New Music for April: Music of Earth, Moon, and More

by Maggie Molloy

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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 - April 2018

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: drone cinema, phonetic etudes, murder ballades, and the muted colors of Morton Feldman.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Things That Break
New music merges with stop-motion animation, visual art, and theatre in this multidisciplinary concert centered around the theme of “breaking.” Four Seattle-based female artists come together for a unique presentation of world premieres.
Fri, 4/6, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

The Sound Ensemble: You Didn’t Know They Composed
Did you know some of today’s top rock stars and pop stars have tried their hands at classical composition too? The Sound Ensemble presents an evening of chamber music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.
Sat, 4/7, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$15

The Esoterics: CŌNFIDŌ
The ancient rite of the Christian liturgy, the Mass, is reimagined for modern times in this program of works by Gregory Brown, Giles Swayne, and Kirke Mechem. The Esoterics sing four settings of Mass texts that express crises of faith, criticize organized religion, and prioritize the health of our planet over any individual belief.
Fri, 4/13, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle | $15-$22
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, West Seattle | $15-$22
Sun, 4/15, 7pm, Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma | $15-$22

Seattle Modern Orchestra: The Clouds Receding
Immerse yourself in the dense sonic clouds of composers like György Ligeti and Beat Furrer, plus a new world premiere by Orlando Jacinto Garcia featuring violist Melia Watras as the soloist.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25

Sound of Late: 48-Hour Composition Competition
A group of composers each gets 48 hours to compose a new piece for their assigned instrumentation, and a group of performers gets six days to prepare before they perform the works live in concert.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Gallery 1412 | FREE

SMCO: Songs and Dances of Peace
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs a powerful program exploring Leonard Bernstein’s now-ubiquitous quote, “This shall be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Featured composers include Bernstein, Barber, Golijov, and Tchaikovsky.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, First Free Methodist Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/15, 2pm, Rainier Arts Center | $15-$25

What Better Than Call a Dance?
Experimental chamber troupe Kin of the Moon joins forces with dancer/choreographer Karin Stevens and clarinetist/improvisor Beth Fleenor for a program that wildly reimagines dance music from Renaissance to waltz to tango and even EDM.
Fri, 4/20, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

On Stage with KING FM: Earth Day Celebration
The Ecco Chamber Ensemble celebrates Earth Day with a program of music exploring the vital role of water in both our basic survival as well as our art.
Sat, 4/21, 7:30pm, Resonance at SOMA Towers | $20-$25

Symphony Tacoma: Earth Songs from the Harp
Grammy-nominated electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant joins Symphony Tacoma for a boundary-bursting program ranging from blues and jazz to flamenco, folk, and beyond.
Sun, 4/22, 2:30pm, Pantages Theater | $19-$82

Seattle Art Song Society: Elemental
In honor of Earth Day, the Seattle Art Song Society performs songs inspired by the elements of fire, earth, water, and air. The program features music by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Aaron Copland, Juliana Hall, Ernst Bacon, Björk, and more, plus brand new works by Steven Luksan and Brian Armbrust.
Sun, 4/22, 3:30pm, Queen Anne Christian Church | $20-$40

Seattle Symphony: Stravinsky Persephone
A stunning cast of star soloists, dancers, and puppeteers (plus three choirs and four grand pianos!) join the symphony for an entire evening of Stravinsky rarities, including his Persephone, Les noces, “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” and Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.
Thurs, 4/26, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79
Sat, 4/28, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79

Seattle Symphony: [untitled] 2
Symphony musicians dive into the mind of Stravinsky with a performance of his elegant Octet, a piece which first came to him in a dream. Plus, the Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble brings a scintillating blend of folk traditions and extended techniques to two wild works by Russian composers Vladimir Nikolaev and Alexander Raskatov.
Fri, 4/27, 10pm, Benaroya Hall | $16

NOCCO: Lost Sisterhood; Found Landscapes
The North Corner Chamber Orchestra presents a newly commissioned Cello Concerto by Philip Lasser alongside Louise Farrenc’s stunning Symphony No. 3 and Aaron Copland’s unforgettable Appalachian Spring.
Sat, 4/28, 2pm, University Christian Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/29, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$25

Seattle Symphony Spotlight: John Luther Adams on “Become Desert”

by Dave Beck

Composer John Luther Adams describes his work with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the SSO musicians as “one of the happiest musical relationships of my life.” It’s a collaboration that has resulted in a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award for 2013’s Become Ocean.

Five years later, that collaboration continues with the world premiere this week of Adams’ Become Desert. It takes place Thursday night, March 29, and Saturday night, March 31 in Benaroya Hall—with Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony and members of the Symphony Chorale.

John Luther Adams speaks with Classical KING FM’s Dave Beck in our studios about moving from tundra to desert, his fascination with immense spaces, and the importance of using the right tools—in his case, the best number 2 pencil that can be found.

Listen to the full interview below.


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

The Essential John Luther Adams

by Michael Schell

Did you miss Second Inversion’s John Luther Adams Marathon on March 28? Are you interested in exploring the music of America’s most famous ecologist-composer by sampling a few key pieces? If so, check out this selection of JLA’s most indispensable albums to date.

Earth and the Great Weather

If you’re ever remanded to a desert island where you can take along a single John Luther Adams album, this is the one to pick. Subtitled A Sonic Geography of the Arctic, this ten-movement composition from 1993 was Adams’ breakout piece. It’s both an ecological oratorio of the far North and a compendium of the techniques that Adams would hone over the next 25 years: haunting drones and trills, ritualistic taiko-like drumming, and overtone-based textures inspired by his teacher James Tenney (compare the latter’s Shimmer to this album’s track Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around). It even has some things you don’t find in other Adams pieces, such as Alaska nature recordings and texts from Native Alaskan languages


The Far Country

This is another fine sampler album from 1993 that features three medium-length pieces for large ensemble. Dream in White on White is a plaintive work for strings and harp reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Orpheus. The early choral composition Night Peace openly displays its debt to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. The Far Country of Sleep begins with a solo trumpet motif that’s almost identical to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but as this orchestral piece progresses, it makes clear that its philosophical affinity is with Rachel Carson rather than Nietzsche.


Inuksuit

This outdoor piece for multiple percussionists has been performed all over North America (including here in Seattle in 2015). Adams considers this recording, three years in the making and captured on location in rural Vermont, to be a definitive representation.


Become Ocean

And here it is: Seattle Symphony’s Grammy Award-winning recording of Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. Released in 2014, it’s the first recording of Adams’ music by a major orchestra. Although the sound world of Become Ocean isn’t all that far from Ravel’s daybreak scene in Daphnis et Chloé, Adams’ instinct as an ecologist is to let his textural soundscape unfold on its own terms and at its own pace, with a minimum of intervention. Indeed, this work is so well proportioned that it seems much shorter than its 42-minute duration. Become Ocean is both a fulfillment of the trajectory of Adams’ work since Earth and the Great Weather and a searchlight illuminating the wonders yet to come from this imaginative composer.


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

A Spotify version of our Essential JLA playlist is available below:

John Luther Adams Marathon: Streaming Worldwide!

Photo by Pete Woodhead.

by Maggie Molloy

Lose yourself in immersive sonic landscapes of John Luther Adams this Wednesday during our eight-hour marathon of his music on Second Inversion! Tune in on Wednesday, March 28 from 9am-5pm PST for a full eight hours of music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose newest orchestral work, Become Desert, receives its world premiere this week at the Seattle Symphony.

Become Desert is the highly-anticipated sequel to Adams’ orchestral masterwork Become Ocean, which was commissioned and recorded by the Seattle Symphony in 2013. Become Ocean is a 45-minute orchestral approximation of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and it flowed right to the top of classical music charts. The piece went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Living in Alaska for most of his career, Adams’ music has always been inspired by landscapes, ecology, environmentalism, and the natural world—and though he now splits his time between New York and the Mexican desert, his music is still profoundly immersed in the spirit of nature. While Become Ocean submerges the audience in broad waves of sound and shimmering detail, Become Desert takes its inspiration from stillness, space, and light of the desert. At their core, both pieces reflect on two contrasting manifestations of global warming: sea level rise and desertification. 

Adams’ work also holds a very special place in Seattle. In addition to the world premiere of Become Ocean, the Seattle Symphony has performed a number of Adams’ pieces during their Tuning Up! Festival and their [Untitled] series. Last year Emerald City Music also premiered one of Adams’ chamber pieces inspired by the sounds of the Sonoran Desert, titled “there is no one, not even the wind…”

Our marathon this Wednesday features music from throughout Adams’ career, ranging from studies on Georgia birdsongs to field recordings and Alaska Native poetry, metaphysical drum meditations, and expansive sonic geographies—all culminating in the Seattle Symphony’s surround-sound recording of Become Ocean.

Click here to tune in, and read below to learn a bit about our hosts’ favorite musical selections from our John Luther Adams marathon.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (Cantaloupe Music)
Seattle Symphony
Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Global devastation never sounded prettier than in John Luther Adams’ apocalyptic musical palindrome Become Ocean. Inspired by the oceans near his former home in Alaska, Adams composed this piece commissioned by Seattle Symphony as a response to what he noticed in the world around him: ice caps melting, sea levels rising, and humanity neglecting to address the changes that impact our future. The fact that human life emerged from the ocean and may soon be destined/forced/doomed to return to the expanse of water is reflected in the palindromic structure of the piece itself; from the second climax indicating a tidal surge the music is played in reverse. Despite the subject matter, Become Ocean feels less like flailing and choking in the ocean’s turbulence and more like floating peacefully on its calm surface. – Rachele Hales


John Luther Adams: The Light that Fills the World (Cold Blue Music)
Unnamed ensemble

From a distance, the Arctic tundra looks like a vast white canvas—up close, it shimmers with infinite color and detail. John Luther Adams spent much of his life exploring the intricacies of that limitless canvas, composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods. He composed The Light That Fills the World during the early dawn of spring one year when, following the long darkness of winter, the landscape was still white with snow and filled with brilliant new light.

Scored for a mixed chamber ensemble of winds, strings, and percussion, the piece captures the slow and sacred rising of the sun across that vast blanket of snow: the way the surface of the earth shifts with that cosmic change of color, the way the broad, seemingly static fields of sound sparkle with enigmatic detail—and the way the listener floats, suspended in that bright and all-consuming light. – Maggie Molloy


John Luther Adams: The Wind in High Places (Cold Blue Music)
JACK Quartet

In the JLA catalog, this piece is a favorite of mine for two reasons. As someone who appreciates places with a significant altitude component (a hiker), I connect deeply with what I perceive as this piece’s portrayal of the unsentimentality of high places. Such places, like all of nature, have no stake in your personal successes or failures, but they are often strikingly beautiful, and made more so by their neutrality.

I also love this piece for its skillful construction and bold technical limitations. The idea of a string quartet entirely made of natural harmonics (where the players do not use the left hand fingers at all) seems outlandish and silly on the surface. But, in this piece, it works. Credit for success in any decent recording of this piece certainly belongs in large part to the performers, but this unusual element also signals the composer’s skill, especially in the face of self-imposed rules. – Seth Tompkins


John Luther Adams: Tukiliit (Cantaloupe Music)
Lisa Moore, piano

John Luther Adams’ large ensemble works each feel like something that has no real beginning or end; something that has existed for eternity, like a place in nature waiting to be discovered. His solo piano work Tukiliit is different. This piece seems to have a clear trajectory, if not a beginning, middle, and end. In a Pictures at an Exhibition-like way, it seems to portray the grandeur of some timeless outdoor fixture with big, towering chords.

The subtitle, “The Stone People Who Live in the Wind,” is an attempt at a literal translation of the main title Tukiliit, which also serves as the Inuktitut word for any stone object with special meaning. The music seems to meander from stone statue to statue, taking in their cold beauty and exploring the majesty of their surroundings. – Geoffrey Larson


John Luther Adams: Strange Birds Passing (Mode Records)
New England Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble
John Heiss, conductor

I love learning about the creative processes of artists and how their work develops over time. There’s something totally fascinating about a human being who’s unleashed creatively, and about how artists dive into the brain’s idea factory, venture out into the world, and look into the self, seeking this nebulous carrot on a stick, i.e., finding a way to really, finally, wholly say what they mean to say about what needs to be said.   

Recently, I had the pleasure of learning about John Luther Adams’ creative process. It turns out that over time, he came up with this idea called “sonic geography” which he has said is about the “imaginary territory somewhere between human imagination and the world around us.” Which is very different from his approach on his first album, songbirdsongs. At that point in time, JLA was into direct translations of the natural world into music. He studied bird song in particular regions—each movement of the album representing a different one—and scored the bird song into…people song. The orchestration is complex and innovative, but the idea at its core is pretty simple. In Strange Birds Passing, it’s almost as if you’re hearing Adams’ first inkling of how to say what needed to be said, nearly free of his later abstraction. Both are totally compelling. But this little window into the beginning of his process is super cool. – Dacia Clay


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

The Artist and the Antihero: David Lang’s New Symphony Premieres in Seattle

by Maggie Molloy

The notion of the artist as the hero is one of the central tenets of the Romantic era, with composers from Beethoven to Berlioz crafting symphonies of enormous scope and heroic splendor. Composer David Lang turns that notion on its head in his symphony without a hero, which receives its world premiere this week at the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. The program juxtaposes Lang’s new work against the epitome of the heroic symphony archetype: Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, A Hero’s Life.

The titles are nearly exact opposites. As it turns out, so is the music. Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy talks with Lang about his new symphony and the relationship between artist and hero in the 21st century.

Audio edited by Dacia Clay.

Music in this interview:

David Lang: child: “short fall” (Cantaloupe Music)
Sentieri Selvaggi; Carlo Boccadoro, conductor

David Lang:
the little matchgirl passion: “from the sixth hour” (Cantaloupe Music)
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor

Richard Strauss: A Hero’s Life: The Hero’s Battlefield (CSO Resound)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, conductor


Seattle Symphony performs David Lang’s symphony without a hero Feb. 8 and 10 at Benaroya Hall. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

From Symphonic Premieres to Improvised Festivals: New Music for February

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.”

Program Insert - February 2018

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: improvised musical games, digital synthesis, site-specific sounds works, and piano pieces with alliterative pretensions.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival: Ashley Bathgate
Cellist Ashley Bathgate is constantly pushing the boundaries of traditional cello repertoire with her performances of contemporary, avant-garde, and experimental works. For this performance she plays music with and without electronics by Steve Reich, Martin Bresnick, Fjola Evans, Emily Cooley, and Alex Weiser.

Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, Rainier Arts Center | $20

Karen Bentley Pollick: New York Women Composers
Violinist Karen Bentley Pollick premieres a new original solo violin piece in a program of music by New York women composers. Plus, Seattle violist Heather Bentley joins for the Washington premiere of Victoria Bond’s Woven for violin and viola.
Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Matrio & Resonant Bodies
Taking its name from the Japanese word for “the space between two structural parts,” Matrio is an improvising collective that creates set-long experiences which explore the space between sound, noise, music, and silence. They’re joined by the jazz trumpet and percussion duo Resonant Bodies.
Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, The Royal Room | $8-$12

Byrd Ensemble: Paradise
There is no shortage ​of masterpieces about death and the afterlife. ​From Renaissance works to the early 20th century and the contemporary era, the Byrd Ensemble performs a program of the most hauntingly beautiful motets across the ages.
Sat, 2/3, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $20-$30

200 Years of Music by Black Composers
Internationally acclaimed countertenor Reginald L. Mobley joins pianist Henry Lebedinsky for a program of music by Black composers from the Classical era to the present, including art songs, spirituals, and gospel. Featured composers include José Mauricio Nuñes Garcia, Florence B. Price, William Grant Still, and Harry Burleigh.
Wed, 2/7, 12pm, Christ Our Hope at the Josephinum | FREE

Seattle Symphony: David Lang World Premiere
David Lang is a pretty big deal in new music world. He’s a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning composer, one of the founders of the Bang on a Can collective, the list goes on and on. This month the Seattle Symphony performs the world premiere of Lang’s symphony without a hero, playfully juxtaposed with a performance of Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, A Hero’s Life.
Thurs, 2/8, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74
Sat, 2/10, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74

The Sound Ensemble: A Life Transformed
Seattle’s Sound Ensemble performs an evening of monumental works inspired by transformative experiences in either the life of the composer or the character of the piece. Featured works include Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, and a new work by composer Kevin Clark.
Sat, 2/10, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Seattle Improvised Music Festival
No scores, no plans, no safety net: just a whole bunch of artists from all different musical backgrounds collaborating in an atmosphere of spontaneity, intuition, and discovery. Featured performers include Tomeka Reid, Tom Baker, Evan Flory-Barnes, and many, many more.
Feb. 10-17, Various times and locations | $5-$15

Seattle Symphony: Celebrate Asia
Erhu and sitar soloists perform with the Seattle Symphony in their 10th annual Celebrate Asia concert featuring contemporary (and traditional) music by Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian composers. Arrive early and stay late for pre- and post-concert entertainment in the lobby.
Sun, 2/11, 4pm, Benaroya Hall | $29-$67

Opera on Tap
Local singers let their hair down and sing their hearts out, performing famous operatic masterpieces and hidden musical gems alike in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Tues, 2/13, 7:30pm, Solo Bar | $10

Meany Center: Danish String Quartet
The internationally acclaimed Danish String Quartet performs traditional classical music alongside their own contemporary arrangements of Scandinavian folk music. Catch their intimate performance at Cafe Solstice or see them on the Meany Theater mainstage.
Tues, 2/13, 7pm, Cafe Solstice | FREE
Wed, 2/14, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $40-$48

Emerald City Music: Spiritual Journey
Emerald City Music explores the power of the voice in chamber music through a program of 20th century songs and spirituals by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and more.
Fri, 2/16, 8pm, 415 Westlake Ave, Seattle | $10-$45
Sat, 2/17, 7:30pm, Minnaert Center, Olympia | $10-$43

NOCCO: Vibrant Hearts – A Romanian Celebration
The North Corner Chamber Orchestra performs 20th century works inspired by Romanian folk music traditions, including compositions by George Enescu and Béla Bartók.
Sat, 2/17, 2pm, University Christian Church | $15-$25
Sun, 2/18, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$25

Philharmonia Northwest: Viva Americas!
The exhilarating colors and rhythms of Latin American music come alive in this concert featuring music by Astor Piazzolla, Silvestre Revueltas, Arturo Márquez, and a new commission by young Mexican composer Osvaldo Mendoza.
Sun, 2/25, 2:30pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Seattle) | $15-$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 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.