Ligeti at 100

Ahead of his 100th Birthday, APO's Francesca McGeorge explores the works of György Ligeti.

2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the 20th century’s most exciting composers, György Ligeti. Described by The Guardian as “a composer who refused to play by the rules” his impressive œuvre “reveals an imaginative world of dizzying variety and expressive power.” He drew from and transformed all manner of musical styles – electronic, serial, atonal – from ethereal, dream-like sounds to works of vast and breathtaking intensity.

Born to Hungarian-Jewish parents in 1923, Ligeti’s younger years were dominated first by Hitler and then Stalin’s oppression. Against all odds he survived internment in a labour camp (unlike his brother and father) and managed to pursue a sound musical education following WWII. It was only once he fled to Vienna during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, that his career as an internationally lauded composer would flourish.

After his escape to Western Europe, Ligeti’s international acclaim grew rapidly with his works Apparitions (1958–59), which caused a sensation at its premiere in 1960, and Atmosphères (1961) for orchestra. Both demonstrate what the composer termed ‘micropolyphonic’ texture, in which tone clusters of dense, textural sound are prioritised over discernible rhythm or melody. Of Atmosphères, Ligeti noted that “the sonorous texture is so dense that the individual interwoven instrumental voices are absorbed into the general texture and completely lose their individuality … tone colour, usually a vehicle of musical form, is liberated from form to become an independent entity.”

By placing texture ahead of melody and rhythm, Ligeti revolutionised traditional musical structure and language of the time, creating music that seems almost at a stand-still – a slow-motion, eerily morphing web of sound. This otherworldliness drew the attention of Stanley Kubrick who used several Ligeti works (at first without permission) including Atmosphères for his 1968 sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Another work that drew the attention of Kubrick, and would be included in his film The Shining (1980), was the haunting work Lontano. ‘Lontano’ means, “in the distance” in Italian, and Ligeti described the piece as depicting the “opening and closing of a window on long submerged dream worlds of childhood” through surging waves of music. It is scored for large orchestra but without percussion, and the dynamic level remains low throughout, so that it indeed seems to be heard from a distance before fading out of earshot. It is regarded as one of Ligeti’s greatest compositions.

In the 1970s, Ligeti began to develop a stronger interest in rhythm in his compositions, which can be detected in one of my personal favourites of Ligeti’s compositions, Clocks and Clouds (1972) for 12-part female choir and orchestra. The name came from Karl Popper’s 1966 philosophical essay Of Clouds and Clocks, which describes two phenomena, systems that are measurable, regular and ordered versus those that are less predictable, irregular and abstract. In the work, precise rhythms contrast atmospheric microtonal harmonies, resulting in a dynamic duality. Ligeti said of the piece:

“I liked Popper’s title and it awakened in me musical associations of a kind of form in which rhythmically and harmonically precise shapes gradually change into diffuse sound textures and vice-versa, whereby then, the musical happening consists primarily of processes of the dissolution of the ‘clocks’ to ‘clouds’ and the condensation and materialization of ‘clouds’ to ‘clocks’.”

Ligeti was also known to enjoy Salvador Dalí’s absurdist visual of clocks melting, such as in the iconic 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory.

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