Fred Lerdahl

The Music and Writings of Composer Fred Lerdahl

Program note for The First Voices 


The First Voices (2007), for eight percussionists and three singers (soprano, mezzo, alto), was commissioned by Bradford and Dorothea Endicott for Frank Epstein and the New England Conservatory. The work is dedicated to Frank Epstein, director of the NEC Percussion Ensemble. I also wish to thank Robert Dodson, former provost at NEC, for his role in making this commission possible. 

In my youth I went to the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York and sat mesmerized for four hours listening to West African drumming. The First Voices is my homage to that experience. My starting point was a parallel, discovered by ethnomusicologists in the 1980s, between standard scales and West African rhythms. If you count up the major diatonic scale in semitones, the pattern is 2-2-1-2-2-2-1. Similarly, the pattern for the pentatonic scale is 2-2-3-2-3; for the major triad it is 4-3-5. West African drumming often employs these asymmetrical patterns as durational values. For example, the rhythmic equivalent to the diatonic scale is quarter-quarter-eighth-quarter-quarter-quarter-eighth. 

The First Voices is in one high-spirited movement, about 12 minutes long. The form is ABABA. After a brief vocal introduction, the A sections exclusively employ the asymmetrical West African rhythms. When pitched instruments or voices enter, they play or sing scales and chords equivalent to their rhythmic counterparts, often in canon. Consequently, the piece is more diatonic and triadic than most of my music. In transitional passages, I inject more symmetrical scales (octatonic, hexatonic, whole-tone) along with their rhythmic equivalents. The B sections are built from a different principle: as in certain pygmy music, they move in 36-beat cycles, divided into simultaneous sub-cycles (4 x 9, 6 x 6, etc.). 

The text, from Rousseau’s Essay on the Origins of Language, is an eloquent early statement of the view that music and language co-evolved. My approach to the text is rather abstract; using the French seemed unnecessary, and the setting is in English translation. The text has an oblique relationship to what is essentially a percussion piece, for which the voices provide another layer of texture and meaning.

Fred Lerdahl


With the first voices came the first articulations formed according to the respective passions. Anger produces menacing cries. But the voice of tenderness is softer. And such an utterance becomes a sound, according to the feeling to which it is joined. Rhythm and sounds are born with syllables: all voices speak under the influence of passion, which adorns them with all their éclat. Thus verse, singing, and speech have a common origin. The first discourses were the first songs. The periodic recurrences and measures of rhythm, the melodious modulations of accents, gave birth to poetry and music. At first, there was no music but melody and no other melody than the varied sounds of speech. Accents constituted singing, quantity constituted measure, and one spoke as much by natural sounds and rhythm as by articulations and words. To speak and to sing were formerly one. 

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essai sur l’origine des langues. Trans. J. H. Moran & A. Gode.)


all materials copyright Fred Lerdahl 2009