Witches, Myths, and Microtones: The Music of Harry Partch

by Maggie Molloy

Over the past five years Harry Partch’s orchestra of handmade instruments has become a staple in the Seattle spring concert calendar—among experimental music lovers, at least.

Partch was one of the first 20th century composers to work extensively with microtonal scales, creating dozens of incredible instruments specifically for the performance of his works. Those instruments have been in residence at the University of Washington since 2014, where, under the direction of Charles Corey, students and community members practice and perform on them each spring.

The Chromelodeon
The Gourd Tree
The Bamboo Marimba II
Charles Corey, Director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium
The Diamond Marimba
The Surrogate Kithara
The Spoils of War
The Chromelodeon

This year, Corey and his crew of Partch enthusiasts are playing two of Partch’s most ambitious and rarely-performed works: Daphne of the Dunes and The Bewitched. Catch both in concert this week at Meany Hall:

Daphne of the Dunes
The ancient Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo is reimagined through the primal rhythms and eerie microtones of Partch’s handmade instruments. His sprawling Daphne of the Dunes (originally composed as a film score) is performed alongside microtonal art songs of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Tues, 4/9, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10

The Bewitched
Music, theatre, and ritual merge in Partch’s radical dance satire The Bewitched. Written as a reaction against the rigidity of modern civilization, the piece explores how we might ultimately find a sense of rebirth through a discovering our ancient past. The Bewitched showcases Partch’s most ambitious writing for the female voice, the piece unfolding across 12 scenes with the instruments dominating the set.
Sat, 4/13, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10

Interested in learning more? Click here for our photo tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium.

Second Inversion Spooktacular: 48-Hour Spooky Music Marathon

by Maggie Molloy

IT’S BACK FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE… Second Inversion’s annual 48-Hour Spooky Music Marathon!

Let us provide the soundtrack for your Halloween haunts! On October 30 and 31, tune in to Second Inversion for a 48-hour marathon of new and experimental music inspired by monsters, witches, ghosts, goblins, and things that go bump in the night.

Click here to tune in to the scream—er, stream of Halloween music from anywhere in the world, or tune in on the go using the free KING FM mobile appTo give you a sneak peek of the spooky music that’s in store, our Second Inversion skeleton crew shares our favorite selections from the Halloween playlist:

Vincent Raikhel: Cirques (New Focus Recordings)
Red Light New Music

As an avid hiker, I couldn’t resist Vincent Raikhel’s Cirques. A reflection of the glacial geological formations so often encountered in the Cascade Mountains, this piece immediately transported me to a faraway corner of the imposing mountain range in Seattle’s backyard. In the context of the Spooky Music Marathon, this piece made me think of the creeping claustrophobia that one might feel in a cirque, especially as the sun sets, as it does so quickly in the mountains. It’s curious, how something so open to the sky, so large and static, can suddenly feel as if it is closing in on you in the waning light… – Seth Tompkins


Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire (Hungaroton Records)
Erika Sziklay, soprano; 
András Mihály, conductor; Budapest Chamber Ensemble

It just wouldn’t be a Halloween marathon without a spooky clown—and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is nothing if not haunting. A masterpiece of melodrama, the 35-minute work tells the chilling tale of a moonstruck clown and his descent into madness (a powerful metaphor for the modern alienated artist). The spooky story comes alive through three groups of seven poems (a result of Schoenberg’s peculiar obsession with numerology), each one recited using Sprechstimme: an expressionist vocal technique that hovers eerily between song and speech. Combine this with Schoenberg’s free atonality and macabre storytelling, and it’s enough to transport you to into an intoxicating moonlight. – Maggie Molloy


Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Innova Recordings)

Likely written as an attempt to reconcile his own anger, Harry Partch’s stage play Delusion of the Fury is (superficially, at least) well-suited to Halloween. Containing killing, a ghost, body horror, futility, and absurdism, this piece not only touches on the more classic campy elements of spookiness, but is oriented around some of the darker elements of horror—existentialism, futility, and powerlessness to name a few. Plus, for my money, few musical things conjure the uneasy feelings associated with horror and dread like microtonal scales. – Seth Tompkins


Bernard Herrmann: Psycho Suite (Stylotone Records)

This piece is so timelessly cool and undeniably scary. Like John Williams’ Star Wars score borrowed the dark side of the Force from the dojo-dominating “Mars, the Bringer of War” in Holst’s The Planets, Herrmann borrows the creepy suspenseful stringiness of Norman Bates from the dancing skeletons in Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre (and maybe from Mussorgsky’s Bald Mountain witches).

I’m a sucker for a good film score. That blend of music and movie can be so powerful. Consider the fact that thousands of people were scared to take a shower after Psycho—and that’s in large part because of Herrmann’s music. I love, too, that Hitchcock gave Herrmann license to do as he pleased with the score—except for the shower scene, for which Hitchcock asked Herrmann to write no music. Herrmann nodded and smiled at the director, and then did as he pleased instead. Thanks to Herrmann’s creative insubordination, we have one of the most iconic, cover-your-eyes scenes in film history. – Dacia Clay

Not Even Harry Partch Can Be An Island

by Michael Schell

Partch and musicians for “The Dreamer That Remains.” (1972, photo by Betty Freeman.)

No one lives up to the American Maverick sobriquet better than Harry Partch (1901–1974), whose hand-built instruments and 43-tone scale will be on display once again at this year’s Harry Partch Festival on May 11–13 at the University of Washington.

But as much as we admire the uniqueness and audacity of Partch’s career (see Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick and Meet the Instruments of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium), even a gadfly like Partch has his influences—however disparate and contrarian they might be. Let’s take a look at a few of the raw ingredients that fed the cauldron of one of music history’s most unusual thinkers.

Neighborhood Roots

Partch spent much of his childhood in rural Arizona Territory where his neighbors included the Pasqua Yaqui people, who at that time were refugees from the ethnic cleansing policy of the Díaz regime in Mexico. Though Partch’s contact with the Yaquis must have been limited, as an adult he could remember hearing their music—the origins of a lifelong sympathy and appreciation for Native American culture.

In 1933 Partch landed a short but interesting job at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles transcribing Native American songs recorded on Edison wax cylinders by the Museum’s founder Charles Lummis. Partch must have been struck by the diffuse and inflected pitch of many of the indigenous singers, whose vocal delivery was often closer to heightened speech than to Western folk or classical singing. A good example from the Loomis cylinders is this Brush Dance Song from the Hoopa (Natinook-wa) tribe in northwest California. Partch’s own intoning technique, honed in early works like the 17 Lyrics by Li Po, owes an obvious debt to this style.

One of the transcribed songs from an Isleta Pueblo resident (above) impressed Partch so much that he quoted it years later in his short piece Cloud Chamber Music (which will be performed at the Festival’s closing concert). The tune is first heard on the Adapted Viola starting at 2:18 in Partch’s own recording:

A Mexican Maverick

Partch wasn’t the first modern composer to explore microtones. The 1920s, for instance, had seen a minor heyday of music based on quarter tones: intervals halfway between the adjacent keys of a keyboard tuned in conventional equal temperament. A few manufacturers even designed new instruments for this 24-notes-per-octave system, including a piano that inspired Ives’ Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, one of the few enduring masterpieces of this vogue.

Partch with his Kithara II in 1959. (Photo by Danlee Mitchell.)

One man who leaped wholeheartedly into the interwar microtonal craze was the Mexican composer-conductor Julián Carrillo (1875–1965). Carrillo postulated a system that he called trece sonido (“13th sound”, meaning that it went beyond the usual 12 notes per octave) where the scale was divided not just into quarter tones, but into eighth and even sixteenth tones (creating, at least in theory, a 96-tone scale).

Partch mentions Carrillo’s work in his book Genesis of a Music, which, in addition to describing his own music and instruments also includes a fascinating and opinionated survey of intonation systems from antiquity through the mid-20th century. But being obsessed with acoustically pure intervals, Partch disdained any system based on equal temperament (with its irrational frequency ratios). And history, abetted by the difficulty of procuring instruments adapted to the trece sonido, has largely consigned Carrillo’s output to the novelty bin.

Nevertheless, Carrillo’s best-known piece, Prelude to Christopher Columbus, bears a striking resemblance to some of Partch’s mature compositions. Written in 1922 for soprano, flute, strings, quarter tone guitar and a special sixteenth tone harp, it was known to Partch through a Cuban recording made in the early 1930s, and later through the publication of its score by Henry Cowell in 1944. Listen to the microtonal plucked string tremolos and glissandos at 4:00 of the above video, and compare them to the similar timbres at 5:23 of Partch’s Daphne of the Dunes.

Meanwhile, Back in the Old World…

Partch had European influences too. There was the drama and music of Ancient Greece, as best Partch could discern it from the scholarship of the day. And there were the very first European operas, developed around 1600 by such now-obscure foot soldiers as Peri and Caccini, eager to build a new and expressive technique for declaiming texts with fidelity to their natural contours and rhythms. To Partch’s way of thinking, things went downhill soon afterwards, derailed by such blasphemies as bel canto singing, equal temperament, and abstract forms like sonatas and symphonies.

Detail from “The Dreamer that Remains” (1972).

Europe finally started emerging from the Dark Age of the Three Bs around the turn of the 20th century. The sprechstimme in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) impressed Partch as a workable middle ground between overwrought operatic singing and accompanied rhythmic recitation (whose “inharmonic relation between instruments and voice” he found objectionable). Partch was also impressed by the simple and austere vocal writing in Satie’s Socrate (1919) which, though sung, closely tracks the natural flow of its French text.

And then there’s Carl Orff. Partch admired the archaic directness of the text settings in his Carmina Burana (1935–36). But it’s Orff’s musical adaptations of Greek dramas—works largely unknown outside the German-speaking world—that display the most tantalizing similarities to Partch.

 

The first of them, Antigonae, was premiered in Germany in 1949, a couple of years before Partch’s first big theater work, Oedipus. Antigonae was not produced in the US until 1968 though, so the earliest exposure Partch seems likely to have had to it was a 1955 recording on Columbia Records. Nevertheless, the parallels between the two works are remarkable, and the similarities would continue as both composers independently built their catalog of ancient drama settings: Orff with Oedipus the Tyrant (1959) and Prometheus (1968), and Partch with Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960, an adaptation of The Bacchae) and Delusion of the Fury (1964–66, based on a Noh drama and an Ethiopian folk tale). All of these works emphasize the theatricality of ritual, which for Partch was a key element in corporeality: an integrated and meaningful artistic experience spanning multiple disciplines.

Production still from Partch’s “Oedipus” at Mills College in 1952. (Photo by Carl Mydans, Life Magazine.)

The first act of Orff’s Antigonae is a good showcase of these seemingly Partchian traits: the use of intoning voices and recitative (often on a single pitch), and the percussion-centric orchestra. Orff even calls for some new mallet instruments of his own design (conceived for his music pedagogy approach called Orff Schulwerk) to go alongside six pianos and a chorus of winds and double basses. One can compare Orff’s duet between Kreon and the Messenger with Partch’s duet between Oedipus and Tiresias, or the percussive jigs in Act I of Antigonae and the opening of Partch’s Revelation.

But Orff’s instrumentarium uses conventional 12-tone tunings, inhabiting a sound world established by Stravinsky in Les Noces, whereas Partch’s inventions reflect his legacy in the American tradition of percussion music (to which he was directly linked through his friendship with Lou Harrison), which emphasized an individualistic, build-your-own ethic.

Synthesis

Vaughan Williams said that art, like charity, should begin at home. And it’s when Partch drew from his own scraggly biography that he created his most admired works. The apogee of “hobo Partch” comes in The Wayward, a personal portrait of Depression-era Americana that includes the compositions Barstow, The Letter, San Francisco, and U.S. Highball, and which will comprise the centerpiece of the Harry Partch Festival’s evening concerts.

The Wayward masterfully combines borrowed concepts of the sort we’ve seen above with ideas that only Partch could have come up with: the custom tuning system and instruments obviously, but also the dialogue, themes and sonic evocations of a particular subculture that he had uniquely assimilated.

Partch’s ability to integrate both Classical and vernacular elements—to bridge, so to speak, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low—may be what most deeply defines his legacy. However wide one’s influences may range, it’s often the intimacy of authentic experience that produces the most compelling art.


The Harry Partch Festival is May 11-13, 2018 at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

New Music for May: Joshua Roman, JACK Quartet, and a Microtonal Music Fest

by Maggie Molloy

SI_button2

Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

thvLYmNB

Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

New music flyer May 2018 FINAL

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: avant-garde piano solos, Eastern-European cimbalom songs, a dark ambient memorial, and more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Live Music Project: 4th Annual Lecture-Concert
The Live Music Project celebrates its 4th birthday with a scintillating lecture from a cyborg, a centuries-spanning solo violin performance by Mikhail Shmidt of the Seattle Symphony, a ticket giveaway, and the most adorable cupcake toast this side of the Cascades.
Tues, 5/1, 6:30pm, Naked City Brewery & Taphouse | $30

DXARTS: Points vs. Fields
UW School of Music faculty performers Cuong Vu, Ted Poor, Richard Karpen, and Juan Pampin perform an ephemeral new improvisation for trumpet, drums, piano, and live electronics, programmed alongside Bernard Permegiani’s classic exploration of the meaning of sound itself, De Natura Sonorum for loudspeaker orchestra.
Tues, 5/1, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$15

Emerald City Music: Metamorphosis
A season-long celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial ends with a special multimedia feature on the iconic conductor, plus performances of two composers whose work he championed during his lifetime: Strauss and Beethoven.
Fri, 5/4, 8pm, 415 Westalve Ave, Seattle | $40-45
Sat, 5/5, 7:30pm, Evergreen State College Recital Hall, Olympia | $23-$43

Matt Shoemaker Memorial Concert
Longtime friends and collaborators of the late Matt Shoemaker perform works in his honor ranging from experimental noise to sound art, dark ambient, and beyond.
Sat, 5/5, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Town Music: JACK Quartet with Joshua Roman
Cellist Joshua Roman joins forces with the JACK Quartet to perform his new piece Tornado, inspired by his roots in Oklahoma. Works by Jefferson Friedman, John Zorn, Amy Williams, and Carlo Gesualdo complete the program.
Thurs, 5/10, 7:30pm, Seattle First Baptist Church | $15-$20

Harry Partch Festival
Experience the handmade microtonal instruments of Harry Partch in this sprawling three-day music festival featuring new works composed for Partch’s instruments, as well as rarely-performed works from the composer’s archives. Master classes, demonstrations, and lectures, complete this homage to a uniquely American artist.
Fri-Sun, 5/11-5/13, Various times, Meany Theater | $10-$60

Portland Cello Project
Equally at home in rock clubs and concert halls, Portland Cello Project reimagines classical favorites and contemporary hits alike for their famous choir of cellos. Expect everything from Bach to Coltrane to Radiohead.
Tues, 5/15, 7:30pm, The Triple Door | $26-$35

Seattle Art Museum: John Cage’s Themes and Variations
John Cage is best known as one of the leading figures of the 20th century avant-garde in music—but much of his work crossed boundaries into performance art, theatre, and even visual art. His sculpture Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel recently joined the Seattle Art Museum’s collection. Learn more about his contributions to both art and music in this conversation with curators Catharina Manchanda and Carrie Dedon.
Wed, 5/16, 6:30pm, Seattle Art Museum | $10

Peter Nelson-King: Post Avant-Garde
Multi-instrumentalist and modern music rabble-rouser Peter Nelson-King presents an eclectic program of individualist piano music from the 1980s, featuring works by Robert Beaser, George Benjamin, Peter Sculthorpe, John Tavener, Augusta Read Thomas, Charles Wuorinen, and more.
Thurs, 5/17, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Seattle Pro Musica: Sacred Ground
Explore the intersections of music, spirituality, and the natural world in this program of nature-inspired works by Tõnu Kõrvits, Hyo-Won Woo, and Healey Willan.
Fri, 5/18, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $12-$38
Sat, 5/19, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $12-$38

Nat Evans: Flyover Country
Composer and interdisciplinary artist Nat Evans uses his family history across the last three centuries as a lens to look at ecological destruction, genocide of indigenous people, capitalism, and food systems in the United States.
Sat-Sun, 5/19-5/20, 8pm, The Grocery | $5-$20

Mostly Nordic: Finlandia
The Emerald Ensemble perform Jean Sibelius’s beloved hymn to Finland alongside 20th century works by Finnish composers Einojuhani Rautavaara, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, and more.
Sun, 5/20, 4pm, Nordic Museum | $25

Music of Remembrance: Gaman
A world premiere by composer Christophe Chagnard explores the experience of Japanese immigrants who were forced into internment camps in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Combining traditional Japanese and classical Western instruments, the piece brings a powerful story to life through the words and images created by three artists and poets during their captivity in the Minidoka camp.
Sun, 5/20, 5pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $30-$45

The Westerlies
Far from your typical brass band, this Seattle-bred, New York-based quartet is known on both coasts for their bold artistry, impeccable finesse, eclectic musical interpretations, and remarkable versatility. The band returns to the West this month for a one-night-only performance in Seattle.
Wed, 5/23, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $5-$15

Frequency with Yura Lee: Dialogues
Guest violinist Yura Lee joins members of Frequency (violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim, violist Melia Watras, and cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir) for duos by Berio, Maderna, Ravel, and Watras. Also on the program is Dohnányi’s Serenade for string trio.
Sun, 5/27, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$20

The Late Works of György Ligeti (1923–2006)

by Michael Schell

The Pacific Northwest seems in the midst of a Ligeti boom. Last year the Seattle Symphony presented the regional premiere of his Requiem, along with a live-music presentation of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features music from the Requiem and three other Ligeti scores from the 1960s. Second Inversion marked the occasion with a profile of the Hungarian composer (see György Ligeti’s Musical Odyssey) and the groundbreaking works from that era that made him one of the 20th century’s most influential musical figures. This Thursday and Saturday, the Seattle Symphony is back with Augustin Hadelich to offer the local premiere of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, a late and quite different piece that offers an opportunity to examine the composer’s post-Odyssey music.

Opera in Breughelland

Ligeti’s output, like Beethoven’s, divides rather neatly into three style periods. The early works, written while he was still in Hungary, are Bartókian and often folkloric. The middle period works, coming after his escape to the West in 1956, include sonorist compositions such as Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, and the first two movements of the Requiem—pieces that aren’t based on conventional melody and harmony but are pure explorations of timbre and texture. It’s this music that was made famous by the monolith and stargate sequences in Kubrick’s film. Others works from this time, like the little pseudo-operas Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, and the third movement of the Requiem, express Ligeti’s idiosyncratic take on the Darmstadt pointillist style. (Each of these works are surveyed in our previous article.)

Ligeti’s middle period is considered to culminate with the 1978 premiere of Le Grand Macabre, his only full-length opera, and by far his longest work. Much of it resembles Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, but at other times it points in several new directions, including that quintessential postmodern technique, pastiche. There are many musical references to the past: a Can Can quoting Offenbach, a bourée that’s modeled after the Baroque dance, a midnight clock scene that parodies the cemetery chimes in Verdi’s Falstaff, and a Don Giovanni-style moralizing finale where the singers address the audience directly.

The opera’s most famous passage is a passacaglia based on a crazy distortion of the theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It accompanies the entrance of Nekrotzar, the opera’s villain and namesake, one of the most debauched processional scenes in opera history.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony through a distorting mirror in Le Grand Macabre.

Beethoven isn’t the only reference here. Look closely and you’ll see that Ligeti’s tune uses a Schoenbergian 12-tone row. But since the tune has 13 notes in it, each iteration begins on a different pitch (the first two passes are shown above). After 12 times through, the cycles line up again, a technique perfected centuries ago in the isorhythmic motets of Machaut and Dufay.

The libretto, adapted from a play by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, is a farcical sendup of operatic clichés, influenced by carnival and commedia dell’arte traditions, and by the allegorical imagery of Breughel, one of Ligeti’s favorite visual artists (indeed, the work’s setting is the imaginary country of Breugelland). Besides Nekrotzar and his Sancho Panza-like sidekick, the characters include a court astrologer (kind of a cross between Klingsor and Dr. Frankenstein) and his dominatrix wife, an incompetent secret police chief, and a couple whose male half is a trouser role sung by a mezzo-soprano in the manner of Cherubino or Octavian. The plot, such as it is, concerns Nekrotzar’s attempt to destroy the world, an effort eventually foiled by ineptitude and drunkenness.

Although Ligeti was attracted to Ghelderode’s drama for its unconventionality, the resulting libretto has not proven terribly popular, striking many people as more daft than profound. And younger composers like Louis Andriessen have had better success liberating new music theater from conventional narrative by jettisoning full-throated bel canto singing and other accoutrements of traditional opera-making. Nevertheless, Ligeti’s mastery at eliciting an almost unbroken succession of unexpected colors from voices and instruments has earned Le Grand Macabre a foothold in the repertory of international opera companies—one of the very few post-Britten operas to accomplish this.

An arrangement of the opera’s music for coloratura soprano, called Mysteries of the Macabre, has become a favorite showpiece for Barbara Hannigan, who has performed it in various concert stagings, including the above version where she both sings and conducts the ensemble.

At a Crossroads

Le Grand Macabre ends with a second passacaglia that manages to be triadic but practically atonal. Although each of the chords are themselves consonant, they clash sufficiently with each other that no clear key or chord progression can coalesce. Ligeti called this consonant atonality, and it was the first time since escaping from Hungary that he had used traditional harmonies. Having reached a point in his career where he felt he had little more to say in the vein of his most experimental works, he was interested in reclaiming music based on pitch and rhythm. But as a survivor of both Nazism and Communism, he deplored both the dogmatism of the avant-garde and the insouciance of the neoromantic and post-minimalist styles that were then coming into vogue. So how to use melody, consonant intervals and well-defined rhythms outside the permissive context of operatic pastiche and without reverting to hackneyed tonal chords and melodies?

The solution took a while to develop (like Beethoven, Ligeti endured a few years of artistic quiescence before his late works started to emerge), but eventually a compelling new line of musical thought synthesized in his imagination, spurred in large part through contact with several composers from America.

American Ingenuity

Ligeti had a formative experience in 1972 when he traveled to the US for a half-year residency at Stanford University. Among other things, he encountered the West Coast fascination with alternative tunings, a perspective associated with Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, but above all with Harry Partch, then largely unknown in Europe. Ligeti visited Partch in his Encinitas home, chatted about the latter’s unique tuning system and self-built instruments, and jammed a bit on the diamond marimba. But whereas Partch strove to create pure consonance, the complexity-craving Ligeti wondered how clashes between different tuning systems could create new dissonances—what he called a “dirty sound,” but one under the control of the composer. Ligeti had previously used quarter tones (intervals halfway between the adjacent keys of a conventionally-tuned piano), but Partch’s system suggested a different and more systematic approach.

One of the first manifestations of this approach is the Hungarian Passacaglia, a little harpsichord piece that Ligeti dashed off in 1978. Ligeti asks for the instrument to be tuned in meantone temperament, an adaptation that causes the thirds and sixths in the repeating ground to be pure, but makes them sound strangely out of tune with each other. The effect in this otherwise straightforwardly polytonal piece is akin to adding exotic spices to an otherwise bland dish.

Hungarian Passacaglia.

In his 1982 Horn Trio, Ligeti plays off natural harmonics in the horn with the conventional tuning of the piano and violin. The clashes are quite audible in the third and fourth movements.

It was also at Stanford that Ligeti first encountered American minimalism, specifically its rhythmically lively strain (which originated in the Bay Area) to which he paid explicit homage in his Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley. This 1976 piece for two pianos also looks back at the finale of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata, one of the 19th century’s most important precursors to minimalism.

Once back in Europe, Ligeti conveyed his excitement over these discoveries in an article titled “Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA: Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Harry Partch.”

American Rhythm

Ligeti’s North American explorations of 1972 also took him to Mexico City, where he met several local composers, but ironically not the one that would later become a crucial influence: Conlon Nancarrow. It wasn’t until 1980 that Ligeti finally heard the music of this most obstinate and isolated of American Mavericks, a reticent expatriate who labored patiently for four and a half decades with two player pianos and a machine for hand-punching pianola rolls to create music of unprecedented rhythmic density and complexity.

Nancarrow and Ligeti.

Nancarrow’s Study 40b is a straightforward example. Two player pianos play the same music, but the second one enters 28 seconds after the first, playing its roll at 9/8 the first piano’s tempo, so that it gradually catches up as the piece goes on. Both pianos finish together in a loud cadential flurry.

Nancarrow’s influence is heard in the third movement of Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, which is notated in three simultaneous time signatures and often gives the impression of different cascades of notes tumbling along at different tempos. Ligeti was so impressed by Nancarrow’s work (“the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives“) that he authorized player piano versions of some of his own compositions, such as the piano etude Vertige.

Another key American was Ligeti’s composition student, Roberto Sierra, who from 1979 onward made available his extensive LP library of non-Western music. Ligeti was especially interested in the polyphonic music of Central Africa, such as this example from the Banda people which became a model for his piano etude Fém. Ligeti’s infatuation with complex African music passed on to his son, Lukas, a drummer and composer who often collaborates with African musicians.

Violin Concerto

All of these new interests from the 1970s and 1980s—pastiche, intonation, polyrhythms, concepts from non-Western music—find a voice in the Violin Concerto, a kind of résumé of Ligeti’s late period music. Completed in 1993 and scored for soloist and a chamber orchestra of two dozen musicians, its seeds go back to the Stanford residency, which had been arranged by John Chowning, a pioneer of computer music and inventor of the technology later used in the popular Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. Through his friendship with Chowning, Ligeti obtained a DX7ii with a custom enhancement that allowed him to experiment with complex alternative tunings.

The results are on display in the Concerto. One of the orchestral violins is tuned about a quartertone sharp, and one of the violas is tuned flat so that both are “out of tune” with the rest of the ensemble. Brass players are often directed to use natural harmonics (produced through overblowing without changing fingering), and woodwind instruments are given the occasional quarter tone inflection. Curiously, the solo violin plays in conventional equal temperament throughout.

The Concerto starts out sounding a bit like John Adams, with consonant bowed tremolos in the solo violin, soon joined by the (detuned) first viola. But the texture quickly dissolves into a dense chromatic web as the remaining string instruments enter, each going its own way with arpeggios and harmonic glissandos. The soloist, doubled by a marimba, shoots out a sequence of accented notes that go up and down a custom scale like a roller coaster. At 1:38 , the woodwinds enter in a Nancarrowish commotion with the soloist, accompanied by a vibraphone and a couple of orchestral strings, going at a different tempo from the rest of the ensemble (see score excerpt). A little brass fanfare at 2:45 provides some punctuation as the mood of the opening returns.

The second movement is a pastiche of those Romantic violin concertos whose slow movement starts with a lyric melody that’s repeated with elaborate ornaments and filigrees added in the solo part. In Ligeti’s case, the melody is a nostalgic one, cribbed from a movement of his Musica Ricercata (an album of keyboard music written during his Hungary years that he arranged as the third of his Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet). Listen to the horns’ entrance at 2:18 as they play natural harmonics, intentionally clashing with the standard tuning of the other instruments.

At 2:38 Ligeti’s sense of humor comes out as the melody is reprised by a quartet of ocarinas, later joined by two slide whistles (all notorious for their wobbly intonation). Ligeti, like Berio, could be counted on to inject the occasional dose of playfulness into the otherwise stern proceedings of the European avant-garde. Here he was also inspired by music from the Iatmul people of Papua New Guinea who play on some of the world’s longest transverse flutes and, in lieu of finger holes, build their music exclusively from natural harmonics.

The brief third movement is like a mid-lesson review, combining the string webs and polyrhythms of the first movement with the melodic lyricism and natural brass harmonics of the second.

First two cycles of the Movement IV passacaglia.

The fourth movement is yet another passacaglia, this time over a two-voice chromatic ground played by wind instruments. It’s a bit tricky to follow because the starting notes change with each cycle (the first two cycles are shown above), and other variations creep in as the movement proceeds. But any fixed form in Ligeti’s hand is a license to do crazy things on top of it—like bringing in a Romanian village dance at 3:21, or directing the xylophone (with its limited dynamic range) to crescendo from p to ffffffff over the course of three bars at the movement’s end.

The finale returns to the sound world of the first movement, starting with the Adams-like tremolos. Woodwinds enter with a descending figure in whole tones (a kind of inversion of the passacaglia theme), then the soloist enters with accented notes, quickly leading us into another Nancarrowish brouhaha, which sounds chaotic but is strictly notated by Ligeti. At 1:53 the soloist and woodwinds seem to be playing two different dance tunes in two different tempos, with hints of a waltz rhythm in the bass. After a couple more minutes in the stylistic blender we arrive at the violin cadenza, which the soloist can either devise herself (in the tradition of Classical concertos) or reproduce from music supplied by Ligeti and Saschko Gawriloff (the work’s dedicatee). Eventually the cadenza is rudely interrupted by the orchestra in a bravura flourish—inspiring a few performers to ham up the ending a bit.

Despite being challenging to perform, the Violin Concerto has become one of Ligeti’s most frequently played and recorded large ensemble pieces. Its influence on younger composers is evinced in the eclecticism, layering and unpredictable rhythms of a piece such as Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto. And the emphasis on tuning clashes and derivation of musical ideas from overtone patterns creates results not far from the world of spectralist composers such as Grisey, Murail, and Avram.

Ligeti went on composing for another decade, bringing forth a viola sonata, songs, more piano etudes and the Hamburg Concerto (which puts the idea of clashing natural horn harmonics on steroids). But it’s the Violin Concerto that seems the best summation of the musical ideas that intrigued him in his later years—a quarter century of work capping off a lifetime of innovation.


Augustin Hadelich performs the Ligeti Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 and Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.

Click here for a list of recommended recordings of Ligeti’s music.