The man who was widely and justly considered the greatest of them all died today at the age of eighty-three. There's no way to sum up in brief what Ligeti's music meant; it was an awesome cross-section of the benighted twentieth century, whose worst horrors he knew first hand. Here is what I wrote in 2001. And here are some notes I took when Ligeti lectured at the New England Conservatory in 1993: "When you are accepted in a club, without willing [and] without noticing you take over certain habits [of thinking] what is in and what is out. Tonality was definitely out. To write melodies, even non-tonal melodies, was absolutely taboo. Periodic rhythm, pulsation, was taboo, not possible. Music has to be a priori. … It worked when it was new, but it became stale. Now there is no taboo; everything is allowed. But one cannot simply go back to tonality, it’s not the way. We must find a way of neither going back nor continuing the avant-garde. I am in a prison: one wall is the avant-garde, the other wall is the past, and I want to escape."
When I was in college, I wrote to Ligeti asking about a couple of obscure items in his catalogue, such as the Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. I was astonished to receive a thoughtful letter from him, describing how I could get hold of a recording of the Poème (Edition Michael Bauer). I proceeded to play it on WHRB-FM, as part of a day-long program entitled Ligeti at 66, and had to explain to concerned callers that, yes, in fact, we were still on the air. Then, in 1993, I met him at NEC. As often happens when one is in the company of the great, I took the opportunity to ask an idiotic question: "What do you think of Cecil Taylor?" Ligeti seemed to have a vaguely positive impression of Taylor, but I had not hit whatever jackpot I had been expecting. The brilliance of the man was captivating; his disquistion on Schubert's G-major Quartet was the most remarkable musical lecture I've ever heard. Others report that he could be terribly difficult to work with, but to a starstruck youngster it was a huge gift to spend a minute in his orbit.
More: Richard Dyer's obituary; Mark Swed's; Paul Griffiths's; a superb summary by Ethan Iverson; a blogcritics roundup of Ligeti links; yet more at The Rambler; the metronomes; a Ligeti MySpace site; controversies and oddities at Sequenza21; usw. If you want to buy one record, let it be this; then get this.