’s for chamber ensemble, but it has an electric guitar and an electric bass, and the alto flute, the viola, and the harp are miked.  The piano and percussion would be loud anyway, and the mezzo soprano is also miked.  So, when you get all of those together, you get a sound as big as an orchestra in a real hall, but the miking on the recording was done very close.  Musically, the recording is pretty good, but I wasn’t a good enough conductor to make it a really great recording.  I learned a lot about composing by conducting.  I’ve conducted a number of my pieces, but I’m not a great conductor.  I could raise it only to a certain level.  In most cases, I am a good coach of my music.  I know how it should go, and I have very precise ideas about how it should go, but I’m not a first-class performer at all.

BD:   How much do you expect in the way of interpretation on the part of the performers, or do you want an exact copy each time?

Lerdahl:   No, I don’t want an exact copy.  One of the things that is really fun is to see what will happen with different performances of a piece.  This experience that I just had in Los Angeles with Cross Currents was quite wonderful, because Esa-Pekka Salonen is a really good conductor.  He gave a kind of drama to the piece that I’d always wanted, and that I heard, in certain respects, for the first time... although the premiere performances with Seattle Symphony (in 1989 led by Gerard Schwarz) were superb.  Maybe the most striking experience I had that was with Waltzes.  Whenever I coach that piece, the performance takes on a very particular stamp because I have a very clear idea how it should go.  But a couple of years ago, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players picked up the piece, and I coached them at the beginning.  They were going on a big tour, so when I coached them, it sounded pretty much the way I imagined it.  But they are very fine musicians, and they kept changing it as they went from town to town.  I was living in Ann Arbor, teaching at the University of Michigan at that time, and when they were playing it in Detroit towards the end of their tour I heard it, and it was an astonishing performance.  It was really good, but it was very different from what I had coached, and it was a real thrill for me.

BD:   You were pleased with the changes?

Lerdahl:   Yes.  It wasn’t better than my idea of it, but it was different, and just as good.  It was terrific!

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BD:   Is composing fun?

Lerdahl:   When it’s going well, it’s one of the two most enjoyable things in life!  [Laughs]  When it’s not going well, it’s very difficult because it affects my whole psyche.  But most of the time I have confidence that it’ll go well.  It rarely doesn’t go well when I have time and peace of mind.

lerdahl BD:   If you didn’t have to theorize, and if you didn’t have to teach, would you spend all of your time composing?  And, if so, would that be enough?

Lerdahl:   Probably.  One of my feelings is that maybe it wouldn’t be enough, which is why I do all those other things, too.  Maybe I need to create a balance for myself because I get so involved with my music that when I’m composing I need to escape it sometimes.

BD:   You said you work on just one piece at a time, but you have ideas for others.  Have you already pigeon-holed where some of these ideas are going to go?  Do you know that this will go into the third quartet, or the next orchestral piece, or another song?

Lerdahl:   A musical idea can be many things.  People sometimes think that it’s writing down a tune or a motif.  It’s not necessarily that.  It can be a certain kind of texture, or a structural idea.  It can also be a certain world of sound that has an expressive quality.  So, my idea at the moment for my string quartet that I’m thinking about has a certain aesthetic quality, a certain airiness of expression that is different from anything that I’ve written before.  I hear the sound, and I don’t hear yet what many of the specific ideas are.  On the other hand, I’ve started an orchestra piece, which I laid aside a couple of years ago, which has a very promising beginning.  I stopped because I wasn’t quite sure which direction it should go, and I’ll be resuming that when I figure out what it wants to be.

BD:   I was going to ask if you’ve made the decision yet...

Lerdahl:   No.  Maybe I have, but you never know until you actually do it.  There’s a certain critical point in composing
at least for mewhen the expression and its technical realization become indistinguishable.  With that particular piece, I haven’t quite found what that is.  When I do, then it’ll all become clear, and then I will finish it.  It will tell me what to do.

BD:   Can we assume that if you get a commission for an orchestral work, you wouldn’t accept it unless you had made that decision?

Lerdahl:   No, I would accept it because I want to write orchestra music, and I have lots of other orchestral ideas.  When it comes to this particular piece, I will finish it when it’s ready, and how it will become ready isn’t clear to me yet, but I’m sure it will be.

BD:   It’ll all become self-evident?

Lerdahl:   Well, I don’t know!  One is never completely satisfied with the work, but it will tell me something, and I’ll do it as well as I can.

BD:   You say you’re a perfectionist.  Have you ever achieved perfection?

Lerdahl:   Oh, that’s impossible to say! [Both laugh]  There are pieces that I wouldn’t change anything in, and there are other pieces
mostly earlier piecesthat I probably would change something.  In fact, I just revised a piece about six months ago that I wrote originally in 1977, and I revised it rather extensively.  I think I’ve made it a much better piece.  I didn’t change the meaning of a single measure.  It has the same number of measures, and it’s all the same music, but I’ve just improved it.

BD:   By shifting the emphasis a little bit?

Lerdahl:   I improved the instrumental writing mainly, and, in some cases I improved the texture and the harmony.

BD:   What if someone goes back to the first version and says, “Oh, but that’s much better!”?

Lerdahl:   [Laughs]  I suppose that’s possible, but I truly doubt it.

BD:   We have this idea of going back to urtexts...

Lerdahl:   A better example would be a composer who revises a lot.  Take Schumann with his symphonies.  Of course, Brahms was smart enough to destroy the earlier versions of his pieces in most cases.  Sometimes composers change pieces a little bit because of copyright reasons, like Stravinsky did with The Rite of Spring.

BD:   That’s just to keep the money coming in.

Lerdahl:   In his case, yes.  He lost the royalties when the Russian Revolution came.  But I don’t think I’ve ever made a piece worse by revising it.

BD:   Good, I hope it stays that way. 
Are you coming back to Chicago?

Lerdahl:   I don’t know when.  I grew up Madison, Wisconsin, so Chicago is always the big town for me.  I remember coming here with my father when I was very small, and the Prudential Building was the tallest one that I saw, and now it’s a Pygmy compared with all those others.  It’s a beautiful city, but I don’t come to Chicago as often as I do to many other cities in the country in fact.

BD:   I hope we can entice you back again for something.  Thank you for the conversation.

Lerdahl:   Thank you.


© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 16, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1998; on WNUR in 2006, 2009, and 2017; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2007.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.