Ligeti: A Sound Odyssey

Remembering the genius whom Stanley Kubrick stole music from.

György Ligeti

First, a confession. In the 1970s, I got familiar with a recording of avant-garde composer György Ligeti’s Adventures and New Adventures for a small group of instruments and “singers” but had to wait 10 years and hear those pieces live before I realized that they’re falling-down funny: absurdist chamber “operas” expressed by shouts, wheezes, squeaks, sighs, whoops, blitherings, bellows, and so on— everything but actual words. Before then, it hadn’t occurred to me that the avant-garde and the comic could cohabitate. They didn’t teach you that in music school. They taught you retrograde inversions, pitch classes, parameters, Klangfarbenmelodie, i.e., the gamut of formal/intellectual shibboleths that were supposed to explain contemporary music.

Ligeti had his own singular and unpredictable parameters. Sometimes he’s almost alarmingly funny, other times mesmerizing, uncanny, hyperbolic, touching, ironic—all the good stuff music used to do. It’s characteristic of his individualism and rapport with the past that as a nominal “experimental” composer, he could bring it all off. Listening to the two Adventures with enlightened ears, I kept thinking, with a certain manic glee, of Mozart. As with the old guys, here was music that was exquisitely what it was, with a splendid harmony of expression and form and content. It was Ligeti’s genius to take the ideas and techniques of the late-century German experimental school and make them musical, which is to say: humanize the avant-garde. Which in turn is to say: To make new sounds and forms expressive is to discover new territories of the human.

Ligeti died at 83 in June 2006, working on a third book of his already legendary etudes for piano. Even though most great artists start off as ordinary blokes in ordinary circumstances, he still managed an unusually long and painful journey. He came from a cultured Hungarian Jewish family that ended up in concentration camps in World War II. His father and teenage brother died there. György managed to escape from a slave-labor camp and walked home to find there was no more home. After the war, he studied music intensely and settled into a teaching and composing career in Budapest. Having survived the Nazis, Ligeti now had to contend with the Soviets. In communist Hungary, writing strange chords could have nasty consequences. Following the Russian clampdown of 1956, he fled Hungary and found himself broke and unknown in Cologne, where Karlheinz Stockhausen was the presiding genius. It was hearing Stockhausen’s electronic masterpiece Gesang der Jünglinge on an accidentally unblocked radio broadcast, accompanied by gunfire in the streets outside, that had inspired Ligeti to flee Hungary in search of broader creative horizons.

Ligeti was given a place to work in the studios of Cologne Radio, where pioneering electronic music was being put together with remarkably primitive means. In those days they edited tape pieces with scissors and generated sounds with old engineering equipment. Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez became Ligeti’s mentors and friends; the three of them eventually came to be seen as peers. But Ligeti’s path diverged from his mentor’s in important ways. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Stockhausen was the most visible of the European avant-gardists; he was on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s as one of their inspirations for doing innovative things with electronics and recording. Stockhausen had decreed that every piece must constitute a revolution, starting with the very tone color of the music.

Ligeti needed models but didn’t care for gurus and absolutes. Finding his voice in the heart of the European experimental scene, where ultra-rationality was the answer to the war’s irrationality and everything had to be justified by theory, he never fit the mold. Ligeti, responding to the horrors of midcentury he had experienced first-hand, went in a direction more about feeling than intellect. Like his colleagues, Ligeti was all for invention, but new forms and sounds were for him means and not ends. Meanwhile, he had an anti-dogmatic passion for everything musical, including Caribbean, central African, and East Asian traditions, and American Minimalism of the Steve Reich and Terry Riley persuasion.

True, his kind of eclecticism was not necessarily comfortable. “I am in a prison,” Ligeti once said. “One wall is the avant-garde; the other is the past. I want to escape.” He declared his later music to be neither tonal nor atonal. To hell, in other words, with both camps.

One form of escape was an all-consuming outlandishness. He was, after all, a serious student of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. In his comic mode, Ligeti was arguably the funniest composer who ever lived, though his humor has an unsettling edge. His full opera, Le Grand Macabre, is an exercise in apocalyptic madness, on the subject of the end of the world as a supernatural scam. Ligeti described it as “some kind of flea market: half real, half unreal … a world where everything is falling in.” Growing up where and when he did, Ligeti knew that things “falling in” can be funny, but ultimately it’s no joke. Here’s a characteristic Harpo-on-drugs episode in the opera.

The religious works have an unearthly aura that made them a natural for Stanley Kubrick in 2001. Ligeti’s music remains the most sublime element of that transcendent film. Still, if the Requiem and Lux Aeterna used in the movie resemble anything else, it’s not apemen and monoliths on the moon; it’s the ululations of mythical beasts, the sighing of lonely stars in forgotten nebulae, the ritual songs of wraiths. Try this moment from the Lux Aeterna.

Another overwhelming work, alternately hectic and spiritual, is the Violin Concerto. Its hymnlike second movement has a climax on a chorus of ocarinas (that flute thing shaped like a potato) that manage to sound at once goofy and creepy, like a choir of nightmare cherubs. Here Ligeti opened a vein of intoxicating weirdness that, maybe, music had never reached before. But, as always, he wasn’t screwing around with sound for the sake of it; he was expressing something beyond analysis, in the realm of the heart.

His hypervirtuosic Etudes for piano are spoken of with awe and fear in keyboard circles. Listen to Ligeti’s favorite pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, playing, with his usual aplomb, the jazzy and ridiculously difficult Fanfares.

I saw Stockhausen give talks in Boston in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in the ‘90s saw Ligeti as a guest composer at New England Conservatory. Stockhausen was the image of the German modernist, proclaiming tidily arranged dicta about the imperatives of history. Though in private Ligeti could be quite impossible, at the Conservatory he just charmed everybody. He had no theories whatever to offer. He was unpretentious, witty in his scrambled English, and in contrast to Stockhausen’s sharp features and burning eyes, there was Ligeti’s wonderful face of an old spaniel. For a taste of his ruminations, here’s a late BBC interview.

Ligeti told us that when his music was first being performed in European new-music festivals, he had to hitchhike to the concerts. “I didn’t have the money to buy a girl a cup of coffee.” Then one day somebody told him, “Did you know there’s a movie with your music in it?” Ligeti didn’t know. Kubrick had simply ripped off his things for 2001. Ligeti duly sued Kubrick and in the end, he told us, received the grand sum of $3,000. “But do you like the movie?” somebody asked. “Yah, I really like it,” Ligeti said. And of course, 2001 did for him what Sgt. Pepper’s did for Stockhausen—helped make him famous beyond the esoteric circles of the European new-music scene. By the ‘90s, the two were the dominant figures of their generation, but by then Stockhausen was mostly out of sight, sunk in his mystical cycle of operas called Licht, or “light.”

So via mass media and pop culture some wildly innovative music emerged from underground and made its mark. The difference between that generation and now was that while Stockhausen and Ligeti were not aloof to pop culture, they expected it to come to them. Many of the current generation of classical composers swear allegiance to hip-hop, salsa, and so on. In the arts formerly known as “high,” you can’t go wrong sucking up to pop culture. I think the older attitude got better results.

In later years, Ligeti and Stockhausen kept their distance. They united in the public mind one last notorious time when, after 9/11, Stockhausen declared of the disaster: “This is the biggest artwork that exists at all in the whole universe. … I couldn’t match it.” His statement was condemned worldwide. Actually, what Stockhausen was trying to say, from his distant planet, was that 9/11 was a titanic piece of theater, mass murder created for television. Not so generously, Ligeti declared that Stockhausen had joined the terrorists and ought to be locked up. Even in that, Ligeti was showing his allegiance to the here-and-now in contrast to the remoteness of his old mentor. Stockhausen had not considered what people were going to make of what he did and said. He didn’t quite live in this world. Ligeti did.

For me, Ligeti is the most interesting, most expressive, most important tonal artist to appear since Stravinsky died. Stockhausen was a great inventor in sound, but Ligeti was a great composer in a long tradition. I don’t see any replacements on the horizon. I doubt anybody alive, for example, could set Lewis Carroll’s “A Long, Sad Tale” with anything like his bizarre brilliance.