Fred Lerdahl

The Music and Writings of Composer Fred Lerdahl

Program note for Waves


Waves (1988) was commissioned by the Orpheus, St. Paul, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestras, with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts consortium grant. I wrote much of it while a composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. The instrumentation—double woodwinds, two horns, and a small string section—resembles that of a middle-period Haydn symphony. The work is in one movement and lasts approximately 15 minutes. 

The title refers not to the sea but to shapes of musical energy. The phrases surge at high speed in fluid, constantly varying patterns of sixteenth notes that break apart and merge. Beneath this flux lies a formal process of unitary expanding variations, in which a few events elaborate into a slightly longer sequence, and this into a still longer sequence, and so on until the final variation becomes many minutes long. The sectional boundaries are obscured by perpetual motion and gradual changes in texture. This formal scheme accommodates stylistic variety—including Baroque, Romantic, and minimalist elements—in a seamless way, all controlled by my maximalist voice. The melodic-harmonic treatment throughout is at the consonant extreme of my output, a feature that disguises the radical constructivism that underlies the surface.

Waves was premiered in 1989 by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, John Adams conducting. Later the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra recorded it after many exemplary performances (without a conductor!).

Fred Lerdahl


all materials copyright Fred Lerdahl 2009