Fred Lerdahl's Mania for Order

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On its surface, one might think the history of modern classical music is about chaos: an explosion of styles, a profusion of noise, a sense of radical rule-breaking in every aspect of composing. But in fact, one of the strongest through-lines of the past century has been a mania for order. Strict, overdetermining formulas shape the music of both Milton Babbitt and Arvo Pärt; they just happen to have used very different processes, and those processes happen to manifest themselves in very different ways.

Listening to Volume 4 of Bridge Records's "The Music of Fred Lerdahl," one hears yet a third-also very different-approach to order taking shape in Lerdahl's compositions, over the course of several decades. The earliest piece on this disc is a dense, wild Joyce setting called Wake, here nimbly dispatched by soprano Bethanany Beardslee, but the more recent works on this disc have titles like Fantasy Etudes and Three Diatonic Studies that advertise their almost didactic clarity of form.

The Studies for piano spin their simple set of pitches through a series of novel, readily audible procedures, while the Fantasy Etudes, a sextet presented here in a reissue of the recording by chamber music superstars Eighth Blackbird, explore Lerdahl's so-called "spiral" form, an expanding structure that gradually builds from simple elements to music of far greater complexity, before boiling itself back down to basics.

Spirals presents the form in two orchestral movements, their long, continuous arcs almost as formally lucid as a so-called "minimalist" work but, from the outset, open to a much greater range of harmonic complications. The Argento Chamber Ensemble performs Imbrications, an intricately wrought study in imitative counterpoint for the same forces as the Fantasy Etudes—a palate-cleanser of a piece that in under three minutes encapsulates the meticulously elaborate, but nearly translucent formal construction on display in these recordings.

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