Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Ligeti: Life and Legacy

Written with Allegra Chapman as an introductory essay for Bard Music West: The World of György Ligeti

Upon his death in 2006, György Ligeti was eulogized in the international press as a pioneering, innovative composer of indisputable importance. And deservedly so: he was one of few late 20th-century composers who pushed the boundaries of classical music while still writing compositions of genuine interest to the general public. In the increasingly academicized compositional landscape of postwar Europe, Ligeti emerged as a singular figure: a composer with a voice that evolved across a lifetime, a man alone, beholden to no school or “-ism.”

But Ligeti was also an artistic omnivore, drawing inspiration from other composers—from the German avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen to American minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley—as well as from folk and indigenous music created around the world. He loved the Beatles. He listened to jazz. He read Kafka, Ionesco, and Beckett, and he studied fractal geometry and chaos theory. His interests extended into the past as well, from 15th-century choral music to the great 19th-century Romantics.

Ligeti’s music, in turn, was adopted by popular culture—most recognizably in the films of Stanley Kubrick. The eerie textures of Lux aeternaAtmosphères, and the Requiem join the “Blue Danube” waltz and Also sprach Zarathustra in the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the stark piano pings of Musica ricercata accompany Tom Cruise through the dreamscape of his dangerous sexual adventure in Eyes Wide Shut.

All these sources and interests are part of Ligeti’s expansive world, and the three programs of Bard Music West’s inaugural festival investigate his influences, output, and legacy. Ligeti is a composer very much in living memory, so his place in history is still being written. With this in mind, we have included music by his son Lukas Ligeti and his student Roberto Sierra as well as commissioned music for Beckett’s Act Without Words I from Luna Pearl Woolf. This breadth of programming weaves Ligeti’s world—from prewar central Europe, the Holocaust, and Hungarian Revolution to West Germany and 1970s California—directly into the world of our own.

Ligeti was born in 1923 into a Hungarian Jewish family in Transylvania, shortly after Romania reclaimed the region from Hungary. Already an outsider, he developed a vivid imagination early on as a response to the terrors of anti-Semitism and the instability of interwar Eastern Europe. “As a child I was very frequently afraid,” he recalled in an interview, “but in my imagination I created a world in which I found relief from terror.”

He described three childhood memories as fodder for some of his most formative compositional ideas: his imaginary kingdom, Kylwiria; a short story by Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy about a widow in a room filled with clocks; and a dream about his nursery filling with tangled spider webs and decaying debris. The Krúdy story seems to be an inaccurate recollection—no such story by the author can be found—but Ligeti nonetheless cited it as inspiration for much of his mechanical music.

Ligeti’s young adulthood offered no reprieve from the difficulties of childhood. At the age of 21, just three years after he began formal compositional studies, German forces occupied Hungary and the reach of fascism extended to Transylvania. He escaped from a forced-labor camp run by the Hungarian military, but his parents and brother were sent to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

In 1945, following the end of the war, Ligeti walked almost 300 miles from Cluj to Budapest, where he enrolled in the Liszt Academy of Music. For the next decade, he avoided the censorship of the Communist Party by hiding his adventurous pieces, such as Musica ricercata, in a drawer, while publically presenting politically acceptable works that drew from Hungarian folk music. “We suffered in an unbearable airlessness, shut away from European music and culture,” he once recalled. But later in life, Ligeti said his early isolation behind the Iron Curtain was central to the formation of his unique compositional voice.

During the 1956 uprising against the Soviet-backed regime, Ligeti fled Hungary with his future wife Vera, hiding under bags on a mail train and then crossing the Austrian border on foot. He went to Cologne, where a scholarship was arranged for him at the Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio. There he joined Stockhausen’s circle, a hotbed of the avant-garde. He experimented with electronic music, absorbing everything he could from the musical zeitgeist of the West. Of this period, Ligeti said that he “soaked up things like a sponge. . .  . For several months I did nothing but listen to tapes and discs.”

From these influences, a new Ligeti emerged—a voice distinct from his earlier Hungarian music, spurred by the avant-garde, but not beholden to it. Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes and his interactive work The Future of Music for silent lecturer and audience poked fun at experimental music while imagining new soundscapes. Great clouds of sound inspired by his childhood spider web dream filled vocal works like the Requiem, Lux aeterna, and his orchestral work Atmosphéres. He called this style “micropolyphony,” as if the counterpoint of the Renaissance had been miniaturized, condensed, and piled up upon itself.

In 1972 Ligeti accepted a six-month residency at Stanford University. While living in the Bay Area, he discovered the minimalist music of Reich and Riley as well as the microtonal music of Harry Partch. He found an affinity with their musical explorations and in 1976 wrote an homage titled Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the background), the second movement of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos. Ligeti’s stay culminated with San Francisco Polyphony, a commission from the San Francisco Symphony. That same decade, he composed his “anti-anti-opera” Le grand macabre, a darkly comic and surreal exploration of death, which fuses “the fear of death with laughter.”

Ligeti’s 1982 Horn Trio announced a new direction, revisiting the Hungarian folk music he had eschewed after fleeing the revolution, while two of his last pieces, the Violin Concerto and Viola Sonata, harken back directly to Béla Bartók and Ligeti’s own early compositions from Budapest. His piano études, monumental in scope, reflect his whole range of influences, from folk music, to his California discoveries, to Central African percussion and fractal geometry.

While we might be tempted to divide Ligeti’s work into early, middle, and late periods, such labels would not do justice to his development as a composer. His unique voice derived from his constant drive to seek new frontiers. As he stated in a 1968 interview, “If something new has been tried out and a result has emerged from it, it is not worth making the same experiment again.” Over and over, he reached “into the void,” as he put it, to create. Perhaps his omnivorous nature and rejection of categorizations, his openness to all possible inspirations, enabled him to discover so many new hypotheses for his musical experiments.

Though the microscopic detail with which Ligeti approached compositional ideas suggests an analytical perspective, at the core of his experiments were deep questions about mortality, eternity, and the meaning of existence. In his music, these questions are asked through many forms: nonsense syllables, shimmering textures, and the drunk and incompetent Nekrotzar, the embodiment of death in Le grand macabre.

Ligeti’s music illuminates a kaleidoscope of influences, many of which we explore in our festival. As his music creates new soundscapes from old, it challenges us to imagine more possibilities for our own artistic future while remaining true to humanity’s expressive instinct.

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer