Music since 1960: Ligeti: Atmosphères

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

In the early 1960s music was being composed that should have changed – and may yet – the way in which people thought about music. The total serial achievements of the 1950s left a lot of debris; so much, one might say, that the composers in its midst found it very difficult to find their way out. At the same time, around the turn of the decade, composers based around the fringes of the Western European total serial hegemony – Polish composers such as Penderecki, Górecki, Lutoslawski, Danes such Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and the New Simplicity movement, and the Hungarian Ligeti – began to fill the vacuum that had been left. Able to view serialism from the outside – in the case of composers from the Eastern bloc, given no option in the 1950s but to peep through the Curtain – they were able to make quick sense of the debris, and forge a new path from it.

Total serialism had, despite its obsessively constructivist approach to composition, resulted in a total fragmentation of musical form – at least as far as the listener was concerned. Musical events seemed (even though this was not the case) to proceed in unrelated sequence. Instead of a note forming part of a large whole, they seemed to bear no relation to anything but themselves. Seemingly in recognition of this, and as an extension of Schoenberg's Klangfarbenmelodie concept, composers turned their attention to those tiny fragments of sound, acknowledging the fragmentary nature of post-serial composition, but making those individual fragments the subject of the piece, rather than mere parts of a larger, incomprehensible form.

Atmosphères (recording) is one of the masterpieces of this form of composition. Even more so than Penderecki's Threnody, this is a work composed wholly of clusters. The Klangfarbenmelodie idea has been stretched beyond recognition, so that each point on the 'melody' lasts up to 50 seconds or so. At the same time, the edges of each elongated point are blurred – sounds merge into one another, slowly transform themselves, so that the overall effect is similar to a slowly rotating kaleidoscope. Within the clusters themselves, too, nothing is truly static., even if it is notated so on the page. The simple exigencies of bowing or blowing a single note for such long periods of time mean that there are always very slight fluctations in pitch or dynamic within any cluster; and a cluster itself is such a complex acoustic object that rippling patterns of harmonic 'beats' may be heard, over which the composer has little control.

In dispensing with all pretences of melody, rhythm or harmony in Atmosphères, Ligeti forces attention onto the qualities of sounds themselves – although with very different results from Penderecki's piece. Whereas Penderecki's sounds are more emotionally charged – particularly in cojunction with the dedication to Hiroshima – Ligeti is exploring a more abstract world of sound in itself, at least at this stage in his career. But this is not to say that Ligeti has written a completely empty, formless exercise in abstraction. For what Ligeti does recognise, at least as much as Penderecki, is that musical sounds, just as much as chords, melodies or rhythms, can be carriers of musical meaning, and particularly when placed within a structured set of relationships to other sounds within a piece. For proof of this you need get no further than two minutes into the work, as the string cluster swells, like a slow breath in, and the brass enter for the first time, rising over the top in two glorious clusters of their own. The effect is stunning, and utterly evocative – a sunrise perhaps – but is immediately undercut by more dissonant clusters in the strings, and the meaning of that point in time shifts once more. Penderecki employs his sonic explorations within a recognisably dialectic form, in which events occur within boundaries, and the listener is invited to construct relationships between sections of a work. Ligeti's sounds are much more fluid, and at times it is impossible to hear where one begins and another ends; you are simply aware, once it has begun, of some change. In this way, Ligeti contributed to an entirely new concept of musical form, a close-focus examination of sound built on the foundations of total serialism. His achievements at this time were so radical that forty years later, musicology is still struggling to find the vocabulary to catalogue exactly how music constructed on the relationship of sound to sound works.

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