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A Tribute To György Ligeti In His Native Transylvania

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A Tribute To György Ligeti In His Native Transylvania

A Tribute To György Ligeti In His Native Transylvania

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 135

1.1 So-called “Minimal Music” and the Early Works of Reich and

In this section, I will explain some of the specific features of certain early
pieces (often termed “minimal music”) by these composers. First, the use of
repetition generates melodic patterns and sometimes real melodies in some
of these works. This is an important point to keep in mind when following
the different steps of parallelisms between Ligeti, Reich, and Riley. I will
give two examples of this from these composers’ early works. First is Terry
Riley’s In C, which is a notated composition that can be played by different
ensembles. Its score consists of a single page that sets out fifty-three brief
musical motives; in performance, each motive is repeated by the players ad
libitum, while one performer repeats Cs in octaves, giving a regular
pulsation from beginning to end.

Figure 1. Score for Terry Riley, In C (1964), beginning

© Terry Riley, 1964.

136 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity

Steve Reich (2002) has offered his own commentary on many of his
early pieces in his Writings on Music, 1965–2000. Concerning It’s Gonna Rain
(1965), Reich explained the following:

Late in 1964, I recorded a tape in Union Square in San
Francisco of a black preacher, Brother Walter, preaching
about the Flood. […] Early in 1965, I began making tape
loops of his voice, which made the musical quality of his
speech emerge even more strongly.

My problem was then to find some new way of working with
repetition as a musical technique. […] In the process of trying
to line up two identical tape loops in unison in some
particular relationship, I discovered that the most interesting
music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in
unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with each
other. As I listened to this gradual phase shifting process, I
began to realize that it was an extraordinary form of musical
structure. (Reich 2002, 20)

After completing It’s Gonna Rain, Reich composed several other tape pieces,
including Piano Phase and Violin Phase (both 1967); this period has been
linked by Reich to the idea of “music as a gradual process” (a phrase he also
used as the title of an article published in 1968).

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 137

2 Parallelisms of Ideas, Techniques, and Composition
2.1 Pattern repetition and texture in Ligeti and Riley

Ligeti wrote that his 1973 composition Clocks and Clouds was “strongly
influenced by Steve Reich”, and we could consider this work as being at a
crossroads in his output, or, as Paul Griffiths put it, in a “period of
uncertainty” (1998, 87). Moreover, as Jonathan W. Bernard wrote:

Perhaps the first thing one notices about Clocks and Clouds, by
comparison to the Double Concerto, is that the rate of pitch
change is much slower. This feature may well reflect an
initial burst of enthusiasm on Ligeti's part for American
minimal music, to which he was exposed for the first time
during his first trip to the United States in 1972. (1999, 14)

I now want to focus on repetition and texture in two composers by
evaluating a few key moments from Clocks and Clouds and In C.

At the beginning of Clocks and Clouds (see Figure 2), we hear
something which was rare prior to this work by Ligeti: a group of
instruments (flutes) playing two pitches together on a simple rhythm; this
homophonic writing (bars 1 and 2) then becomes more complex, following
the model of a canon in which the subject becomes longer and longer, with
different rhythmic subdivisions (starting from bar 6: 2, 3, 4, and 5). This
passage can be related to the beginning of In C of Terry Riley: the same
regularity on two pitches, and comparable development when different
patterns by Riley are nested within each other after a while.

138 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity
Figure 2: Ligeti, Clocks and Clouds, bb. 1–14.

© Schott Music, 2015.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 139

If we follow the succession of the melodic patterns at the beginning
of Clocks and Clouds, which are also characteristic of different works by
Ligeti before this one, we can find additional similarities to the patterns 1 to
4 of In C (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Comparison of melodic patterns from Riley and Ligeti

2.2 Phase shifting between two musical sources: Reich and Ligeti

After It’s Gonna Rain, Reich wanted to write some live music. Regarding
Piano Phase he said:

Finally, late in 1966, I recorded a short repeating melodic
pattern played on the piano, made a tape loop of that pattern,
and then tried to play against the loop myself, exactly as if I
were a second tape recorder. I found, to my surprise, that
while I lacked the perfection of the machine, I could give a
fair approximation of it while enjoying a new and extremely
satisfying way of playing that was both completely worked
out beforehand, and yet free of actually reading notation,

140 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity

allowing me to become totally absorbed in listening while
In the next few months, Arthur Murphy, a musician friend,
and I, both working in our homes, experimented with the
performance of this phase shifting process using piano and
tape loops. Early in 1967, we finally had the opportunity to
play together on two pianos and found, to our delight, that
we could perform this process without mechanical aid of any
kind. (Reich 2002, 22–24)
Confronted by the simplicity and the speed of this repeated melodic pattern,
our hearing focuses on the resulting rhythms and on the upper and lower
limits of the melodic pattern. In the piece by Reich (see Figure 4), this
includes the neighbour degrees at the bottom (E–F sharp) and at the top (C
sharp–D) of the melodic pattern.

Figure 4. Steve Reich, Piano Phase, showing pattern at the beginning, followed
by two resulting patterns after a few minutes

In his two-piano work “Selbsportrait mit Reich und Riley” (the
second of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos ), Ligeti wrote something very close
to Reich’s concept of phase shifting. In this piece he uses a new playing
technique of “blocked keys” (as he would later in his Etude pour piano n°3

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 141

“Touches bloquées”). The two pianos begin together, but their melodic pattern
are not the same and according to the score’s “Performance Instructions”
they have to play “as fast as possible”, such that “precise coordination is not
required for the time being”. The music at the beginning is quite different to
Piano Phase, but there is something else they do have in common: like Reich,
Ligeti writes the number of repetitions for each melodic pattern into the
score (seen in Figure 5 in small circles), and he also provides some flexibility
in the number of repetitions. In the “Performance Instructions”, we read:

- Up to 8, the number of repetitions should be precisely

- From 8 to 12, the number of repetitions should be
counted as precisely as possible, but a deviation of one
repetition more or less is not a matter of vital concern;

- From 12 to 18 repetitions, a deviation of 1-2 in either
direction is tolerated;

- From 18 on up, the repetitions need not be counted
precisely; the indicated number of repetitions is purely
approximate. (“Performance Instructions”)

Figure 5. Ligeti, “Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley”, opening

© Schott Music, 1976.

142 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity

This parallelism with Reich is interesting for two reasons. First,
Ligeti was getting close to Reich's experiments when he had been playing
Piano Phase with his friend without initially really believing he could do it.
Second, in this piece Ligeti brings together some of the processes from
Continuum with flexibility, accepting a ce rtain degree of unpredictability.

Another section of “Selbstportrait” piece comes really close to the
“phase shifting” technique (see Figure 6). Here the two pianos begin
together, playing exactly the same melodic patterns and same rhythms (a
total of eight quavers, with only three “sounding notes”). In the
performance instructions, Ligeti then explains that the shifting begins at
rehearsal mark “hh”.

Figure 6. Ligeti, “Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley”, letters gg and hh, pg. 11

© Schott Music, 1976.

In addition to the impact of this quasi-phase shifting technique, the
simplicity of melodic patterns give the listener an impression of a stylistic
proximity with the music of Reich and Riley. For another example, see the
third part of Ligeti’s Horn Trio (1982), at bar 11 and after.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 143

2.3 Textures: Ligeti/Reich/Riley

The term “texture” has often been used in music since the sixties, and Ligeti
often wrote about it in his articles, for example the one entitled
‘Metamorphoses of Musical Form’, which was first published in 1960 in
German. In his notes to the paper, Ligeti wrote the following:

With the word ‘structure’ I intend to refer to a differentiated
kind of material in which the separate parts can be discerned,
a construction that can be regarded as the product of the
inter-relationships between these separate parts or details.
The word ‘texture’, on the other hand, refers to a more
homogeneous, less articulated complex in which the
constituent elements can hardly be discerned. The difference
between the two words can be characterized thus: A
structure can be analysed in terms of its components; a
texture is better described in terms of its global, statistical
features. (Ligeti 1960, fn. 29)

In the first pages of the score for Clocks and Clouds, we saw that Ligeti
alternates textures with complex rhythmic overlays (see bb. 6ff in Figure 2)
with more uniform textures like at bars 12–13 where all the instruments play
rhythms based on triplet semiquavers. These rhythmic combinations with
different subdivisions (2 over 3, or 3 over 4, etc.) are rather specific to Ligeti
or other European composers; most of the time, both Reich and Riley used
either a binary time division or the same division for all instrumental parts.
Thus, despite the fact that the beginning of this work may sound like
American minimal music, the subsequent passages of Clocks and Clouds with
their textures of canonical writing recall previous Ligeti works like Lontano,
with sorts of “waves” following the subjects of the canon.

Other sections of the work deserve to be mentioned as processes
based on other principles concerning textures. For example, consider

144 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity

processes of contraction, stabilisation, and expansion that take place on
different levels beginning from rehearsal letter ‘OO’ in Clocks and Clouds (see
Table 2). In this passage the music becomes increasingly continuous, and
this poly-metric passage is like a climax of the end of the work. This sense of
climax is based on the evolution of different combinations of the rhythmic
subdivisions and different pitch content in the melodic patterns between
three main levels as we can observe on pages 43–45 of the score.

Table 2. Contraction, stabilisation, and expansion in Clocks and Clouds

Instrument Number of repeated b. 198 b. 203
or voice pitches at b. 194 (letter PP) (letter QQ)
(letter OO)

Mezzo- 2
sopranos Semiquavers

Altos and 3 then 2 pitches 3 3
flutes Quavers/sextuplets
Triplet quavers Semiquaver or semiquaver

Trumpet 3 4 4
and Semiquaver Semiquaver
vibraphone Triplet quavers then sextuplets sextuplets

acceleration to



Cellos 6 6 6 (with bassoons)
Subdivisions: Subdivision: 9
Different 12, 10, 9, etc.

subdivisions in

demisemiquavers (9,

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, etc.)

Textures in the works of Reich can also be considered as an
additional parallel to those of Ligeti. Here, the parallels are more obvious

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 145

because the music is almost completely notated, unlike the more “open” or
improvised pieces by Riley. Nonetheless, Bern ard points out one main
difference, writing, “Ligeti has certainly not simply emulated Steve Reich or
Terry Riley, for Clocks and Clouds displays neither the pulsed character nor
the special harmonic usages of those composers’ work of the early 1970s and
earlier” (1999, 14).

Likewise, it is interesting to know that Steve Reich also spoke about
this term ‘texture’ in his 1987 conference paper ‘Texture-Space-Survival’,
published in Perspectives of New Music in 1988 (see also Reich 2002, 139–44).
Quoting the New Harvard Dictionary of Music, where a distinction was made
between contrapuntal (or polyphonic) texture, and a chordal (or
homophonic) texture, he specified, “Given this traditional distinction, there
is no question that by far the greater part of my own music is contrapuntal
in texture”. He went on to discuss the question of another technique he
shares with Ligeti, the canon: “In fact, phasing is a process for composing
canons at the unison where the subject is short and the rhythmic interval
between the subject and its answers is variable” (2002, 139).

Let’s examine two examples of canonic procedures in Reich and
Ligeti, begining with the former. In Violin Phase we are dealing with a
reduced texture of four instrumental parts. A melodic pattern is repeated by
the tape, after which the violinist begins to repeat it, and gradually increases
his or her tempo very slightly (see Figure 7). After a while a second and a
third tape track enter so that about four minutes from the beginning we hear
four different parts. What is interesting in this kind of composition and
evolution is that the texture conceals or brings out “the many melodic
patterns resulting from the combination of two or more identical
instruments playing the same repeating pattern one or more beats out of
phase with each other” (Reich 2002, 26).

146 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity
Figure 7. Steve Reich, Violin Phase, opening

© Universal Edition, 1979.

As Reich explained it, “Some of these resulting patterns are more noticeable
than others, or become noticeable once they are pointed out” (2002, 26). This
means that here he is working particularly with the melodic potential, and
that he sometimes writes kinds of melodies with relative long rhythmic
values for the violin, as at bar 22 and later with the modal line shown in
Figure 8.

Figure 8. Reich, Violin Phase, bb. 22, 22a, 22b, 22c

© Universal Edition, 1979.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 147

In Drumming (1971) we have other kinds of textures; this is a very
long piece (it lasts from 55 to 75 minutes), constructed in four parts. Reich
wrote the piece after his stay in Ghana during the summer of 1970 where he
had gone to study drumming. From this point of view we can observe the
parallelism between Reich and Ligeti in their admiration for African music,
but not at the same period, as it occurred a little bit later for Ligeti, at the
beginning of the eighties, from 1982 to be precise.

In Drumming, Reich combines different percussion sets with voices,
whistling, and piccolo. He uses the “individual resulting patterns” for the
voices, for example in Part II (see Figure 9). This work represents a new step
in his output. As Reich writes:

In the context of my own music, Drumming is the final
expansion and refinement of the phasing process, as well as
the first use of four new techniques:

1 – the process of gradually substituting beats for rests (or
rests for beats)

2 – the gradual changing of timbre while rhythm and
pitch remain constant

3 – the simultaneous combination of instruments of
different timbre

4 – the use of the human voice to become part of the
musical ensemble by imitating the exact sound of the
instruments. (Reich 2002, 64)

148 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity
Figure 9. Steve Reich, Drumming, Part II, b. 60

© Boosey & Hawkes, 1971.

These principles and ideas present some common features with
Clocks and Clouds in 1973 from the point of view of timbre: both works
include women’s voices, piccolo, and both work are concentrated for some
sections in medium and high registers (like in the third part of Drumming,
written for three glockenspiels played by four players together with
whistling and piccolo). The textures also evolve close to each other between
the two works, as we have seen for example with Ligeti’s filling in of the

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 149

polyphony, and the process of gradually subst ituting beats for rests (or rests
for beats) by Reich.

Another point also concerns the specific relation between voices and
instruments. In Clocks and Clouds, the text of the sung parts is written in an
imaginary language, and for Drumming Reich has explained it thus:

While first playing the drums during the process of
composition, I found myself sometimes singing with them,
using my voice to imitate the sounds they made. I began to
understand that this might also be possible with the
marimbas and glockenspiels as well. Thus the basic
assumption about the voices in Drumming was that they
would not sing words, but would precisely imitate the sound
of the instruments. The women’s voices sing patterns
resulting from the combination of two or more marimbas
playing the identical repeating pattern one of more quarter
notes out of phase with each other. By exactly imitating the
sound of the instruments, and by gradually fading the
patterns in and out, the singers cause them to slowly rise to
the surface of the music and then fade back into it, allowing
the listener to hear these patterns, along with many others,
actually sounding in the instruments. (2002, 64)

3 Periodicity – Process – Form

The questions of periodicity and process are very interesting for this topic. I
understand “process” in the sense of the spectral music (Tristan Murail
[2005, 238] speaks of process as a “global transformations of texture from
one state to another”, while Gérard Grisey wrote that “The sound object is

150 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity

only a process which has been contracted, the process nothing more than a
dilated sound object” (1987, 269).

Two levels of periodicity can be considered: the micro- and the
global. At the micro-level: periodicity fits perfectly with the early works of
Reich and Riley where a short melodic or rhythmic pattern is repeated.
However, I would like to speak about the global level, or what David Isgitt
call a “macro-period”, or “a cycle created from the combination of periods
that are individually shorter than the whole” (Isgitt 2002, 43). I will compare
only a few pieces.

3.1 Riley – Ligeti – Reich

In some pieces by Terry Riley, this periodicity is marked by the
return to simple melodic elements after a period of intense repetitive
polyphony generated by the “Time-Lag Accumulator”; this is the case in
Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band. If we observe with E-Analysis the
general spectrogram of the work (and also with the Similarity matrix which
reveals similarity between different parts of the structure), it clearly appears
that the recorded work (Columbia Records CD version, 1969) is articulated
in three parts, each beginning with short or longer melodic lines and ending
with a period of stagnation without any melody (see Figure 10). The first
section runs from the opening up to 6’21”, the second from 6’22” to 11’12”,
and the third section from 11’13” (with a short pause at 17’) up to the ending
at 21’37”.

This could be related to some works from the late sixties by Ligeti.
Bernard has spoken of Lux aeterna as “the first of Ligeti's complete works to
be governed by periodic articulations of clear intervals” (1999, 18). And of
course these works are characterised by canonical melodic episodes,
meaning that each beginning of a section reveals melodic lines based for a
few seconds on a single pitch. Afterwards, the polyphony is developed on

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 151

the principle of the canon, meaning another kind of repetition. These
sections are also chained to each other by means of held octaves or a chord.

Figure 10. Terry Riley, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, graphic
representation with E-Analysis

3.2 Reich – Ligeti

As we saw in Drumming, Reich introduced “the process of gradually
substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats)”, and a part of the periodicity
is – so to speak – carried by this process in this piece. We can hear it at
different moments, like at the beginning of Part IV, at bar 102 and after (see
Figure 11).

152 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity
Figure 11. Reich, Drumming, Part IV, bb. 102–109

© Boosey & Hawkes, 1971.

We find something reasonably comparable in Monument, the first of
Ligeti’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos. As in earlier works, Ligeti uses here what
Richard Toop has called “rhythmic wave forms”(1990, 86), but the function
of this here is slightly different to what he had done in the Ten Pieces for
Woodwind Quintet or in the Second String Quartet. In Monument, Ligeti makes
here a progressive filling in of space like Reich, but around certain central

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 153

rhythmic values (see Figure 12): first 16 semiquavers for the pitch A (played
in octaves), then later 15, 14, etc. The same occurs with the pitch B, with the
values 6, then 5, then 4, etc. and the same still with the pitch G♭, then F, and
so on.

Figure 12. György Ligeti, Monument, beginning, and rhythmic value scheme of
piano I only. Table from Michel (1995, 241)

The result is not the same as with Reich, because here the music is
clearly directional: from a very bare start we arrive at moments of very high
density, where the notion of periodicity disappears totally. But the principle
is very close, and we find it much later in the fifth movement of the Piano
Concerto at bars 40–53, where the string instruments play a pattern with
cyclic reduction of the musical rests, as we can see in Figure 13.

154 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity

Figure 13. Ligeti, Piano Concerto, mvt. 5, rhythmic figures, bb. 40–53. Table from
Michel (1995, 235)

Certainly it is not exactly what Reich did with “gradually substituting beats
for rests”, but the result can be compared, bearing in mind that other kinds
of music appeared in-between for Ligeti, like the African polyrhythms,
among others.

Another point worth highlighting about “the transposition of certain
compositional processes from (tape-)recorded music to instrumental music”
(Levaux 2018, 59): we all know very well the importance of electronic music
for the evolution of Ligeti’s work, and it seems to be just as important to
Reich and to Riley. Reich wrote, for example, that the piece Melodica (1966)
constituted “a transition from tape music to instrumental music”(2002, 22),
and we know also that Terry Riley’s In C was “composed in the wake of
several works using magnetic tape loops, such as Mescalin Mix (1961) and
Music for the Gift (1963)” (Levaux 2018, 59). Ultimately, we could make
connections between our three composers concerning what Christophe
Levaux (2018, 59) and Robert Carl (2009, 41) insist on as “the transfer from
the electronic domain to that of real-time performance.”

In my lecture, I have pointed out the proximity of ideas and certain
musical techniques shared among three composers whose cultural

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 155

backgrounds were very different and some of whom, like Terry Riley,
conceived certain works from improvisation. Of course, this discussion
could be extended to address other related subjects concerning the music of
La Monte Young and Harry Partch, for example.

A fairly significant movement has developed since the late 1960s
towards a return to the pulsation, rhythm, periodicity, and rather "physical"
dimensions of instrumental playing, and significant trends can be observed
in other great composers, for example Stockhausen with his “formulas”
since Mantra for two pianists (1969–1970), and Donatoni in his works from
the 1980s onwards, etc. It therefore seems that this Ligeti-Reich-Riley
parallelism represents a certain anticipation of what developed after 1980 in
Europe: in particular, I mean the influence of jazz and rock. Ligeti talked a
lot about jazz and rock (see Duchesneau 2011), and as Steve Reich stated in
the 1980s, “jazz and rock also furnished notable sources of inspiration”
(Levaux 2018, 60). This is why studies on popular music give us a
complementary look at this articulation, especially since the links between
these three composers and the jazz or rock repertoires are close. We know,
for example, that Terry Riley played in the early 1960s with the Leningrad
Jazz Quartet, with trumpet player Chet Baker and even with the members of
the rock-group Soft Machine, Daevid Allen, and Robert Wyatt in Paris. We
know also that his music was very important to some of the band's songs,
like “Out bloody rageous” (recorded on the Third album in 1970). This is
therefore a moment and a set of historically important convergences that
should perhaps be considered as one of the significant articulations of the
late twentieth century in contemporary music.

These reflections should be supplemented by contact with the new
sources to which Ligeti has referred since the 1980s. A more complete
approach to the phenomena of intercultural crossings could therefore find
its interest in the continuation of this parallel, and I am thinking of the

156 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity

studies on “transethnicism” of David Nicholls (1996) who takes a cultural
position regarding both the necessary distinction between American
“cultural homes” – Riley and La Monte Young originating from the western
United States, Reich from the eastern seaboard – and the close ties of some
composers with other cultures, such as Riley working with the music of
India with Pandit Pran Nath since 1970. I talked also about Reich studying
earlier in Ghana, and we know at which point different cultures have
broadened Ligeti’s creative horizons.

To conclude: a more comprehensive reflection should be conducted
on the return to very clear periodicities or ostinatos among different
composers from the 1980s onwards. I am thinking of Tehillim by Reich and
different pieces of Ligeti including Nonsense Madrigals, as examples of such
increasingly clear periodicities. At the end, this topic should also be brought
into discussions of the meaning of repetition – as some have done for
popular music (see Trottier 2018, 89) – and on the aesthetic evaluation of
these different kinds of music.

Further topics for reflection:

• The “transposition of certain compositional processes from
(tape)recorded music to instrumental music” (Levaux 2018).

• The subsequent evolution of these composers: see other parallelisms
between, for example, Tehillim (Reich) and Nonsense Madrigals
(Ligeti). Other cases of repetition in later works of Ligeti (Horn Trio ,
Etude n°1 “Désordre”, “Loop” in the Sonata for Viola Solo, etc.) and
Reich also provide a renewed focus of interest.

• Their common interest in other cultures: Africa (Reich, Ligeti), India
(Riley). Special transfer of these musical practices from oral
traditions to written composition, and influence of this transfer on a

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 157

new comprehension of the body in the music, of the “physical”
aspect of the rhythm.

• The different cultural backgrounds of the composers, even in the
United States (see Nicholls 1996); other related subjects should be
addressed concerning the music of La Monte Young and Harry

• Different approaches between composition and improvisation,
between playing and “singing” (Reich).

• Relations with popular music (jazz, rock): Terry Riley played in the
early 1960s with trumpet player Chet Baker and even with the
members of the rock-group The Soft Machine in Paris. Strong
interest in jazz and rock by Ligeti and Reich too. See the younger
composers very close to rock or modern jazz (even “groove”): Mark-
Anthony Turnage, Heiner Goebbels, Fausto Romitelli, Philippe
Hurel, Pierre Jodlowski, etc.

• Studies on popular music: “meaning of repetition” in relation to
popular music (the loops in “house music” for example): see Girard
(2010) or Levaux (2018).

• A more comprehensive reflection should be conducted on the return
to more or less clear melodic repetitions, periodicity or ostinatos
among different composers from the 1970’s onwards: Stockhausen
with his “formulas” since Mantra (1969–1970) and In Freundschaft,
Donatoni with his works from the 1980s onwards, and others.

158 Michel: Melody, Repetition, and Periodicity


Writings of the composers:

Ligeti, György. 2007. Gesammelte Schriften. Edited by Monika Lichtenfeld. 2 vols.
Mainz: Paul Sacher Stiftung/Schott. French translation: Neuf essais sur la
musique; L’atelier du compositeur; Ecrits sur la musique et les musiciens. Genève:
Éditions Contrechamps, 2001–2014.

Ligeti, György. 2014. “Rencontre avec Steve Reich.” In Écrits sur la musique et les musiciens,
translated by Catherine Fourcassié. Genève: Éditions Contrechamps.

Ligeti, György. 1985/1995. Interview with Pierre Michel. In György Ligeti, Paris:

Ligeti, György. 1960. “Wandlungen der musikalischen Form.” Die Reihe 7 (1960). English
version: “Metamorphoses of musical form”,

Reich, Steve. 2002. Writings on Music 1965–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Books and papers on the composers:

Alburger, Mark. 2004. “Terry Riley after In C to A Rainbow in Curved Air.” 21st
Century Music 11, no. 2 (February 2004): 3–10.

Bernard, Jonathan W. 1999. “Ligeti's Restoration of Interval and Its Significance for
His Later Works.” Music Theory Spectrum 21, no. 1 (Spring): 1–31.

Carl, Robert. 2009. Terry Riley’s In C. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Duchesneau, Louise. 2011. “‘Play it like Bill Evans’: György Ligeti and Recorded

Music.” In György Ligeti – Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds, edited by
Louise Duchesneau and Wolfgang Marx, 125–48. Woodbridge, UK: The
Boydell Press.
Girard, Johan. 2010. Répétitions – L’esthétique musicale de Riley, Reich et Glass. Paris:
Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle.
Griffiths, Paul. 1998. György Ligeti. London: Robson Books.
Grisey, Gérard. 1987. “Tempus ex machina: A Composer’s Reflections on Musical
Time.” Contemporary Music Review 2, no. 1 (1987): 239–75.
Isgitt, David. 2002. An Analysis of Periodic Rhythmic Structures in the Music of Steve
Reich and György Ligeti. MM Thesis. University of North Texas.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 159

Levaux, Christophe. 2018. “Toward an Alternative History of Repetitive Audio
Technologies.” In Over and Over: Exploring Repetition in Popular Music,
edited by Olivier Julien and Christophe Levaux, 51–63. New York:

Michel, Pierre. 1995. György Ligeti. Paris: Minerve.

Murail, Tristan. 2005. “Villeneuve –lès-Avignon Conferences.” In Models & Artifice –
The Collected Writings of Tristan Murail, edited by Joshua Fineberg and Pierre
Michel. Contemporary Music Review 24 (2–3): 187–267.

Nicholls, David. 1996. “Transethnicism and the American Experimental Tradition.”
The Musical Quarterly 80, no. 4 (Winter): 569–94.

Toop, Richard. 1990. “L’illusion de la surface.” In Ligeti – Kurtág: Revue
Contrechamps 12/13, edited by Philippe Albèra, 60–97. Genève: Éditions

Trottier, David. 2018. “Repetition and Musical Meaning.” In Over and Over:
Exploring Repetition in Popular Music, edited by Olivier Julien and
Christophe Levaux, 89–103. New York: Bloomsbury.

Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control
in Ligeti’s Keyboard Works


American Minimalism and the “Semblance of Infinity”
One of the enduring features of Ligeti’s style in each phase of his career is
his tantalizing use of repeating patterns and processes in a manner that
seems to prefigure – especially in the pattern meccanico music of the early
1960s – forms of American minimalist practice. Ensemble works of the late
1960s such as the Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet, the Chamber Concerto and the
Second Quartet each dedicate one or more movements to such a texture,
with the explicit influence of Steve Reich and Terry Riley acknowledged in
the final movement of the Three Pieces for Two Pianos .

Ligeti spoke freely about this influence in late interviews with
Anders Beyer and Erik Wallrup, among others, but his most explicit
discussion occurs in an interview with Clytus Gottwald published as
“Tendenzen der Neue Musik in den USA.”1 Here he discusses his five

1 The Voice of Music: Conversations with Composers of Our Time, Anders Beyer, ed., trans. by
Jean Christensen and Anders Beyer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 1–14; Erik Wallrup, “The
Multi-dimensional Architecture of Beauty—Interview with György Ligeti,” Nutida Musik, 4–
8; “Tendenzen der neuen Musik in den USA: György Ligeti im Gespräch mit Clytus
Gottwald,” first published in Melos/Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 1 (1975): 266–72; page numbers
cite its republication as “Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA. Steve Reich – Terry Riley
– Harry Partch,” in György Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Monika Lichtenfeld, vol. 1
(Mainz: Schott, 2007), 456–69.

162 Bauer: Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control

months in California, a state he described as “a fruitful soil for completely
new types of music,” and home at times for both Riley and Reich.2 Ligeti
acknowledges general similarities between the pattern-changing and phase-
shift techniques of Riley and Reich and his methods in Poeme Symphonique
and Lontano, in the form of motivic repetition that resists developmental
paradigms. But the American composers’ work remains fundamentally,
resolutely Other, having roots in an entirely different cultural background.
For instance, the “semblance of infinity” Ligeti finds in Reich’s phase-
shifting works bespeaks a meeting of the “Oriental” and “Industrial-
Technical,” in a way unique to the United States and especially California in
the 1970s: “what emerges is neither oriental nor technical, but the strangely
alienated combination of the two worlds.”3 The watered-down version of
this in 1970s American popular culture was “the industrialized myth of a
world without industry,” a fantasy in blithe disregard of the grinding
wheels of late capitalism.4

The culmination of this fantastic communion of hippie bliss and
technology for Ligeti seems to be a work that falls between the poles of
experimental music and pop: Riley’s “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom
Band,” the second work on Riley’s 1969 LP, A Rainbow in Curved Air. The
Phantom Band is staffed by “ghosts” of the multi-tracked composer,
constructed from echoes of repeated, multi-tracked motives which build on
one another even as they fade away, in the manner of the Droste chocolate
girl, reflected ad infinitum by ever smaller versions of herself (see Figure 1).
Out of this mise en abyme – in which tape loops play the role of reflective
mirrors – appear “secret” modulations which introduce new chords and
new tonal spaces with no regard to functional progression. The title of
Riley’s subsequent release with Jo hn Cale, “The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles”

2 “Tendenzen der Neuen Musik,” 456.
3 “Tendenzen der Neuen Musik,” 458.
4 “Tendenzen der Neuen Musik,” 459.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 163

from Church of Anthrax, seems to acknowledge that Riley’s technique and
form are one and the same: static, recursive, and external to any tradition
but their own.5

Figure 1. Droste Chocolate Girl

A Soul into a Golem
But Ligeti’s “minimal” practice, if one could call it that, turns the California
experimental relation between technology and cultural appropriation on its

5 Terry Riley and John Cale’s Church of Anthrax featured five tracks, but is remembered
primarily for the densely-produced title track, which featured Cale on viola and bass and
Riley on organ and saxophone; (Columbia 30131, 1971).

164 Bauer: Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control

head. Ligeti subsumes various non-Western and extramusical influences
within the technology of the work: the techné of his process, its formal
ambition, and the sheer physics of the medium for which he writes. Arnold
Whittall decries the nakedness of Ligeti’s process, the way “grids that
underpin and control the music's evolving processes” sit on the surface of
his music. For Whittall the mechanical aspect of Ligeti’s Études represents
an almost suffocating confrontation with the kernel of their being: no longer
“filtered out,” such processes lose their aura and mystique. Whittall longs
for a Ligeti who conformed to one camp or the other: the avant-garde or
minimalism, more obedient to the master signifiers of our age.6

But Ligeti’s is a modernist practice for a world overwhelmed by
industry and the industrialized, expressed by a fascination with algorithms
and “the generation of musical form departing from a conceptual 'genetic
code’.” In a conversation with Tünde Sitha he maintained, “I don’t employ
mathematical procedures, algorithms. To me, numbers matter in the way
they mattered to Bach […] or rather, to Obrecht.” 7 But with Manfred
Stahnke, he compared the composer to the scientist: “A scientist who works
in an area that never claims to explain everything.”8 The composer’s mid-
1960s articles on trends in new music reveal an obsession with both pre-
compositional schemes and notational gambits as codes that operate
independently and often orthogonally to the music produced. Ligeti wrote
often of the completely planned electronic or serial work that did not allow
for audio artifacts, internal contradictions, or the vagaries of perception. In

6 Arnold Whittall, “In Memoriam: György Ligeti,” Musical Times 147, no. 1896 (2006): 2–4; 2.
7 Tünde Szitha, “A Conversation with György Ligeti,” Hungarian Musical Quarterly 3, no. 1
(1992): 13–17; 17.
8 “György Ligeti und Manfred Stahnke: Gespräch am 29. Mai 1993,” in Music und. Band 2:
Musik – nicht ohne Worte. Beiträge zu aktuellen Fragen aus Komposition, Musiktheorie und
Musikwissenschaft, ed. Manfred Stahnke, 121–52 (Hamburg: von Bockel, 2000), 123.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 165

mistaking artistic work with bookkeeping, the composer must inject her
invention into a prepared organization, “as a soul into the golem.”9

I generalize this compositional attitude as a “code system,” or use of
an algorithmic process with an audible output. Whether that process
manifests as a formal rhythmic, melodic or harmonic structure, or remains
implicit, this fraught relation between the technology of the algorithm and
its execution forms a central tenet of Ligeti’s aesthetics. These algorithmic
relationships obtain among processes, notations, and performance practices,
but fall into two kinds. In the first category are determinate codes which
appear to exhaust themselves as they follow an audible process to its end:
process music that pointedly reflects on its own process.

This category includes the early Polyphonic etude for two pianos,
Invention, and Ricercare per organ, the latter two witty historical pastiches
based on thoroughly modern chromatic subjects. The Passacaglia ungherese
from 1978 is a particularly rich example of such a process piece. Written for
a harpsichord tuned to mean-tone temperament, it boasts a recursive
algorithm: a two-bar canon produces an interval cycle composed entirely of
major thirds and minor sixths that includes all twelve tones. This cycle
repeats at the unison, then the lower octave, spiraling to the bottom of the
keyboard and up again to high C every six cycles. Since only those intervals
in the proportion 5:4 – the passacaglia cycle – are in tune, they clash with the
primarily stepwise melody, which in good Baroque fashion moves
proportionally from quarter-notes to eighths and sixteenths, to end in a
mock fourth species counterpoint, as shown in Figure 2.

9 György Ligeti, “Kompositorische Tendenzin heute,” first published as “Aktuelle
kompositionstendenser,” trans. Bo Alphonce, Nutida musik 3 (1960/61): 2–4; reprinted in
Gesammelte Schriften, 1:112–16; 1:112.

166 Bauer: Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control
Figure 2. Passacaglia ungherese, first registral cycle: 16-tone canon (or, alternately,

8-note subject, followed by 8-note countersubject)

“Fém,” No. 8 from the second book is Ligeti’s clearest example of
this model among the Études for Piano. The subject of “Fém” is an
alternating West African “bell pattern” that expresses asymmetrically-
divided patterns of eighteen beats in the right hand and sixteen beats in the
left in the proportion 9:8, to form a larger macroperiod every thirteen bars.
Yet this process is neither as audible nor as explicit as in the earlier works;
rhythmic patterns are overlaid and “amplified,” to reach a maximum of
density and volume in cycle 30 before returning to the original isorhythm.
The coda interrupts both patterns mid-cycle to shift from an eighth to a
dotted quarter-note pulse, exposing a hidden call and response pattern
between hands that comes to rest in perfect synchrony (see Figure 3).

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 167

Figure 3. “Fém,” first macroperiod bb. 1–12: 18-beat talea in r.h., 16-beat talea in

Ligeti’s lean, economical Ricercar, the Passacaglia ungherese, and “Fém”
expose their founding premise, yet thwart our expectations of a
conventional denouement. Rather than accelerating towards a heady climax
or a majestic ritardando, they slowly grind to a halt, like a precision
mechanism breaking down.

The Ghost in the Machine

This brings me to my second category, apparently deter minate codes – often
derived from traditional musical categories – which, despite their regulative
function, lead to surprising, musically unpredictable results. The most
notorious examples of this formal relationship are the so-called
microcanonic works, but this code-correspondence populates every genre,
and the degree of deviation from the founding premise varies greatly from

168 Bauer: Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control

piece to piece. I return to the 1960s and Ligeti’s published articles and
lectures, to unearth support for his use of both notation and performance
practice as codes that operate independently and often orthogonally to the
music they produced and its aural effect.

At the beginning of his 1964 Darmstadt lecture “New notation –
means of communication or an end in itself?” Ligeti stressed that “or an end
in itself?” works equally as a title: the relation between instructional code
and its result is a matter of context, perspective, and scale.10 Four years
earlier he had premiered Volumina, his only score composed in graphic
notation. But according to the composer, Volumina “has, in fact, nothing to
do with graphic notation.”11 In “New notation” Ligeti had drawn a line
between true musical notation and musical graphics. The former functions
as a highly economic, quasi-deterministic code, whose utility derives from a
high degree of redundancy. Musical graphics, on the other hand,
oversignify; they exist as maps richer in implication than any one musical
path derived from them. But Volumina’s graphics paradoxically offer a
precise correspondence between the physical actions of the performer and
the registral limits of clusters, allowing the performer what Ligeti called “a
kind of rubato both in time and space.”12

Volumina broke barriers in its performance practice as well. With the
aid of Karl-Erik Welin and Bengt Hambraeus, Ligeti fashioned a kind of
inverted shadow narrative of the instrument’s history, where sudden,
sweeping movements of hands and limbs replace the control and decorum

10 György Ligeti, “Neue Notation – Kommunikationsmittel oder Selbstweck?,” Notation Neuer
Musik (Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik 9), ed. Ernst Thomas (Mainz: Schott, 1965): 35–
50; reprinted in Gesammelte Schriften, 1:170–84.
11 György Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation with Péter Várnai, Josef Häusler, Claude Samuel and
Himself, trans. Gabor J. Schabert, Sarah E. Soulsby, Terence Kilmartin and Geoffrey Skelton
(London: Eulenburg, 1983), 95.
12 Ligeti in Conversation, 40.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 169

of historic performance.13 One or two additional performers as registrants
were now required, part of a dramatic choreography that involved control
over all stops, manuals, keys and pedals as well as a written in lack of
control over timbres which resulted from the use of half-stops and de-
winding the organ. I cite here an especially telling clip on YouTube, which
shows Dominic Susteck trying heroically to tackle registration and
performance duties.14

Ligeti’s 1968 talk for the Walcker organ symposium described a
utopian future organ, expanded and altered to allow the composer unheard
of flexibility, while still retaining the organ ’s identity as “an instrument with
pipes to create sound.” 15 A contemporary composer’s experience with
electronic music and musique concréte should lead to experimental
approaches to the organ, as did the fantastic machines of Athanasius
Kircher’s 1650 Musurgia universalis. Since the organ has never kept pace with
changing compositional ideas, it provides a model exemplar of the historical
tension between new music and practice, a tension which did not release
until the infamous premiere of Volumina in 1960: a composition expressly
written not for the organ but against it.

One could say the same for the organ etude Harmonies from 1967.
Unlike Volumina, Harmonies is written in traditional notation, one of two
works Ligeti constructed as a complete mirror canon. It thus seems to fit
into the category I labeled “determinate codes”: the first ten voices are

13 Discussed at length in Martin Herchenröder, “Der Komponist und die Orgel im
21.Jahrhundert,“ Die Orgel zwischen Gestern und Morgen, ed. Hermann J. Busch and Roland
Eberlein (Walcker-Stiftung für orgelwissenschaftliche Forschung, 2011).

14 The Dominck Susteck clip can be viewed at
LqYJow, accessed 23 Feb. 2020.

15 György Ligeti, “Was erwartet der Komponist der Gegenwart von der Orgel?,” first
published in Orgel und Orgelmusik heute. Versuch einer Analyses, ed. Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht
(Stuttgart: Musikwissenshaftliche Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1968), 168–83; reprinted in Gesammelte
Schriften, 1:217–30; 1:223.

170 Bauer: Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control

introduced in an ordered series, with the mirror symmetry of its canons
complemented by the physical movements of the player, whose shifts in
fingering and hand position parallel the voice-leading, as indicated by
Figure 4. Yet the organist is directed to avoid any impression of meter or
periodicity, to maintain soft to “very soft” dynamics, and to strive for “pale,
strange vitiated colors” through the use of reduced wind pressure, half-
stops of partially-depressed keys and the aid of a registrant.

Figure 4. Harmonies, serial introduction of voices, bb. 1–13, above; pattern of
mirror canon in all 10 voices, below

The otherworldly sound that results often bears no audible relation
to Harmonies’ intricate pitch design, or to the physical demands of its
performance. Ligeti called Harmonies an “artistic use of disease,” and was
known to intervene in coachings if he thought it did not sound
“consumptive” enough. Hence a performance in which one can hear the

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 171

contrapuntal voice-leading and match its resulting sounds to the
performer’s gestures – one out of the nine recorded performances I
surveyed – must be termed a failure, a performance that fails to fail, as it
were, performing a sacred facsimile of an etude intended as a profane
shadow of its kind.

My final example of an algorithmic work with a covert, inexplicable
relationship between process and sounding result is the contrapuntal
subject that constitutes Vertige, the ninth piano Étude from the second book.
The dedication of Vertige, to Mauricio Kagel, gives some idea of its
precarious nature: when Pierre-Laurent Aimard couldn’t prepare it in time,
Vertige was premiered in a player piano version arranged by Jürgen Hocker.
Its premiere befit the most blatant homage, of many in Ligeti’s oeuvre, to
the Shepard's scale phenomenon associated with computer music, wherein
a descending chromatic scale replicated at the octave is perceived as a single
line in eternal descent (1964). Not surprisingly Michael Weber’s
spectrograph of Volker Banfield’s performance reveals that its subtle
dynamic shadings “correspond almost entirely to the model of Shepard's

Quite apart from its attempt to model a computer-generated acoustic
illusion, Vertige represents an idealized fractal structure: a synoptic analysis
indicates the harmonic and temporal intervals of the first six bars and eight
voices of the printed score; dotted lines show the continuation of
descending lines as they cross staves from upper to lower. The descending
16-note chromatic subject repeats four times as a canon at the unison. Its
interval of imitation varies, correlating with the mathematical sequence 7n+1
(where n = a non-zero integer: 8, 15, 22), but soon diverges from a periodic
pattern. A clearly marked exposition repeats the subject 15 times, relying on

16 See the photo that accompanies Michael A. Weber, “Towards Interpretation,” Systematische
Musikwissenschaft 2/2 (1994): 273–94.

172 Bauer: Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control

a rhythmic grid predicated on an eighth-note pulse, indicated by the chart
of voice entries in Figure 5. Unlike the first etude, the canonic structure of
Vertige expands outward unencumbered by any hints of periodic structure.
Cursory wisps of melody buoyed by tre cordi accents ebb against the
relentless chromaticism, which circles the pitch space from A7 to A♭ b1
before launching itself off both ends of the piano keyboard, the final journey
almost inaudible as C8 peaks over a descent to A0 at a dynamic of 8 p.

Figure 5. Vertige, first 20 voice entries showing entrance as both a cumulative beat
pattern (0, 8, 15, etc.) and as function of a mod-16 talea (0, 5, 15, etc.)

The sociologist of play Roger Caillois divided all human games and
play into four categories, one of which he termed ilinx, games based on the

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 173

pursuit of vertigo, “an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of
perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid
mind.”17 The title of Vertige indexes this affective content, the “constant
sliding and collapsing” that limns a musical portrait of anxiety. 18 The
rhetorical concision of the term vertigo points to the condition of both the
listener – disoriented in registral and pitch space – and the performer –
struggling to maintain an inhuman evenness of tone and speed at low
volume across shifting registers and hand positions. More than a mere
registral illusion, the ceaselessly-descending eighths of Vertige are intended
to melt into one another: to efface the identity of the piano as a percussion
instrument, and to disguise the partitioning of pitch space into twelve notes
per octave. The isorhythmic structure of Vertige adds an additional layer of
irony by emphasizing buoyant E major harmonies over a dominant B pedal,
to lend the work what Manfred Stahnke called “a California pop sound.”19

For the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who worked closely with the
composer, the transformation of a simple chromatic kernel from corporal
sensation to acousmatic signifier in Vertige contains a “pathological”

In your physical memory, you feel the gesture of the
chromatic scale, but because Ligeti uses it as an ostinato,
quickly and continually repeating itself, this creates another
physical feeling altogether. You feel a transformation of this
memory. Acoustically, at the beginning, you hear the
chromatic scale, like Escher's perpetual waterfall. Then, it
drowns on itself until you can no longer hear the chromatic

17 Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1961 / 2001), 24.

18 György Ligeti, “Etudes – Deuxieme livre. Notizen zu einzelnen Etüden,” in Gesammelte
Schriften, 2:293–95; 2:293.

19 Manfred Stahnke, “György Ligeti und Manfred Stahnke: Gespräch am 29. Mai 1993,” 138.

174 Bauer: Codes, Constraints, and the Loss of Control

scale, though you continue to feel it in your fingers. Ligeti
disconnects the acoustical effect from the gestural, creating a
brilliant illusion of perception. In fact, he is organizing a

The free-floating anxiety of Vertige reveals an existential dread that lies
behind the placid façade of American minimalism, that “strangely alienated
combination” that would mask the “ voluptuous panic” behind the hall of
mirrors. As in all the works cited above, the algorithmic codes of Vertige host
a ghost in the machine, some error that grants the work a spectral life and
expression beyond its programming. Hence the arbitrary pitch series in
Harmonies takes a circuitous route to its registration in order to generate a
vast, unregulated soundworld, while a specular spectral and temporal
uniformity reigns across all six recorded versions of Volumina I surveyed.21

Unlike those processes that control the early music of Reich and
Riley, Ligeti ’s algorhithmic constraints are neither subsumed by nor equal
to their form; repetition and recursion never represent a simple Droste
effect. The re-inscription of codes and canons – in the largest sense –
expresses the irreducible gap between technology and orientalism, the
incorporated sign and its meaning: the failure of the bad infinity that

20 Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in Claire Sykes and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, “Fortes, Fractals, and
Finger-Busters,” Piano & Keyboard 196 (2007): 30–34; 34.
21 The program Sonic Visualizer (Queens University, London) was employed to produce
spectrograms of the following full performances: Volumina, original version (1960–1961),
Karl-Erik Welin, recorded March 1962, Stockholm, St. John and Gustav Vasa, on Ligeti:
Continuum, 10 Stücke F. Bläser, Artikulation, Glissandi, Orgel Etuden, Volumina ,WERGO 60161-
50 (1988) and Gerd Zacher, 1968, Berlin, Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Varèse-Penderecki-
Ligeti Collection VOXBOX CDX 5142 (1995). Volumina, revised version (1968), Gerd Zacher,
1968, Hamburg-Wellingsbüttel, Lutherskirche, Gerd Zacher Mauricio Kagel /Juan Allende-Blin /
György Ligeti, Deutsche Gramaphon 105 990 (1968); Hans-Ola Ericsson, 1991, Grönland organ
Luleå Cathedral, Schoenberg, Frescobaldi, Ligeti, Bis CD 509 (1997); Zsigmond Szarthmary,
1995, Often, St. Martin Church, Ligeti Edition 6: Keyboard Works, Sony SK 62307 (1997); and
Domink Susteck, 2012, Cologne, Kunst-Station Sankt Peter, Ligeti: Volumina – Orgelwerke,
Wergo WER 6747 (2013).

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 175

disguises its failures. As Ligeti said of the paradox posed by the
“consumptive” Harmonies, such a “beautiful disease” may point the way
towards a new praxis.22


Breyer, Anders, ed. The Voice of Music: Conversations with Composers of Our Time, translated by
Jean Christensen and Anders Beyer. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.

Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games, translated by Meyer Barash. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1961/ 2001.

Herchenröder, Martin, “Der Komponist und die Orgel im 21.Jahrhundert.“ In Die Orgel
zwischen Gestern und Morgen, edited by Hermann J. Busch and Roland Eberlein, 100–
114. Walcker-Stiftung für orgelwissenschaftliche Forschung, 2011.

Ligeti, György. György Ligeti: Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Monika Lichtenfeld. 2 vols.
Mainz: Schott, 2007.

Ligeti, György. Ligeti in Conversation with Péter Várnai, Josef Häusler, Claude Samuel and Himself,
translated by Gabor J. Schabert, Sarah E. Soulsby, Terence Kilmartin and Geoffrey
Skelton. London: Eulenburg, 1983.

Ligeti, György, and Manfred Stahnke. “György Ligeti und Manfred Stahnke: Gespräch am
29. Mai 1993.” In Music und. Band 2: Musik – nicht ohne Worte. Beiträge zu aktuellen
Fragen aus Komposition, Musiktheorie und Musikwissenschaft, edited by Manfred
Stahnke, 121–52. Hamburg: von Bockel, 2000.

Sykes, Claire, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. “Fortes, Fractals, and Finger-Busters,” Piano &
Keyboard 196 (2007): 30–34.

Szitha, Tünde. “A Conversation with György Ligeti.” Hungarian Musical Quarterly 3, no. 1
(1992): 13–17.

Wallrup, Erik. “The Multi-Dimensional Architecture of Beauty – Interview with György
Ligeti.” Nutida Musik, 4–8.

Weber, Michael A. “Towards Interpretation.” Systematische Musikwissenschaft 2/2 (1994): 273–

Whittall, Arnold. “In Memoriam: György Ligeti.” Musical Times 147, no. 1896 (2006): 2–4.

22 György Ligeti, “Was erwartet der Komponist der Gegenwart von der Orgel?”, 219.

Hearing Voices: Speech Melody as Technical
and Affective Compositional Method in the

Music of Steve Reich


Music and Language – Common Components, Different Purposes
The fundamental trait which is said to distinguish man from other living
beings is the wondrous ability of social and individual development
through the enunciating and the interiorising of structured and meaning-
imbued sound signals. Considered from such a perspective, two of human
cognition’s most important activities – language and music – can indeed be
put in relation to one another, each depending on some shared elementary
acoustic components, but which each provides with different configurations
and purposes. In other words, the degree to which an articulation is
perceived as pertaining to speech or to song depends on how a common
fund of phonic information is organised and valorised.

On the one hand, most musical cultures around the world use
sounds with distinct pitches as definite as possible, relating to one another
via intervals and hierarchically organized within a standard scale. Accuracy,
that is, the avoidance of deviation from prescribed intervallic structures, is
decisive in both producing and perceiving musical sounds and their
interrelations. On the other hand, this necessity is not applicable to language,
for the efficiency of verbal communication is not primarily dependent on an

178 Văidean: Hearing Voices

exact pitch position and on its adhering to a fixed structure intonational
scale. The use language makes of pitch, in terms of the intonation
accompanying word enunciation, doesn’t usually have an intrinsic value,
but is evaluated in relation to the context of the utterance and to the
speaker’s vocal register.1

Next to vibration frequency (needed for pitch perception), the other
prerequisite for the existence of language and music is the incidence of
temporal patterns (needed for sound rhythm perception). As such, an
essential characteristic of music is the establishment of a systematic
temporal shaping of accents and sound phrases. Isochrony has for a long
time been stressed to that effect, as it is a means to determine rhythm
typologies mainly according to their capacity to generate strata of implied
periodicities and regular accent sequences. Yet Aniruddh D. Patel showed
that to equate rhythm with periodicity or with a “regular alternation
between strong and weak beats” is incorrect, as “[m]any widespread
musical forms lack one and/or the other of these features yet are
rhythmically organized.”2 Even so, it is evident again that an equivalent
hierarchical organisation of the temporal units is not considered as
necessary for the delineating of lexical and pragmatic meanings which
prevail in verbal communication.

We can therefore say that linguistic systems depend first and
foremost on the contrast of phoneme (vowels and consonants) timbre whose
pitch presents an approximate, rather undefined contour and whose
temporal changes are rapid and abrupt (20–40 milliseconds). Musical
systems, on the contrary, valorise first the contrast between sounds with

1 For a detailed comparative view of the role pitch has in speech and song, see Robert J.
Zatorre and Shari R. Baum, “Musical Melody and Speech Intonation: Singing in a Different
Tune?”, PloS Biology 10, no. 7 (2012);
article?id=10.1371/journal. pbio.1001372.
2 Aniruddh D. Patel, Music, Language, and the Brain (New York: Oxford University Press,
2008), p. 151.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 179

clear, stable pitch, sustained along durations longer than speech sounds and
combined in such a manner as to give birth to hierarchical configurations of
sound intervals and rhythmic patterns. The cause of such differentiation is
inherent to the diverse types of semantic contents targeted: on the one hand,
verbal communication is used on a daily basis by the members of the same
linguistic community, with the goal of transmitting, via a relatively limited
set of intonations, clear unambiguous meanings, validated by collective
convention. On the other hand, musical communication is not just a
pragmatic means of information exchange of objective meanings which are
accessible to all users. Its nature is much more complex, polyvalent and
abstract, for, as opposed to speech, here the positioning of musical sounds
and their interactions are not dependent in such a great measure on some
concrete significations, unanimously and unequivocally decipherable. In
short, musical expression originates rather in those complex subjective
processes which join sensibility and sense, endowing them with artistic
form and therefore proposing to produce effects primarily emotional and

The Essential Role of Prosody

Even if intonational contour, accent and syllable cadence are not at the
forefront in ordinary speech, their share in facilitating communication can
by no means be omitted. They can even become bearers of meaning, as is
the case of tonal languages: both in oral and in written communication, the
speakers of these languages must take into account the adequate tonal
register of each syllable, as the very identification of lexical items and
grammar construction depend on prosodic modulation.3 But in the case of

3 Making up around half of the languages spoken on the globe, tonal languages are used by
many peoples in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, by North American Indian tribes in New
Mexico and Arizona as well in some countries in North Europe. The most widespread and

180 Văidean: Hearing Voices

languages where they don’t influence lexical structure, pitch and accent
fluctuations still contribute considerably to the wealth of linguistic and
emotional information. It was thus speculated that such constant, subtle and
infinitesimal gliding from one tone to another – precisely that which relates
to the extremely nuanced and apparently secondary domain of prosody –
was what would have represented the main means of transmitting thoughts
and emotions at the origin of the human species prior to any development
and differentiation at the level of the vocabulary proper. Aside from the fact
that it disambiguates phrase structures, grouping together words into
relevant syntactic items and serving as an indicator of where the focus of
information interest lies, intonation and speech rhythm signal the speaker’s
mood. For example, when they are experiencing happiness or enthusiasm,
the majority of people tend to speak faster, with big intonational jumps and
generally using the upper area of the vocal register. Sadness, by contrast,
stimulates a slower pace, crossed by less varied inflexions and anchored in
the lower area of the voice register.

There are other arguments to support the supposition of the primacy
of prosody: for example, the quite specific type of speech that adults reserve
for children exacerbates prosodic contours, the goal being to create
immediate affective connections despite the fact that babies cannot
understand the meaning of the words used. What they are being told is for
them an aspect as yet incompletely elucidated, but they will all the more
pay attention to how they are spoken to, their response fitting the mode of
address: crying when chided or being spoken harshly to, laughing when
hearing an affectionate, playful voice. Of course, this might seem self-
evident. But it is significant that a similar preponderance of the prosodic
factor can be encountered in particular types of interaction between adults,
as when two speakers using different languages reciprocally guess the

best known example of this linguistic category is without a doubt the Mandarin Chinese

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 181

general intentions and reactions of the other, even if neither understands
anything the other says. Without the shadow of a doubt, in addition to
gestures and facial expressions, prosody has the capacity to facilitate the
deduction of a general sense in such problematic conversations. This is why
prosody can be seen as a transcultural aspect of verbal communication, able
to access some human emotional universals. Intuitively acquired by
everybody, in as natural a way as one’s native tongue’s vocabulary and
syntax, prosody shadows each spoken word, revealing the speaker’s state of
mind even when one deliberately attempts to hide it. Everybody uses it
skilfully; everybody recognises and reacts, almost effortlessly, in conformity
with the subtle paralinguistic clues it lets fall between the lines; everyone
knows how to express or dissimulate their thoughts and emotions by quasi-
instantaneously choosing the appropriate vocal tone.

Such genuine speech melody may be essential, but it’s a barely
conscious act. Put differently, ordinary speakers scarcely realise the creative
vehemence they bring into play. For, in their ability to express emotions and
set others in a state of emotional arousal by means of prosodic inflexion,
each speaker proves their ability to be an efficient composer. And this is not
metaphorically speaking: a number of studies demonstrate that the
perceptive and cognitive operations involved in verbal expression and
musical activities engages, at least partially, commo n neural regions. It was
observed, for example, that musicians and musically-trained children
possess an increased sensibility to prosody’s emotional clues, able to make
subtler distinctions and to detect them with greater precision than non-
musicians.4 Generally, language processing, the capacity to communicate
and even the capacity to read, can be improved following an early musical

4 William Forde Thompson et al., “Decoding Speech Prosody: Do Music Lessons Help?”,
Emotion 4, no. 1 (2004): p. 46–64;

182 Văidean: Hearing Voices

training. 5 Likewise, the fact that amusia seems to be related to some
deficiencies in distinguishing speech intonation proves in its turn the
existence of a certain transfer from music to language.6 The same conclusion
is reached by influential research coordinated by Patel, which confirmed an
ancient intuition: rhythmic patterns and prosodic accentuations of one’s
mother tongue migrate in the rhythmic structures used by composers even
in purely instrumental works.7 This study quantitatively analyses a narrow
corpus of musical works from Great Britain and France, that is, from two
countries whose languages are significantly different in terms of rhythm: if
British English tends to present a greater degree of syllabic variety, French
distributes its syllables rather more evenly. The presence of these features in
the oeuvre of composers such as Elgar or Debussy was furthermore
confirmed by the fact that even listeners lacking the most basic musical
training managed to correctly identify the respective fragments, classifying
them in accordance to their mother tongue. The type of linguistic
upbringing thus profoundly impacts musical creativity as well as the
development of musical perception. Diana Deutsch also showed that the
incidence of perfect pitch among the speakers of tonal languages is much
more frequent than it is among those who speak non-tonal languages.8

5 Diana Deutsch: “Speaking in Tones”, in Scientific American Mind, July/August 2010;
6 Robert L. Slevc, “Language and Music: Sound, Structure, and Meaning”, in WIREs Cogn Sci
3/2012; https://
7 Aniruddh D. Patel, John R. Iversen, and Jason C. Rosenberg, “Comparing the Rhythm and
Melody of Speech and Music: The Case of British English and French”, The Journal of
Acoustical Society of America 119, no. 5 (2006): p. 3034–47;
8 Diana Deutsch, “The Enigma of Absolute Pitch”, Acoustics Today 2 (2006); Acoustics_Today_2006.pdf.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 183

Prosody – On the Border between Speech and Song

The factor whose intensified presence renders fragile the border between
speech and song is the speaker’s need to express subjective emotions and
meanings. It was observed even in the time of Plato and Aristotle that
speech becomes closer to being music as, under the assault of emotions, its
prosodic nimbus intensifies its nuances and acquires a kind of
predominance at least as important as that of the semantic content proper.
The theory Herbert Spencer elaborated (following Jean-Jacques Rousseau
and Gottfried Herder) is well known. 9 Its fundamental thesis can be
essentialized in a single sentence: “in the beginning was the word”. This
means that music will have sprung from those manifestly heightened
prosodic inflexions which characterise all types of emotional speech.
Repeatedly calling someone, imploring or reclaiming, commanding,
expressing joy or pain – all these situations, Spencer notices, condition the
speaker to amplify the musical elements of his voice. Subjected to such
emphatic elevations, intonational contours and rhythmic accents of speech
involuntarily became song, being subsequently reprised by musical
instruments, which split songs from their foundation (the word) and render
them stylized and abstract.

Spencer’s is one of those notions which recognise that music
developed as a secondary product of other cognitive functions (like
language or emotions), whose role in the evolutionary adaptation of the
species is a more evident one. On the other side, we have Charles Darwin’s
legendary suggestion of the opposite situation, one of language having
sprung from a musical system used as a form of incipient communication in
the first stages of evolution. In any case, the hypothesis that speech and
song were once one is as seductive today as ever. It is backed by that

9 Herbert Spencer, “The Origin and Function of Music”, in Essays, Political and Speculative
(New York: Appleton, 1885).

184 Văidean: Hearing Voices

mixture of types of vocalisation which populate the precarious zone to be
found at the border between speech and song and which spread all over the
globe: the incantations used in religious rituals, the unmistakable pathos of
Afro-American preachers, the monotonous recitations featured in children’s
songs, the conventional phraseology punctuating story-telling, beggars’
plaintive formulas, Eastern European declamatory funeral lamentations, not
to mention recitatives characteristic to opera. Even Gregorian chant, like the
Jewish cantillation from which it originates, has been said to be more an
intensified form of prosody, that is, of speech melody, than a category of
musical melody proper. 10 On another level, where the need for
enculturation is more marked, is a well-known fact that some speakers are
interested in using the sound of the words in such a manner as to provide
them with meanings beyond the strict literality of dictionary definitions.
Exponents of a sensibility shared equally between what words mean and
how they sound, these speakers – usually called poets – prove that melodic
suggestion and temporal uniformity can operate just as well in the linguistic
medium, increasing the degree of organisation and harmonization of
sounds – that is, musicalizing it. For rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance,
and cadence are nothing but the meticulous and celebratory linguistic
potentiation of an intuitively musical sense to be awakened in any
wordsmith whatsoever, no matter whether they are in possession of a
specialization in the technicalities of musical skill or not. When linguistic
sonorities are not left at hazard or at the whim of some chiefly utilitarian
concerns, but acquire a clear contour and, thus defined, acquire also the
capacity to engage in an order, therefore in a “harmony”, the only one
wherein the play of similarities and differences becomes possible, then the
regulating shadow of music infiltrates these linguistic sonorities, giving
birth to one of the strongest pleasures that human brain can experience: the

10 See B. Elan Dresher, ”Between Music and Speech: The Relationship between Gregorian and
Hebrew Chant”, in Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics 27 (2008), p. 43–58.

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