Ligeti at Stanford and Berkeley

by Michael McNabb
Computer Music Journal, M.I.T. Press, 1994

During the final week of January, 1993, the Bay Area was treated to a rare visit by the famed Hungarian expatriate composer Gyðrgy Ligeti, who presented two concerts and discussions of his works. The first, on January 27 at Stanford University's Memorial Church, featured two organ works, the taped composition Artikulation, two early choral works, and a recorded performance of his new Violin Concerto. It was followed by a reception at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), which sponsored the concert. On January 29, at U.C. Berkeley's Hertz Hall, the evening featured a single work, Ligeti's Etudes for Piano, three movements from which were a U.S. premiere. This second concert followed an open house celebrating the opening of the new facility for the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT).

Wednesday, January 27

The Stanford concert provided an enlightening juxtaposition of early and recent works. After an introduction by CCRMA director John Chowning, the charming and loquacious Ligeti provided historical and musical commentary throughout the evening, between performances of the works. The first, the Ricercare per organo: Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi, was composed in 1953 while the composer was still teaching at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest. Inspired by the 17th century ricercares of Frescobaldi, this work was also Ligeti's response to 12-tone concepts, although cold war politics had prevented him from hearing any music by Schoenberg or his students. The imitative chromaticism of the work also foreshadows the techniques used to create the famous micropolyphony tone clusters of his later orchestral and choral writing. Ligeti's work was followed by a genuine Frescobaldi ricercare for the sake of comparison. Both works were performed on the meantone tempered Fisk Organ, by Proferssor of Music and University Organist Kimberly Marshall.

Marshall was then joined by three assistants for a performance of Harmonies (1967), an eerie and intense exploration of organ tone-color. Ligeti, an organist himself, requires the performer to key two-handed tone clusters, relegating changes of registration to two additional performers. Stops are set only partially open, so as to produce the "pale, strange, and vitiated tone colors" specified by the composer. A third assistant periodically toggles power to the bellows, resulting in glissandi, which add a haunting, breathing quality uncharacteristic of most organ music. Ligeti explained that the title was ironic, and that he had in fact been interested in extracting inharmonic sounds and harmonies via the novel performance techniques. The work had been inspired by the prepared piano works of John Cage.

The discovery and exploitation of novel tone colors and textures in all musical media is one of Ligeti's well-known trademarks, exemplified by his celebrated orchestral and choral works from the 60's such as AtmosphÜres, Lontano, and Requiem. Since then, inspired by elements of sub-Saharan African music, computer music, and the minimalist school, he has composed several works characterized more by a focus on polyrhythmic contrapuntal textures, such as San Francisco Polyphony and the Etudes for Piano. Both of these techniques were combined to produce the fascinating and beautiful Violin Concerto (1990-92). As a substitute for a different earlier-scheduled work which could not be prepared in time, Ligeti played a recording from the October 1992 premier performances in Cologne. The Violin Concerto was to be performed on February 18 in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Just when we thought that there was nothing new under the baton, along comes this exciting and innovative new work full of surprises to prove us wrong. Through the use of just tunings on selected instruments, the inclusion of groups of toy instruments, and inspired orchestrations, Ligeti succeeds again in breathing new life into the tired orchestral form. In this work, one violinist tunes his E string to the 7th harmonic of the 'cello G string, and his other strings to perfect fifths below. One violist tunes his D string to the 5th harmonic of the double bass A string, and his other strings to perfect fifths around that. The toy instruments, such as ocarinas and slide-whistles which are poorly tuned in the first place, are used in groups, usually sul vibrato, to wonderful inharmonic effect. Even though the soloist and the rest of the orchestra are still in equal temperament, Ligeti manages to produce an ensemble effect of surprising unity and incredible variety of expression which defies adequate description in words.

The Violin Concerto is in five movements. The first, a rapid vivace, is characterized by interlocking polyrhythmic patterns, brass punctuations, glockenspiel and other metallic-sounding textures, and harmonics and open-string writing in the strings. The second movement features the soloist with a slow, triadic introspective theme in the low register, a faster playful section featuring the toy instruments, and a return to the slow melody. The third movement, moderato, moves the soloist into the high register, accompanied by string glissandi, horn, trombone, and string harmonics, and descending scalar patterns reminiscent of S.F. Polyphony, ending in a colossal percussive crash. The fourth movement contains unusual organ-like woodwind chords with inharmonic elements, very high, long notes from the soloist which build gradually in intensity, and occasional percussive outbursts from recorders and whistles. The fifth movement returns to the rapid contrapuntal textures, with agitated double-stops from the soloist, pizzicato cellos, and percussion. A virtuosic composed cadenza recalls the string writing of the first movement, with open fifth patterns and glissandi of harmonics. The concerto comes to an abrupt end with a brief percussive burst

Referring to his 1972 six-month Stanford residency, Ligeti acknowledged the indirect but strong influence that computer music has had on his instrumental writing. Even though he knows nothing about computers technically and claims to have yet to use one, he became fascinated with the multi-layered thinking inherent in human-computer interaction, and the mathematical approaches to the solution of artistic and imaginative problems. More specifically, the concept of the generation of artificial timbres by digital synthesis led him to attempt to do the inverse -- attempt to produce unnatural and synthesizer-like sounds from acoustic ensembles as a way of expanding orchestral expression. His Violin Concerto successfully continues this endeavor.

The Stanford concert continued with a performance of Artikulation (1958) for electroacoustic tape. This transitional work was composed at the Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio, in Cologne. Ligeti had worked in Cologne since fleeing Hungary in 1956, during the period of repression following the failed Hungarian uprising against the Soviets. Coming directly out of the tradition of Bartok and Kodaly, Ligeti designed the piece around elements of Hungarian speech patterns, intonation, and language structures. Although the sounds themselves are inexpressive and static by today's standards, the rhythmic articulation of the work remains compelling.

Ligeti then described his mixed feelings at becoming part of what he described as the "European Mafia" of the avant-guard in Cologne and Paris during the late 50s and early 60s. He was uncomfortable with the dogmatism of this period, and in the 60s began to be interested in the newer experimental styles, which addressed issues of static forms, tonal color, and texture composition.

To illustrate Ligeti's Hungarian musical heritage, the evening at Memorial Church concluded with a performance of two choral works from 1955, Ejszaka (Night), and Reggel (Morning), after a poem by Sandor Weores. They were expressively performed by the California Bach Society, directed by Edward Bolkovac.

The concert then adjourned to the CCRMA facility at the Knoll for a lively reception, complete with a performance of Ligeti's infamous phase-pattern piece, Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes (1962), in the CCRMA Ballroom. Perry Cook provided an up-to-date orchestration using a combination of metronomes and NeXT computers playing some decidedly un-metronomic sampled system beeps (imagine Homer Simpson and the "Knights of Ni" at 80 bpm).

Friday, January 29

The second performance followed an afternoon-long open house at the newly-refurbished and modernized CNMAT facility at 1750 Arch Street, a few blocks north of the U.C. Berkeley campus. The evening was structured in the form of an interview of Ligeti and virtuoso pianist Volker Banfield by Charles Amirkhanian, around the performance of Ligeti's Etudes for Piano, Book One (1985) and Book Two (1989-90). On the strength of Book One, Ligeti was given the Grawemeyer Award in 1986.

Ligeti reprised some of his historical perspective-setting from the earlier concert. He acknowledge a particular indebtedness to John Chowning and Jean-Claude Risset, who were both present. He explained that they had tought him about computer models of structure and logic, which led him to adopt a more scientific and mathematical model of musical thinking. Now, he said, he is an avid reader of the German edition of Scientific American. In regard to the Etudes, Ligeti spoke of the influence of the recorded player piano works of Conlon Nancarrow, the interlocking pattern drawings of M.C. Escher, and again the polyrhythms of African xylophone music.

The Nancarrow comparison is quite relevant indeed, since the Etudes also deal heavily with polytemporal structures. The big difference is the the Etudes are meant to be performed by a human being, and a soloist at that. These short pieces literally "push the envelope" of what can be performed by human hands. In order to produce the illusion of several different simultaneous tempi, as many as two or three of the parts must be played by each hand independently. To maintain the distinguishability of the separate patterns on a monochromatic instrument in the face of all this seems nearly impossible. Despite the challenges, Volker Banfield's performance was one of extreme precision and care, resulting in a wonderfully evocative and paradoxically visual effect which might be described as a kind of "scientific impressionism". After also taking into account the overall structure of the work, one was even reminded of the etudes of Chopin and Debussy.

The typical underlying scenario in the work is one of simultaneous patterns of Fibonacci-number lengths measured in short 16-note units. Augmentation and diminution of the patterns, the use of extreme registers, the contrast between open voicings and tight clusters, and other pianistic techniques bring variety and feeling to the work. Naturally, the polyrhythms as such were far easier to discern in the slower passages, and much more difficult in the quicker ones. Fortunately, Banfield played the work both before and after the discussion, allowing the audience a chance both to study the work's complex structures and simply to sit back and feel the music and appreciate the performance.

Gyorgy Ligeti continues down his long road of stylistic innovation, somehow keeping himself always open to new influences while never rejecting his substantial heritage. Like a musical Jason, he negotiates himself between the Sirens of minimalist and new-romantic tonality, and the Cyclops of Western European academicism. Although always the first to point out the influence of others on his work, he himself has influenced far more contemporary composers. And far from settling in to a rut of self-repetition, he continues to boldly experiment and innovate, while clearly holding himself and his work to the highest standards. His artistic strength, consistency, and clarity of thought and purpose over such a long and fruitful life should be an inspiration to all composers.