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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 185

pleasure of creating and identifying patterns. Mary Oliver, the well-known
American poet, stresses this very characteristic of rhythm (that is, of
musicalization) to increase the savour of speech:

The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the
rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or
three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that
rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader.
Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when
we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When
it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in
a kind of body-heaven.11

Speech Melody and Composers

Among musicians and throughout the centuries, some of the most
prominent personalities made considerable efforts to capture the melody of
speech in their music. For Western musical culture the paradigmatic case is
that of Claudio Monteverdi, who openly resolved to obtain dramatic realism
in his operas by means of an unprecedented elevation of imitation of speech.
Of course, his way of approaching speech melody (what he called oratione)
was more of an essentialization and a stylisation, wherein diatonic intervals
and generally measured rhythmic items prevail. We can nevertheless
suppose that, when performed, Monteverdi’s operas probably proved much
more flexible and closer to the pathos of speech than the indications in the
score would lead us to believe, and toward which in any case the

11 Mary Oliver, quoted by Maria Popova, in “Mary Oliver on the Mystery of the Human
Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive”;

186 Văidean: Hearing Voices

performers took considerable liberties.12 Monteverdi was in fact, as is well
known, a brilliant exponent of a decisive paradigm shift at the end of the
15th century: under the influence of the Renaissance humanism and the
rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Latin treaties on rhetoric and oratory
(Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian), music was conferred the status of a language
both apt and required to communicate and express, through eloquent
persuasion, the passions which organize or, on the contrary, dishevel the
human soul. This was nothing less than a reinstating of that legendary
power which music has over feelings and which had already been
recognised by the ancient Greeks, as proved by their references to musical
modes’ ethos. But until then nothing had equalled Renaissance musicians’
concern with producing an almost pictorial collocation between poetic
words and musical discourse. This way of writing, making and perceiving
music in concordance with grammatical, rhetorical and poetical criteria
subsequently culminated in the Baroque style. Baroque musicians and
interpreters from the German area in particular engaged in an
objectivisation of the means composers had for expressing human passions
in convincing musical representations. Out of this endeavour, characteristic
for the rationalism of the time, numerous treaties were born which
proposed to codify musical figures similar to those of ancient oratory (most
of them even named with terms taken from Greek and Latin rhetoric),
together with distinctively musical ones that lacked a correspondent in
poetic rhetoric. Of course, a unitary, exhaustive classif ication of all these
formulas wasn’t possible.13 But the fact remains that such setting of affects
was by no means abandoned to subjective whims or sentimental outbursts,

12 Cf. Mauro Calcagno, “‘Imitar col canto chi parla’: Monteverdi and the Creation of a
Language for Musical Theater”, Journal of the American Musicological Society 55, no. 3 (2002): p.
13 In this domain the research conducted by Dietrich Bartel remains key: Musica Poetica:
Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 187

but carefully controlled and planned, with the same attention paid to effect
and to prosodic suggestions as those that oratorical skill required.

The method elaborated by British writer Joshua Steele (ca. 1700–
1796) was intended as a much more applied and systematic way of
transcribing speech melody. Wanting to write down actors’ and orators’
prosody in such a way that “the types of modern elocution may be
transmitted to posterity as accurately as we have received the musical
compositions of Corelli”, Steele attempted to develop a special method of
designating the subtlest prosodic nuances of written symbols (even quarters
of tones).14

The expressivity of speech melody had a hold on Richard Wagner,
too: as Martin Knust shows in his extensive research, Wagner was, even as a
child, deeply under the influence by the declamatory style of the actors in
Dresden and Leipzig, up to the point where he would recite his libretti even
as he was writing them and thus before composing the corresponding
music.15 Furthermore, he would advise singers during rehearsals to do the
same, so that they would understand the meanings of the poetic text via
declamation and before moving on to actual singing. The centrality that
speech melody has in the logic of the Wagnerian creative process is equally
confirmed by Wagnerian vocal lines reaching their final form with their
draft while the instrumental score would afterwards adapt to this essential
reference point. It has moreover been suggested that the effort to musically
exploit the prosodic inflexions of the German language constituted an
important incentive for the ever-growing Wagnerian predilection for
chromatizing tonal harmonic language. In the same vein, the notion of

14 Steele, quoted by Jamie C. Kassler in “Representing Speech through Musical Notation”,
Journal of Musicological Research 24 (2005): p. 236.

15 Martin Knust, “Musical and Theatrical Declamation in Richard Wagner’s Works and a
Toolbox for Vocal Music and Analysis”, Danish Musicology Online, Special Edition – 17th
Nordic Musicological Congress (2016): p. 81–104.

188 Văidean: Hearing Voices

Sprechgesang, culminating in Arnold Schoenberg’s famous Pierrot lunaire,
established itself early on.

Leos Janáček, too, had similar desiderata, experimenting for over
three decades with varied possibilities of including Czech language prosody
in his vocal works. The uniqueness of his approach is that, as opposed to all
those mentioned above, he chose to focus not on an artistically elevated
hypostasis of the poetical discourse but on ordinary speech itself. This was
because he was convinced that the most prosaic intonational patterns are
the very ones able to reveal the emotional state and the unique, matchless
personality of each speaker. He filled numerous notebooks with speech
melodies heard in a variety of quotidian situations, often acting discretely,
almost clandestinely (because, had the respective speaker known they were
being recorded, they would have almost certainly changed their true
affective disposition). Janáček in fact claimed that on the basis of prosodic
flux, independent of semantic content, he was able to perform a sort of a
psychological divination:

You know, it was strange – whenever someone spoke to me, I
may not have understood the words, but those tonal
cadences! I immediately knew what the speaker was feeling: I
knew how he felt, whether he was lying, whether he was
upset, and when that person spoke to me – it was a normal
conversation – I felt, I heard that the person was weeping
inside. Tones, the intonation of human speech, indeed of
every living being, have had the deepest truth for me. And
you see: it was my vital need. [...] you see, these are my
windows into people’s souls.16

16 Janáček, quoted by Paul Christiansen in “The Meaning of Speech Melody for Leos Janáček”,
Journal of Musicological Research 23 (2004): p. 262.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 189

But it was probably Modest Mussorgsky who, even before Janáček, first
questioned the condition of perfect meter and versified libretto as essential
ingredients in creating word-based musical works. Stating that ultimate
artistic truth can only be obtained through reproducing conversational
prose and its ever changing contour in musical terms, Mussorgsky returned
passionately, even obsessively, to his idea: “whatever speech I hear,
whoever is speaking (or, the main thing, no matter what he is saying), my
brain is already churning out the musical embodiment of such speech”.17

There is a particular work, but an unfinished experiment (as it was
only a “living prose set to music”, that is, a fanatic musizalisation of sorts,
following word by word Gogol’s The Marriage), which qualifies as “the most
extreme ‘reformist’ position ever adopted by an opera composer”. 18
Moreover, even the composer’s contemporaries had perceived that one act
as coming from a sphere of an unheard-of visionary:

One cannot get closer to the text. There is no nuance of
thought, sentiment, passing mood, facial expression,
expression of soul or expression of a purely physical
movement, which Mussorgsky’s music hasn’t conveyed. To
today’s listener, used to hearing some more “music” in an
opera, such innovation and such artistic audacity cannot but
seem savage and strange.19

It seemed that, while looking to musically translate them, Mussorgsky
intended nothing more (and nothing less) than to treat the words of his
beloved Russian language with the utmost sobriety and respect; he didn’t
see them as a pretext which allowed him, the composer, to expose his own

17 Mussorgsky, quoted by Richard Taruskin in The Oxford History of Western Music. Volume 3:
Music in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 620.
18 Taruskin, Oxford History of Wstern Music, pp. 619, 620.
19 Vladimir V. Stasov, Selected Articles on Mussorgsky, translated from Russian by C. Teodoriu
and Gh. Ciocler, (Bucharest: Cartea Rusă Publishing House, 1954), p. 162.

190 Văidean: Hearing Voices

prosopopoeia or lyrical vision. His goal wasn’t to decorate word as support
with skilfully proportioned melodies whose principal merit would reside in
beauty of sound or autonomy of expression. Rather, he searched for the
characteristic inflexions suggested by the very accents, caesuras or
rhythmical continuities through which words translate emotions:

In my dialogue-opera, I do my best to singularize those
changes in intonation occurring as the characters speak and
which seemed to be caused by the most trivial of reasons, by
the most insignificant of words, which is what I believe
constitutes the very force of Gogolian humour. 20

As Monteverdi would have said, poetry (or, in Mussorgsky’s case, prose,
endowed by musicalization with poetical virtues) reigns supreme, while
music is there to serve.

Repetition as Musicalization Mechanism

One can only imagine the difficulties Mussorgsky will have gone through in
his attempt to materialize this obsession for “setting prose taken straight out
of quotidian life itself.”21 After all, musicalization implies the inevitable
stylizing and organizing of aural stimuli; this is why the attempt to produce,
via music, an image as faithful as possible to even an elementary human
utterance seems to be nothing but a contradiction in terms: how would
irregular patterns of quotidian speech be truthfully rendered by music,
whose essence resides in a minimal regularization of sound? When the
current and intuitive opinion is that when compared to words, music has a
greater eloquence, how should the position of a composer who conjectures

20 From a letter to Mussorgsky to Cesar Cui, dated July 3, 1868, quoted by Stasov, Selected
Articles, p. 154.
21 Mussorgsky quoted by Harold C. Schonberg in The Lives of Great Composers, translated from
English by Anca Irina Ionescu (Bucharest: Lider Publishing House), p. 340.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 191

the very opposite, declaring that, more than anything else, he wishes
“musical notes to have the same expressive force as words” be viewed?22
Would it then not be a contradiction of one’s own condition as a musician, if
a composer intends to disenchant music in the name of declamatory
literality and of empiric experience truth? Could Mussorgsky’s wish to
“take a bow before human language” 23 even be conceivable, when
composition deals precisely with the installing of sound patterns more
evident than in spoken language?

These questions might be more easily addressed if viewed through
the light shed by a famous auditory illusion discovered in 1995 by Diana
Deutsch, renowned cognitive psychologist at the University of California,
San Diego. It refers to the transformation of the way a spoken phrase is
perceived: in the absence of any context suggested by adjacent musical
sounds, and without any alterations of the initial acoustic data, a part of the
respective phrase (“sometime behave so strangely”) is subjected to a single,
most elementary operation, an ad litteram loop, so that at one point it starts
to sound as if it were not spoken, but sung.24 The initial entire phrase can

22 Alexander Dargomyzhsky, mentor of Mussorgsky, quoted by Schonberg in The Lives of
Great Composers, p. 340.

23 Mussorgsky quoted by Schonberg, in The Lives of Great Composers, p. 340.

24 Here is an abstract of the two-part experiment conducted by Diana Deutsch and her team.
‘The participants were first asked to listen to the respective phrase ten times in a row and,
after each repetition, to indicate, on a scale from one to five, if they thought the phrase
sounded like speech or like song. At the beginning of the experiment, perception remained at
the level of speech, but as it continued it determined an obvious drift towards the other pole,
that of song. And this radical change in perception was conditioned precisely by the
complete lack of change in the acoustic properties of the repeated aural stimulus. For, in the
cases where during the repetitive process pitch contour was, even if infinitesimally, altered,
or syllables were mixed, the illusion of speech turning into song no longer occurred.
Therefore, the main constraint governing the triggering of the illusion proved to reside in the
necessity that the loop should contain exact replicas of the original. In the second part of the
experiment, the phrase was played either only once or ten times, and the subjects were asked
to try to imitate it as faithfully as possible. It was thus observed that those who had heard the
phrase once pronounced it as if it had been spoken, whereas those who had heard the
subsequent ten identical repetitions rather sung it, even approximating a melody of a well-

192 Văidean: Hearing Voices

then be again given, aiming to make the listener realise that when the part
played on loop reappears they will still perceive it as music. The effect is
striking, as if the recorded voice belonged to a Disney character that, mid-
phrase, stops talking, suddenly gives way to a lyrical urge, and starts

Mussorgsky would have been happy to have had this possibility to
faithfully record “prose taken straight out of quotidian life itself” and to
determine, through repeated listening, its musical underlying layer. For an
experiment such as Deutsch’s proves that the simple repetition of a series of
aural stimuli can function as a magical formula able to trigger, almost by
itself, musicalization. I already suggested that, in a normal speech rate,
accurately identifying pitch and rhythm periodicities is by no means a
necessity, as it has no important role to play in the whole of the
communication process and of the linguistic significations, a role which, say,
consonants and vowels do play. As such, only when they are identically
repeated several times do linguistic sonorities undergo a consistent
functional re-evaluation of their phonetic properties and prosodic factors.
That is, the repetitive process accentuates the listeners’ sensitivity to subtle
details when it comes to the purely acoustic materiality of speech,
stimulating them into representing in more detailed ways the intonational
trajectories, the relations between pitches, the recurrent contrasts between
groups of rhythmic shapes, between stressed and unstressed sound events.
On the one hand, we witness an increase in the degree to which pitch
changes contour as a consequence of its being distorted, during the

defined tonal contour. Other respondents, who had not taken part in the experi ment,
evaluated the latter imitations as being songs, while the former they believed to be ordinary
spoken utterances. Moreover, it was noticed with particular interest that pitch was, in the
case of the imitation following the repeated listening, closer to the pitch of the original
spoken phrase, compared to the one chosen by the respondents from the group who had
heard it only once.’ Diana Deutsch, Trevor Henthorn, and Rachael Lapidis, “Illusory
Transformation from Speech to Song”, Journal of Acoustical Society of America 129, no. 4 (April
2011): p. 2245–2252.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 193

repetitive process, so as to become part of an intelligible melodic pattern.
The repetitive process induces, on the other hand, a series of temporal
periodicities, thus endowing the listener with the capacity to foresee the
way in which the subsequent accent sequences are ordered.25 It refers in fact
to a “semantic satiation”, that well-known psychological phenomenon
which presupposes a deviation of attention from the unseen level of
meaning towards the concrete, subterranean level of prosodic aspects. If a
collection of words is overexposed through looping, it will inevitably reach
a critical point where meaning will desert the word, leaving behind a
collection of sounds, of nice-sounding nonsense. Gertrude Stein and
numerous avant-garde writers imagined a new type of literature using as
starting point this fertile liminal ground where, instead of transmitting
meaning, words are manipulated in an auto-sufficient manner so that they
will display a pure body of sound.

All this Uncommon Magic

In his turn, American composer Steve Reich guessed the efficacy and power
of elementary musicalization that a repetitive treatment possesses when
used in spoken language: two of his works dating from the 1960s, Come Out
(1965) and It’s Gonna Rain (1966) emphasise a single phrase of pre-recorded
speech, superimposed on other versions of itself that have been subjected to
various speed changes and played simultaneously on two magnetic tape
players. Manipulated by means of the purely temporal technique of tape
looping, phased and rephased, the respective phrases will of course
completely lose their meaning. Reich claimed in several interviews that he
had discovered empirically, even by accident, this technique of

25 For an extended empirical research in how perceptive and cognitive mechanisms trigger
the illusion of speech turning into song see Simone Dalla Bella, Simone Falk, and Tamara
Rathcke, “When Speech Sounds Like Music”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human
Perception and Performance 40, no. 4 (2014): p. 1491–1506.

194 Văidean: Hearing Voices

mechanically engineering a pre-existing aural material: at first intending
nothing more than to play a single tape loop in unison and stereo, he soon
noticed a very fine speed gap between the two tape players, one of which
fell behind, probably because of a technical imperfection. Struck by the
effect resulting from this small discrepancy, Reich began controlling the
tapes’ desynchronisation by accentuating this slowing down with his finger,
but with sufficient discretion so as not to distort pitch. As a result, the two
recordings of the same voice began by being synchronized and then they
very gradually multiplied, reaching up to four and finally eight channels
and going through all possible phasing stages: some infinitesimal
reverberations turned into an increasingly distinguishable echoes and
canons, the initially articulated speech thus ultimately breaking up into
myriads of syllables and unintelligible phonemes like free counterpoint of
abstract sounds.

Using as a starting point the supporting structure of spoken
fragments whose musical potentialities he valorises, Reich is thus able to
weave extremely dense aural webs of a psychedelic hypnotic force which
nearly stuns the listener. A new kind of musical experience is in fact being
occasioned, based on what Reich himself called “gradual process”. Basically,
he does nothing else than to institute the precise and implacable unfolding
of a simple law: “The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they
determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the overall form
simultaneously. (Think of a round or infinite canon.)”. 26

The technique would become all the more unmistakably Reich’s as
the composer went considerably deeper, refining it and transferring it from
an electroacoustic medium to that of instrumental music: with an almost
didactic consistency, his works up to 1971 ( Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Four

26 Steve Reich, “Music as Gradual Process”, in Writing on Music, 1965–2000 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 34.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 195

Organs, Phase Patterns) practice the same focus on a single aural object (a
short rhythmic or melodic pattern) which he passes through the sieve of a
gradual, repetitive desynchronisation. Furthermore, the freedom with
which Reich uses pre-recorded voices in his works for magnetic tape; as
well as the insistence with which he straps sound by means of systematic
looping proved their remarkable fertility and foreshadow similar (though
less subtle) techniques later to be used by famous rappers and DJs.

It is meaningful that here is where Reich’s interest would lie, and
that the composer would feel justified in experimenting with recording
quotidian speech: resorting to such a technology, he in fact sought to break
the stylistic deadlock where he had found himself following the difficulties
he had met during his efforts to set some texts by his favourite poets
(William Carlos Williams, Charles Olsen, and Robert Creeley). He had
intended to be as faithful as possible to the prosodic vitality and the
extremely characteristic diction, both colloquial and declamatory, of the
respective poems. But he had soon realized that such a project was destined
to fail if it remained trapped in the metric frame of the traditional way of
writing for the voice:

My interest in using spoken language as a basis for music
began as the indirect result of reading the poetry of William
Carlos Williams in the 1950s. I tried to set his poetry to music
and found I only "froze" its flexible American speech derived

Only after two decades would Reich find, in The Desert Music (1983), a
satisfying way to musically preserve Williams’ free rhythm prosody.

Until then, the alternative solution had been the attempt to
musicalize not the lyric recitation, but the recordings of some fragments of

27 Reich, in “Music and Language”, in Writings on Music, p. 198.

196 Văidean: Hearing Voices

ordinary speech: the millennial sermon, run through with references to the
Biblical flood, declaimed by Brother Walter, the young Afro-American
preacher Reich recorded in a market in San Francisco (It’s Gonna Rain); the
explanations given by Daniel Hamm, the 19-year old youth from Harlem
who, after being wrongly convicted for manslaughter and beaten, together
with other five young Afro-Americans, while in custody, relates how he had
to press one of his wounds so that it would show (“to let some of the bruise
blood come out to show them”) and an ambulance would be called to take
him to the hospital (Come Out). But Reich had worked with magnetic tape
even before these two emblematic works, though he produced not so much
a loop deepening of a spoken fragment, but rather short, fast audio collages
closer to the tradition of concrete music: The Plastic Haircut (1963), the
soundtrack of a Robert Nelson experimental film, is an arrangement of
sports comments taken from an LP called “The Greatest Moments in Sport”;
then Livelihood (1964) agglomerates during just three minutes a chaos of
slammed doors, car horns, sirens and passengers’ shifting moods, all
recorded by Reich in that difficult time of his beginnings when, in addition
to his having gone through a divorce and having lost a son, he had at one
point had to earn a living as a taxi driver.

Musicology has glossed over how much Reich’s tape works have the
capacity to refer to their extra-musical aspects which pertain both to the
composer’s biography and to the problematic social and political context
which had made their birth possible. For example, Reich himself said that
the eschatological tone of Brother Walter’s street sermon was congruent
with the spirit of the time, as it constituted one of the many hypostases of
the collective shudder which haunted American society in 1964, when the
Cuban missile crisis threatened to transform into a nuclear apocalypse.
Unfolding as it does, distorting and alienating the Pentecostal preacher’s
voice to the level of the most abstract and strange sonorities, It’s Gonna Rain
and its expanded rhythms are illustrative precisely of how that hypothetical

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 197

mass extermination would have happened. That is, the overwhelming aural
representation of a type of lethal pulverisation, for, as the composer remarks

the sentence doesn’t reconstruct and come back together. It
goes further and further out of phase until it is reduced to
noise. The emotional feeling is that you’re going through
cataclysm, you’re experiencing what it’s like to have
everything dissolve.28

The composer’s positioning in relation to the political controversies
and social injustices of the time is even more manifest in Come Out: Reich
wrote this piece for a benefit concert held in April 1966 to finance the retrial
of the Harlem Six. It exemplifies the charge of extra-musical significance,
providing with a distinctive semantic substance the very manner in which
Reich treats, phases, cuts, multiplies and mashes – in short, assaults –
Hamm’s voice. Quite pertinent are Maarten Beirens’ considerations, which
show that “the musical violence” Reich calls into play is an artistic
adaptation of the “the physical violence evoked by the testimony in Come
Out or the larger violence which targeted Afro-American communities
during the 1960s”.29 This is true, for the gradual, ineluctable phasing of pre-
recorded speech occasions a type of musical evolution quite disturbing and
paradoxical: like an unequivocal mathematical demonstration, and
ouroboros-like, this gradual aural process shows it can unfold only if it also
causes a gradual destruction of the verbal material which makes it up and
makes it possible. As voice is one of the most distinctive signs of the human
subject and its presence cannot be separated from the speaker’s identity, the
result is that Reich’s opting for a certain manner of manipulating it testifies

28 Reich, Writings on Music, p. 21.
29 Maarten Beirens, “Voices, Violence and Meaning: Transformations of Speech Samples in
Works by David Byrne, Brian Eno and Steve Reich”, Contemporary Music Review 33, no. 2
(2014): p. 219; 2014.959277.

198 Văidean: Hearing Voices

to a certain attitude towards the person as a whole. Thus, in Come Out and
It’s Gonna Rain there is at stake so decisive a manipulation of the voice that,
as the pieces go along, the very linguistic qualities that ensure its
recognisability are altered and disappear. Reich basically dehumanizes
those vocal sounds, amplifying the receiver’s awareness of the fact that they
are not necessarily listening to a music made by voices, but by some vocal
recordings and therefore by an impersonal mechanism:

Using the voice of individual speakers is not like setting a
text – it’s setting a human being. A human being is
personified by his or her voice. If you record me, my
cadences, the way I speak are just as much me as any
photograph of me. When other people listen to that they feel
a persona present. When that persona begins to spread and
multiply and come apart, as it does in It’s Gonna Rain, there’s
a very strong identification of a human being going through
this uncommon magic.30

As They Speak, so I Will Write

Reich’s first works featuring the human voice are therefore distinguishable
by the caesura he instituted between semantic content and the purely
acoustic materiality of speech. The composer’s highly significant option to
approach speech with a strong cultural and political resonance remains.
Nevertheless, the preferred musical treatment, that is, the fragmentation of
that speech and the engagement of the resulting fragments in a gradual,
audible process of phased repetitions, inevitably leads to the fading or
disappearance of linguistic meaning. The usually latent speech melody steps
into the limelight instead, as it is transformed into a fully autonomous

30 Reich, Writings on Music, p. 21.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 199

musical structure which no longer takes notice of the core of the initial
cultural significations. An additional forsaking of those aspects pertaining to
the semantic level of the linguistic signs resides also in the fact that Reich
subsequently chose to borrow and radicalise in his instrumental music the
minimalist techniques he stumbled upon while working with tape loop.
During the 1970s, as his works became more complex and distanced
themselves from the reductionism of his first acoustic demonstrations,
human voices, predominantly female, started to appear regularly, not in
order to render audible the meaning of a linguistic message, but in virtue of
their capacity to imitate instrumental timbre. Most representative to that
effect are Drumming (1971), Music for Mallet Instruments, Voice and Organ
(1973) and Music for Eighteen Musicians (1974–1976).

After this memorable set of pieces which don’t rely on extra-musical
sources, Reich showed an increasingly marked interest in retaining and
even increasing the expressive intertwining of the verbal sources’ acoustic
profiles and semantic content in his music. Antonella Puca argues that such
a fresh artistic interest originates in the second half of the 1970s, when Reich
rediscovered his Jewish roots and subjected them to a systematic analysis.31
In other words, Reich realised that as much as he had counted on the
autonomy of the basic elements of his musical language, they cannot be seen
as the fruit of a fully free imagination, for the determinations of his cultural
background will still influence them, even if latently. This is why Reich felt
it necessary to learn Hebrew, so that he could study the Torah and
cantillation, that particular type of chanting reserved for sacred Hebrew
texts. Out of this wish to reconstruct and re-assimilate his own cultural
baggage was born Tehillim (1981), a work which marks a shift in style
significant because of the very fact that it is modelled in concordance with
the rhythmic patterns of the poetic source. The flexible rhythmic groupings

31 Cf. Antonella Puca, “Steve Reich and Hebrew Cantillation”, The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 4
(1997): p. 537–55;

200 Văidean: Hearing Voices

and the amplitude of the melodic curves – previously scarcely present in
Reich’s music – resulted from the way the composer structured his motifs
similar to that employed by the traditional Psalm cantillation. The composer
himself emphasizes the profound influence the requirements of the Psalm
verses had over his musical thought:

Up to that moment, I had limited myself to set in music
individual words independently, in a way, of their meaning,
but now I had to confront myself with texts in which
meaning was fundamental, and for this kind of operation I
did not have any method. [...] For the first time, the music
had to serve the purpose of the meaning of the words.32

The words-music fusion achieves an even greater level of harmony
in Reich’s Different Trains (1988), the already canonical work for string
quartet and tape where the main technical and aesthetic component resides
once again in the very particular way in which some pre-recorded
fragments of speech are used. Namely, the computer and th e sampling
keyboard, a novelty at that time, allowed Reich to manipulate sound with a
more refined precision than what had previously been possible on magnetic
tape. The positioning, the organizing, and the layering of the pre-recorded
voices, as well as their interactions with the phonic level provided by the
musical instruments, could now be subjected to systematic control. In other
words, both the composer’s way of thinking and working, and the receiver’s
way of listening are under the decisive influence, are even predetermined
by, the very type of technology (analogue or digital) to which the composer
had access. Reich couldn’t be clearer when he says that

[s]uch a piece of technology [...], like any other tool or
instrument, has an effect on the music itself. Specifically, it
would have been just about impossible for me to have

32 Reich quoted by Puca in “Steve Reich and Hebrew Cantillation”, p. 545.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 201

composed Different Trains […] without using a computer and
sampling keyboard.33

It is by using sampling that the persuasive musicalization of words,
without their undergoing a semantic levelling or a reduction to the state of
some abstract phonic occurrences, finally becomes possible. For the musical
fabric from Different Trains is not simply inspired by the pre-recorded
speech fragments; unlike Janáček, for example, for whom spoken melodies
were a preliminary draft, one to be later, in the musical works proper,
subjected to some more or less pronouncedly stylization, Reich means to
install an ever tighter interdependence between musical contents and the
specific properties – both acoustic and semantic – of speech. Endeavouring
to safeguard the words’ expressive cohesion of acoustic concreteness and
their ineffable spirit as intact in his music as it is in speech, Reich comes to
speak with sound and compose with words. To be more precise, in Different
Trains the very prosodic inflexions of the pre-recorded voices constantly
dictate both the rhythmic and melodic contours, and the change rate of the
harmonic, tempo or writing frame. Each spoken fragment is anticipated,
simultaneously supported or echoed by the string quartet (the viola
imitating the female voices and the cello the male ones), so that we might
say that the greater part of instrumental discourse is nothing but the
expansion of the musical implication contained in the spoken fragments.
This is why, even when the respective melodies are sounded in the absence
of the language from which they originated, that is, exclusively on
instruments, they retain their capacity of affective essences, of symbolic
residues of speech. To a certain extent, they keep alive precisely the
ineffable absence which words leave behind as a consequence of their
attempt, always incomplete, to write down the coordinates of a lived

33 Reich, Writings on Music, p. 201.

202 Văidean: Hearing Voices

Like the Voyager carrying through space the so-called “Golden Disc”
of humankind, so melodies of speech carry on, once split from the support
of linguistic messages, propelling in the listener’s mental space the words’
semantic aura and the radioactive kernel of something lived but which
cannot be fully expressed. Composer Drew Schnurr is right when he argues
that Reich’s technique in Different Trains is no longer reduced to “a form of
transcription” via musical notation, but it that furthermore acquires a
“transpositional effect”.34 For the very work as whole can be viewed as a
metaphor of speech, in the sense that it proposes to communicate the
listener, as explicitly as possible, certain expressive meanings.

English version by Maria Monica Bojin


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34 “The technique was a form of transcription, but the effect was transpositional.” Andrew Alan
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Edition – 17th Nordic Musicological Congress (2016): pp. 81–104.

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Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive”;

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204 Văidean: Hearing Voices

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Ligeti’s Maximal Music: Essay on the Last
Two Piano Etudes of György Ligeti


György Ligeti kept contact. He “collected” friends like he collected ideas,
from music of others, from pictures across the centuries, from cultures all
over the world, even ideas from scientists of various fields. He kept contact
with his former students like me. He distributed his new works to us in his
composition class either directly in meetings, or through his secretary and
factotum and organizer of his life, Louise Duchesneau. He wanted to
discuss things, to learn new ways of thinking. Sometimes I have the feeling
that his own work was a thesis that he put into the intellectual world to get
information about his little “machines” to see if they were “functioning”, or
funktionieren, as he put it. But this is spoken cum grano salis.

Ligeti’s last two Etudes are very special. They seem simple, just two
lines of intervals or chords shifted against each other by one or two of the
smallest rhythmic units. Something, though, is quite suspicious: both Etudes
refer to visuals. They are dedicated to long-lasting friends who work in
fields apart from music – at least, one may think so. For what is music? By
old Greek definition, it is in the core of human thinking. The 17th Etude is
dedicated to the mathematician Heinz-Otto Peitgen, famous in the Ligeti
composition class through his book The Beauty of Fractals.1 The 18th Etude is

1 Heinz-Otto Peitgen and Peter H. Richter, The Beauty of Fractals: Images of Complex Dynamical
Systems (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1986).

206 Stahnke: Ligeti’s Maximal Music

dedicated to the painter Fabienne Wyler, who works in an irritatingly
complex world of double-coded graphics or paintings, either abstract or
figurative, depending on one’s view. She never came to the Ligeti class, but
I have met her several times. As she told me recently, she was in close
contact with Ligeti for fifteen years.

Etude no. 18, “Canon”

For me, Fabienne Wyler’s painting in Figure 1 is a human being gesturing,
or the computer world exploding. Contradiction in itself inside my head!?
There are elements of abstraction, of course: reduced color values, some re-
occurring and distorted forms, maybe drawers originally, thus reminding
one of Dalì and his La Girafe en feu. But as “supersignal” – a term Ligeti liked
– we see a head, arms, a waist, dancing legs, and books or falling book
shelves, somehow Arcimboldo’s Il Bibliotecario is imaginable. The color
green is interesting, in that it seems to point to nature. Some green monster
springs forward, no longer obedient, see “Geister werd ich nun nicht los”
(from Goethe’s “Der Zauberlehrling” – also the name of another Ligeti

Wyler is, of course, the dedicatee for Ligeti’s 18th Etude “Canon.”
The Etude has a very special footnote for the performer, and only for the
first run of the Etude: “Tempo-Schwankungen ad lib., z.B. bei Fingersatz-
Schwierigkeiten. (D.h., die ‘Maschine’ stockt manchmal).” (Ligeti’s original
spelling.) In my own translation: “Tempo dilatations ad libitum, e.g. at
difficulties with the fingering. This means that the ‘machine’ has a blockade
sometimes.” (The translation given in the Schott edition is too weak:
compare Schott’s translation of Stockung as “faltering” with my “blockade”.)

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 207
Figure 1. Fabienne Wyler, Double polyrhythmie VI 04 (2006)

© Fabienne Wyler, -polyrythmies. Used by permission.

Above the Etude’s first system is written: Prima volta: Vivace poco
rubato. This poco rubato seems to indicate something very different when
compared with “stockt” (has a blockade). The interpreter has to choose what

208 Stahnke: Ligeti’s Maximal Music

to do with these indications. Either he/she will do it with complete elegance,
reading poco rubato as musical in a romantic sense. Or he/she will really
think of a machine that is not working properly. I have the feeling Ligeti
wanted to keep it open for the performer.

The repeat (Seconda volta) seems clearer. Above the beginning is
written Prestissimo and the footnote is congruent: “Nach Möglichkeit
gleichmäßiges Tempo, ‘schneller als möglich’: geringe Tempo-
Schwankungen nur falls unvermeidbar (nach Möglichkeit keine
Stockungen).” (Ligeti's original spelling.) In my own translation: “If possible
in an even tempo, ‘faster than possible’: small tempo deviations only if
inevitable (if possible no blockades).” (Again, “hesitation” in the Schott
edition is too weak compared with “blockade” for Stockung.) The well-
known Ligeti-term “faster than possible” is lovely or devilish. Ligeti was

Let us compare this with the Wyler painting. When we look at
Fabienne Wyler’s Double polyrythmie VI, we see a double-folded world. The
picture is completely elegant, poco rubato, no crashing explosion, it is an
introverted explosion, an explosion in dance form. But something is falling
apart for sure. If we follow details, we see the ever-asymmetric formations
of the "drawers" or computer screens or whatever we imagine. We can dive
into a kind of structured chaos, a contradiction in itself. And this is true or
untrue for Ligeti’s Etude also. If it is really played in ever unbalanced,
stumbling rhythms as indicated as one of the two-folded wishes of Ligeti,
we come close to Fabienne Wyler’s picture. No rhythm of her details is
symmetric. It is a poly-polyrhythm without a common denominator. In the
first run of Ligeti’s Etude, played stumbling, we would have a distorted
rhythm throughout, or a rhythm which dreams of the once-regularity of a
pulsation. And if the second run is really played “faster than possible,” we
come out of the piece completely breathless. The last calm chords will be

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 209

unreal for us, emanating from a sunken time. The machine started uneven,
stumbling, then went on like a wind from hell, then gave us heavenly

As to “machine”: What is with the dynamics? The dynamics reach
from piano dolce (dolce!) to fff, and at the end fffff. The piano dolce is true for
the most part of the eighth-note section and is suddenly interrupted by a
first fortissimo accent. The grouping of accents is as follows: 2, 2, 1, 3, 1, 2 as
fff (before a crescendo poco a poco to mf, surrounding mf), 3 as ff again
(surrounding p again), 1, 2 as fff (surrounding mf, also before fff!), until the
last crescendo molto to fffff. This 2 2 1 3 1 2 3 1 2 chain of accentuated events is
the same in the repetition. There is an asymmetrical machine-like aspect in
the dynamics for sure. But since dynamics are never absolute values, they
can be played smoothly, if the player looks more at the indication Vivace
poco rubato, forgetting the blocking machine-aspect, or it can be played very
harshly, then we would have the stuttering of fff or ff accents within a piano
dolce, which cannot be dolce any more.

Ligeti ends with an idea he frequently uses: calm chords. When I
spoke with Ligeti about his soft chordal endings after he had just finished
his Violin Concerto, he contested my Dufay-hearing by referring to

Stahnke: Will you ever return to slowness, to the standing
still, which you knew in the ’60s? You then arrived in a
maelstrom of the fastest pulsation. Now there is a kind of
countermovement again, also in the 8th Etude Fém with its
slow chordal ending, for me the “Dufay”-section, e.g. related
to his Flos florum.

210 Stahnke: Ligeti’s Maximal Music

Ligeti: Is it Dufay? I hear Schumann.2

The chords in his 18th Etude are of course derived from the canon,
containing stacked fourths, sometimes with a tritone, then diminished
chords, at one point in inversion, fifth plus octave-chords like the old
“finalis” – chords from the Dufay-times, further augmented chords, very
French. Before the end, a tritone plus octave-chord in the right hand, very
clearly cadential, leading to the final A-minor chord. But the cadenza
becomes complex through the left-hand-cadenza, hinting at the old
Landino-clausula with the minor third-step upwards in the lowest voice, a
Landino-inversion. Thus, there are allusions to a vocabulary that extends
through many centuries, much like the many allusions Wyler forms in her
picture. The simplicity of the basic idea is transformed into a complexity
where we cannot find its bottom.

Let us go on to the next aspect of the Etude. What examples of
intervals do we have when looking at the pitch and tonal material in the
first part? The repertory of intervals grows from start to finish. The
beginning is built with a chain of fifths, forming a chorale-like melody,
which soon begins to jump too much and cannot stay any more in a chorale
world. Intermingling major seconds follow, crying for resolution. Major
thirds come in, octaves enter, then a single tone G (we will soon look at this
single-tone-phenomenon), then fourths, major sevenths, tritones, minor
sevenths, minor thirds, major and minor sixths, one kind-of-cadential
augmented second, occurring only once as E♭-F♯ in a G tonality

2 Stahnke: “Werden Sie einmal zurückkehren zur Langsamkeit, zum Stehenbleiben, das Sie in
der 60er Jahren kannten? Sie waren dann in einen Wirbel von schnellsten Puls gekommen. Es
gibt nun wieder eine Art Gegenbewegung, auch in der 8. Etüde Fém gehort das langsame
akkordische Ende dazu, für mich der ‘Dufay’-Teil, z.B. verwndt mit Flos florum.”
Ligeti: “Ist es Dufay? Ich höre Schumann.”
From Manfred Stahnke, “Gespräch zwischen György Ligeti und Manfred Stahnke am 9. Mai
1993,” in Musik – nicht ohne Worte. Beiträge zu aktuellen Fragen aus Komposition, Musiktheorie
und Musikwissenschaft, ed. Manfred Stahnke (Hamburg: Bockel Verlag, 2000), p. 140 –41.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 211

surrounding, followed by three tritones, moving chromatically down (for
me this is an allusion to Chopin), creating a lovely non-tonal “tonality” in
the sum of all four voices.

This is true for the whole piece. We could, if we like, interpret the
four-voice chords as tonal, a tongue-in-cheek comment of course, but this is
how Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht works, commenting on tonality at the
beginning of its decay. Does Ligeti’s comment come at the beginning of
“tonal resurrection” in the world of formerly avant-garde composers? Or,
perhaps, on the way of tonality’s never-having-ended? If the piece were
played very slowly, we might even hear jazz -like chords quite similar to
Ligeti’s Etude from the first book, “Arc -en-ciel.”

In all this, which interval is missing? Yes, a minor second. Ligeti
postpones its appearance until very late and he never uses intervals bigger
than the octave. He also wants a strict legato touch. I can well imagine him,
sitting at home in front of his wonderful Steinway piano and fingering his
Etude in perfect legato. He really did play his Etudes and found fingerings
for them, written in the score, e.g. in his 17th Etude we soon will come to.
But, first, a last volta to the 18th Etude and its central single-tone line. Figure 2
shows what happens when this single-tone line is filtered out from the
whole score.3

Figure 2. György Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, pp. 22–23

3 NB: There are no bar numbers in the score, so I have indicated page numbers instead.

212 Stahnke: Ligeti’s Maximal Music

The “distances” indicated in the above figure are counted in the
smallest rhythmic unit, written as eighth notes in the score. At the beginning
Ligeti builds a G major chord, followed by a song-like repetition of D. The
last eight tones somehow allude to Ligeti’s non-tonal line concepts in
Atmosphères or other works from the ’60s. So two worlds come together, if
we focus just on this line in the Etude. The rhythmic structure supports this
in that the beginning proportions are: 4:17 (instead of 16!):8:4:4:5 (instead of
4):13 (instead of 12):11 (instead of 12). These numbers (with small deviations
as allowances) are very close to a chain of multiplications of 4, as if the old
tonal world is also represented in its basic rhythmic simplicity. In this way,
the relationship could be represented as: 1:4:2:1:1:1:3:3. Whereas in the last
part of this single-tone line we are far away from this and find 1:3:(5
omitted):7:9. The next numbers 11 and 13 appear in the first “tonal” part.
The last distance of 22 is a charming doubling of 11 that could also be
interpreted as a citation of the earlier doubling of number 4 in the tonal part.

I tried to make something of the dynamics, but the distances do not
seem to signify anything, neither do their intervals. For example, ff-
intervals at first appear as minor sevenths. Then at the second appearance as
major sevenths, then as major seconds. After that, these three intervals are
mixed. The crescendo-ending consists of seven fifths (in the upper voice),
leading back to the repetition with its beginning fifths.

Etude no. 17, “À bout de souffle”

Now let us consider the 17th Etude, “À bout de souffle”, which is dedicated
to the mathematician Heinz-Otto Peitgen, mentioned earlier for his famous
books on chaos and fractals and who created astonishing pictures through
algorithms. Both Peitgen and his colleague Peter H. Richter visited Ligeti's
composition class or symposiums we organized several times. And we,
together with Ligeti, drove to Bremen University to visit both of them. We

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 213

were fascinated by this world. One of us, Kiyoshi Furukawa, learned the
mathematics behind fractals and became a well-known artist in this field as
well as a professor in Japan. So Peitgen became Furukawa’s indirect teacher.

For this article, I asked Peitgen which of his pictures would be
appropriate, since the connection between Ligeti, the class, and Peitgen
lasted for many years with new pictures and aspects of the fractal thinking
appearing often. Peitgen recently sent me a picture, which moves me very
much, since Ligeti showed it to us as an example of richness and purity
when we started to think about the fractal world (see Figure 3). This is
exactly what Ligeti wanted to achieve in his work all the time: richness
should come along with purity. In his communication with me Peitgen
wrote: “Ich habe es ihm damals gewidmet und Ligeti-Fraktal genannt. Es ist
auch deshalb besonders, weil es sehr schwer zu berechnen ist.” In English:
“I had dedicated it to him at that time, I called it Ligeti-Fraktal. It is
exceptional, because it is very difficult to calculate.”

Figure 3. Heinz-Otto Peitgen, “Ligeti-Fractal”

© Heinz-Otto Peitgen. Used by permission.

214 Stahnke: Ligeti’s Maximal Music

I remember many discussions with Ligeti and the members of his
class about this, and many more pictures to follow, from the Bremen group
around Peitgen and Richter. Ligeti himself dove just once into the abyss of
this visual world quite directly, in the ever -accelerating fragmentary
sections of the 4th movement (Allegro sostenuto) of his Piano Concerto. But
on the whole, he was fascinated to see these pictures fulfilling what he
actually wanted to reach as a composer: the falling-together of the static and

Like the 18th Etude, the 17th Etude is metrically quite simply built, but
with a constant fast pulse this time (the indication is Presto con bravura). It
has a lot of rhythmic variability because of the shifted world of accents.
Since the canonic distance between the two hands is just one rhythmic unit,
we feel like swimming more than sitting in an echo chamber.

Figure 4 shows the result when we examine the horizontal lines
(without the accentuated chords) from the beginning of the Etude. This
figure also omits the “echo”, which is one octave lower, while the caesuras
indicate the positions of the accent layer, to which I refer a little later.

Figure 4. Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, p. 14, excerpt

This grouping into upper and lower lines is my choice, since we cannot say
for sure where the upper line ends and the lower one starts. Maybe Ligeti
simply calculated the overlapping of his layers. For example, the first

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 215

diatonic line may well include the B, which I put into the lower line, etc. The
length of these groups always varies, except when Ligeti constructs little
ripresas. So the first eight notes reappear untransposed in the fifth stave on
p. 15, or at the bottom of p. 20, with the lower line extended, and shortly
afterwards again. So the beginning is really a diatonic theme, somehow split
apart. The upper line (stems upward) also features transpositions, evident in
my example at its third appearance, starting with F, and later also on G,
varied (see Figure 4).

The further development of this beginning gives mostly shortenings
of the motifs, sometimes developments of the lower line, until a long
uninterrupted line at stave 3 on p. 15, with a length of 31 tones, in changing
but apparent “tonalities”, ending in a kind of B♭ minor (see Figure 5). These
horizontal lines form one diatonic part of the maelstrom of this Etude,
leading to nowhere in itself, but being ended by the “souffle” section.

Figure 5. Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, p. 15, stave 3, excerpt

The counterpart of the maelstrom lies in the accent layer. Figure 6
shows this layer cited from the beginning of the Etude.

216 Stahnke: Ligeti’s Maximal Music
Figure 6. Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, pp. 14–15, excerpt

This is a cruising and circling about “nothing”, anonymous, with a
touch of the typical Ligeti YES-or-No-tonality or -diatonicism. But there is a
sense of development towards something later in the piece. This is signaled
by an obnoxious repetition of sevenths in a very special form of “non-
melody.” In Figure 7, I do not indicate the middle interval, thinking that this
may belong to the upper line and the development of the so-called theme.

Figure 7. Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, p. 17, end of 1st stave –
3rd stave, excerpt

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 217

This derives from a bass register repetition, seemingly of a folk-melody type
(see Figure 8). In this case I cite the bass line, the “echo”, since this is the
most apparent feature in this passage. Suddenly the "echo" stands in front,
containing a "pre-echo" in the upper octave (not indicated here):

Figure 8. Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, p. 16, 2nd stave,

Ligeti always fought against a too-apparent folk melody type in his
works. I remember, for example, the destruction of the wonderful first
movement of his Violin Concerto in its first version. One of the reasons for
this drastic act was its too-apparent reference to Old Romania. Here in the
17th Etude he allows himself something of the folk influence, also to be
found in the upper line as evident in my previous example.

Finally, the piece is called “À bout de souffle.” Where is the ultimate
breathlessness to be found? So far we have had a ben forte throughout,
played presto con bravura. Did Ligeti intend a crying first? The hidden
atmosphere of old or folk melodies may contain the crying about a lost
world. Though Ligeti avoided talking about it plainly, if asked.

One last glimpse at the ending of the piece will give us a second hint,
or a second view on the meaning of breathlessness at the point of almost-
nothing: “À bout de souffle”, as such, is only apparent here at the very end
of the 17th Etude. The much longer part of the Etude is in a waiting position.
While we wait, we are torn to and fro by the irregular grouping of diatonic
lines, almost-non-diatonic accents, or clusters of accents, as we experience

218 Stahnke: Ligeti’s Maximal Music

an echo chamber of one-beat-distance, full of metallic sounds of accents.
Now the loss of breath happens (see Figure 9). Note that the

durations here are kept in a 1:2:4:8 proportion, except at the very end where
a fermata broadens the previous chords even further.

Figure 9. Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, p. 21, the ending

At the beginning of this final gesture, Ligeti constructs a “wrong” cadence
after his Dominant 7th chord (F-B♭-D-A♭). Instead of resolving this tonal
chord to either E♭ minor or major, he uses an E minor chord, for me a hint of
Stravinsky’s compositional procedures, but, strangely enough, also, or even
more apparently, a hint of Machaut’s clausulae. Then he explodes a three -
tone motif within his “souffle”: the basic motif consists of a minor third plus
a major second, in virtually all possible permutations, together with the
crossing minor second. The main cross-relations of this motif are shown in
Figure 10, though I leave out the incomplete motifs.

Figure 10. Ligeti, Études pour piano, Troisième livre, cahier I, p. 21, the ending

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 219

The added tones of C D♭ E F♯, grouped closely together minus the
octave positioning, also result in these intervals of 1, 2, and 3 half-steps. This
is an allusion to Anton Webern. We have to remember Ligeti’s outstanding
articles written when he was establishing himself in the avant-garde world
of New Music in the late ’50s. 4 He never abandoned this approach to
musical organization. He started a wild dance between two worlds: in short,
between Webern and the diatonic scale. But let us never forget that Webern
himself commented on tonality throughout his work. His abstraction is
created by the omission of close-by resolutions of diatonic events.

Ligeti loved the notae (the musical notes), and he loved the
deNOTed (the background of the notes), et le déTONé (the explosion of his
notes)… Could we draw a comparison between the ending of the score,
which I gave in Figure 10, and the detail of fractal pictures? Ligeti always
had pictures in mind while composing. And he also loved to draw himself,
though mainly little caricatures…


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

Peitgen, Heinz-Otto, and Peter H. Richter. The Beauty of Fractals: Images of Complex
Dynamical Systems. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1986.

Stahnke, Manfred. “Gespräch zwischen György Ligeti und Manfred Stahnke am 9.
Mai 1993.” In Musik – nicht ohne Worte. Beiträge zu aktuellen Fragen aus
Komposition, Musiktheorie und Musikwissenschaft, ed. Manfred Stahnke.
Hamburg: Bockel Verlag, 2000.

4 György Ligeti, György Ligeti: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Monika Lichtenfeld (Mainz: Schott,
2007), 1:325–401.

‘Something in the Air’: Ligeti’s Metronomes
and Steve Reich’s Microphones


Around the year 2000, György Ligeti and Steve Reich each wrote a short
appraisal of the other’s work. Both referred to their first meeting and each
mentioned one or two of the other’s pieces. Reich wrote his text for the
booklet of a Ligeti tribute at New York’s Columbia University, and was told
to keep it short.1 The tone of his statement is one of high esteem and
personal gratitude (not only had Ligeti dedicated a work to Reich, he had
also recommended him for a grant from the German Academic Exchange
Service, DAAD). Reich remembers that they first met at a performance of
Drumming in Berlin, and regards Atmosphères as ‘an amazing piece […] not
an experiment but a superbly realized masterpiece’. Also, he mentions
Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique in the following terms:

His piece for 100 metronomes may or may not owe something
to my Pendulum Music, but I had the pleasure of enjoying his

The song ‘Something in the Air’ by the short-lived British rock band Thunderclap Newman
was released in 1969. I am very grateful to Louise Duchesneau, who translated the lecture for
Cluj in 2018, and to Kathryn Puffett, who kindly edited the final version.
1 The concert took place in the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, New York City, 25
March 2000. The programme given by Ensemble Sospeso included four Etudes for piano, the
Trio for horn, violin and piano, the Concerto for cello and orchestra, and the Kammerkonzert
(György Ligeti Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel, hereafter PSS, GLC).

222 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’

highly amusing piece as choreographed by the superb
Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.2

On the other hand, Ligeti’s article ‘Begegnung mit Steve Reich’
(Meeting Steve Reich) was first conceived as a preface to Reich’s Writings on
Music (2002). It did not appear there, however, because Ligeti missed the
publication deadline, but was included years later as part of Ligeti’s
complete writings.3 Ligeti also remembers the Berlin performance of Reich’s
Drumming and their first meeting in 1972. That same year he started to
compose Clocks and Clouds, a piece which is ‘heavily influenced by Reich’.4
He of course mentions that the second movement of his Three Pieces for Two
Pianos is an homage to Reich and Terry Riley but stresses that it is ‘in a way
“maximal” minimal music’ because of his own partiality for complexity. 5
Also in this late recollection Ligeti notes – as he had done many times before
– that the very first time he ever heard music by Reich and Riley was in

In Stanford University’s music library I discovered two LPs,
which were important to me: Terry Riley’s In C and Steve
Reich’s Violin Phase and It’s Gonna Rain. [… I was] trained as
a musician in Hungary – influenced by Bartók and not
Schönberg. So I was able to listen to Riley’s and Reich’s music
in an unbiased way, and what surprised me was the
simplicity of the method as well as the complexity of the
result. This blunt, pragmatic American approach impressed

2 Steve Reich, ‘Ligeti‘, in Writings on Music 1965–2000, ed. Paul Hillier (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002), pp. 212–13, quoted passage on p. 213 (my emphasis).
3 Written communication to the author by Louise Duchesneau, Ligeti's personal assistant at
that time, 19 May 2018; for the eventual publication, see ‘Begegnung mit Steve Reich‘, in
György Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Monika Lichtenfeld (Mainz: Schott, 2007), vol. 2, pp.
520–21 (translations by Louise Duchesneau passim).
4 Ibid., p. 521.
5 Ibid.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 223

me: the audible process is more than the individual layers,
that is, the global structure transcends the sum of its

The two discs that Ligeti mentions are the very first recordings of these
works, released on Columbia in 1968 and 1969.7

These short statements are significant because they show how Ligeti
and Reich see and express incongruent perceptions. In writing about each
other, they both speak mainly about themselves; the acknowledgment by
each of the other’s qualities is also, in some complicated manner, all about
their own self-representation. This paper will raise some critical questions
regarding this representation alongside discussing the early reception of
Ligeti’s music in the USA – especially in reference to Poème Symphonique.
The work’s juxtaposition with Reich’s Pendulum Music will expose
differences between the two and features common to both. In that
connection, the crucial issue is less to determine who influenced whom
(though there are misunderstandings on that score which need to be cleared
up), but rather to differentiate between and add to already known facts and

What stands out in Steve Reich’s statement is that he reminds us of
only one precise event, namely the performance of his own piece Drumming
in Berlin. However, here Reich’s recollection that this occurred in 1973 is off
by one year. The Berlin concert with Drumming was part of Reich’s major
German tour and took place on 13 July 1972 during the ‘Woche der
avantgardistischen Musik’ [week of avant-garde music] that had been
organized by Walter Bachauer and was a predecessor to the Berlin festival

6 Ibid., p. 520.

7 Steve Reich, Live/Electric Music (New York: Columbia Records/CBS, [1969]); Terry Riley, In C
(New York: CBS Classics, 1968).

224 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’

‘Metamusik’.8 Thus, in the first half of 1972, Reich and Ligeti carried on an
intercontinental exchange, with one being in Stanford and the other on a
concert tour in Europe. Ligeti came back to Berlin in mid-June from Stanford
and so was able to hear the concert with Drumming in mid-July just before
leaving for the summer courses at Darmstadt.9

Back to Reich’s statement. The younger composer gives Ligeti’s
Atmosphères top marks as an extraordinary compositional achievement,
without mentioning once when he heard the piece. This would hardly have
been at the American première in 1964 with the New York Philharmonic
under Leonard Bernstein, since Reich was in California at that time, playing
the Wurlitzer electric piano in the first performances of Riley’s In C. Thus it
is more likely that this was at the more successful New York performance
with Seiji Ozawa in 1969, or maybe even later. After Atmosphères, the
metronome composition is described condescendingly as a ‘highly amusing
piece’.10 No title is given but the piece is mentioned in the same breath as the
choreography of the ‘superb’ dancer de Keersmaeker. It is not noted,
however, that this choreography was presented only in 1990, after a series of
productions of Reich’s own music.11 Does this suggest then that Reich didn’t
know the piece before this performance? In any case the suggestion that

8 See the programme in the Steve Reich Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation. For Bachauer,
who had assisted in the première of Drumming in New York on 3 December 1971, see Amy C.
Beal, New Music, New Allies: American Experimental Music in West Germany From the Zero Hour
to Reunification (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), pp. 197ff; see also the review
of the Berlin concert by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, ‘Die Trommeln des Steve Reich‘,
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 July 1972.
9 In a letter to Ove Nordwall Ligeti reported on 20 May 1972 that he planned to be ‘in
Stanford until June 15, then in Europe (probably Berlin)‘ (PSS, GLC). Also in an interview
with Pierre Michel given in 1981 he remembers that he met Reich ‘when coming back from
the USA‘ (see Pierre Michel, György Ligeti, 2nd edition (Paris: Minerve, 1995), p. 165).
10 Reich, ‘Ligeti‘, in Writings on Music 1965–2000, p. 213.
11 Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Stella (based on Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique and a number of
his piano Etudes), 1990; see Philippe Guisgand, Les fils d'un entrelacs sans fin: La danse dans
l'œuvre d'Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Villeneuve d'Ascq: Septentrion, 2007), pp. 77–78.

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 225

Pendulum Music (from 1968) could have influenced the metronome piece
(which is well known to be from 1962), is evidence of rather poor historical
awareness. Without trying to over-interpret the short text, one can’t help
noticing that, while Reich emphasizes his and Riley’s influence on Ligeti, in
his own perception of historical correlations he apparently does not attach
great importance to factual precision.

On the other hand, Ligeti was used to giving dates and facts
precisely, even in his brief statements. He remembers the first as well as
other encounters with Reich, and pinpoints what he heard with reference to
compositional developments. Ligeti does not hesitate to speak candidly of
influence and fascination and to express admiration of Reich; at the same
time, he thinks it unlikely that his metronome piece would have influenced
the American minimalists.

In this context, it is instructive to consider another Ligeti text, which
addresses Reich and American minimalism. The article ‘Tendencies of New
Music in the USA’ is based on a conversation Ligeti had with Clytus
Gottwald in 1973, which was first published in April 1975 in the German
periodical Melos.12 In the January issue of the same journal Gottwald had
written a deeply negative critique of Drumming entitled ‘Signals Between
Exotica and Industry’. 13 This was followed in the March number by a
lengthy and confrontational reply from Reich, who accused the German
critics of having a problem with his music because they had experienced
Nazism and who legitimized his minimalism with reference to Stravinsky's

12 György Ligeti, ‘Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA’, Melos/NZ 1/4 (July 1975), pp.
266–72. Revised edition ‘Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA. Steve Reich – Terry Riley
– Harry Partch’, in Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 1, pp. 456–68.

13 Clytus Gottwald, ‘Signale zwischen Exotik und Industrie. Steve Reich auf der Suche nach
einer neuen Identität von Klang und Struktur’, Melos/NZ 1/1 (January 1975), pp. 3–6.

226 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’

emphasis on control and reduction.14 This was the high point of a fierce
debate in German journalism about American music and post-serial
composition.15 Ligeti’s point of view in the original interview is clearly
linked to this debate and, more than the subsequently redacted text, reflects
his commitment to his American colleagues. Opposed to this was the
German music faction which, arguing along with Adorno, reacted to the
success of minimal music with massive cultural criticism. Ligeti was mainly
interested in Reich and Riley, whose works he had discovered in Stanford in
1972. And he himself saw his Poème Symphonique and Reich’s phasing pieces
as directly parallel:

You see, in 1962 I composed a piece for one hundred
metronomes – I don’t even dare to say ‘composed’. In this
piece for one hundred metronomes similar phase shiftings
arise because the metronomes are all set at different speeds.
This is also about a kind of superimposition of rhythmic
processes, similar to those in Steve Reich’s pieces. […]
However it is absolutely certain that neither Steve Reich nor
Terry Riley knew about this piece. Rather, I believe that […]
new techniques are, so to speak, in the air, and then affect
certain artists in different ways.16

In his matter-of-fact and modest way, Ligeti decribes the similarity of his
piece to those of his colleagues as purely accidental, and this corresponds to
his belief that important discoveries in science often coincide – even though
one wonders how he could have been sure that Reich and Riley hadn’t

14 ‘Steve Reich schreibt an Clytus Gottwald‘, Melos/NZ 1/2 (March 1975), pp. 198–200; see also
Edward T. Cone, ‘One Hundred Metronomes‘, The American Scholar 46/4 (Autumn 1977), pp.
15 Cf. Beal, New Music, New Allies, pp. 200ff.
16 Ligeti, ‘Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA‘, p. 468 (my emphasis).

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 227

known the metronome piece.17 But that is a question only they can answer.
In any case, an English translation of the script underlying Poème
Symphonique was first published in the January 1964 edition of the Fluxus
journal ccV TRE, edited by George Brecht and George Maciunas (see Figure

Figure 1. English translation of Poème Symphonique script (detail)

The piece then had prominent performances in Buffalo and New
York, as early as the spring of 1965. That of all his pieces, Poème Symphonique
should be the one to make Ligeti famous in the USA ‒ particularly after the
unsuccessful New York première of Atmosphères under Bernstein ‒ is not
devoid of a certain irony. It was Lukas Foss who programmed the piece in
his ‘Evenings for New Music’ at the Center for Creative and Performing
Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Foss was appointed
conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1963 and Ligeti probably heard the

17 Ten years earlier he had emphasized himself, that Atmosphères had been written
independently from the contemporary works by Friedrich Cerha and Iannis Xenakis; for a
critical discussion of Ligeti's self-representation see Wolfgang Marx, ‘“weil die Texte oft mehr
beachtet werden als die Musik“: Zur Relevanz und Verlässlichkeit kompositorischer
Selbstauskünfte am Beispiel György Ligetis‘, Studia musicologica 57/1–2 (2016), pp. 187–205.
18 ccV TRE, ed. George Brecht and George Maciunas (New York: Fluxus [January 1964]), pp.

228 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’

European première of Foss’s Echoi at Darmstadt on 15 July 1964. Foss could
not be present at that concert and it is not clear when the two were in
contact for the first time.19 So the performance of Poème Symphonique bathed
in the limelight of Buffalo’s first Festival of the Arts Today, a broadly
supported two-week arts event and, according to Time magazine, ‘perhaps
the most all-encompassing, hip, with-it, avant-garde presentation in the U.S.
to date’.20 The first performance took place on 5 March 1965 at the Albright‒
Knox Art Gallery. Ligeti would no doubt have provided Foss with the
performance instructions, though we have no documentation of this.21 But
he heard about the event thanks to his colleague Mauricio Kagel, who was a
visiting professor in Buffalo for a few months in early 1965. Kagel recounted
to Ligeti that the University of Buffalo had made an appeal to gather the 100
metronomes necessary for the performance. ‘This memo’, Kagel added, ‘is
so fantastically funny that I have to immediately send you a copy – you
can’t throw documents like those away.’ 22 In keeping with the piece’s earlier
happening-concept, the call to faculty and students is pointedly funny: ‘We
would greatly appreciate the loan of as many metronomes as any of you
could beg, borrow, or steal for us.’ (see Figure 2) 23

19 I am grateful to Claudia Mayer-Haase for checking the files at Internationales Musikinstitut
Darmstadt; see also Im Zenit der Moderne. Die Internationalen Ferienkurse für Neue Musik
Darmstadt, 1946‒1966, ed. Gianmario Borio and Hermann Danuser (Freiburg im Breisgau:
Rombach, 1997), vol. 3, p. 626.
20 N.N., ‘Avant -Garde: Did You Ever, Ever, Ever‘, Time Magazine, 19 March 1965, p. 66.
21 The Lukas Foss papers held at the Library of Congress do not include correspondence with
Ligeti, and in the Ligeti Collection at the PSS there is only one letter from Foss, dating from
18 November 1968.
22 Mauricio Kagel to György Ligeti, no date [early 1965], typescript with a handwritten letter
by Kagel and annotations by Vera Ligeti (PSS, GLC).
23 Ibid. Ligeti was so amused by the crowd funding event that he still reported this detail in a
conversation for the television in 1971 (György Ligeti: Ein Komponist gibt Auskunft. Ein Porträt
von Monika Meynert, ZDF, 1971).

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 229

Figure 2. Memo requesting the loan of metronomes for the 1965 premiere of
Poème Symphonique in Buffalo, NY (Paul Sacher Stiftung, György
Ligeti Collection)

230 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’

A few weeks after the Buffalo Festival, New York’s well -respected
Life Magazine, for decades famous for its photo-journalism, published an
enthusiastic account of the whole event over five pages. As to the music,
performances of both the Poème Symphonique and Cage’s Concerto for
Prepared Piano and Orchestra were especially noted and illustrated
accordingly with photos (Figure 3).24

Figure 3. Excerpt from Life Magazine, showing photos from the Buffalo Festival

24 The programme note, obviously based on the English translation of Ligeti's performance
instructions for Poème Symphonique, is found in Paul Sacher Foundation, Mauricio Kagel

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 231

The reporter found Ligeti’s metronome piece particularly
fascinating: ‘Throughout Cage’s concerto they (the musicians) gaily popped
paper bags and balloons, and blew into bottles while soloist David Tudor
ignored the piano keys and banged away on the strings. But for sheer
audacity the Hungarian composer Györgi [sic] Ligeti outdid everybody. For
his Poème Symphonique 100 metronomes ticked away for 12 minutes, while
the delighted audience sat hypnotized by the sight and sound.’25 The festival
public in Buffalo was obviously open-minded enough to enjoy the
metronome concerto. What is surprising here and what was not known
before as far as I can see: Ligeti’s metronome piece was performed not only
in Buffalo, but once again in a slightly varied programme four days later in
no less a venue than Carnegie Hall in New York (Figure 4).

In his New York Times review, the critic Theodore Strongin tried to
give an objective report of the concert in which Kagel’s Sonant and Sylvano
Bussotti’s La Passion selon Sade were also performed. But he was unable to
make much of the metronome piece, which was given first in the

As an appetizer, Mr. Foss ‘conducted’ (the quotes are used
advisedly) the New York première of Gyorgi [sic] Ligeti’s
‘Poème Symphonique’ for 100 metronomes. What Mr. Foss
did was give nine ‘players’ signals to wind up the
metronomes and then to start them and then the whole party
marches off stage and lets them clock themselves out. That’s
all there was to it, 100 clicking metronomes winding down.26

25 Rosalind Constable, ‘Can This Be Buffalo?’, Life 58/16 (23 April 1965), pp. 63–71, quoted
material on p. 68.

26 Theodore Strongin, ‘Music: Foss’s 3d Evening‘, The New York Times , 10 March 1965, section
L, p. 48.

232 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’

Figure 4. Carnegie Hall programme, including Poème Symphonique, 9 March 1965
(Paul Sacher Stiftung, Mauricio Kagel Collection)

A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 233

What was performed in Buffalo and New York was the first version
of Poème Symphonique, the Fluxus-variant of the piece, so to speak. Ligeti
wrote this ‘verbal score’ in German with the help of Franz Willnauer and it
differs in many essential points from the second version, which was
published much later by Schott (see Figure 5).27 With the costuming in tails,
the conductor, the long pause before starting and the ideal duration of about
80 minutes, the concept of the original version serves as an ambivalent
Fluxus ceremony. It is in itself a kind of happening, but also a parody of the
happenings of those times ‒ in short, a sort of musical joke. Although, as
Eric Drott pointed out, the concept clearly differs from the typical Fluxus
‘event scripts’, Ligeti nevertheless interprets it in this way in the 1960s: as a
persiflage of the ‘entire “radical” composition situation’ and of ‘official
concert life’, which Ligeti finds lacking in both humour and self-irony. 28

This self-interpretation of Poème Symphonique can be found already
in the foreword to Ove Nordwall’s 1971 monograph, which is itself based on
a letter Ligeti wrote to Nordwall in 196629 – this at the same time that the
script of Poème Symphonique was first published in German in the playful
context of an anthology with the title Humour on the Edge of the Staves.30 In
addition to this, the hypertrophic text of the metronome piece is also a
parody of the rambling performance instructions of new music scores.

27 See György Ligeti, ‘Poème Symphonique für hundert Metronome’, in Ligeti, Gesammelte
Schriften, vol. 2, pp. 190–92, quoted material on p. 190. Willnauer also proposed the ironic title
‘Poème Symphonique’ as an alternative for Ligeti’s ‘Symphonie (für 100 Metronome)’.

28 Eric Drott, ‘Ligeti in Fluxus’, The Journal of Musicology 21/2 (2004), pp. 201–40.

29 György Ligeti to Ove Nordwall, 17 April 1966, published in Nordwall, György Ligeti
(Mainz: Schott, 1971), pp. 7–8.

30 György Ligeti, ‘Symphonie (für 100 Metronome): Partitur’, in Lothar Knessl, Humor am
Rand der Notenlinien: Karikatur Parodie Satire im Zeichen der Musik (Salzburg: Residenz, n.d.
[1965]), pp. 104–8; again in English as ‘poème symphonique for 100 metronomes‘, Sonda:
Problema y panorama de la música contemporánea, vol. 2 (February 1968), pp. 19–22.

234 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’
Figure 5. Verbal score for Poème Symphonique (Paul Sacher Stiftung, György

Liugeti Collection)

Yet, after the lessons learned in Stanford – where, according to
Ligeti, a ‘wonderful’ performance of Poème Symphonique ‘with 117
metronomes’ took place in May 1972 – Ligeti conceived of a completely new

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