Fred Lerdahl's Wake
This wonderful piece is a bit hard to describe; but I have a few thoughts on how Lerdahl might have been inspired....
See, John Cage, upon ascending to Heaven, looked up Arnold Schoenberg, who, being slightly peeved at God for not lending him a hand with Act 3 of Moses und Aron, was revising it so the Golden Calf came out ahead. Cage coughs politely. "Arnie," he says, "I really like that Pierrot Lunaire thing you did. Great stuff. I was just wondering, have you read this book?" Cage thrusts a battered copy of Finnegans Wake into his hands. Schoenberg eyes it warily. Cage continues, "Well, there's this Fred guy down on Earth, nice boy, very creative, and he really wants to write a new piece for this soprano he admires; but it's got to be a bit unusual -- something to spook to old folks with, but still essentially, you know, engaging." Schoenberg raises an eyebrow. Cage presses on, "She has a great voice, and the whole piece should unfold around her narrative. The music needs to be nervous, edgy, some of that atonal stuff that really keeps you on your toes, but not cold or overly dissonant." Cage surreptitiously nudges the score of Pierrot Lunaire so it covers his friend's later, purely serial works. "Her name is Beardslee, and she'll sing in English. Well, sort of." At which Schoenberg finally speaks: "I don't know, John. Will there be Sprechstimme?" Cage waves his hand, "Sure, a bit, but also some clear flights of lyrical beauty, some whispering, maybe a shout or two. The music will be fun, but complex. And, yeah -- percussion. There should be sudden burst of percussion. It'll follow a cyclical motif, and the music will be as varied as the singing and the text. And silences, yes. We'll need a few quiet moments and some lovely silences." Schoenberg frowns for a second, then asks, "Er . . . silence?" Cage nods, and Schoenberg reluctantly opens the Wake. After a few puzzled moments, he closes the book and says quietly, "You know, Alban and Anton are right down the hall...."
Well, that's how I picture it, anyway. And the fact that Cage died twenty-four years after Lerdahl's Wake was written, well, I'm sure you're all far too charmed by the story to point that out, right?
(Arranged from Book I, Chapter 8 of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce)
But toms will till. Will toms till but. Till but toms will.
Tell me all. (Anna was.) Tell me now. The old cheb
went futt, mythed with gleam of her shadda,
holding doomsdag over hunself, dreeing his weird,
queasy quizzers. And the cut of him. And the strut
of him. With a hump of grandeur. For mine ether
duck I thee drake. And by my wildgaze I thee
gander. Saw him shoot swift up her shebba sheath,
like any gay lord salomon, her bulls they were
ruhring, surfed with spree.
Do tell us all about. As we want to hear allabout.
So tellus tellas allabouter. Proxenete.
Where do I stop? Never stop! Garonne, garonne!
Tongue your time now, flow now, ower more.
And pooley pooley.
She was just a young thin pale soft shy (Livia is)
slim slip of a thing then, nymphant shame,
tigris eye. Of fallen griefs, of weeping willows.
Deep dark, stagnant black pools, innocefree
with her limbs aloft.
Mersey me! Shake it up, do, do!
Calamity electrifies man.
Tell me the trent of it. Onon! Onon!
Close only knows.
Tys Elvenland! The seim anew. (Plurabelle's
to be.) Look, look, the dusk is growing!
My branches lofty are taking root. What age is at?
It saon is late, 'tis endless now. It's churning chill.
Der went is rising. Some here, more no more.
Can't hear with the waters of. The chittering
waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk.
Can't hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying
waters of. I feel as old as yonder elm. Dark
hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls,
I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Night now! Tell
me, tell me, tell me, elm. Night night! Telmetale of
stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of,
hitherandthithering waters of. Night!
| Excerpts from the liner notes from the CRI Compact Disc, Fred Lerdahl. Written by Fred Lerdahl.
During the summer of 1967 and 1968, while still a graduate student, I had the good fortune to be a composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Music Festival. Bethany Beardslee, the already legendary diva of contemporary music, also spent those summers there. I wrote Wake for her. Accompanying the soprano here are violin, viola, cello, harp, and percussion (three players). Beardslee premiered the work under my direction at Marlboro in 1968. This recording, originally released on the AR-DGG series, dates from 1971.
Wake is the best fruit of my first period, which might be described as "post-Schoenbergian atonal/romantic." (I have never been a serial composer.) Everything in the piece revolves around the soprano narration. The text is from passages in Chapter Eight of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, cut up and rearranged so as to reflect the themes of the book as a whole. The form divides into three "cycles," flanked by an introduction, two transitions, and a coda. Washerwomen are gossiping at the ford. Cycle I concerns hearsay about Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Cycle II about his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle. Cycle III depicts the gradual dissolution of the scene into night, with associated intimations of metamorphosis. A generous use of percussion lends atmosphere to the dream-like proceedings.
--Written by Fred Lerdahl. Copyright 1990, CRI
| Excerpts from the liner notes from the DG LP, The Music of Fred Lerdahl
Fred Lerdahl was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1943 and began composing at age 15. He received a Bachelor of Music at Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin) and a Master of Fine Arts at Princeton University. He received a Koussevitsky Composition Prize at Tanglewood in 1966 and has served as composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Music Festival. He was also a Fulbright scholar in Germany in 1968 and is presently teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.
Wake was composed in 1967-1968 and received its premiere on August 14, 1968 at the Marlboro Music Festival with Bethany Beardslee as soprano soloist and the composer conducting. The text, taken from Book I, Chapter 8 of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, was arranged by the composer in an attempt to reflect the structure and major themes of the book. Listeners who know Joyce's recorded reading from this chapter will recall the unusual poetic intensity of the passage and be grateful for the excerption. The piece is divided into three "cycles" with introduction, transitions, and coda. Washerwomen are gossiping at the ford: Cycle I is concerned with gossip of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker; Cycle II with Anna Livia Plurabelle, his wife; Cycle III with the gradual dissolution of the scene into night. Repeated passages contribute an interesting dimension in the unfolding of the piece suggesting also the theme of recurrence which is a major concern of the book. A generous use of percussion evokes suggestions of the "Fall" in its multifarious manifestations in the books, Humpty Dumpty's fall from the wall (Humpty being a manifestation of the hero of the book), etc. The piece is scored for soprano, harp, string trio and percussion.
The first appearance of Wake was on vinyl. The album was issued as the first LP in the Acoustic Research Contemporary Music Project series (AR 1) and was released on Deutsche Grammaphon. Lerdahl's piece was the "flip side" of the disc, which also featured Milton Babbitt's Philomel.
There is only one version of Wake on CD: Fred Lerdahl: Waltzes, Eros, Fantasy Etudes, Wake -- (1993; Composers Recordings, Inc. CD 580.)
I like this CD so much that I feel the need to offer a small review -- I'd recommend it even if there wasn't a Joycean piece in the mix. All four works are highly original, energetic, and distinctive, and though there are many moments reminiscent of mid-period Schoenberg, Lerdahl's music has more humor, more direct emotion, and is colored with some wonderful flights of percussive invention. (Although it is frequently dissonant and atonal, but does not utilize the methods of serialism.)
The first selection on the disc is called Waltzes, and it not quite what the title would lead you to expect. A twenty-one minute long work scored for "low" string quartet (a bass replacing the second violin), it's made up of twelve "virtuoso" waltzes that run together without pause, and it sounds more like a modern string quartet than a series of elegant dances. The "waltzes" are indeed virtuoso pieces, ranging from moments of quiet beauty to passages of dissonance that bring to mind the string quartets of Shotakovich. They are filled with energy, passion, and moments of mercurial humor; quotations are made and distorted, there are sudden shifts in direction, and momentum gradually builds until the final fugal climax. They are followed by Eros, my favorite work on the disc, a twenty-two minute sequence of variations on Ezra Pound's poem "Coitus." Scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, viola, harp, piano, percussion, electric guitar and electric bass guitar, Eros is difficult to describe -- the Grateful Dead performing Erwartung was one of my first impressions, an opera involving an alien mating ritual was another. (Though a bit tongue-in-cheek, these thoughts may serve to give the general flavor of the piece.) The music evolves slowly through different moods, and things shift with a disarming subtlety -- Eros is at times eerie, chilling, gorgeous, even shrill; but always fascinating. The open sexuality of the lyrics coupled with the strangeness of the music lends it a certain otherworldly eroticism, and the whole piece is possessed with an unsettling power: the flute teases and haunts seductively, the guitars spatter and rain down notes from outer space, the percussion interjects moments of barbaric ritual, and even the strings and harp only offer occasional moments of tranquility -- there is almost a delicious sense of being seduced and devoured. . . . The Fantasy Etudes are the quietest works on the disc, 12 interlocking and overlapping etudes scored for a "Pierrot-like Ensemble," each one growing more complex until it collapses "under the weight of its own elaborations," subsequently giving birth to the next etude. Like all of Lerdahl's work, they are complex and endlessly fascinating. The disc ends with Wake, which rewards repeated listening and seems to have an almost inexhaustible supply of small surprises....
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase Fred Lerdahl CDs online from Amazon.com below. You can also read more on the CRI homepage.)
Fred Lerdahl: Waltzes, Eros, Fantasy Etudes, Wake
Fred Lerdahl(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1993
--A. Ruch &
15 December 2000