Fred Lerdahl

The Music and Writings of Composer Fred Lerdahl

Program note for Spirals


Spirals (2006) was commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra with generous funding from Music Alive. The instrumentation is for double woodwinds, two horns, two trumpets, percussion, piano, and strings. The total duration is about 18 minutes. The premiere performances by the SPCO took place in March 2007, Cliff Colnot conducting. 

Spirals is in two movements of equal length, the first fast and driven, the second slow and lyrical. The title refers to a formal technique of my invention, in which a short, simple idea elaborates into progressively complex and diverse patterns. Each cycle of elaboration enlarges the spiral. Shortly after the midpoint of each movement, the spiral reverses and contracts back to its point of origin while the musical ideas themselves continue to develop. This combination of symmetry and process culminates in points of great intensity. The constraints of the spiral technique allow freedom and flexibility while providing a coherence that is sometimes audible, other times only sensed. The dialectic between developing process and palindromic form, overlaid with free fantasy, creates a sonic world of both inevitability and surprise. 

A cadential progression generates the first movement. In the second movement, a long, winding melody, which arises from the voice-leading patterns of the cadential progression from the opening movement, functions as a cantus firmus. Other textures accrue, but the melody is always present and controls the tonal motion as tension slowly builds and reaches a climax. A short, dissipating coda recalls the harmonies of the beginning of the first movement. 

Fred Lerdahl



all materials copyright Fred Lerdahl 2009