Gyorgy Ligeti, born in 1923 in Romania, studied and taught music in Hungary but during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, he fled to Vienna and later became an Austrian citizen.
When he was in his late 30s, Ligeti made the music world sit up with his Future of Music—A Collective Composition (1961) and his Poème symphonique (1962). He emerged as a leading composer of avant-garde music mainly focusing on shifting masses of sound and tone colours. Ligeti also proved to be a master of a fast, mechanical and comic sort of music.
But what catapulted Ligeti to the public imagination was in 1968, when extracts from his work appeared on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The work suggested in the film desolation of the moon and the discovery thereof a mysterious monolith—this was was evident in the Requiem, for voices and orchestra; Lux Aeterna, for unaccompanied chorus; and Atmospheres, for orchestra — all of which are characterised by dense texture and very slow change. His music was used in Kubrick movies again in The Shining and in Eyes Wide Shut; as well as in later movies. In Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, Ligeti tried to dissolve the differences between vocal and instrumental sounds–where the singers hardly do any ‘singing’ in the traditional sense.
Ligeti: atmosphères (excerpt)
Undoubtedly Ligeti was at the forefront of the avant-garde of the 1950s/60s; his creative output encompassed some of the richest music of the 20th century and revealed an imaginative world of dizzying variety and expressive power. In the late 1950s and 60s, his best-known work included works in the period from Apparitions (1958–59) to Lontano (1967).
Between the ages 50 to 75 years (1973 – 1998), Ligeti produced notable works like Clocks and Clouds (1972–73) for female chorus and orchestra; San Francisco Polyphony (1973–74) for orchestra; Piano Concerto (1985–88); and Hamburg Concerto (1999) for horn. He also wrote 18 piano etudes (1985–2001) and the opera Le Grande Macabre (1978, revised 1997). Not surprisingly, his first book of Etudes for piano, noted for its creativity and virtuosity won the Grawemeyer Award, which at USD 150,000 was the largest prize in classical music. Complex rhythms and dazzling speeds combined to produce music of wonder and wit, and he went on to write the second book of Etudes and then begin a third.
Ligeti’s later works were dissimilar to the music of Kubrick’s movie 2001 but had similarities to the compositions he had produced in Hungary as a young man. It was embedded with the scales and rhythms of Central European folk music, but now with a style of much greater sophistication. More than 40 years into his exile, what obsessed Ligeti was the nostalgia of home.
Ligeti died at the age of 83 in 2006 in Vienna, Austria. His music during the last two decades of his life stood apart for its ‘rhythmic complexity; which he himself claimed in his first book of Piano Etudes was founded on two vastly different sources of inspiration: the Romantic-era piano music of Chopin and Schumann, and the indigenous music of sub-Saharan Africa.
Attributing the difference between the earlier and later pieces to a new conception of pulse, in the earlier works the pulse was something to be divided into two, three and so on. The simultaneous occurrence of these different subdivisions, was to blur the aural landscape, creating the ‘micropolyphonic’ effect of Ligeti’s music. In contrast, the later music envisages the pulse as a musical atom, a common denominator, a basic unit that cannot be divided any further. Different rhythms appear through multiplications of the basic pulse, rather than divisions: this is the principle of African music seized on by Ligeti.
György Ligeti: Musica ricercata No. 7
‘Micropolyphony’, a Ligeti-invented term to define the amorphous clouds of orchestral clusters created from simultaneous canonical lines, was described by him thus: ‘I have always approached musical texture through part-writing… But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb… The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony.’
Ligeti was bestowed with honours, including the Grand Austrian State Prize for music, the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for music, and the Theodor W. Adorno Prize from the city of Frankfurt for outstanding achievement in music.
In a piece titled Gyorgy Ligeti and the Future of Music (30 August 2018), Matt Adomeit writes, ‘During a time when humanity was increasingly dividing into distinct ideological camps, Ligeti was a rare artist who refused to follow dogmatically in the footsteps of another. His music synthesized the influences from dozens of schools and composers and ended up creating sounds, unlike anything that had come before. In the process, he cemented his status among the elite group of composers at the very forefront of the post-war avant-garde.’