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.
"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.
Interview by Simon Trask
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