Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ligeti Requiem

I read the news of Ligeti’s passing late Monday night, and decided to listen to his Requiem (with headphones) as I fell asleep. This is a good way to drowse off into peculiar clouds of close choral dissonance, and then wake up almost screaming ten minutes later when it gets to the movement where suddenly everyone is shouting.

I remember reading a while back that Ligeti was too ill to travel, and he hasn’t composed anything recently either, so it’s not a surprise, but it is a shame. If there was one completely irreplaceable composer out there, it was him.

What I like about Ligeti’s music is that everything feels so alive. The 2001-type pieces from the 60s sound very organic – you don’t feel like you’re following a composer’s thought process, but rather listening to something naturally change shape over time. His concertos from the 90s, my favorite pieces of his, sound more deliberately constructed, but nothing is stylized, and every bit seems to be sparked by its own inscrutable internal gadgetry. (The Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, and Hamburg Concerto for horns, are the ones I’m thinking of.)

Ligeti things that I like include: melodies that tangle along over unpredictable, distorted meters; things getting wacky and grotesque; intrusions of percussive sounds, or whistles, or ocarinas; still music that resonates with its individual dark and complex hum. Very few composers, ever, have made music that conveys this kind of life of its own.

I need to give another listen to his opera, and to get into the piano Etudes. I’m also kicking myself still for missing a bunch of Ligeti performances in New York over the last couple of years; hopefully the memorial celebrations will keep them coming for another little while.

I soundtracked my Tuesday at work with all the Ligeti I’ve got on CD. The slow movement of his Piano Concerto is my favorite elegy out of it all, I think. It’s got all the Ligeti trademarks: the charmed and waiting atmosphere, the slowly wending melodies of untraceable folk origin, the minute and a half of high winds in jarring dissonance, the party whistle that wheels up as the movement climaxes. It’s a surreal landscape, and the piano reacts to it by threading plaintive but stunted bits of song through it. It ends with a harmonica and a clarinet quietly playing a tentative fragment of melody, which doesn’t answer a thing.

No one could have written this but Ligeti, and no one will again.


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