From artistic oppression under Stalin to contributing to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, György Ligeti has remained a true music pioneer. Simon Trask talks to a musical legend.
In a career that has spanned over 30 years, György Ligeti has helped pioneer electronic music, braved Russian tanks in order to listen to Stockhausen, and contributed to Kubrick's classic 2001.
"I HAVE TOO MANY INTERESTS AND therefore not enough time to compose!", György Ligeti jokes as we sit in the lounge of the Waldorf Hotel in the Strand. The 66-year old composer is in London for Ligeti by Gyögy Ligeti, a series of concerts of his own and other composers' music, chosen and scheduled by him, which is being held at the South Bank arts complex. We meet towards the end of the series, and it's clear that the hectic schedule of rehearsals and concerts has been tiring for him.
Ligeti's career as a composer of "serious" music spans some 33 years, in which time he has written around 40-50 compositions. He's still active in his chosen profession, and judging by the consistently well-attended concerts at the South Bank, he still has a strong following, too - a far cry from the often ephemeral world of popular music.
The composer's music is perhaps best known through the (unauthorised) use of extracts from three of his compositions - Atmospheres, Requiem and Lux Aeterna - in Stanley Kubrick's classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968. In fact, his music worked so well in this filmic context that he could have gone into a lucrative career writing film music. Yet, despite the fact that he was barely eking out a living from his music at the time, he chose to avoid the easy option, feeling that the requirements of writing for film would inevitably have a corrupting effect on his approach to composition.
Ligeti's own musical tastes are wide-ranging. Anyone who can devise a musical evening which begins with mediaeval vocal music in the form of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame and ends with close-harmony versions of songs by the Beatles and U2 (all performed by The King's Singers) can hardly be accused of having restricted taste.
"I don't want to maintain a rigid division between so-called serious and non-serious music", Ligeti confirms. "I have a son who is a percussionist and composer, and who works in the no-man's land between serious and popular cultures, and I think it's a very important and interesting area."
Although Ligeti first came to prominence in the West as part of the post-war generation of European avant-garde composers which included Stockhausen and Boulez, he was already 33 years old when he fled from Hungary to West Germany in 1956 following the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising. He had grown up in Rumania and Hungary and, as a Jew, had spent part of the Second World War in a labour camp, narrowly avoiding being sent to Auschwitz and certain death (his father and brother weren't so lucky). Following the war he studied at the Academy of Music in Budapest, and then from '48-'53 experienced the life of a composer under Stalin's totalitarian regime, where all composers had to be a member of the composer's union in order to get manuscript paper, and had to submit their music to a committee if they wanted it performed or published. Music had to be populist, which meant tuneful and diatonic, or it was rejected; Ligeti recalls having some songs rejected because they contained dissonances.
Coming from such a society, he had developed a dislike of what he has referred to as "slick phrases, attractive philosophical systems" and a disinclination to become a member of a clique, preferring instead to follow the star of his own intellectual curiosity. Consequently he rejected the increasing refinement of melody, harmony and rhythm sought by the total serialists with their abstruse arithmetic calculations, yet at the same time he was not prepared to adopt the abandonment of compositional control sought by the aleatoric, or "chance music", composers - which isn't to say that he wasn't influenced by the new generation of composers.
"Stockhausen had a deep influence on me", he affirms. "Pieces like Gesang der Jünglinge and Gruppen are among my favourite-pieces of the '50s. Also Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre was a model piece for me. These works had a very strong impact on me. Not so much Cage's music, though; with him it was more the attitude, a philosophical thing."
Ligeti had decided from the beginning of the 1950s that he had to write a radically new music for his own benefit, while at the same time making arrangements of Hungarian folk songs for performance and publishing under the Stalinist regime. This meant moving beyond the music of Bartok and Stravinsky, his previous models, as he began formulating ideas for a "static" music in which melody, harmony and rhythm would no longer be formal elements, and in which there would be separate musical parts without being discernable as such. All of which meant there would no longer be any tunes. This music would have a "neutralised" sound, somewhere between music and noise, and would change through a process of gradual transformation. Around 1950, Ligeti could hear this music in his head, but he couldn't figure out a technique for notating its metre and rhythm.
The composer first heard about electronic music through a radio program in the early '50s, though he didn't actually hear any until 1956. In fact, getting to hear any of the new music that was being made in the West was almost impossible, as the authorities in Hungary were jamming foreign radio broadcasts up until the time of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Ligeti recalls that on 17th November that year, when Russian tanks were putting down the uprising and bombs and bullets were flying everywhere, he left the safety of his cellar in order to be able to hear the first radio broadcast of Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge .
"I had heard about electronic music, and the idea interested me that the composer could do everything, starting from sine tones and putting them together through Fourier synthesis to make a totally new music", recalls the composer. "So from '52-'53 it was my dream to go to Cologne. There were two electronic music studios at that time, one in Cologne and one in Paris; soon after there were also studios in New York and Tokyo, we learned. My idea was to go to Cologne and work in the studio there, but it was not possible to travel out of Hungary. However, this was not the main reason I left Hungary after the revolution in 1956; it was not for electronic music but because I hated the political situation."
Ligeti had already been corresponding with Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert, the directors of the Cologne studio, and following a hair-raising escape to the West (which he relates in Paul Griffiths' book about him) he gained a scholarship, with their help, which allowed him to work at the studio. He ended up working there for two years, from '57 to '58.
"That period at Cologne had an absolutely crucial influence on my musical thinking, even after I stopped producing electronic music", Ligeti acknowledges. "The studio was deep underground because it was an atomic bomb shelter for the radio station. If there was a war then the station would continue broadcasting from this studio, but until that time it was a place where none of the radio people wanted to go.
"For us it was a very exciting and a very cordial atmosphere. Everybody had the feeling that we were real pioneers, the real avant-garde, and that this was the real new music that we were making. We felt that we were doing the right thing, and we felt very important. We had three tape recorders, so it was possible to put two tape recorders together to synthesise something and record onto the third. We also had some very simple measuring equipment which was not designed for the studio, like sine-tone generators, and filters to take white noise out of a signal. But our main instrument was the anti-magnetic scissors, because we had tens of thousands of small bits of tape to put together. It was all very primitive if you think what is possible today with computers and synthesisers."
While at the studio, he studied phonetics and psychoacoustics and produced two pieces of electronic music on tape during his time at the Cologne studio, Glissandi and Artikulation. However, ultimately the technology of the day was just too primitive to allow him to achieve the results he wanted, a fact which he discovered when he tried to realise the score of a third piece.
"Long before I knew about fractal geometry I had in my music this phenomena of turbulences, of order transforming into chaotic structures."
"I wrote the score on millimetre paper and it was composed of sine tones", he explains. "I wanted to go into a very high-level complexity, because I was interested in producing difference tones and combination tones. The music was made of 48 different layers with changing harmonic spectra. I had to start two tapes on two tape recorders and record onto a third, and then I could take that tape and another tape and record them onto the third tape recorder; in that way I could build up the layers. But ultimately it didn't work, because we had no means of synchronisation; even though we had very stable power supplies, after half a minute the two tape recorders would not stay together, which meant that I couldn't get the very delicate, exact changes in harmonic spectra that I wanted. This was one problem: the poor technology. We could only use existing machines that the radio station lent us, we had no money. The studio was official, but it had no real financial support.
"Another thing was the quality of sound. With so many layers there was always a lot of noise. We had the possibility to filter noise, but even so the final sound was noisy and ugly. Also I got bored with electronic sound, with the sound always coming from loudspeakers."
But working at the studio gave him a new way of thinking which allowed him to achieve with acoustic instruments the music he had been thinking about since the early '50s.
"I was very much into the imagination of sound, and in Apparitions and Atmospheres, my orchestral pieces which followed, I went into the composition of sound. Although the harmonic spectra of instruments in the orchestra are more complex than a sine tone, I used the instruments as if they were sine tones, making a complex sound from elements."
The result is a floating, almost ethereal music with a constantly shifting overall timbre in which rhythm has been, to use Ligeti's term, "neutralised" and individual instrumental parts are not discernable to the ear. In Atmospheres there are at first 48, and then later 56, instrumental parts - echoing the 48 layers of sine waves he attempted to create in the electronic studio - unfolding a dense canonic structure, yet what you hear is an impenetrable texture of sound. Ligeti gave this kind of densely-woven polyphony, which you can see on paper but not perceive aurally, the name "micropolyphony".
He had learnt from his study of psychoacoustics that we cannot tell in what order consecutive notes of less than 50 milliseconds duration follow one another, with the result that consecutive pitches are actually heard as a continuous chord, and rhythm is created by changes in pitch. He recalls watching composer Gottfried Michael Koenig splicing together small bits of tape in such a way that the duration of several notes was less than 1/20th of a second, with the result that a six-note tune, say, became a six-note chord; through countless edits he was able to produce both an impression of polyphony and what Ligeti refers to as "a strangely blurred tune" through a gradually changing pattern of sound.
He sought to apply to instrumental music what he had learned from Koenig, as a means of "creating transformations in the 'molecular state' of sound". But as he couldn't expect any instrumentalist to play upwards of 20 notes a second, he built the rhythmic shifts into the music by having, say, 24 violinists playing almost identical figurations with a slight time-lag between each one.
In this strange music Ligeti effectively "dissolved" the functionality of harmony into a complex chromaticism made up of diatonic individual lines. In subsequent compositions he developed the idea of using fluctuations in intersallic and harmonic simplicity and complexity - so-called "interval signals" - as a means of generating "form", and by the time of his orchestral piece Melodien in 1971, he was using bold, wide-ranging melodic lines, even if they were still buried in a dense polyphony.
TODAY LIGETI'S INTERESTS EXTEND BEYOND music to subjects which he regards as having an analogous relationship to the techniques he uses in his own music. As he explains:
"There are styles of music or writing or science which interest me because in my music I order the work in this direction. For instance, in science I am interested in deterministic chaos, fractal geometry; I read all the books I can on this. Long before I knew about fractal geometry I had in my music this phenomena of turbulences, of order transforming into chaotic structures. It's not fractal music; it would be pretentious of me to say that I did fractal music before fractal geometry was developed. But it's an analogous way of thinking on this question of order so complex that it makes a jump into turbulence.
"I'm also very much interested in the visual arts, and in new technological advances like holograms. I feel very close to this because, like anybody who has a scientific orientation, I'm interested in the visual art of Escher, in the quality of imagination in his work. Also I am interested in visual complexity because this is an analogy to the kind of polyphonic music which I write, and so I like ornamental art such as mediaeval Irish art and also Islamic art."
In the past eight to ten years Ligeti has become increasingly interested in what he terms the "high polyphonic cultures" of Africa and Indonesia. These he regards as being more sophisticated rhythmically than the contrapuntal music of JS Bach. His own music has been moving steadily in the direction of complex polyrhythms, and he is keen to destroy Euro-centric attitudes to music. As part of the Ligeti by György Ligeti series, the composer has chosen to include a lecture concert entitled Rhythmics and Polyrhytbms in Africa in which Paris-based Israeli musicologist Simha Arom, accompanied by three African drummers, delivers a fascinating and revealing musical analysis of the rhythmic complexity of traditional African music.
"I like very naively the Latin American popular commercial music, such as Brazilian samba, Cuban rhumba and also salsa, which is of course the music of New York", Ligeti explains. "My interest in this music led me to Africa; I've never been there, but through recordings and books I became an aficionado of African music south of the Sahara. Another area which has interested me for a long time is Balinese add Javanese gamelan music. My own music is based on complex polyphony, so I'm interested in African and Indonesian music because I'm interested in other cultures which use other kinds of complex polyphony. New Guinea and the Melanesian islands also have very interesting and very different polyphonic music, and I also have an interest in the polyphonic culture of the music of Soviet Georgia - it's not very well known music, and I only by chance heard two recordings of this music."
For Ligeti, part of the excitement of discovering these polyphonic musical cultures lay in their use of similar musical techniques to those he had already used in his own music.
"Whether we want it or not, the existence of the computer has changed everything in our lives, and all the arts are more and more deeply affected by technology."
"In my harpsichord piece Continuum from 1968, the notes are played at high speed but very evenly, and after a while you forget that it's a uniform high-speed pulsation, and you hear melodic and rhythmic structures behind it which are illusory - which depend on the recognition of certain pitches. I found later in African music a very similar result, though I had no knowledge of this music when I wrote Continuum. In the mid-'80s I heard South Bugandian music for the first time, Amadinda and Akadinda xylophone music with six players. They had this very even pulsation, with over ten pulses per second, but the ears hear illusory patterns, like the visual effect a stroboscope has. Then I found pieces of music in many other areas of Africa which were so close to what I did, and I became more and more interested in this technique."
The impetus for Continuum came from Ligeti's interest in developing a hard, mechanical music, which came about as a reaction to what he has referred to as the "soft" music of earlier pieces such as Apparitions and Atmospheres, in which he "neutralised" the rhythmic side of his music. The composer also puts the origins of his fascination with "mechanico-type" music down to a story he read when he was five years old, about a widow who lived in a house full of clocks, and to Charlie Chaplin's film Modern Times, which he recalls as being one of the great movie experiences of his childhood. He has been quoted as saying that "recalcitrant machinery, unmanageable automata have always fascinated me".
Ligeti had already discovered from his time at the Cologne music studio that mechanical devices (in this case tape recorders) which should theoretically run at the same speed don't actually stay in sync with one another. In 1962 he "composed", no doubt with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, a piece called Poeme Symphonique for 100 metronomes, which required ten operators to set 100 metronomes ticking and then leave them to their own devices (sic), until their clockwork mechanisms ran down. The cacophony of tickings as the metronomes moved steadily in and out of sync with one another produced a madcap mechanical music which, nonetheless, gave Ligeti ideas about developing a new kind of rhythmic music. Sadly, three years later a planned tape collage piece, Les Horloges Bienveillantes, which would have replaced the tickings of the metronomes with snatches of music including Bach motets and French military marches, was frustrated by legal constraints.
Around the time of Continuum Ligeti met Terry Riley, and when in 1972 he went to the States, he heard Steve Reich's music. His music does have certain affinities with Riley's repeating phrases and Reich's phase-shifting technique, but any similarities arise from a common interest in process as a structuring principle in music.
"I feel in my thinking closer to a static thinking than to the idea of thinking of time as closed, as an object" Ligeti explains. "If the particular Haydn, Beethoven and Wagner techniques of developing themes - taking motives and parts of motives is a typical Beethoven technique - is development, then the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Boulez and Stockhausen is not development. If you take a piece like In C by Terry Riley, or some of Steve Reich's pieces, they are not really developments, they are a slow process through time. You can follow this process very dearly, but it has nothing to do with the 19th century concept of development. It's also not progress, it's just changing, metamorphosis. And if you take Cage's 4' 33", it's neither development nor process, it just is - it's just there.
"One of my model pieces is Debussy's Jeux. People kept speaking about this piece when I was at Cologne. In Jeux you have not real themes but kind of ghosts of themes, or the allusion to melodic ideas. The effect of Jeux is like you are in a ship at sea and very smoothly the landscape changes. Similarly in my music there are many many pieces, like for instance Melodien for orchestra, from 1971, where something changes but nothing suddenly."
What Ligeti was hearing in Debussy's music was the influence of a much older music which he had yet to hear, namely Javanese gamelan music. But Ligeti's fascination with polyphonic music has its origins in the European heritage of Renaissance vocal music, which he discovered through his counterpoint studies at the music academy in Budapest. In fact, he has stated that he would never have been able to work out the dense polyphonic textures of his micropolyphony if it wasn't for his schooling in Renaissance counterpoint techniques.
"Doing Palestrina-style counterpoint for two years at the music academy in Budapest in the mid-1940s, I became very bored", he recalls, "so then I was attracted to the non-Palestrina style of the composers before him. We had scores of Ockeghem's music in the library of the academy. I think Ockeghem is one of the great composers. What I found really interesting about his music was the continuity of it, the fact that there was never the possibility for one single voice to be prominent. This influenced very much my thinking in pieces like Requiem from the mid-1960s, where there is very complex polyphony."
THE EIGHTIES HAVE SEEN LIGETI FOCUS ON THE rhythmic aspect of his music, drawing on the inspiration provided by his exposure to traditional African and Indonesian music and, in 1980, to the mechanical player-piano music of the American composer Conlon Nancarrow with its fiendish rhythmic complexities.
From tendencies which his music had displayed in the two-piano pieces Monument and Self-portrait with Reich and Riley in 1976, Ligeti has, in the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano of 1982 and the Piano Etudes of 1985 and 1989, developed a music which uses superimpositions of different rhythms, metres and tempi. The Trio, for instance, includes superimpositions of 4/4, 12/8 and 20/8 times, and plays with a variety of subdivisions of an eight-beat pulse over various ostinatos. In the Etudes he combines two distinct rhythmic processes, the last, even pulse of African drumming and the rhythmic ambiguity of the hemiola (a measure of six beats which can be divided into three groups of two or two groups of three). In the Etudes a single player is able to introduce the illusion of several layers of different tempi: "our perception can be outwitted by imposing a 'European' accent pattern upon the non-accentuated 'African' pulsation", Ligeti observes.
Mention of the player-piano, a sort of precursor of the MIDI sequencer, in connection with Nancarrow calls to mind the sophisticated musical technology which we are able to call on today. Had Ligeti, as someone who had experienced both the excitement and the frustration of working with the earliest musical technology in the '50s, not felt a desire to explore the creative possibilities of today's technology'?
"I have many times thought about this", he replies, "and especially in '72 when I was for half a year at Stanford University in California working with John Chowning. It was the time when he had just finished developing the FM technique which Yamaha then bought, so I saw the possibilities of computer sound production. Through John Chowning and also through Jean-Claude Risset, who is a very good friend, I am always in contact with new developments in computer science and artificial intelligence. But I don't use it. I have so much experience working with vocal sound and with acoustic instruments that I decided I had to remain in this area. I like to have the material in my hands, and the material which I know, which is acoustic instruments. So I think I have to stay in this area. Maybe if I was 27 years younger I would feel differently..."
However, while choosing to remain with what he knows best, Ligeti is very aware that the young composers of today have to deal with the technology of today, while not neglecting the products of pre-electronic technology:
"We don't know how the future will be, but the music of computers and synthesisers is the present not the future. Whether we want it or not, the existence of the computer has changed everything in our lives, and all the arts are more and more deeply affected by technology. That doesn't mean there won't still be acoustic instruments in music. Film hasn't killed theatre. So I think acoustic and electronic instruments will exist together and there will always be fruitful cross-influences."
György Ligeti's place as one of the most original and fascinating composers of the 20th century is assured. His insistence on following his own unique musical path through the years has seen him labelled both a musical conservative and a musical revolutionary. Yet the diversity of his musical output is not the product of someone who flits from one musical fashion to another, but of someone with an endlessly inquiring mind who isn't afraid to draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources, both musical and non-musical.