Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Ligeti's myriad-minded life and work"

György Ligeti
Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, often provides me with inspiration. His latest post is about György Ligeti, the Hungarian composer who passed away in 2006. My title for this post quotes a phrase from Ross' discussion. Two interesting things I learned were that Ligeti disliked Luigi Nono for political reasons, but was a big fan of Supertramp, apparently for musical reasons. Let's hear Supertramp doing "Crime of the Century", one of Ligeti's favorites:

I think that is the first time I have heard that song. It came out in 1974. I missed that year because I was in Spain for most of it studying guitar. When I say "I missed that year" I mean that all I did was practice guitar. I probably memorized close to a page of music every day. No newspapers, no radio, no television, no movies. So I completely missed Richard Nixon and Watergate. And Supertramp. Listening now, about three minutes into the song I became terminally bored. But Ligeti liked it. He liked a lot of wildly different things as recounted by Ligeti's long-time assistant Louise Duschesneau:
Duchesneau herself surveys Ligeti's record collection, which contained vast quantities of non-Western music. She, too, notes Ligeti's fondness for Supertramp, reporting that the group's records Crime of the Century and Breakfast in America are mentioned alongside Balinese kecak music and the rumba band Los Papines...
I talk about a lot of different kinds of music on this blog, but reading about Ligeti and especially about his long struggle to write his third and fourth string quartets, is like a splash of cold water in the face and reminds me of the virtues of classicism.
Ligeti worked on these pieces from the early nineteen-eighties until around the year 2000, with the Arditti and Kronos quartets in mind, but, alas, neither work was finished.
Ross quotes Bianca Ţiplea Temeş on Ligeti's compositional process:
Ligeti sums up a rich array of extra-European musical influences of a wide geographical spread, stringing together rhythmic and melodic ideas from Burma, Uganda, Great Zimbabwe, Java-Bali, Cameroon, etc. Moreover, he crosses the frontier of art music by integrating references from the fine arts into his verbal sketches: "In Escher's footsteps," "Pinturas negras," "Alhambra ornaments," all articulating the image of a complex personality of twentieth-century culture and leaving unanswered for posterity the question of what String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 might have sounded like.
Given this, I think I have a pretty good idea of what they might have sounded like: a dog's breakfast! Some composers engaged in this sort of myriad conglomeration in the late 1960s: Berio's Sinfonia is just one example. A more extreme one is Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu written between 1962 and 1966.

In Taruskin's phrase this is "a tissue of promiscuous quotation." Ligeti, struggling to find a new, perhaps more consonant style, after the total chromaticism of his earlier work, was listening to the whole world of musical styles, past and present, that recordings have made possible. This is pure speculation, but isn't it possible that he was just too good a composer to slap together an indigestible collage of musical styles as Berio and Zimmermann (and many others) did? After the Second String quartet which Wikipedia characterizes as belonging "to the great tradition of quartet writing, from the Classical masters to Berg and Bartók" perhaps Ligeti could not reconcile this kind of tradition with the stylistic circus that so many composers were attracted to in the 60s and 70s. Here is the first movement of Ligeti's String Quartet no. 2, written in 1968:

Whatever you might think of the music, one thing is sure: it is not a promiscuous collage of different styles. It is very tightly written. But Ligeti seems to have gotten the sense that music like this was now out of step with the times. The groovy 60s had an effect on all areas of music, even 'classical' composers who found themselves listening to Balinese music and Supertramp! Because, cool! Ligeti worked on his third and fourth string quartets from the early 1980s until around 2000, without success.

Is it so hard to understand that immersing yourself in a "rich array" of musical influences might be an interesting, perhaps even necessary, thing to do when you are young, but when you are fifty years old, it is a lot like buying a red sports car? Diversity may seem like a nice, harmless ideal, but when you are trying to write music, it is a deadly one. The two poles between which every composer has to find a middle ground are boring repetition and meaningless variety. The most skillful composers manage to strike a balance. The greatest of all court boring repetition but miraculously discover meaningful variety. Two examples: Bach, The Art of Fugue and Beethoven, Diabelli Variations.

Ligeti wrote a much-admired set of etudes for piano during the same years he struggled with the string quartets. Perhaps the discipline of the single instrument provided the necessary focus, warding off promiscuous diversity...

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