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György Ligeti and his wishes

Monday, 22 May 2023 , ora 11.19

"I live here and now, as a part of a certain culture and what I produce will turn out to be valuable in time, or not."

"For me… music is like a scientific preoccupation: the scientist tries to solve a problem because that thing interests him and he pays no mind to its use. Therefore, the question whether what I do is necessary is irrelevant.I live here and now, as a part of a certain culture, and what I produce will turn out to be valuable in time, or not. The importance of a work that belongs to a specific culture will be judged after its release." ("György Ligeti - Documentary"). This confession comes from a creator that has brought forward an acoustic world which is impossible to be put in a box, labelled, or defined, within that medley of languages and diverse beliefs of the XX century. Even so, his works have completely, and in a way, brutally influenced the contemporary scene, since the diversity of techniques and his way of combining sources of information with personal elements has been doubled by the undoubtable courage of self-expression without any compromise regarding certain subjects or fundamental preoccupations of his. Overall, his courage and boldness are the perfect words to describe his whole biography.

György Ligeti was born 100 years ago at Diciosânmartin (the actual Târnăveni), in Transilvania, within a family of Hungarian Jews and lived his childhood during a tragic period, permanently stained by the persecution against Jews (Second World War, the Holocaust), followed by the wild Communism of the 50s. His family moved to Cluj when he was six years old; despite his artistic inclinations, his father enforced that his education be directed towards exact sciences, and that is why he only started taking piano lessens at the age of fourteen. Despite all, around the same age, he started to come up with his first compositions - influenced by the purchase of a radio, and, thus, by the enormous volume of musical pieces from that period by Wagner, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinski, Debussy and Bartók.

In 1941, the young man took the entrance exams for studying Mathematics and Physics at the University in Cluj; even though he passed the exams, the Nazi regulations from that period in Transilvania,which had been occupied, prohibited the access to Jews in some institutions, and so he turned to the Conservatory, as he himself recounts, even though he didn't posses any systematic information on musical theory or composition. In January 1944, his musical studies were brutally interrupted by his and his whole family's deportation to the Nazi forced-labour camps; he and his mother were the sole survivors from the family.

"I went to Budapest because I wholehartedly wanted to study with Bartók. But when I arrieved there, a black flag was put out in front of the Conservatory..."

An interesting detail from his biography is his departure (or better his relocation) to Budapest - a decisive step in his musical becoming: the youngGyörgy used to attend courses or certain conferences from there during his summer holidays, and one of his greatest wishes was to meet and work with Béla Bartók, one of the creators that have managed to influence the creation of his first compositional language, together with Stravinski and Debussy. And yet, during an unfortunate twist of fate, he passed away without ever coming back to Hungary, in September 1945, just when Ligeti's family was moving to Budapest for the next few years. The period he spent at the "Franz Liszt" Conservatory, an academic oasis of culture, and the land of free-expression for a few years, have given him the opportunity to compose especially choral works (where he included a lot of Transilvanian and Hungarian folk songs, gathered and studied during all that time), as well as instrumental works that were very interesting, where the Bartók influence can be seen immediately - The Sonata for solo violoncello, Musica Ricercata for piano (and afterwards made for a quintet of woodwind instruments) and the Quartet of Chords "Nocturnal Metamorphoses" - his first work in which he experiemnts and begins to strenghten what will later become his specific language.

The Quartet of Chords "Nocturnal Metamorphoses", in the interpretation of the Belcea Quartet

"It was a reiteration of the Nazi theory, but now dressed in Communist clothes, an ordinary walk during which you could be killed with every step you took (shot, hanged) or put behind bars for anything."

This Quartet could never see the light of day until he ran away from Budapest.György went even further west in 1956, after living in an unbreathable climate enforced by the Stalinist censorship on the social life in Hungary and on the arts, in general. It was, as he himself recalls in the biographic movie "Ligeti - Documentary", a reiteration of the Nazi theory, but now dressed in Communist clothes, an ordinary walkduring which you could be killed with every step you took (shot, hanged) or put behind bars for anything."

Travelling through different cities of the Occidental Europe, from Vienna to Köln, Hamburg, Stockholm, and back to Vienna, he managed to redefine himself, through an immense burst of originality, which was called at the time "the avantgarde of the art music"; his creative journey began before his escape from Hungary, terrorized by Communism and continued until his last composition, painting a raw and vibrant painting of his beliefs about "unplanned music". The idea of pre-conception, of belonging to one or many stylistic "trends" was as foreign as the association or the affiliation with a compositional school (avantgarde or traditional), even though he researched and experienced them closely - whether it was Bartok, Stravinski or many others' legacies, or the sound and acoustic experiments of his contemporaries (Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage). This uniqueness of his thinking meant a permanent discovery of new self-expression techniques and - by extension - of new sources of inspiration, so that every new work came with new challenges and new answers, skillfully and colorfully carried out, sometimes frightfully courageous through displaying unique solutions.

The vision of the end of all things - painted in a cosmic manner and on a cosmic scale - is transformed in a primordial bath of an incandescence which seems to overcome the limits of the tangible"

All these entangled sailings throughout the ocean of Litigian sounds have, however, some aesthetic stable landmarks, permanent ones, like a map, meant to help us detangle the labyrinth he created: first of all, the vision of the end of all things - painted in a cosmic manner and on a cosmic scale, from the Earthly Apocalypse to the "incandescent death" of the Universe (defined that way by the composer and conductor Thomas Andes) - is being sonorized by him at levels which exceed that which encompasses the social-acceptable thinking;"the end of the world" is by far not an original theme, but Ligeti transforms this "event" in a primordial bath of an incandescence which seems to overcome the limits of the tangible. The Terror Dimension, the one of Fear, has given Stanley Kubrick the idea to use Ligeti's music in the portrayal of the Alien, of some other Intelligence in his famous movies, "2001: A Space Odissey" and in the horror one, "Shining", making these works famous beyond the quite narrow world of the followers and the listeners of art music.

Kubrick - A Space Odissey

Another stable dimension of his entire work is linked to the affinity towards "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Caroll, a book that we usually read during our childhood in order to comprehend its surface and come back later to it during our maturity years so as to research the Absurd as a poetic dimension, a literary one, an aesthetic one, within a multitude of instances. This can be found everywhere in Ligeti, doubled by the catastrophical dimension of his visions, in many of his works: Atmospheres (1961), Requiem (1963-65), in his Le Grand Macabre, within some other works for instrumental groups and vocal ones.

Atmosphères - Interpreted by Berliner Philharmoniker, Conductor Simon Rattle

"Le grand Macabre -is not music for everyone! (Ligeti)"

Speaking of the Absurd, we can feel the ironic instance of his by the composer's choice itself (he was Jewish) to come up with a Requiem ( a religious-Christian musical genre), in a shorter form, in a more condensed one, bleaker than any other work ever written. In his Le Grand Macabre work (so-called by the author as an anti-work) this aesthetic dimension is being exploited through a synopsis comprised of an incredible macabre humour, where the End of the World is announced at the beginning as being unescapable in the said evening (triggered by a comet summoned by the comic, and yet crimminal character Nekrotzar), followed by a medley of maniacal gestures that people commit within the last hours of waiting of the Macabre. This ends with a "drunken mistake", which sends the comet another way, destroying Saturn. This is not the only work in which the Absurd comes in ironic instances, many times comic ones as well, portraying in some way a unique side of the author's nature - a survivor of some many personal and social tragedies - counterbalancing in some way the terrorizing side of the Catastrophic.

About the anti-work"Le Grand Macabre" - NDR documentary

His early education in exact sciences had strenghtened his inclination towards precision, towards the making of acoustics with a very dense structure, like an irregular fabric, trnslucent in some places, in others thick as a blanket, with a consistency that may be either velvety or, on the contrary, sharp or rough like a slope made from mountain scree. His experiments with electronic music had nourished his imagination, and, at the same time, had offred him a source to find his own world, which can be seen in all of his works between 1958 and 1977 (including Apparitions, Atmosphères and Requiem). Ironically, he gave up on the electronic wave in favour of acoustic instruments, being influenced by the Flemmish composer Johannes Ockeghem (a forerunner of Renaisscence music), naming this creation technique "micropholyphony" or - as he writes in his article "Dauntless and rhapsodic thoughts about music, especially about my own compositions" - "oversaturated polyphony".

The musical texture that he created has been later diversified through models of musical and rhythmic networks in interference, with eterophonic overlapping formulas in iridescent spaces. If in the melody area Ligeti has reduced the "texture" scale in favour of the harmonies based on the natural harmonics of sounds, the rhythmic paths become extremely complicated. That is why, an expert and a fervent consummer of jazz music or of different African music shoudn't miss the cycle of Piano Studies, The Piano and Orchestra Concerto or the Nosense Madrigals, together with their overlapping diverse pulsations. These new aesthetic dimensions of his music would consecrate him until his passing away in June 2006.

The Piano Concerto - UMZE Ensemble, soloist Zoltan Fejervari

"Ligeti can be found everywhere in our life and in our ears, even though we want that or not, even though we like it or not."

Where can we find Ligeti nowadays, the creator? Almost everywhere in our life and in our ears, even though we want that or not, even though we like it or not. The avantgarde movement of the XX century composers has "adopted" him, without him wanting it necessarily; he opened the gates to a way of writing music that is completely original, but not because the things he would come up with were otherwordly, but because his resources were creative, his intelligence brilliant and his courage incredible. This determined him to combine sources of acoustic inspiration which would seem impossible to be put together. He did not create within the whole world of tonality, a system so relaxing for our ears, an attentively grown garden, where the tension is always resolved (no matter how tangled the road towards the answer may be) and it is dominated by the feeling of happy end (or at least by the finally end one, in some tragic or dramatic cases). This domain was visited, researched, decomposed, recomposed by Ligeti, together with other musical languages, parallel and/or denielist - of which the last century is full of - and it is considered to be spent from an aesthetic point of view. In fact, he, the composer, has imagined a context which has happened during his youth and which, in some gentle or different way, is happening right now as well, years after his death.

Great famous artists from equally famous electronic music festivals would be happy if they studied Ligeti a little, in case someone would inform them a little.

First of all, at an acoustic level, we are surrounded by acoustic textures socially-accepted and savoured, day by day more "artificial", besides the city noise that we call them exhausted "truly polluting". In Brahms' time, the city uproar or even the landscape one would never reach the stage of diversity and unpredictability from now; we are a noisy race and the population continues to grow at a planetary level.

On another note, great famous artists from equallyfamous electronic music festivals would be happy if they studied Ligeti a little, in case someone would inform them a bit, since they strive to electronically composed the things that Ligeti managed to do by using traditional instruments - and this is one of the hardest composition techniques. The acoustic texture is everywhere in a natural or incidental way, but it is hard to replicare or recreate.

Continuing, from the narrow world of acoustics to the global one that we live in, the term of "a daily routine" is hardly ever followed - and then the adaptation, the boldness, the setiations without any fix that we find ourselves in or that we generate and the tension (some call it courageously "fear", others, more diplomatic are calling it "stress"), permanently found in our life influences us unparalelled, as they did to Ligeti. His priceless legacy is the exact live paiting, filtered in a creative way, of the world that we live in, a world of global information, of paradox, of the permanent overlapping of wishes, actions, activities, emotions, of movement (sometimes Brownian), a world of the absurd, but also a world where humour, irony, couragem tolerance and kindness have their special place and, we hope, they prevail.

While listening to this great composer we get frightened, we darken, we get scandalized, we are left in awe or fascination. Each of his works could easily send us out of the concert hall our could keep us glued to the chair; each of the reactions make him happy, up there above where he is now, since this means that his music managed to touch us, to leave a mark on us, to change something in us. And that is what he would have liked.

Studies for the piano "Autumn in Warsaw " and "The Devil's Staircase", Yuja Wang - piano

Translated by Adelina-Maria Mănăilescu,
University of Bucharest, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, MTTLC, year I
Corrected by Silvia Petrescu