Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Incredible Sound World of György Ligeti's Music for Piano

Lyrical, playful, intense, dramatic, out-of-control, fun, a revelation. All words I used to describe some of the most incredible music to which I have ever been exposed, the piano music of Romanian/Hungarian composer György Ligeti.

Many of you have heard Ligeti's music but likely did not know it. He was a particular favorite of Stanley Kubrick who used Ligeti's atmospheric and strange music for his films "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Eyes Wide Shut". His most famous work, Atmosphères (1961) for orchestra concentrates and explores pure sound. For example, the opening 5 octave chord consists of all notes in the chromatic scale, using fifty-six string players, each one playing a different note. No wonder Kubrick used this "otherworldly" music in 2001 (and without Ligeti's permission.)

But it is the wonderful piano music that has set my musical world on its ear, so to speak.

Fredrik Ullén's traversal of all of Ligeti's Piano music is available on BIS records. Paul, our musical mailman, introduced me to this magical music and this incredible recording recently and it has rarely left my player.

Most interesting and most important in the canon of Ligeti's work are the Etudes For Piano written in 3 books from 1985 to 2001. These marvelous and yes, even entertaining works, explore diverse sound worlds such as Indonesian gamelan, Debussy (Book 1 “Arc-en-ciel” for example), Steve Reich, Bartók, even modern jazz. The opening work of Book 1 of the Etudes “Desordre, Molto Vivace, vigoroso, molto ritmico,” to me evokes the insane player piano pieces of Conlon Nancarrow. Book 3’s “White on White” is a breathtaking portrait of simple lyrical beauty, even in the wild, ecstatic cadenza. Chopinesque? Maybe so, though I tend to hear more Bachian symmetry and linear development in the late 3rd Book.

If “Atmosphères” was pure sound, dispensing with rhythm and melody, Ligeti’s Piano works are a celebration of rhythm and melody and of the power of the piano to communicate. It takes a pianist with an ear for nuance to capture the many polyrhythms and cross rhythms plus a formidable technique to make sense of the storm of notes and phrases in some of the faster works. A sensibility for melody and long lines is needed for the more subtle works such as the aforementioned "White on White" Etude or the "Rubato: Lamentoso" of the "Musica Ricercata" of the 1950's.

Formidable, challenging, engaging… the Ligeti piano music admirably demonstrates that elements of avant-garde technique, minimalism, world music, jazz and beautiful lyricism not only can work together, but actually make incredible and listenable music.

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