Despite all its submerged complexity, Ligeti’s Atmosphères (1961) has always sounded to me like a musical ground-zero. It’s the hushed remains of music long since razed to the ground, the aloof architectures of the likes of Boulez and Stockhausen – and, before that, the magnificence of Brahms, Beethoven – flattened, hollowed out. So what’s left? Only the most basic building blocks – the formative grammar – of this lost language: high/low, bright/dark, short/long (although now mostly the latter), hard/soft (likewise). It’s like an attempt to reconstruct with only a half-grasped memory of what was there in the first place.
But as well-suited as such a music of absence was to the utopian dreaming of the avant-garde, it’s not so great at engaging with the messiness of the world. At least, that’s what Ligeti seemed to assert during his late-career (re)turn to order, announced by 1982’s Horn Trio and coming after, I think, he’d started listening to Supertramp. The approach is no longer to re-write from the ground up, but instead to modify – to test, negotiate – from the inside out. Melodies are distorted with micro-tones, stable timbres are broken and interrupted, structures are posited before crumbling to nothing: the familiar made strange as the ground constantly shifts beneath. Ligeti was still dreaming, but he’d realised it was a lot more fun (and probably more productive, too) when there are rules to be broken.
1. Atmosphères (1961)
2-3. Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (Mvts. 1-2) (1982)
4. Violin Concerto (Mvt. II) (1993)
5. ‘Désordre’ from Études pour piano (1985)
6. ‘Táncdal’ from Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (2000)
7. ‘Flying Robert’ from Nonsense Madrigals (1993)
Image: Circus Figures, Sigmar Polke (2005)