Several years ago, in the later stages of secondary school, I had little knowledge of contemporary music. I was familiar with it, in broad and vague sense; I knew about minimalism and I had listened to some Schoenberg, but other than that I was largely ignorant of the art music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
I wasn’t uninterested exactly – I was fascinated by reading about these topics, and friends of mine who were doing music degrees often got asked about modern composers. But for the most part my attention was diverted elsewhere – I was trying to get better on piano and clarinet, I was listening to rock music, there was a brief spell in a funk band, and of course I had school and the leaving cert to contend with. The elements that attracted me to contemporary music – exotic musical sounds, technical difficulty, anything that made for a difficult but rewarding listen – I could also get from progressive metal or jazz. And it was hard to know where to begin. Though the internet has undoubtedly made it easier for audiences to engage with and discover new music, it’s one hundred times easier again for almost every other genre.
One the suggestion of one of my friends, I decided to give Ligeti a listen. Not knowing where else to begin , I went to YouTube, put the name into the search box and, after skimming the results, chose what seem like a good option: this video.
I’m not going to sensationalize it and say I was instantly blown away. But I really liked it, and it grabbed my attention in a way that no other contemporary works had at that point. It was surprisingly accessible: it was energetic, it had a clear shape, it was understandable. It was metal.
It was at this point that my distant interest in contemporary music became something much more active and personal. It would probably be an overstatement to say that it started me on my current path and led me to where I am today, but it certainly played a huge role, both by giving me a comfortable place to start exploring contemporary music from and inspiring my own music. I feel greatly indebted to Ligeti (and to Greg Anderson) for it.
My interest in Ligeti has only increased in the years since. He’s probably my favourite contemporary composer, and as I’ve discovered more about him it’s not just his music that appeals to me, but also his life story, his opinions and his attitudes to music and art. For my thesis this upcoming college year, I’m considering writing about Ligeti, and in researching for this topic I’ve learned a lot about his life. Ligeti has come to represent a figure who embodies and idealizes many of the traits I respect in music, and many of the standards I hope to be able to hold myself to.
Not least among these is his eclecticism. Ligeti was a composer unafraid to use a variety of influences in his music – having begun his career under the repressive Communist regime in Hungary, his public music was often very straight-laced, but as with many other composer who lived in totalitarian states at this time, he also composed music for his ‘bottom drawer’; privately held works in which he was free to experiment and explore. At various different points in his career, he cited jazz, african polyrhythm, and the folk musics of Romania and Hungary as influences he freely drew upon in his work. But using these influences never became tired pastiche writing, and he was able to masterfully extract their musical essence and repackage it in a way that was purely his own. Naturally, he also had a great love for the great composers and the tradition of art music that came before him. As a young composer, he spent time studying Renaissance polyphony, he once got in a drunken street brawl with a poet friend because that friend didn’t like Mozart, and of course every Hungarian composer of his generation grew up, to a certain extent, in the shadow of Bartók and Kodaly. Outside of these diverse musical tastes, Ligeti also allowed his music to be influenced by visual arts, sculpture, and even mathematics!
The other side of this eclecticism was that Ligeti never had any allegiance to any movement or trends within music. Though he experimented with serial techniques, he was not a serialist; similarly, though he was associated with Fluxus, he did not consider himself to be a member, and he worked with Stockhausen in the Cologne studio but never fully subscribed to his ideas. Again, he worked with these movements and was happy to learn from them, but always in a way that was his own. This determined individualism, tempered by a strive to continue to learn and grow, helps make his music some of the most interesting and successful of the modern era.
Beside all this, Ligeti’s life is a window into many pivotal events of the twentieth century, both politically and artistically. He was discriminated against both under fascist rule during the Second World War, (he was an ethnic Jew, and spent some time in a Nazi prison camp) and the later communist regime. The horrific Soviet response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 precipitated his flight to the West, where he arrived at precisely the right time to take part in the golden years of Darmstadt and to work at the studio in Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk, just as electronic music was being to form.
Despite all these praises, I’m not afraid to say that I can disagree with Ligeti. Much of the music of his middle era – probably his most famous works, and the music that made him famous – I find difficult to listen to. It’s certainly not bad by any means, and I appreciate the elegance of its compositional ideas, and in ways it makes for good listening. But extended over long periods, I find this kind of music, without any sense of rhythm or pulse, is just difficult to listen to. The fault probably lies with me, I may just need to give it more time, but for now I much prefer the more rhythmic music of his earliest and latest periods. The works that stand out are the early Musica Ricercata and the later books of Etudes, both for solo piano. I make no claim to be an expert; I don’t have an exhaustive knowledge of every work and I couldn’t confidently claim to be familiar with every part of the man’s history. But I do feel like the music and the life of György Ligeti has played a great role in my own music and my reasons for becoming a composer.
For anyone who’s interested in learning more, I would strongly recommend Richard Steinitz’s excellent biography which I am currently reading: György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. Published a few years before Ligeti’s death in 2006, Steinitz originally intended it to be a book of pure analysis of Ligeti’s compositional output, but after meeting and interviewing the composer it gradually became equal parts analysis and life history; a true testament to both the personality and the music of this incredible man.