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Fred Lerdahl’s Achievement

Introduction to Fred Lerdahl:
Tonal Space, Text Setting, and Musical Narrative

Schoff Memorial Lecture Series

Columbia University

November 26, 2018

As he mentioned in last week’s Schoff lecture, Fred’s magnum opus, the Generative Theory of Tonal Music (or GTTM) had its roots in Bernstein’s Harvard Norton Lectures of 1973 later published as The Unanswered Question. Bernstein was a celebrity, perhaps the last which classical music was able to produce, so these were major cultural and intellectual events. I attended along with Fred and his eventual collaborator on GTTM Ray Jackendoff and probably several thousand others.

I was 14 at the time and while I didn’t know Fred, I did know Ray who, as an MIT graduate student in my father’s department, assumed the status of something like a cousin, as many did, routinely joining us for meals and celebrating holidays with us. An accomplished clarinetist and active freelancer in and around Boston, Ray’s performances of Stravinsky Three Pieces for solo clarinet were revelatory for me as was his post-performance discussion of the perceptual ambiguities resulting from the shifting meters and how performers can choose to resolve these-or not.

Given that some of my initial exposure to sophisticated ideas about music came from a linguist, it makes sense that my initial understanding of linguistics would be channeled by Bernstein through music. Bernstein’s command of the field was significantly impoverished, as many, including Ray and my father, noted at the time.  But it did at least invoke some of the core vocabulary and, most importantly, managed to communicate something which is to this day not well understood: that long standing mysteries about the nature of language were finally being addressed or at least coherently formulated in the hallways of MIT building 20.

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