FRED LERDAHL – The First Quartet

American Modern composer Alfred Whitford (Fred) Lerdahl [born 1943] wrote three string quartets.

The First Quartet, written in 1978 is a 22-minute one movement work. This sprawling abstract soundscape is magnificent, although, not for the faint-hearted. To me, it has roots in the American 1950-60s string quartet revival, or renewal – music that is still influential today.

Opening with sparse, harmonised slightly entropic pulses, the mood is just right. Slowly some melodic lines develop, to these ears, without a tonal centre. Sustained notes also begin to be heard, creating a marvellous harmonic landscape. This is music without boundaries, replete with constant surprises and strange sounds. Now a gentle background emerges to support some seemingly random musings from a violin. A move to a more rhythmic nature signals a change in the expression of the many melodic lines, becoming mostly stilted in their execution.

A pause leads to a sparser section, delicate even, as the cello joins the violins in projecting long tones. This is interrupted by a section of pizzicato leading to more intensity from the ensemble. Various string sound effects join the pizzicato with highly charged glissandi and peaceful harmonic flourishes. The sparsity continues and mysterious sounds form to create another wonderfully introspective mood. Similarly to some other composer that I recently discussed, whose name escapes me, this music stands with Carter and Babbitt in its textures and manifold mysteries.

The entrance of a rhythmic motif is a surprise, however, it soon gives way to the feeling of a dark night – some might say transfigured – with gentle murmurings before this too is interrupted by violin scratchings and a more powerful feeling. The ensemble now takes flight and a dense section features many glissandos in its powerful thrusts. A return to the gentle is profound as the ensemble create another sparse section where atonal chords, sometimes plucked, evoke the opening.

Sustained chords, eventually moving to another rhythmic motif, leads to a period of gentle pizzicato chords and shrill violin tones. The music is deep here, full of drama, before violins create sheets of sound that resonate strongly with me. Again the music subsides, back to a medium level of abstraction with motivic violins moving to the foreground. Approaching the end, there is a deal of chaos to be heard – again evoking that iconic mid twentieth century American sound. A pulsing cello is heard and the final notes are mysterious, atonal and sparse, leading to a prolonged conclusion which simply dissipates.

The review CD, Donald Martino & Fred Lerdahl: String Quartets on the NWCRI label and performed by the Juilliard String Quartet, also contains Donald Martino’s only string quartet, a work I intend to discuss in the future. The Juilliards are wonderful here, they really know how to get to the heart of modern composers. I have just ordered their new CD set, The Complete RCA Recordings at the expense of The Complete Epic sessions, because it contains more modern music.

The review CD is available from Amazon US and UK. There is also a CD, Music of Fred Lerdahl Vol. 3, performed by Daedalus Quartet on the Bridge label, which contains the three string quartets.

Both CDs are on Spotify and the Daedalus 1-3 are on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Finely crafted but probably difficult for some, exhibiting a high level of abstraction.


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