“Eerie, microscopically evolving beauty”

by abbamoses

György Ligeti

I’ve been spending time with the works of György Ligeti. His music is drastically different from that of fellow-modernist Morton Feldman, about whom I wrote in an earlier post: where Feldman likes silence and open space, Ligeti’s most typical pieces are impenetrably dense; where Feldman deliberately rejected linear structure, Ligeti wrote formal works whose novel sounds often disguised a baroque polyphony. But I think they attract me for some of the same reasons: a sense of timelessness, a respect for sound in itself, and an invitation to the listener to pay attention to small things.

His best-known and, to my mind, most beautiful works are his “micropolyphonic” pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, in which many voices intertwine until their individual identities seem to disappear into a slowly shifting web of sound. Alex Ross, in a good essay on Ligeti, used the phrase “eerie, microscopically evolving beauty” (the source of the title of this post).

It’s amazing to me how beautiful “dissonant” combinations of notes — stacked semitones or even quarter-tones — can sound. I suspect that the reason is that, unlike more in-your-face 20th-century composers, Ligeti didn’t want to be dissonant: he was using new tools in an effort to express transcendance and beauty. Some of his most powerful pieces are choral settings from the Latin Mass — surprising, perhaps, for an ethnic Jew who as far as I know was not a practitioner of any religion, but suggestive of the spirituality for which his work so often seems to be reaching.

Ligeti was born in 1923 to a Hungarian family in the Transylvanian region of Romania, later part of Hungary. He and his family experienced a heavy portion of the twentieth century’s horrors: first Nazism and the Second World War, in which many of his Jewish family perished; then Soviet Communism. About these ideologies Ligeti wrote: ”Viewed objectively, the Nazis were more dangerous, but there nevertheless existed a hope that Hitler would soon be overthrown. The Soviet system, however, aroused more despair because it seemed to last for ever and thus, subjectively, appeared more dreadful.” Under the Communist regime, all music was regulated by the State, and many of his experimental pieces were written, as he put it, “for the bottom drawer.” However, he managed to produce some more traditional, but quite lovely, choral and orchestral music. It shows his love for intricately related voices and often reminds me of Renaissance polyphony. (So do his later, “edgy” choral pieces like Lux Aeterna, but in a less obvious way.) He drew on Hungarian folk music, so some of his pieces are inevitably reminiscent of Bartók and Kodály. During the brutal Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, He and his wife managed to escape to Austria. His works gradually became known in the west, and in the 1960s some even approached popularity through their use in the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. He died in 2006.

He had little interest in the shifting fads and theories of the modernist musical world, and even satirized them in a few of his pieces. Here is a link to the “score” of his Poème Symphonique (!) for 100 metronomes. (I think the title is a sarcastic reference to the Poèmes Symphoniques of the Romantic show-off Franz Liszt).  A good part of the “score” is devoted to the problem of obtaining 100 metronomes and the details of winding them once found. What one might consider the most important specification, the tempos of the metronomes, is not mentioned. Ligeti wrote “What bothers me nowadays are above all ideologies (all ideologies, in that they are stubborn and intolerant towards others), and Poème Symphonique is directed above all against them.”

In another place Ligeti simply wrote (about his walking away from the infighting of the European modernists) “I, personally, have no ambition to be first or to be important.” Again like Feldman: he belonged to no school and gave birth to no school, making music that seemed to emerge from no theory, but simply from the pursuit of beauty.