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 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 (all timings refer to the above video), 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 (3:58) 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 6:16 as they play natural harmonics, intentionally clashing with the standard tuning of the other instruments.

At 6:35 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 16:56, 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 22:30 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 at 7:30pm and Saturday, Jan. 6 at 8pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

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

New Composed Music: May 2017 Seattle * Eastside * Tacoma

SI_button2Second 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! 

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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 be sure to tag it with “new music.”


Program Insert - May 2017

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Eighth Blackbird with Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy)
Will Oldham joins Eighth Blackbird for half the program with original songs and Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together. The program also includes Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades, and David Lang’s Learn to Fly.
Thursday, 5/4, 7:30pm, The Neptune Theatre | $33.50

Harry Partch’s Oedipus: A Musical Theater Drama
The UW School of Music presents the rarely performed Oedipus by Harry Partch after the play by Sophocles. This performance is a “multi-genre theatrical work” featuring a unique collection of Harry Partch’s handmade instruments currently in residence at UW.
Friday, 5/5, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$20
Saturday, 5/6, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$20
Sunday, 5/7, 2:00pm, Meany Theater | $10-$20

Seattle Classical Guitar Society Presents Antigoni Goni
Award winning guitarist and renowned pedagogue Antigoni Goni performs a solo recital including music by contemporary Greek composers and others.
Saturday, 5/6, 7:30pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall | $38

Angelo Rondello: Music of Our Sister Cities
Seattle Music Exchange Project presents pianist Angelo Rondello.  The program includes music of Seattle’s sister cities in Italy, Japan, Hungary, and Norway.
Thursday, May 11, 7:30pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall | $20-$42

Seattle Symphony: Celebrate Asia
Seattle Symphony is joined by Indian composer, producer, and performer A. R. Rahman is their ninth annual celebration of the musical traditions of Asia, focusing this year on India and Japan.
Friday, 5/12, 7:00pm, Mark S. Taper Auditorium, Benaroya Hall | $40-$105

DXARTS: Music of Today
The UW School of Music and The Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) present a concert of audio and video by current DXARTS students and alumni.
Friday, 5/12, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$15

Gamelan Pacifica: Lou Harrison at 100 Years
Celebrate the centenary of Lou harrison with a rare opportunity to experience his music for gamelan and percussion live.
Saturday 5/13, 8:00pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Seattle Rock Orchestra Performs The Beatles
In a Seattle Mother’s Day tradition, Seattle Rock Orchestra performs the Beatles.  Bring your mom.
Saturday, 5/13, 8:00pm, Moore Theatre | $25
Sunday, 5/14, 2:00pm, Moore Theatre | $25

Nat Evans’s Vertical Saxophone Aura Readings at Seattle Art Museum
Nat Evans presents an interactive work for saxophonists on escalators. Two saxophone players serve as personal sound escorts to museum patrons on the escalators leading up to the Seeing Nature exhibition.
Thursday, 5/18, 7:00pm, Seattle Art Museum | free-$20

Ecco Chamber Ensemble: Enough is Enough
Ecco ends their inaugural season with music that protests modern violence and points toward peace, including a premiere by Seattle composer Sarah Bassingthwaighte.
Saturday, May 20, 2:00pm, St. John United Lutheran Church, | $15

Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra: SPARK.1
This Capitol Hill performance marks the first event in SMCO’s genre-bending SPARK series.  Live SMCO musicians are joined by local DJ Suttikeeree and the Skylark Horn Quartet.
Saturday, May 20, 8:00pm, Fred Wildlife Refuge (21+) | $25

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro

by Rachele Hales

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“Old Granddad” sounds like something you might ask a bartender to mix up, but it’s actually what you get when you manipulate scrap metal, trash cans, and oxygen tanks into a percussion instrument played with baseball bats.  Given its resemblance to a gamelan it is often also referred to as an “American Gamelan,” but I think we can all agree that “Old Granddad” is a much cooler name.  It was built by Lou Harrison and his partner William Colvig and is heard throughout Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan and La Koro Sutro.  So what does this thing sound like, anyway?  I’m so glad you asked!  Pretty much like gongs and chimes, turns out.

 

Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan opens with a haunting folk melody before morphing into what Harrison calls “stampedes” in recognition of the “lively and unrelenting rhythms” used to reflect Balinese dance.  The final Chaconne of the suite brings the entire piece to a peaceful, dreamy conclusion.  Harrison successfully fuses his strong Asian influence with a Western compositional attitude in this suite, and the CD only gets sweeter from here.

La Koro Sutro is the second piece on this album and translates from Esperanto as “The Heart Sutra,” which is one of the most beloved and famous sutras of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and describes the path one must take to achieve the pure distillation of wisdom (Nirvana).  Harrison’s use of Esperanto, the most widely-spoken constructed language in the world, is a clear social and political statement reflecting his hope for a united world and the transcendence of ethnic & national boundaries.

While the suite on this disc is lovely, this reviewer was utterly captivated by the title track La Koro Sutro, largely because of the astounding choral performance by The Providence Singers.  The warmth and precision they bring to this recording cannot be overstated, especially in “5a Paragrafo” where, in the text, The Bodhisattva (enlightenment being) reaches total tranquility & euphoria and will stay there forever.  Do I understand Esperanto?  No.  Am I educated about Buddhism?  Not really.  But I learned what pure bliss sounds like the moment “5a Paragrafo” hit the 1:30 mark.  On their website The Providence Singers describe the selection this way: “It is in a six-note B-minor scale — the E-natural is left out as it would be out of tune in justly tuned syntonon diatonic.”  Since I don’t know what any of that means I can only describe it as…  glowing.

La Koro Sutro concludes with a return to the original Sanskrit text and heavy emphasis on the deeper sounds of Old Granddad (created by whacking oxygen tanks with baseball bats – don’t try it at home!) as well more of the gorgeous plinking heard throughout the entire sutra.   Lou Harrison said that “making an instrument is one of music’s greatest joys,” and this reviewer is very grateful for his contribution.  La Koro Sutro is a rewarding album for patient listeners and makes me want to bring 1995 back so I can just lay on my floor and listen to it all day.

Go here to purchase the album, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Gil Rose!

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (Seattle Symphony & Ludovic Morlot)

by Maggie Stapleton

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The timing of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean Pulitzer Prize announcement in conjunction with the Seattle Symphony’s trip to Carnegie Hall during Spring for Music 2014 to perform that very piece was unbelievably perfect.  Ever since, it’s been a ride of pride and celebration for John Luther Adams, Ludovic Morlot, and the Seattle Symphony.

Cantaloupe records releases a beautifully mastered recording on September 30, 2014 of Become Ocean, recorded at Benaroya Hall and mastered in NYC.  It’s a musical commemorative token of the journey and relationship fostered between all involved.

Seattle Symphony gave the world premiere of this piece in June 2013 at Benaroya Hall with a supporting art installation at Seattle Art Museum featuring Adams’ Veils and Vesper.  Adams was unable to attend the premiere due to a medical emergency, but when he heard one of the concert recordings he was “thrilled because it sounded exactly like I imagined it would.  I’m a perfectionist and chronic reviser, always tinkering with pieces and always critical of performances, but the orchestra played it flawlessly.  That just doesn’t happen with a world premiere of a piece.  I think that just speaks to what a perfect musical partnership that was, what a great orchestra you have there in Seattle, and what an extraordinary Music Director.”

The admiration continued when he heard Become Ocean live for the first time in Carnegie Hall, nearly a year after its premiere.  “People are looking to Seattle as a model for the new orchestra, for what the symphony orchestra might be in the 21st century and how it might not just survive but thrive and expand the arts world.  I was balled over by the sense of commitment and joy coming from that orchestra.  These are professional musicians, veteran orchestral musicians who love music and are in no way jaded.”

As for the recording?  The ideal scenario for the listener in a performance of this piece is to be surrounded by the orchestra and furthermore have the opportunity to move around within the physical space, if desired.  Listening to this recording in surround sound is the next best thing!  Adams told me, “In making this recording we took special care to mix in stereo much of the time, so that the experience of hearing this music in stereo is as vivid as possible and gives you a sense of being immersed.”

The title “Become Ocean” comes from the end of a poem written by John Cage in memory of Lou Harrison (below).  While this piece is not specifically a direct homage to either composer, John says, “It would be disingenuous of me to say they were not huge influences on my life and my life’s works.  I have no idea as to where I would be without John Cage, Lou Harrison, as incredible role models and their incredible music.  So in a way, everything that I do is some kind of tribute to Lou and John.”

first the quaLity
Of
yoUr music
tHen
its quAntity
and vaRiety
make it Resemble
a rIver in delta
liStening to it
we becOme
oceaN

As if there wasn’t already enough good will shared in this post – there’s more.  This recording project was successfully funded with a Pledge Music campaign and 5% of those proceeds go directly to the Ocean Conservancy.  How’d that come about? “I’m a hardcore environmentalist!” John says.  He is an activist going back to the mid-1970s for the Alaska Coalition and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.  These types of issues are at the core of his life.  It only seemed appropriate that they might give a little bit back to one of the many organizations trying to clean up and preserve the oceans.

Cheers to the Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, & Cantaloupe Records!