2013: A Ligeti Odyssey

If you weren’t in an ethereal, relaxed place before, you might be now. This is Lux Aeterna by Gyorgy Ligeti (like “lickety-split”), and it is a masterpiece of Contemporary music, pushing the boundaries further than they had been pushed before. For instance, I am sure you have noticed that most music has a beat, something to tap your foot to. Well, this piece, as you can hear, does not have a beat. There is no discernible rhythm. Ligeti wrote very difficult, complicated music to create this effortless effect. I am not going to go too much into specifics on this because 1) It is really boring and technical and 2) I am not a music scholar and thus find some of the theory hard to understand. Yes, she is fallible!

So I will write more about the “why” as opposed to the “how”. Why did Ligeti create music that sounded like this? Why is there no evident rhythm or beat? Why does the piece give me a feeling of calm mixed with unease?

The Lux Aeterna is taken from the Catholic Reqiuem mass. (The Mozart Requiem we discussed also had a Lux Aeterna movement, which was composed posthumously.) Roughly translated, it means:

Lux Aeterna, luceat , eis, Domine,
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum
quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord,
With the Saints in eternity,
Because you are good.
Grant eternal rest unto them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.

Some of you may know the term Gregorian chant, and you may have a vague image in your mind of old guys in robes singing simple music that echoes a lot. Honestly, that pretty much does some up Gregorian chant. Back when writing music down was still a new and scary idea, Pope Gregory decided to have all of the sacred music consolidated, leading to a mass influx of chants from all over Europe. These were then taught in cathedral all over, and soon everyone in the Catholic church knew these chants and could sing them accurately. It helped that the music was simple, and there was nothing to cloud understanding, like harmony or tricky rhythm. Believe it or not, Ligeti’s Lux Aeternum has strong ties to its Gregorian heritage. On an odyssey into history we go!

This is the Gregorian chant Lux Aeterna. Notice that it is just one melody, no accompaniment, no harmony. One simple, straight tone (no vibrato) melody. How on earth did THIS simple melody become that, frankly, WEIRD piece of music at the top. Well, it took about 1000 years to get there. We should be able to zip through this pretty quickly, though. Let’s go straight on to sacred music of the Renaissance.

This is Josquin de Prez’s Ave Maria, a sacred canon. Of course, one of the first things you will (hopefully) notice is that all of the voice parts are singing different words at different times. You then might notice that they are actually copying each other but coming in later or earlier than each other. (This is sort of like an early fugue, isn’t it?) The music here takes precedence over the words, which are often muddled by the different singers all singing something different and by the melisma (long vocal passage on one syllable). This is called canon, and it is very indicative of the Renaissance (pre-Palestrina). It is the combination of these two very early styles of composition that give us the texture we find in Ligeti’s Lux Aeternum. Combined with a modern harmonic and melodic sensibility (ie- purposefully none whatsoever), Ligeti managed to make something sound familiar and comforting while simultaneously strange and foreign.

Let’s look at that Gregorian chant again. It’s spare and beautiful in its own succinct, soft-spoken way. Now, imagine slowing it WAY down- I mean, painfully slow. Would that not be the dullest piece of music ever? Not if you’re Ligeti. He wanted that simplicity of line, and it needed to feel like it would go on forever, hence the title “Eternal Light.” The best way to do that, he thought was to do away with traditional harmony. Each section of the 16, yes 16!, section choir would have their own specific melody, which operated quite independently from the rest of the group. These were used to create cluster chords (a whole lot of notes really close together on the piano and played at the same time), which should sound horrible (and sometimes it does), but in this case, the music is beautiful and haunting.

Ah, but then comes the tricky part. This piece is meant to be textural. The parts in the choir must operate independently and still create a seamless and ever flowing texture. Here we find evolved remnants of the canon. Almost never, except on very important words in the piece, do the voices enter at the same time, and they even show some slight mimicry of other voice parts. The texture, however, is so deep and spellbinding that it is incredibly difficult to hear similar beat patterns or note repetitions. This is absolutely on purpose. In order to accomplish this, Ligeti wrote music that was not technically what we would call “accurate.” He would write too many beats for one voice and not enough for another. The choir parts had very specific entrances in the piece, but very little way to actually figure them out. They had to FEEL those entrances. The purposefully inaccurate music leads to the creation of a living organism as the choir is forced, all at once, to completely ignore each other and focus on their own line AND feel their entrances within the texture of the sound. There is no clear harmony. There is no clear melody. There is only the sound and the lack of it.

What colors do we hear? When is the texture rich? When is it light? Does the texture paint the words (like that held high note in the soprano part on the word luceat or “shine”)?

Why is it cool to know about Gyorgy Ligeti? Because he is one of the most influential composers in the history of cinema. In1968, Stanley Kubrick released the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie featured lots of famous classical pieces such as the Blue Danube Waltz and Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Johann and Richard Strauss, respectively. When he got to the sections that were, well, weird, he needed music to capture that essence, and he found it in Gyorgy Ligeti’s music. Featured in the film are Ligeti’s compositions Lux Aeterna, Atmospheres, Requiem, and Aventures. They had that perfect otherworldly quality that Kubrick was looking for.

There was only one problem. Kubrick never actually asked Ligeti for permission to use his music. He had no idea that his music was featured in the film until he started to receive congratulations for it. Moreover, Kubrik had digitally altered the music as well! Gyorgy Ligeti took Stanley Kubrick to court and settled for an indeterminate amount of money. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or, at least, a financially viable partnership. Since then, Ligeti allowed use of his music to Kubrik for the films The Shining and Eyes Wide shut. (However, Gyorgy Ligeti remains uncredited in most of Stanley Kubrik’s films.)

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