"Searching for Music's Outer Limits"
by Alex Ross
New York Times, March 20, 1993
Every year the New England Conservatory in Boston devotes a week of performances and discussion to a major living composer. Past guests have been John Cage, Michael Tippett, and Witold Lutosławski.
Last week, the honor went to György Ligeti. Mr. Ligeti may not be a household name, but his music has reached a far wider audience than most contemporary composers dare dream of. For the indefinite future he is fated, and fortunate, to be introduced as "the composer of' 2001 ": his amorphous, free-floating, shimmering soundscapes formed the musical backdrop for Stanley Kubrick's cinematic visualization of alien intelligence. The film did not betray the music: Mr. Ligeti's ecstatic, frightening murmurs, his works titled Atmosphères, Requiem, and Lontano, still represent an outer extreme of the 20th-century quest for musical otherness.
The man famous for an otherworldly sound proved to be worldly wise in person. A Hungarian fully in command of English, he touched on dozens of subjects (Turner's influence on Monet, fractals, Andalusian folk music and punk culture, to name a few); enthusiastically instructed young performers ("Don't be shy, everybody is a soloist"), and showed himself to be a bit of a ham ("Pardon me, I have caught the Boston Common Cold").
Behind this 70-year-old polymath looms a grand, uncompromising achievement in music. The Conservatory concerts, presenting 17 Ligeti works, included landmarks like the early, stylish Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet; the electronic conversation-piece Artikulation, played spectacularly on four loudspeakers in the Conservatory's Jordan Hall; the Chamber Concerto, an instrumental tour-de-force from the 60's in a superb performance conducted by Donald Palma; excerpts from the circuslike satiric opera from the 70's, Le Grand Macabre, with a powerful soprano solo by Lisa Saffer, and the traditionally proportioned, semi-romantic Horn Trio of 1982. Alongside these were a few works by composers with whom Mr. Ligeti feels kinship: Johannes Ockeghem, Schubert, and Conlon Nancarrow appeared together probably for the first time anywhere.
Listeners familiar only with the forbidding sound of Atmosphères soon discovered Mr. Ligeti's zany side. At the opening concert on Monday afternoon, 25 wind-up metronomes were brought onstage for the Poème Symphonique, originally scored for an orchestra of 100. This 1962 composition exemplifies Mr. Ligeti's stealthy genius; it seems an elaborate prank at first, then turns strangely mesmerizing. Waving their little arms in the air and expiring one by one, the robot performers unlock a world of magically complex rhythm. At the end of the week came Aventures, a miniature opera in which the singers conjure up comic intensity from a nonsensical phonetic text. John Heiss conducted a lively, forceful performance, with theatrical vocalizing by Melanie Mitrano, Stephanie Houtzeel, and Benjamin Cole.
How does Mr. Ligeti fit into late 20th-century musical history? On the surface, Atmosphères and Aventures are both typical of the avant-garde movement of the 1960's, which Mr. Ligeti helped define alongside composers like Mr. Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. These works stand out for the exactitude of their execution; while other composers employed chance or vague notation, Mr. Ligeti notated every thread of his complex textures, even at the moment the strings of Atmosphères divide into 56 separate parts. As a result, the sound has remained his own, resilient to the passage of time and fashion.
In the 70's and 80's, the avant-garde was haunted by the question, "What next?" Many composers foundered. Penderecki wrote loud banalities in a neo-Romantic idiom, while Stockhausen, with his days-of-the-week opera cycle, tried to become the new Wagner. Mr. Ligeti, by contrast, esoterically narrowed his focus to questions of harmony and rhythm. Lontano, his orchestral masterpiece, introduced a ghostly cadence in its final measures, beginning a movement toward the quasi-tonal world of the Horn Trio; his discovery of Nancarrow's player-piano pieces led to spectacularly difficult rhythmic experiments in the Etudes for Piano, which will soon be issued in a complete set of 12.
Some critics have complained that the composer's recent course is one of regression and complacency. In Boston, Stephen Drury countered this charge with stupendously fierce performances of five of the Etudes. While more traditional in harmonic terms, these pieces are revolutionary in their exploitation of mechanized rhythms and multilayered textures. The new Violin Concerto, which had its premiere last month in Los Angeles, astonishingly juxtaposes a plain-spoken solo-violin melody against an intricate haze of strings. This composer still has the power to create new sounds.
Still, Mr. Ligeti made it clear, during various seminars and informal discussions, that his music has always had an ambivalent but intense relation to the past. Atmosphères, he explained, emerged not only from electronic experiments but also from prolonged study of the dense polyphony of Ockeghem and the radical harmonic shifts of Gesualdo. Schubert, perhaps surprisingly, is his ideal; in a virtuoso analysis, Mr. Ligeti showed how the String Quartet in G breaks free of the classical system of tonality with free-flowing modulations based on the old chromatic figure of lament. The present subverts the past, and vice versa.
The composer spun out many more fascinating thoughts during the festival, but the enduring impression was of the force and personality of his music. For the most part, students and faculty members of the Conservatory played brilliantly. I should also mention outstanding solo performances by Gretchen Elicker, a harpsichordist, Marcus Thompson, a violist, and Colin Carr, a cellist.
With an Alice in Wonderland opera on the drawing boards, Mr. Ligeti does not show signs of slowing down. At one point he made a telling analogy: "I am in a prison. One wall is the avant-garde, the other is the past. I want to escape." The elegant sweep of his career shows that he has already escaped, and that his listeners are liberated with him.