Gyorgy Ligeti's Music Was a Constant Surprise

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Millions of people have heard the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, although most wouldn't recognize -- or know how to pronounce -- his name.

The music of Ligeti (lig-it-tee, without an accent), who died yesterday in Vienna at 83, was used to convey the eerie strangeness of fresh discovery in Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey." Although he did not write the so-called "2001 music" -- those 90 seconds of ultra-familiar grandeur taken from Richard Strauss's tone poem "Also Sprach Zarathustra" -- the furious buzzing of Ligeti's work for unaccompanied chorus, "Lux Aeterna," is the soundtrack for several key scenes, and it is impossible to imagine the film without it.

Another work used in the film, "Atmospheres," shimmers out of silence, its clusters of sound meeting and melding through time and space. One is put in mind of a ballet of clouds, captured in time-lapse photography. Strings give way to brass, then winds, in an elaborate musical process that is as orderly as it is colorful.

There are certain composers whose music we can recognize and identify immediately. It is unnecessary to listen to more than a few minutes of any mature work by Olivier Messiaen or Philip Glass (to name two radically dissimilar artists) to realize who was responsible for its creation.

Ligeti took a different approach, reinventing himself again and again throughout his career. "I accept many different styles," he said, and his output encompassed wild experimentalism (a "Poeme Symphonique" scored for 100 metronomes), orchestral music (a whiz-bang virtuoso piano concerto) and even full-length opera (the apocalyptic satire "Le Grand Macabre").

Because one never knew quite what to expect before hearing a new Ligeti work, his music sometimes startled listeners. Yet this eclecticism allowed him to escape some paradoxical aesthetic traps that were endemic to late 20th-century composition. He insisted that his music was "neither tonal nor atonal" and while he never blithely reiterated the musical language of the past, neither did he strive to be modern or avant-garde at the expense of communication with an audience.

For example, his Piano Etudes (1986) were glittering, glassy and altogether attractive compositions in which one found pretty bows to Chopin and Debussy, the fierce energy and density of Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player piano, some of the richly contrapuntal stasis of Steve Reich, and some of the sheer giddiness of Emanuel Chabrier. Yet it was all channeled through Ligeti's restless, vivid imagination, and the final product was unmistakably his own.

He was born in 1923 and raised in what was then a predominantly ethnic Hungarian part of Transylvania. He suffered under fascism -- his father and brother were murdered by the Nazis and Ligeti spent two years in a labor camp -- and then under communism, which caused him to flee Hungary in 1957. It was Karlheinz Stockhausen, a composer just as original and far-ranging as Ligeti, who brought him to Cologne and helped introduce him to the musicians who would become his peers.

Ligeti visited the United States many times. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was blessedly free of European chauvinism, and cited the American composers Nancarrow, Reich, Terry Riley and Elliott Carter, as well as sub-Saharan African music, as important influences on his work. Indeed, he dedicated a piece to Reich, who returned his admiration. "Ligeti seems to realize that American music is going to be very different from the European, although it may partake of the European heritage," Reich said in 1986. "But it's not really our job to do what Ligeti does, or what Stockhausen does, or what [Pierre] Boulez does. We are a different continent."

Ligeti was a shy, gracious man who generally wore an air of professorial befuddlement. His stature in the musical community grew exponentially over the years, until he was considered one of the world's great composers. The Italian musicologist Enzo Restagno summed up the early critical resistance to Ligeti: "To their ears, his music had the flaw of being liked by the people, and, according to the self-punishing aesthetics of certain leaders of opinion in those years, it was better not to trust beauty and delightfulness. Ligeti paid no attention: He was involved in projects that were too interesting."

For which we can only be grateful.

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