b. Tîrnăveni, Romania, 28 May 1923.; d. Vienna, 12 June 2006
Known to a wider public as the composer of some of the most memorable music used on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, György Ligeti was beloved by new-music fans as the Dadaist joker in the pack of the post-war European avant-garde.
Ligeti’s life was a series of exiles. He was born (to a Jewish family) in Transylvania just as Hungary was about to lose that region to Romania, and left Hungary permanently in 1956 after the Soviet Union crushed the uprising there. He lived thereafter in Hamburg and Vienna, becoming an Austrian citizen in 1967. His work reflects this rootlessness – it is difficult to classify his music, as he changed his style from piece to piece. His Hungarian years reveal the prevailing influence of Bartók and an almost complete ignorance of contemporary music outside of Eastern Europe. On arriving in Germany, he submerged himself in the experiments of the avant-garde and for a time wrote electronic music, but he never conformed to any modernist dogmas and much of his music is informed by a neo-Dadaist sense of the ridiculous.
Ligeti’s electronic work led him to conceive musical sound in a new way. His highly abstract soundworld simultaneously achieves a kind of monumental stasis and a sense of agitation by the use of great washes of contrasted sound made up of a dense web of swirling lines. Linking both to the multiculturalism of his native land and to his wanderings, this penchant for clashing clusters of instruments and the babble of opposed languages can be heard most famously in Lux Aeterna (1965), an unaccompanied vocal piece that was used to great effect in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey alongside Ligeti’s superb orchestral piece Atmosphères. Despite a superficial resemblance between his music and that of the American Minimalists, Ligeti’s Central European background comes through strongly, not least in a feeling of loss and nostalgia often evoked by the strangely haunting five-note scale and half-tones of Transylvanian folk music. Equally important is his absurdist humour, as heard in his Poème symphonique (1962), scored for 100 metronomes.
Ligeti’s dark humour is the dominant element in his theatrical works. The two short music-theatre pieces, Aventures and Nouvelles aventures, were originally conceived as concert works but revised for joint staging in 1966. While the cast sing ‘meaningless’ texts made up of phonemes and word-fragments, the percussion section burst paper bags, rub suitcases with sandpaper and scrape their feet against the floor. Both witty and sinister, the result constantly teeters on the brink of making sense.
Based on a surrealist farce by Michel de Ghelderode, with a palindromic prelude for car horns and an extended duet consisting merely of ‘four-letter’ words, Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre, was premiered in Stockholm in 1978 (and given its UK premiere by ENO in 1982) and has achieved great success ever since. In his later years Ligeti talked of composing a music-theatre piece based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, but it never materialised.
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