Composing Notes

Lerdahl, Alfred W.

In my mid-twenties I experienced a prolonged creative block caused by the lack of a systematic compositional method. Composers of earlier generations had belonged to aesthetic camps that provided the security of reasonably complete aesthetic worldviews. If you were in the neoclassic camp, you embraced an urbane use of the past, employing certain compositional techniques; if you were in the serialist camp, you embraced an idea of the future, employing other techniques. With the explosion of the postwar avant-garde, however, anything became permissible and therefore nothing had the stamp of authority. The compositional systems that were fashionable in the 1960s tended to be opaque to the informed listener when hearing music composed with them; one could not discern the methods of construction without concentrated study. The justification for these systems was at bottom merely historical: composer A influenced composer B, who influenced composer C, and so on. According to the prevailing neo-Hegelian ideology, each step was obligatory and pointed the way to future progress. A composer who took the next dialectical step was viewed as significant. If you were not on the wave of the future, you were irrelevant to those who believed in that particular wave. By the late 1960s, however, there were many competing waves, and they effectively cancelled each other out. I wished to base my composing not on hidden codes and historical contingency but on the nature of the musical mind. Noam Chomsky's theory of generative linguistics, which advanced a program for the study of the human capacity for language, was to investigate particular grammars, the specifics of which are learned by experience, as a means toward characterizing universal grammar, which represents the computational mechanisms of the innate linguistic mental module and which underlies the learnability of particular grammars. This way of thinking about a mental capacity was revolutionary at the time, and it laid part of the foundation for what has since then become the cognitive sciences. The postwar musical avant-garde had found its natural affinity in the behaviorist philosophy that was ascendant in the 1940s and 1950s. Behaviorists believed that the mind was initially an undifferentiated blank slate that was completely malleable, and that learning took place entirely by exposure and association. This view suited historically contingent music that employed arbitrary codes. I sensed in the Chomskian approach a fresh way to think about music. If it was possible to study the language capacity, it should also be possible to study the musical capacity. If this could be accomplished in any detail, it should then be feasible to use this knowledge to guide the development of compositional methods that are structurally rich yet cognitively transparent. Admittedly, this was a utopian quest conceived in broad strokes, but it provided a program for my own development. This program began to materialize after I met Ray Jackendoff, a linguist who had independently reached similar conclusions about the application of the Chomskian framework to music. We concentrated on the particular grammar of Classical tonal music, but our deeper goal was to articulate universal principles of musical cognition. Not only did theoretical ideas find an adapted place in my music, but my musical imagination and creative needs also suggested theoretical ideas, sometimes well in advance of anything I was able to state systematically. This interaction between composition and theory has persisted to the present day.



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Columbia University
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April 14, 2015