12/26/2014 07:01 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2015

Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: Lerdahl String Quartets, 1-3

Fred Lerdahl, composer and theorist, has written three string quartets a cycle that are important to the literature for this medium in the 21st century. There is a pedagogic nature to the writing, as the pieces teach you what they are about as they go along, and they are written in spiral form, whereby each successive phrase, and quartet, is an elaboration or development on the previous.

The first quartet is introspective, probing and inquisitive. It begins with the simplest of intervals, as in perfect fifths and major seconds. These intervals gradually become more complex, the density fuller and move to a free chromaticism. The phrases come one after the other generally without a break -- they are mostly of a lyrical, if anodyne, nature. The rhythms are episodic, rarely allowing for any sort of build up into anything like momentum. Since the work is mostly introspective, it is also mostly quiet. Like the Bartok quartets, and many others of the latter 20th century, it exploits the timbral possibilities of the instruments utilizing pizzicatos (the plucking of the strings with the fingers), sul ponticello (a nasal quality achieved by positioning the bow very close to the bridge) and even a striking of the wood of the bow against the strings, all with great frequency. There are stop-on-a-dime quick alternations from the playful to the ruminative, and the use of the widest registral space is axiomatic and prolific. One doesn't hear any long sustained emotive place, but many that follow on top of each other in rapid succession. As the variations grow in size they become more diffuse, even discursive, in organization.

The second quartet is formed of off-balance peripatetic rhythms, thus again there is rarely a sense of flow. The atmosphere is ascerbic, constructed rather than easily formed. It is in two parts or two variations. Each has a quiet introduction, a development, a climax, a scherzo of sorts and a coda. This is emotionally charged music. Phrases don't seem to end as much as to morph into the next affective space. There is not a lot of breathing in this work, but rather a rush of ideas (as a river doesn't breath). There are syrupy glissandos mixed with sounds of the plucking of the strings. The materials themselves are elusive and hard to grasp.

The third quartet starts with a rush of materials, almost as if it is in mid-phrase, which of course it almost is, as it is a final variation in this ever-expanding spiral of variations. But a twenty plus minute length can't be composed simply of one phrase and thus it is indeed formed of materials of widely differing emotive content, from angry bursts to internal gibberishings. It even has the first truly extended section of any of the three quartets, a perpetuo moto of sextuplets, that astonishingly provides the first stable and extended section of the entire cycle, even though it is a whirlwind of notes. It is immensely welcomed, if perhaps a little too late in its arrival. It is proceeded by expressionistic counterpoint, quick alternations of the highest and lowest registers, angular stabs from one instrument that seek to destroy the texture of the others, at which it succeeds. The atmosphere is dark and macabre. The piece finishes with a reversal of the opening chords of the first quartet, a bit of very tidy housekeeping that certainly works to close off the cycle.

The final and third quartet was written almost forty years after the first. It seems a little odd that Lerdahl could enter that same world, thinking it would be fresh and vital, and that his musical and psychological place wouldn't, or shouldn't, be quite different. If the first holds newness and freshness, and the second perhaps a modest extension of the world of the first into new terrain, the third seems a traversal of terrain already plumbed for as much as it can yield.

The entire cycle is self-referential and moves in a Proustian stream of consciousness with reflections upon reflections coming to the surface in it's spoken rhythms and gnarled pitch language. There is not quite enough material, nor that which is sufficiently differentiated, to sustain this architecture of an hour's duration. The lack of harmonic motion, oddly not a part of Lerdahl's language, makes for a certain wandering quality. There are moments of textual simplicity but mostly the music moves with great rapidity and little explanation. But while the work is mystifying, almost arcane -- it is never boring!