Remembering the genius whom Stanley Kubrick stole music from.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 29 2008 7:22 AM

Ligeti: A Sound Odyssey

Remembering the genius whom Stanley Kubrick stole music from.

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Another overwhelming work, alternately hectic and spiritual, is the Violin Concerto. Its hymnlike second movement has a climax on a chorus of ocarinas (that flute thing shaped like a potato) that manage to sound at once goofy and creepy, like a choir of nightmare cherubs. Here Ligeti opened a vein of intoxicating weirdness that, maybe, music had never reached before. But, as always, he wasn't screwing around with sound for the sake of it; he was expressing something beyond analysis, in the realm of the heart.

His hypervirtuosic Etudes for piano are spoken of with awe and fear in keyboard circles. Listen to Ligeti's favorite pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, playing, with his usual aplomb, the jazzy and ridiculously difficult Fanfares.

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I saw Stockhausen give talks in Boston in the '60s and '70s, and in the '90s saw Ligeti as a guest composer at New England Conservatory. Stockhausen was the image of the German modernist, proclaiming tidily arranged dicta about the imperatives of history. Though in private Ligeti could be quite impossible, at the Conservatory he just charmed everybody. He had no theories whatever to offer. He was unpretentious, witty in his scrambled English, and in contrast to Stockhausen's sharp features and burning eyes, there was Ligeti's wonderful face of an old spaniel. For a taste of his ruminations, here's a late BBC interview.

Ligeti told us that when his music was first being performed in European new-music festivals, he had to hitchhike to the concerts. "I didn't have the money to buy a girl a cup of coffee." Then one day somebody told him, "Did you know there's a movie with your music in it?" Ligeti didn't know. Kubrick had simply ripped off his things for 2001. Ligeti duly sued Kubrick and in the end, he told us, received the grand sum of $3,000. "But do you like the movie?" somebody asked. "Yah, I really like it," Ligeti said. And of course, 2001 did for him what Sgt. Pepper's did for Stockhausen—helped make him famous beyond the esoteric circles of the European new-music scene. By the '90s, the two were the dominant figures of their generation, but by then Stockhausen was mostly out of sight, sunk in his mystical cycle of operas called Licht, or "light."

So via mass media and pop culture some wildly innovative music emerged from underground and made its mark. The difference between that generation and now was that while Stockhausen and Ligeti were not aloof to pop culture, they expected it to come to them. Many of the current generation of classical composers swear allegiance to hip-hop, salsa, and so on. In the arts formerly known as "high," you can't go wrong sucking up to pop culture. I think the older attitude got better results.

In later years, Ligeti and Stockhausen kept their distance. They united in the public mind one last notorious time when, after 9/11, Stockhausen declared of the disaster: "This is the biggest artwork that exists at all in the whole universe. ... I couldn't match it." His statement was condemned worldwide. Actually, what Stockhausen was trying to say, from his distant planet, was that 9/11 was a titanic piece of theater, mass murder created for television. Not so generously, Ligeti declared that Stockhausen had joined the terrorists and ought to be locked up. Even in that, Ligeti was showing his allegiance to the here-and-now in contrast to the remoteness of his old mentor. Stockhausen had not considered what people were going to make of what he did and said. He didn't quite live in this world. Ligeti did.

For me, Ligeti is the most interesting, most expressive, most important tonal artist to appear since Stravinsky died. Stockhausen was a great inventor in sound, but Ligeti was a great composer in a long tradition. I don't see any replacements on the horizon. I doubt anybody alive, for example, could set Lewis Carroll's "A Long, Sad Tale" with anything like his bizarre brilliance.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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