Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune inon Friday, May 11 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!
“Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening,” Pauline Oliveros said in her 1998 keynote address at the ArtSci98 symposium.
Twenty years later, those words have come to encapsulate the astonishing legacy left behind by the late composer, who passed away in 2016. An artist, accordionist, and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music, Oliveros is remembered for her revolutionary tape experiments, her poetic and aleatoric musical scores, her groundbreaking musical philosophies, and above all, her unwavering devotion to the exploration of sound.
“Pauline’s Solo” embodies that legacy. It is an intimate, improvised accordion solo that explores not melody so much as the music of sound—the clattering keys, wavering dissonances, swelling drones, and fluttering breaths of the instrument easing the listener into musical hypnosis. – Maggie Molloy
No Lands: “Icefisher” (New Amsterdam)
Michael Hammond, electronics
Michael Hammond’s recording project No Lands opens it’s album Negative Space with a confusingly-titled track. Despite being titled “Icefisher,” this piece brings a distinct sense of warmth. The slow, bendy chords are reminiscent of surf rock, while the heavy electronic static might be a sonic translation of the sensation of relaxing outdoors on an evening that is too hot. The end result? This track makes me want immediate access to a cold drink and a lawn chair. – Seth Tompkins
William Brittelle: Hieroglyphics Baby (New Amsterdam)
If you’re looking for some Friday night grooves, William Brittelle’s got the tune for you. “Hieroglyphics Baby” is a colorful art-pop-meets-classical mashup from his full-length, lip-synched (when live) concept album Mohair Time Warp. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics spiral through Technicolor melodies in this art music adventure that splashes through at least six musical genres in the span of three minutes. See if you can keep up. –Maggie Molloy
György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna (EMI Records)
Groupe Vocal de France
It’s always fascinating for me to hear the atonal landscape of György Ligeti applied to vocal works—for me, it magnifies the majesty and magic that is a somewhat lesser characteristic of his instrumental compositions that I know and love. Lux Aeterna is a highly difficult work for 16-part mixed choir that uses constantly shifting rhythms and high notes for all vocal parts to create a floating, ethereal feeling. Stanley Kubrick was attracted to its celestial sound, using it in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Latin text comes from the Catholic Requiem Mass, and translates to:
“May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord, with thy saints in eternity, for thou art merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.”
Composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia takes it as a compliment when listeners tell him his music is strange. That’s what he’s going for.
“The reaction from someone that says, ‘Your music is very strange, but very beautiful,’ that doesn’t in any way, shape, or form offend me,” Garcia said. “On the contrary, I take that as kind of reaching the goal that I want.”
Garcia is less interested in traditional harmony and melody than he is in exploring the timbre and color of instruments with his music. Drawing influence from minimalist composers and the New York School of composers, including his former mentor Morton Feldman, he also works to change listeners’ perception of time.
“I usually do this by using materials that are somewhat restricted that slowly unfold over time with the hope that the listener will be caught up in the moment and once the work is over, they won’t know whether the work was two minutes long or two hours long,” Garcia said. “It creates kind of a subjective time as opposed to an objective or chronological time.”
This Friday, the Seattle Modern Orchestra presents the world premiere of Garcia’s new piece, the clouds receding into the mountains for viola and ensemble, featuring violist Melia Watras. the clouds receding manages to intermix musical fragments with long, angular melodic and harmonic lines, bringing the fragments together at the end of the piece in a more intuitive way to create the sense of subjective time. But because of this trademark quality, the form of the piece presented challenges for Garcia.
“Any time I write a piece for a soloist and an ensemble there are challenges because right off the bat, when you think of a solo work with an ensemble, you think of a traditional virtuosity,” he said. “My music is not really directed toward that virtuosity so I’m looking at some other aspects of technique and control from the soloists.”
Whenever Garcia writes works that feature a soloist, he has a specific performer in mind, one whose sound color and control of their instrument inspire him. Hearing Watras play during a Seattle Modern Orchestra performance in 2015 led him to begin working on this piece.
“Melia played The Viola in My Life by Morton Feldman, my mentor, and I was very taken by her playing,” Garcia said. “The sound that she has, the control that she has.”
Garcia stayed in touch with Watras after the performance and began discussing a work for a violist and chamber orchestra. Together, they approached the Seattle Modern Orchestra about premiering this piece.
As Garcia began to compose, he studied recordings of Watras playing in order to tailor the work to her specific strengths. Understanding her sound was pivotal for Garcia’s unique approach to the solo line. He wanted to create something beautiful and complex enough to keep the performer engaged, but also stay true to his aesthetic.
“The emphasis is on the beautiful sound and the beautiful tone that she has and her beautiful control over the instrument,” Garcia said.
Also on the program are Beat Furrer’s Aria for soprano and six instruments and György Ligeti’s Melodien for chamber orchestra. Furrer is known for his exploration of the human voice. In Aria, making use of extended techniques, he integrates the percussive soprano line with the instrumentals to create an eerie and suspenseful interlocking pattern of quick, jarring sounds.
Ligeti, pioneer of micropolyphony, utilizes a three-layered texture in Melodien, with a melody, secondary ostinato-like figures, and long, sustained notes in the background. Over time, he allows the layers to blur and interact, creating a beautifully dense, complex sound.
It’s the perfect ending to a program that brings texture and timbre to the forefront of music, exploring new ways to interpret time and layers of sound.
Seattle Modern Orchestra’s upcoming concert, The Clouds Receding, is this Saturday, April 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. A pre-concert interview with composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia will take place at 7:30pm. For tickets and more information, pleaseclick here.
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’s2001: 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 (seeGyörgy 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 premiereof 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 Aventuresand 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 ourprevious 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: aCan CanquotingOffenbach, abouréethat’s modeled after theBaroque dance, amidnight clock scenethat parodies the cemetery chimes in Verdi’sFalstaff, and a Don Giovanni-stylemoralizing finale where the singers address the audience directly.
The opera’s most famous passage is apassacagliabased 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 acouplewhose 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 likeLouis Andriessenhave 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 secondpassacagliathat 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.
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 withHarry 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 thediamond 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 theHungarian 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.
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 thethirdandfourthmovements.
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 hisSelf-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.”
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’sStudy 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’sPiano 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 peoplewhich became a model for his piano etudeFém. Ligeti’s infatuation with complex African music passed on to his son, Lukas, a drummer and composer who oftencollaborateswith African musicians.
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. At1:38, 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 at2:45provides some punctuation as the mood of the opening returns.
Thesecond movementis 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 hisMusica 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 at2:18as they play natural harmonics, intentionally clashing with the standard tuning of the other instruments.
At2:38Ligeti’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 theIatmul peopleof 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 briefthird movementis 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.
Thefourth movementis 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 at3:21, 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.
Thefinalereturns 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. At1:53the 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 toham up the endinga 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’sViolin 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, andAvram.
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.
Second Inversion and theLive Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between!
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.”
Wayward Music Series Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: vintage sampling keyboards, avant-garde noise, graphic scores, and etudes from the likes of György Ligeti and John Cage. Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
Seattle Symphony: Ligeti Violin Concerto Grammy-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich joins the orchestra for a performance of György Ligeti’s stunningly virtuosic Violin Concerto. Also on the program: Stravinsky’s long-lost Funeral Song and Mozart’s sublime Symphony No. 39. Thurs, 1/4, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74 Sat, 1/6, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74
Paper Puppet Opera: Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ One of the darkest works in the classical canon is reimagined through bleak shadow puppet abstraction in this Schubertiade-meets-puppet-show spectacular. Baritone David Hoffman and pianist Peter Nelson-King join the Paper Puppet Opera for a shadow puppet performance of all 24 songs in Franz Schubert’s Winterreise. Fri, 1/12, 7:30pm, Trinity Parish Hall | $25 Sat, 1/13, Trinity Parish Hall | $25
Jesse Myers: To Sober and Quiet the Mind Seattle pianist Jesse Myers presents an evening of introspective solo piano works from the masters of time and space—Arvo Pärt, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and more. Forgo the chairs and bring a pillow or mat for the ultimate musical meditation. Fri, 1/12, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
Bern Herbolsheimer Musical Memorial In celebration of the late Bern Herbolsheimer’s life and music, the St. Helens String Quartet and local soloists come together to perform a selection of his chamber works. Sat, 1/13, 5pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | FREE
Second City Chamber Series: Just Us Folks The Carpe Diem String Quartet performs chamber works inspired by folk music from every corner of the world, featuring music by Erberk Eryilmaz, Vittorio Monti, Lev Zhurbin, Dave Brubeck, and more. Fri, 1/19, 7:30pm, Annie Wright School, Tacoma | $10-$25
SCMS Winter Festival Seattle Chamber Music Society’s annual Winter Festival features a variety of classical music performances from across the centuries, including 20th century works by Amy Beach, Paul Hindemith, Dmitri Shostakovich, William Walton, and Edward Elgar. 1/19-1/28, Various times, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $16-$52
Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival This brand new music festival touring through Seattle, Portland, and Eugene features contemporary music by the likes of Julia Wolfe, Andy Akiho, Andrew Norman, Steve Reich, and Lou Harrison, among others. Featured performers include Ashley Bathgate, the Sandbox Percussion Quartet, the Iktus Duo, and more.
NUMUS Northwest 2018 This day-long event is dedicated to the creation, performance, and experience of new music in Seattle and beyond. Musicians, composers, and curious bystanders alike come together for a day of live performances and interactive presentations on topics ranging from fundraising to networking, media pitching, grant writing, and more. Sat, 1/20, 8:30am-9:30pm, Cornish Kerry Hall | $20
SMCO: Journeys of Discovery and Hope Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. Mixing elements of Western classical with Andean folk music traditions, the piece draws on the concept of mestizaje: where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other. Also on the program is Haydn’s Mass for Troubled Times. Sat, 1/20, 8pm, Plymouth Congregational Church | $15-$25
Third Coast Percussion: ‘Paddle to the Sea’ Third Coast Percussion performs their own live score in this special screening of Paddle to the Sea, a Canadian film which illustrates the epic journey of a young boy’s small wooden boat from Northern Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean. Third Coast’s film score weaves in music by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, along with traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Thurs, 1/25, 8pm, Meany Theater | $28-$44
Erin Jorgensen: Bach and Pancakes It’s Bach like you’ve never heard it before—on marimba! Erin Jorgensen performs a marimba arrangement of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor, followed by a pancake breakfast. Sun, 1/28, 10am, Studio Current | $5
Pacifica Chamber Orchestra: Sunshine Concert From scherzos to serenades, the Pacifica Chamber Orchestra performs 20th century works by Dag Wirén, Julius Fučík, Eugène Bozza, and more. Sun, 1/28, 3pm, First Presbyterian Church, Everett | $15-$20
Music of Remembrance: Art from Ashes Music of Remembrance presents a free community-wide concert to honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day, featuring chamber music written in Terezín and in the Vilna ghetto, plus works by composers whose lives were cut short by Nazi persecution. Mon, 1/29, 5pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | FREE
Last week the Seattle Symphony and Chorale presented the Pacific Northwest’s first ever performance of György Ligeti’s ethereal and rarely performed Requiem (1965), conducted by Music Director Ludovic Morlot. This weekend, they’ll present a portion of it again as part of their live performance of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Perhaps best remembered for his dense harmonies, tone clusters, and micropolyphonic textures, Ligeti was famous for crafting nearly impossible repertoire—and the fact it has taken half a century to mount a Seattle performance of his Requiem is a testament to its difficulty. This musical undertaking was certainly out of the typical chorale wheelhouse and was an audacious selection for the Symphony to perform. As a member of the chorale, I had the opportunity to learn this requiem and will share my experience in doing so.
Looking at the Score for the First Time
The physical score is bulkier than a standard choral scores, elongated both vertically and horizontally by the 20-part chorus notation. As singers, we are typically accustomed to four-part staffs—so it was immediately evident that this was not our standard choral repertoire.
Much of the Introit movement is written with sustained tones with shifts in tonality over quintuplet figures. The intended effect mimics a large crowd murmuring the Latin text of the Requiem Mass. However, the text throughout this movement remains entirely discernable because it is melismatic over so many different parts. (Ligeti’s own instructions call for a distant sound.) For many of us this piece was well outside our comfort zone, so this movement was a pragmatic place to begin breaking into Ligeti’s musical paradigm.
We quickly realized that pitches would not be our main focus throughout our work on the Requiem. Given the short time we had to learn the piece—only about three or four months with multiple other concerts sprinkled in—and the sheer difficulty of the written pitches, our pitch focus was aimed more at staying within certain range clusters and not wandering too far from the tonal core we were looking to find. Because finding pitches was going to prove so difficult, we put much of our initial energy on learning the rhythmic regime of this piece
Unique Musical Challenges
Like many musical undertakings, this piece presented three large challenges: notes, rhythm, and musicality.
Notes: One of the first things we realized was that we would not be able to learn our pitches as they were written. (This is not to say it is an entirely impossible task, but given our time constraints it would have proven impossible.) During the time of composition, Ligeti himself had to retract and edit some of his harmonies because choirs were unable to learn and perform their parts. There are times in the score where a thick black line appears over a vocal part indicating sections where exact pitches can be jettisoned. This is a challenge for any choir who is accustomed to learning and performing exactly what is on page.
Rhythm: This piece was easy to get lost in, so fighting to stay on track in this score was important. For instance, Ligeti subdivides some of his beats over 7 or 9. These unconventional rhythmic figures create an aural effect of dense clouds of quickly moving harmonies—but they are also incredibly difficult to learn and even harder to execute in context. Another challenge of this piece was remaining on your part’s staff within the score. In rehearsals, there were frequent times where upon flipping a page I would shift to a different line without noticing I was singing the wrong part for several measures.
Musicality: Some of the more important musical gestures in the piece have less to do with notes or rhythms than they do with the shaping of a particular phrase to achieve a human (rather than musical) effect. This sometimes proved a bit of a challenge, since many of us as singers are used to having our phrasing guided by melody and word stresses rather than purely visceral emotion.
Presenting the Performance
We had no idea how this piece would be received. For many of us, a piece like this wasn’t exactly the reason we had joined the chorus. Because it was so easy to get lost in the score, performing was a frantic combination of counting, score following, watching our conductor for the count, and finding first pitches. As any performer knows, one does not get on stage to necessarily listen and enjoy the performance but rather to focus in on one’s task as a musician: to present an audience with entertainment and an unforgettable experience. I believe we achieved this goal and helped evoke emotions in the audience that Ligeti strove to encapsulate in this piece.
Though this was an atypical finale for our regular season, I think many of us ultimately found great satisfaction in how this piece was received and the level of admiration bestowed upon presentation. As we move on to our next challenges, we can all agree that as a group our musicianship has been augmented—and I look forward to bringing what I learned from Ligeti to my next musical projects.
David Gary is the Development Coordinator at Classical KING FM 98.1 and a bass in the Seattle Symphony Chorale. The Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, click here.