A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 235
perspective on his metronome piece. 31 The ironic aspects of its performance
fade into the background, as Ligeti understood that the comical effect of
surprise would rapidly wear out. Instead, he focused on the serious aspects
of musical structure. Thus, the second version requires a preparation
without the audience, who enter only after the metronomes have been
started, and describes an ‘adequate duration’ of 15–20 minutes. A decisive
modification is that now the piece performs itself, without visible human
help. Because the audience is confronted with the instruments only after
they begin ticking, the mechanical character of the music comes to the fore
and attention is directed to the rhythmic process. At the beginning, the
rhythmic grids are so dense that they sound two-dimensional and static,
even chaotic. As more and more metronomes stop, the uniform ticking thins
out, and gradually complex rhythms and illusionary patterns emerge. The
complexity is reduced with every instrument that stops, while the rhythmic
differentiation increases. The rhythmic patterns become more and more
regular towards the end of the piece, until finally only one metronome is left
and the pattern is completely periodic. Formally, the piece passes through
three phases: from a uniform blur to a gradual structuring and back to a
final uniform ticking.32
From 1968 on, Ligeti further developed this idea of ‘overlapping
grids’ in numerous works or movements, especially in Continuum and the
second Organ Etude Coulée, but also in parts of the Second String Quartet
and the Chamber Concerto.33 It wasn’t until the first recording in 1985,
31 See György Ligeti, letter to Ove Nordwall, 20 May 1972 (PSS, GLC).
32 Cf. György Ligeti, ‘Poème Symphonique für hundert Metronome: Aufführungsanweisungen’,
in Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, pp. 195–96.
33 In a more playful way Ligeti used the metronome in his opera Le Grand Macabre. There, a
metronome is ticking as a symbol for the finiteness of human life proclaimed by Nekrotzar,
the figure of death (see R 57+3 ‘your time runs out’ and R 59 –2 ‘but no one knows the hour’).
In the earlier Oidipus project (1969), Ligeti imagined dolls with pyramidal metronome heads
of black wood. See also Heidy Zimmermann, “Come un meccanismo de precisione”, in Méta-
Harmonie (Bielefeld: Kerber, 2016), pp. 66–83.
236 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’
however, that a new wording for the concept of Poème Symphonique was
formulated and finally published as the work’s ‘performance instructions’
by Schott in the early 1990s.34 Thus the performance concept attained the
status of a legitimate work, whose ‘complex irregular rhythmic figures […]
are produced by superimposing simple, regular pulses’. 35 Accordingly,
Ligeti declared in the 1989 liner notes of the LP edition that:
Poème Symphoniqe […] demands patient, unhurried listening
and a willingness to let oneself be engulfed by the process of
gradually transforming rhythmic patterns. In a sense, it is a
piece of Minimal Music avant la lettre.36
With this attribution Ligeti profiled himself as a forerunner of musical
minimalism, while at the same time generously conceding the independent
invention of similar musical processes.37 I would not go so far as Richard
Taruskin, who claimed in his Oxford History of Western Music that Reich’s
Pendulum Music was ‘in concept a duplicate of Poème Symphonique’; yet one
can certainly wonder whether a curious young composer such as Steve
34 Copyright was registered in 1982; the score was delivered only in the early 1990s, after the
recording of the 1985 version on LP: György Ligeti, Poème Symphonique für 100 Metronome
(zwei Versionen) (Frankfurt am Main: Edition Michael Frauenlob Bauer, 1989).
35 György Ligeti, ‘Monument, Selbstportrait, Bewegung‘, in Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2,
pp. 279–81, quoted material on p. 279.
36 György Ligeti, liner notes for the LP Poème Symphonique für 100 Metronome (zwei Versionen),
again as ‘Poème Symphonique für hundert Metronome’, in Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2,
pp. 190–92, quoted material on pp. 191f (my emphasis).
37 At this point I need to comment on an assumption that was made by Martin Scherzinger
(‘György Ligeti and the Aka Pygmies Project’ Contemporary Music Review 25/3 (2006), pp. 227–
62) and Kyoko Okumura (‘Sketches Reflecting the Images of San Francisco’, in György Ligeti’s
Cultural Identities, ed. Amy Bauer and Márton Kerékfy (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 203–
18). Both scholars refer to a ‘sketch’ of Continuum, which includes the names of Reich, Riley,
Philip Glass, and La Monte Young (p. 256 and 214, respectively). Based on this, they suggest
that Ligeti knew about the American minimalists much earlier than initially thought.
However, a detailed examination of the sheet in question shows that it is not a preparatory
sketch, but an analytical note for Continuum, which refers to the pagination of the published
score (©1970) and was written down probably in the mid-1970s, when Ligeti wrote his three
pieces for two pianos, Monument, Selbstporträt and Bewegung.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 237
Reich, who had just come back to New York in early 1965, might – or must –
have heard about the performances and reports in the press. In any case,
Pendulum Music (1968) is a striking counterpart to Ligeti’s metronome piece
and, so to speak, a performative exemplification of Reich’s manifesto ‘Music
as Gradual Process’.38 This text, written in the same year, 1968, accordingly
postulates for process music a continuous, slow, and automatic
development, based on a pre-existing script.
According to the ‘score’ (a verbal instruction like that for Poème
Symphonique, but much shorter), the installation for Pendulum Music is as
[The microphones are] suspended from the ceiling or from
microphone stands by their cables so that they all hang the
same distance from the floor and are all free to swing with a
pendular motion. Loudspeakers are positioned under the
microphones face upward, so that they will produce
feedback noise when the microphones are directly above
them. Then the microphones are pulled back and released. As
they swing like pendulums over the loudspeakers, they
produce feedback pulses that will go out of phase as the
pendulums slow down, gradually coming to rest.’39
The similarity of the two pieces is obvious: as with Poème Symphonique, the
interpreters go off stage after they have started the instruments, and the
piece proceeds automatically. Pendulum Music ends, however, with human
interaction: the cables have to be pulled out of the amplifier after the
microphones have stopped swinging with the feedback drone of the
38 Steve Reich, ‘Music as Gradual Process’, in Writings about Music, pp. 34–36.
39 Steve Reich, Pendulum Music for microphone, amplifiers, loudspeakers and performers
(London: Universal Edition, 1980); see also Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western
Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), vol. 5, p. 372f.
238 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’
speakers. In addition, as the pendulum piece is much shorter – Reich’s ideal
duration is four to six minutes – it is much less dense and appears to be
completely without irony.
Furthermore, Ligeti’s metronomes are classic pendulums, albeit
mechanical ones, driven by a simple clockwork. This aspect should not be
underestimated. Ligeti’s idea of ‘meccanico’ structures, his predilection for
precision mechanisms, which he repeatedly mentions as going back to
childhood memories, is fundamental to his oeuvre.40 Not only does it lie at
the basis of the metronome piece, but also of the mechanical patterns in the
pieces that followed. Already at the end of the First String Quartet there is a
remarkable passage with patterned transformations which retrospectively
Ligeti wanted to have played ‘with mechanical precision’ and ‘like a
precision mechanism’ (bb. 703–04 and 781ff.).41 And, in a certain sense, the
minimalist first movement of Musica ricercata is also a form of ticking
diminution. But while Reich establishes a regular pulse as the constant basic
layer, Ligeti prefers clockworks, which get damaged or are limping from the
My point here is not to detect influences in one or the other direction,
but rather, to convey a thick description of the actual and possible interfaces
40 Cf. Jane Piper Clendinning, ‘The Pattern-Meccanico Compositions of György Ligeti’,
Perspectives of New Music 31/1 (Winter 1993), pp. 192–234, and David Isgitt, ‘An Analysis of
Periodic Rhythmic Structures in the Music of Steve Reich and György Ligeti’, MM thesis,
University of North Texas, 2002.
41 See Ligeti’s late annotations in the fine copy of the full score of his first Quartet, pp. 31 and
33 (PSS, GLC).
42 When labelling these meccanico patterns as one of the essential characteristics of his
personal style, Ligeti not only recalled ‘the Chaplin film, Modern Times, one of the great
movie experiences of my childhood’, but told a story which he attributed to the Hungarian
writer Gyula Krúdy. My thorough research and discussion with experts of Hungarian
literature did not lead to such an individual story by Krúdy; Vera Ligeti assumed it might be
the recollection of an early dream (cf. Ligeti in Conversation with Péter Várnai [London:
Eulenburg, 1983], p. 17; see also Träumen Sie in Farbe : György Ligeti im Gespräch mit Eckhard
Roelcke [Vienna: Zsolnay, 2003], p. 17).
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 239
between Reich and Ligeti, in order to give a more precise idea of the
atmosphere between 1962 and 1972. The coincidence of their minimalist
experiments shows that – both metaphorically and literally – ‘something
was in the air’.43
The première of Poème Symphonique, which took place on 13 September 1963
during a reception at the City Hall of Hilversum, was filmed for the TV.44 It
should have been broadcast two days later, but its cancellation was
demanded by the Senat of Hilversum. A few years later, Ligeti was able to
see the film in Stockholm at a private viewing at Swedish Radio;45 after that
it disappeared and seemed to be lost for more than fifty years. Only in 2018,
after a long search, a copy of the recording was found in the Netherlands
Institute of Sound and Vision.46 It is a precious audio-visual document,
which gives an accurate and lively impression of the event: Ligeti, dressed
in a much too large tailcoat which was apparently borrowed, emphatically
conducts the piece, which is set in motion by ten students of the Gaudeamus
composition class, among them Louis Andriessen, Arne Mellnäs and Peter
Schat. After the Poème has been running for ten minutes and two single
metronomes are still ticking, Ligeti goes to the stage, stops them and starts
his meticulous and painstaking lecture of the four-page script for Poème
Symphonique. The whole performance lasts 24 minutes during which the
43 Ligeti, ‘Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA’, p. 520.
44 In a formal preparatory letter the participants were asked to bring their evening dress with
them ‘because there will be a gala-concert on the 12th and all the members of the Music week
will be the executants of a piece for 100 metronomes by György Ligeti and they wear
evening-dresses’. (Walter Maas to György Ligeti, 8 August 1963, PSS, GLC).
45 György Ligeti, ‘Zum Poème Symphonique’, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, pp. 192–95,
especially on p. 194.
46 I am most grateful to Frans Bernard van Riel, who helped to obtain a copy for the Ligeti
Collection at the PSS.
240 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’
audience, after some amusement and a little disquiet, listens politely and at
the end reacts with a long and decent applause. What we can see in the film
does not, in fact, match at all Ligeti’s recollection of the event as a ‘terrible
scandal’ and of a ‘threatening protest’ following a ‘tormenting silence’.47 It
may be that his memory was affected by after-concert talks, by the
censorship that followed or just by his very personal experience of that
evening (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. Still photos of premiere of Poème Symphonique, Hilversum,
13 September 1963
© Netherlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid, Hilversum
47 Ligeti, ‘Poème Symphonique’, p. 190, and Ligeti, ‘Zum Poème Symphonique’, p. 194.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 241
Beal, Amy C. New Music, New Allies: American Experimental Music in West Germany
From the Zero Hour to Reunification. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Borio, Gianmario, and Hermann Danuser, eds. Im Zenit der Moderne. Die
Internationalen Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt, 1946‒1966. 4 vols.
Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 1997.
Brecht, George, and George Maciunas, eds. ccV TRE (January 1964).
Clendinning, Jane Piper. ‘The Pattern -Meccanico Compositions of György Ligeti’.
Perspectives of New Music 31/1 (Winter 1993): 192–234.
Cone, Edward T. ‘One Hundred Metronomes‘. The American Scholar 46/4 (Autumn
Constable, Rosalind. ‘Can This Be Buffalo?’ Life 58/16 (23 April 1965), pp. 63–71.
Drott, Eric. ‘Ligeti in Fluxus’. The Journal of Musicology 21/2 (2004): 201–40.
Gottwald, Clytus. ‘Signale zwischen Exotik und Industrie. Steve Reich auf der
Suche nach einer neuen Identität von Klang und Struktur’. Melos/NZ 1/1
(January 1975): 3–6.
Guisgand, Philippe. Les fils d'un entrelacs sans fin: La danse dans l'œuvre d'Anne Teresa
De Keersmaeker. Villeneuve d'Ascq: Septentrion, 2007.
Isgitt, David. ‘An Analysis of Periodic Rhythmic Structures in the Music of Steve
Reich and György Ligeti’. MM thesis, University of North Texas, 2002.
Ligeti, György. ‘Symphonie (für 100 Metronome): Partitur’. In Lothar Knessl, Humor
am Rand der Notenlinien: Karikatur Parodie Satire im Zeichen der Musik, 104–8.
Salzburg: Residenz, n.d. . Published in English as ‘poème
symphonique for 100 metronomes‘, Sonda: Problema y panorama de la música
contemporánea, vol. 2 (February 1968): 19–22.
Ligeti, György. ‘Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA’. Melos/NZ 1/4 (July
1975): 266–72. Revised edition ‘Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA.
Steve Reich – Terry Riley – Harry Partch’, in Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften,
Ligeti, György. György Ligeti: Ein Komponist gibt Auskunft. Ein Porträt von Monika
Meynert. TV programme, ZDF, 1971.
Ligeti, György. György Ligeti: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Monika Lichtenfeld. 2 vols.
Mainz: Schott, 2007.
Ligeti, György. Ligeti in Conversation with Péter Várnai. London: Eulenburg, 1983.
242 Zimmermann: ‘Something in the Air’
Ligeti, György. Poème Symphonique für 100 Metronome (zwei Versionen). Frankfurt
am Main: Edition Michael Frauenlob Bauer, 1989.
Marx, Wolfgang. ‘“weil die Texte oft mehr beachtet werden als die Mus ik“: Zur
Relevanz und Verlässlichkeit kompositorischer Selbstauskünfte am Beispiel
György Ligetis‘. Studia musicologica 57/1–2 (2016): 187–205.
Michel, Pierre. György Ligeti. 2nd edition. Paris: Minerve, 1995.
N.N., ‘Avant -Garde: Did You Ever, Ever, Ever‘. Time Magazine, 19 March 1965, p. 66.
Nordwall, Ove. György Ligeti. Mainz: Schott, 1971.
Okumura, Kyoko. ‘Sketches Reflecting the Images of San Francisco’. In György
Ligeti’s Cultural Identities, ed. Amy Bauer and Márton Kerékfy, 203 –18.
London: Routledge, 2018.
Reich, Steve. ‘Steve Reich schreibt an Clytus Gottwald’. Melos/NZ 1/2 (March 1975):
Reich, Steve. Live/Electric Music. New York: Columbia Records/CBS, 1969.
Reich, Steve. Pendulum Music for microphone, amplifiers, loudspeakers and
performers. London: Universal Edition, 1980.
Reich, Steve. Writings on Music 1965–2000, ed. Paul Hillier. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002.
Riley, Terry. In C. New York: CBS Classics, 1968.
Roelcke, Eckhard. Träumen Sie in Farbe: György Ligeti im Gespräch mit Eckhard Roelcke.
Vienna: Zsolnay, 2003.
Scherzinger, Martin. ‘György Ligeti and the Aka Pygmies Project’. Contemporary
Music Review 25/3 (2006): 227–62.
Strongin, Theodore. ‘Music: Foss’s 3d Evening‘. The New York Times, 10 March 1965,
section L, p. 48.
Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz. ‘Die Trommeln des Steve Reich‘. Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 July 1972.
Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2005.
Zimmermann, Heidy. ‘“ Come un meccanismo di precisione”: Spotlight on Machine
Music of the 20th Century’. Méta-Harmonie: Musikmaschinen und
Maschinenmusik im Werk von Jean Tinguely, pp. 66–83. Bielefeld: Kerber, 2016.
Dr. Seek and Mr. Hide:
György Ligeti Meets Conlon Nancarrow
Much has been written about the relationship between György Ligeti and
Conlon Nancarrow. 1 The attention their friendship has received is hardly
surprising, since it has always been a matter of particular fascination when
two strong artistic personalities come together. This is all the more true
when the artists in question are so different in their cultural attitudes, and so
contrary in their lifestyles, that it seems a sheer coincidence that they should
have met at all. For his part, Ligeti always made a point of emphasizing the
chance nature of their first encounter. He relished relating how he initially
came across Nancarrow in a Berlin exhibition catalogue,2 and how, in a
moment of vanity in a Paris record shop in May 1980, he went looking for
records of his own music and stumbled upon two Nancarrow LPs adjacent
to his own in the alphabet.3 To top it all off, he continued, when his car was
burglarized on his way back to Germany, these two records were the only
1 See in particular Jürgen Hocker, “Nancarrow und Ligeti – eine musikalische
Verwandtschaft,” in MusikTexte nos. 73–74 (March 1998), pp. 64–69.
2 Für Augen und Ohren: Von der Spieluhr zum akustischen Environment, exhibition catalogue of
the Academy of the Arts in Berlin, 20 January – 2 March 1980, ed. René Block et al. Berlin:
Akademie der Künste, 1980, here pp. 105–7.
3 1750 Arch S-1768 (released 1978) and S-1777 (released 1980).
248 Meyer: Dr. Seek and Mr. Hyde
items left unstolen.4 What happened next is general knowledge: when Ligeti
listened to the records, Nancarrow’s music made such an overwhelming
impression on him that from then on he never ceased to praise it to the skies.
Only a few days later, in a letter to Mario di Bonaventura, he called
Nancarrow the “absolutely greatest living composer,” and an oft-quoted
letter of January 1981 to Charles Amirkhanian finds him referring to
Nancarrow almost as fulsomely as “the greatest discovery since Webern and
Ives.” 5 No one, he frequently insisted, was aware of this composer in
Europe; indeed, he was even unknown in his chosen homeland of Mexico,
for when Ligeti had visited Mexico in 1972 no one had mentioned the name
of Nancarrow even in passing.
The story of this chance discovery of a significant, unknown
composer has been often told in the Ligeti literature. It is all the more
impressive for implying a kind of creatio ex nihilo: Nancarrow had indeed
been known previously only to specialists in Germany and the rest of
Europe, and it was thanks to Ligeti that his name suddenly became the talk
of the town. But the story also contains an element of exaggeration, as
becomes clear when we view it from Nancarrow’s perspective rather than
Ligeti’s. It is true that he had lived a completely reclusive life in Mexico City
until his sixtieth year and was known only to a small circle of friends. He
had devoted himself exclusively to the player piano since the late 1940s, yet
only one of his pieces for this instrument had ever appeared in print, and no
more than a handful had briefly been available on record. But a turning
point had come when Peter Garland started organizing the publication of a
series of his works, and when, starting in 1978, Charles Amirkhanian
produced several recordings for the Californian label Arch Records.
4 György Ligeti in conversation with Uli Aumüller, October 1992, partly utilized in
Aumüller’s film Musik für 1000 Finger; typescript, György Ligeti Collection, Paul Sacher
5 György Ligeti, letters to Mario di Bonaventura, 28 June 1980, and to Charles Amirkhanian,
4 January 1981; photocopies in the Conlon Nancarrow Collection, PSS.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 249
Suddenly Nancarrow was being talked about in the USA, and suddenly, too,
he was being noticed in Europe, especially in Germany. It was the composer
Walter Zimmermann who first took notice of him, followed by his colleague
Hans Otte, the head of the music department at Radio Bremen. In June 1976,
Otte even procured a well-paid commission for Nancarrow from the
European Broadcasting Union, which resulted, after a long delay, in Study
No. 48 for Player Piano. The piece received its world première in May 1980,
shortly before Ligeti became aware of him. But the very fact that Nancarrow
had received the commission at all demonstrates that there was fertile
ground for the reception of his music in Europe, and specifically in Germany.
This in turn may be seen as a reflection of the special dynamic, characteristic
of the post-war decades, that pertained between the contemporary music
cultures of America and Europe (and Germany in particular).
We should recall that in those decades Germany’s music scene,
driven not least by the post-war reconstruction program, differed from its
American counterpart in being far more beholden to a few powerful
institutions funded by the public sector and endowed with a clear cultural
and educational mandate. Foremost among them were the Darmstadt
Holiday Courses and, most importantly, Germany’s public broadcasters.
Within these institutions there soon emerged a clear preference for the type
of new music that gradually took hold under the blanket term
“experimental.” 6 The American composers most energetically promoted
from the late 1950s included John Cage, Morton Feldman, Frederic Rzewski,
and later Steve Reich, whereas Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and for a long
time even Elliott Carter found it far more difficult to achieve recognition in
Europe. Perhaps a network of personal relations played a part; certainly the
first group of aforementioned composers, lacking strong support in the
United States, willingly seized upon the opportunities that came their way.
6 See in this regard 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).
250 Meyer: Dr. Seek and Mr. Hyde
More importantly, however, European program organizers acted in an
awareness of the specific problems and limitations of their own
contemporary music scene. They directed their interest specifically to
composers from whom they hoped to receive “counter-strategies” to an
avant-garde constrained by notions of musical material and progress typical
of the era. In other words, they sought contrast rather than similarity, and
they expected this contrast to have a fruitful impact on the music of their
If Europe was “ready” to engage with Nancarrow in a certain sense,
it was definitely so in the case of Ligeti. He had been distancing himself for
quite some time from the ideals of the Darmstadt avant-garde, with whom
he had associated after his emigration. Moreover, at least since the
completion of his opera Le Grand Macabre, he had fallen into an acute
compositional crisis that left him on the lookout for new stimuli. These he
certainly found in Nancarrow, to such a degree that he immediately felt a
desire to pay homage to him in his own music, as happened most clearly in
the Piano Etudes and the Piano Concerto. By then he had also become
personally acquainted with Nancarrow, accompanying him on his European
tour of autumn 1982 and providing introductory lectures at his appearances
in Graz, Halle, and Cologne.
To be sure, Ligeti’s interest was kindled by the most obvious feature
of Nancarrow’s music: a polyrhythmic density and complexity achievable
only on a mechanical piano. But whereas other commentators directed their
interest at the technical procedures underlying this complexity, Ligeti
mainly emphasized such perceptual aspects as the blurring or sudden
transmutation of ultra-rapid figuration into what he called “Bewegungsfarbe”
(mobile or fluctuating color). 7 Ligeti had become acquainted with
Nancarrow’s music through records, and for a while he knew it only as an
7 See György Ligeti, “Eine unglaublich direkte Emotionalität: Über Conlon Nancarrow” (1982),
in MusikTexte nos. 73–74 (March 1998), pp. 61–64, here p. 63.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 251
acoustical phenomenon. He thus regarded it as, in the final analysis,
Hörmusik (music to be heard) rather than Lesemusik (music to be read).8 This
attitude, coupled with his longstanding interest in auditory illusions, caused
him to channel his compositional response mainly into the domain of what
he fittingly called “akustische Illusionen.” According to his own account, he
tried to “write, for a human performer, labyrinthine music similar to that
which Nancarrow has produced for the mechanical piano.”9
Turning to Example 1, we can easily recognize at least one of the
devices that Ligeti employed for this purpose. In very rough terms, the
opening of the first Piano Etude, “Désordre,” consists of two overlapping
musical layers, one assigned to the left hand and the other to the right, with
the right hand playing entirely on the white keys and the left hand entirely
on the black. At first these two layers are tightly correlated: the two octave
melodies keep rhythmically in step and outline similar melodic shapes.
From then on, however, they move increasingly farther apart: the upper
melody, cyclically repeated and transposed one step upward at each
recurrence, falls into units of 4+4+6 bars, whereas the lower melody extends
over units of 4+4+14 bars. Moreover, the predominant 8/8-meter units in the
upper voice are truncated by one eighth-note every four bars, conveying an
impression of tempo acceleration in the right hand. By overlapping and
phase-shifting these two similar rhythmic-melodic entities, Ligeti creates the
impression of a Nancarrow-esque tempo canon with ever-increasing
“temporal dissonance” – and this despite the fact that the entire piece is
grounded on a uniform eighth-note pulse.
8 “Gespräch über Ästhetik”, in Ulrich Dibelius, György Ligeti: Eine Monographie in Essays,
Mainz: Schott, 1994, pp. 266–67.
9 “György Ligeti über eigene Werke: Ein Gespräch mit Detlef Gojowy aus dem Jahre 1988,” in
Für György Ligeti: Die Referate des Ligeti-Kongresses Hamburg 1988, ed. Constantin Floros, Hans
Joachim Marx, and Peter Petersen, assisted by Manfred Stahnke, Hamburger Jahrbuch für
Musikwissenschaft 11 (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1991), p. 361.
252 Meyer: Dr. Seek and Mr. Hyde
Example 1. György Ligeti, beginning of the Piano Etude “Désordre”
© 1986 Schott Music International, reproduced by permission.
In light of what I wrote above about the reception of American music
in post-war Europe, it is important to note that Ligeti’s engagement with
Nancarrow in a sense embodied a new attitude that was, perhaps, no less
typical of its time. His principal concern was less to discover a “counter-
strategy” than to find solutions to compositional problems that had
exercised him for some time. For example, he felt specially attracted to all
kinds of heightened virtuosity, even when carried ad absurdum, of the sort
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 253
that he had already explored, e.g. in Continuum or the final movement of
Three Pieces for Two Pianos . Moreover, he by no means drew
“monocentrically” on Nancarrow, but absorbed many other stimuli at the
same time, ranging from the mensural canons of the ars subtilior to the
“inherent patterns” of Amadinda music in present-day Uganda. In this
respect, he parted ways with his predecessors by adopting a new receptive
attitude that reflected several changes characteristic of the musical mentality
and music scene of the late twentieth century. It was then, namely, that the
significance of the formerly mighty institutions of European contemporary
music entered a sharp decline, brought about by the growing pluralism of
music and society as a whole, and by the increased distribution of music
through technological media such as the phonograph record. In this light,
the fact that Ligeti came into contact with Nancarrow’s music via the
phonograph, and viewed it less as Lesemusik than as Hörmusik, appears
But how was Nancarrow affected by this encounter? Having initially
achieved a certain degree of publicity, thanks to several energetic American
composer-friends, he was suddenly thrust into the spotlight through Ligeti.
All of this prompted a somewhat ambivalent reaction in him. He was proud
to see his scores published and to have his records played, but at the same
time deeply skeptical of the public attention he was unexpectedly receiving.
This skepticism originated not least in his past life as a combatant in the
Spanish Civil War and as a former member of the Communist Party, which
even after his emigration to Mexico had kept him on the radar of the CIA.
When a widely read article on him appeared in the New York Times,10 he
noted, with an earnest undertone, “I am afraid the […] Times piece will blow
my cover here.”11 But above all, the expectations that the music world now
10 John Rockwell, “Conlon Nancarrow – Poet of the Player Piano,“ The New York Times (28
June 1981), pp. 17 and 20.
11 Conlon Nancarrow, letter of 2 July 1981 to his brother Charles Nancarrow, carbon copy in
the Conlon Nancarrow Collection, PSS.
254 Meyer: Dr. Seek and Mr. Hyde
placed upon him paralyzed his creativity. His working method comprised
punching out piano rolls by hand in months of concentrated labor – a
process difficult to reconcile with the life of an artist active in the public
arena. Thus he began increasingly to resort to earlier works in order to fulfill
the expectations of the music business. One instance of relevance to our
discussion is the piece circulated in the Nancarrow literature as “For Ligeti.”
Nancarrow had been asked to supply a composition for Ligeti’s sixty-fifth
birthday and was meant to present it to him at their last meeting, in
Hamburg in 1988. But years later it transpired that this was not an “homage”
at all, but a study for player piano composed around 1950 and subsequently
withdrawn (it originally bore the number “3”). The opening of this little-
known, rather bluesy piece merits quotation (see Example 2):
Example 2. Conlon Nancarrow, beginning of the original Study No. 3 (“For
Ligeti”), transcribed from the composer’s manuscript by Helena Bugallo
Conlon Nancarrow Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 255
All in all, looking at the artistic impact of the encounter between
Ligeti and Nancarrow, we notice a certain asymmetry. Ligeti, inspired by
many new stimuli (including Nancarrow’s music), overcame his creative
impasse and went on to produce a highly varied late oeuvre admired all
over the world. As for Nancarrow, ten years Ligeti’s senior and no longer in
good health, his productivity came to a halt. True, he had entered the public
spotlight, but the great honors and prizes for which Ligeti recommended
him – such as the Grawemeyer Award in 1987 or the Kyoto Prize in 1997 –
never materialized, presumably because of the overly specialized nature of
his music. Still, there is one sense in which the encounter with Ligeti
ultimately proved fruitful for Nancarrow. His late contact with the world of
the performing arts, and especially his contact with Ligeti, convinced him
that it was perfectly possible to create music for human performers that was
as multi-layered and virtuosic as his music for player piano. Thus something
quite unexpected happened: impressed by Ligeti’s example, and by the skills
of a new generation of instrumentalists, Nancarrow abandoned his earlier
aversion to “live” performance and, from 1983 onwards (starting with
Tango? for piano), produced a small but exquisite and elegant late oeuvre for
human performers, often based on his old piano rolls. All the same, there is
no overlooking a certain unavoidable retreat from the textural density and
agile virtuosity of his earlier music. Ultimately, then, there is a touch of irony
– or perhaps we should say a certain convergence from opposite directions –
in the fact that Nancarrow “humanized” his music at the very moment that
Ligeti was celebrating the superhuman, mechanistic element in Nancarrow’s
music, even to the point of having several of his own works transcribed for
such mechanical instruments as the player piano or barrel organ.12
12 Recordings of them can be found in Vol. 5 of the György Ligeti Edition, issued by Sony
Classical in 1997.
256 Meyer: Dr. Seek and Mr. Hyde
Beal, Amy C. New Music, New Allies: American Experimental Music in West Germany
from the Zero Hour to Reunification. Berkeley: University of California Press,
Block, René, et al., eds. Für Augen und Ohren: Von der Spieluhr zum akustischen
Environment. Exhibition catalogue of the Academy of the Arts in Berlin, 20
January – 2 March 1980. Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 1980.
Dibelius, Ulrich. György Ligeti: Eine Monographie in Essays. Mainz: Schott, 1994.
Floros, Constantin, Hans Joachim Marx, and Peter Petersen, eds. Für György Ligeti:
Die Referate des Ligeti-Kongresses Hamburg 1988. Hamburger Jahrbuch für
Musikwissenschaft 11. Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1991.
Hocker, Jürgen. “Nancarrow und Ligeti – eine musikalische Verwandtschaft.”
MusikTexte nos. 73–74 (March 1998): 64–69.
Ligeti, György. “Eine unglaublich direkte Emotionalität: Über Conlon Nancarrow”
(1982). MusikTexte nos. 73–74 (March 1998): 61–64.
Rockwell, John. “Conlon Nancarrow – Poet of the Player Piano.“ The New York Times
(28 June 1981): 17 and 20.
Practices and Theories
in Minimalist Stage Setting
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man
walks across this empty space whilst someone else is
watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of
theatre to be engaged.1
This is the phrase used by British director Peter Brook in the opening of his
work The Empty Space, which seems to best define Minimalist stage setting.
It has nearly become a reflex to think of “an empty space” and Peter Brook
when discussing minimalism in theatre. Then, much like a shadow play, the
figures of Edward Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Adolphe Appia, Georg
Fuchs, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Nicolai Evreinov, Jerzy Grotowski, and
Eugenio Barba come to mind. All of them were visionaries. All of them were
deemed eccentric, dreamers or even crazy. They all lived in isolation,
willingly or forcibly, as was the case of Artaud, who spent nine years
committed to psychiatric asylums. Some of them managed to establish
theatrical communities, in which they were able to carry out their
experiments. They all concluded that the theatre needed to be saved from
itself, that “in order to save the theatre almost everything of the theatre still
1 Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Touchstone, Rockefeller Center, 1996), p. 7.
258 Mihuț: Practices and Theories
has to be swept away”2. Actress Eleonora Duse (1858–1924) said that, in
order to save the theatre, it must be destroyed; and that all the actors and
actresses would need to die from plague, as they make Art impossible. The
same could also be said of the singers, whose abuses and diva-like behavior
made successive reforms of the opera a necessity. Those reforms were
aimed at the dramatic coherence of the performance, its cleansing of the
overloaded stage setting and the revision of the actors’ performance, who
were primarily focusing on their vocal virtuosity.
Hence, saving the theatre meant restoring its original force, dignity
and raison d’être in a structure fit for modern society. This was possible by
(re)discovering a typically theatrical language and by reducing the play to
its fundamental elements. The motto “less is more” coined by architect Mies
van der Rohe (1886–1969) also became a guideline for many theatrical
people, as early as the dawn of the 20th century. In architecture, the
emphasis put on the inner structure of the construction, the adoption of the
open plan and the reduction of the construction to a strong, transparent
façade, are features that may figuratively translate into the fundamental
changes that have taken place in theatre.
Thus, after removing all accessories that were deemed useless
(scenery, elaborate costumes, make -up, props, etc.) it had been concluded
that the ”inner structure” of a performance is provided by the actor,
considered the nucleus of theatrical art. The architectural “open plan” finds
its correspondence in the new theatrical space, from which the Italian-style
”scenic cage” disappears and which was newly designed as a shared space
for both actors and audience, who are thus in much closer proximity to each
other. Also, the solidity and transparency of a building’s façade finds its
equivalent in the force of a more natural and intimate connection, which is
2 Brook, The Empty Space, p. 118.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 259
established between the actors and their audience in the new performance
Although this need and desire for renewal, known as
retheatralisation, manifested itself in almost every great European cultural
centre, as early as the start of the 20th century, all these transformations,
which aimed at rescuing the theatre faced the stiffness and conservative
attitudes of traditional institutions, as well as some resistance from
theatrical communities. The difficulties faced by the new vision are outlined
by the architect, scenographer, and director Liviu Ciulei (1923–2011) in two
synthesis articles, called “Teatralizarea picturii de teatru” (The
Theatralisation of Theatre Painting) and “Căutări arhitectonice în teatru”
(Architectural Searches in Theatre).3 Here, he discusses an enactment in
which he attempted to apply the principles of reality suggestion by means
of reduced construction, hence minimalistic elements. But since the socialist-
realist ideology of the time required complete and detailed materialisation
of the theatrical illusion, his scenery was deemed to be formalistic.
To understand how these transformations occurred, as well as how
and why the minimalistic formula came to be adopted in theatre and opera,
a brief overview of the first half of the 20th century is necessary. Until the
end of the 19th century, theatre was synonymous with the play’s text and the
scenic representation within the theatrical space aimed at providing the
most accurate spatial placement and the most lifelike representation of the
reality. The background of attitude changes in the creation and reception of
the work of art in the 20th century was provided by the change in man’s
relation to the universe, especially regarding space and time, perceived
through the considerable increase of the scope of knowledge and technical
advancement. Inventions like the photographic camera, followed by cinema
3 See Liviu Ciulei acasă și-n lume: Antologie teatrologică [Liviu Ciulei at Home and in the World:
Theatrological Anthology], ed. Florica Ichim and Anca Mocanu (București: Fundația Culturală
„Camil Petrescu”, Revista „Teatrul azi”, 2016), vol. I.
260 Mihuț: Practices and Theories
– both able to offer a seemingly accurate copy of reality – strongly competed
with theatrical mechanisms, demonstrating the futility of the efforts to
create an illusion of reality. And I think that one of the most beautiful
descriptions of the radical changes which deeply changed society, its way of
thinking and perception during the 20th century, remains the beginning of
the first chapter of the book My Life in Art by Russian director Constantin
Stanislavski. In his words:
from the wax candle we have moved on to electric spotlights,
from the carriage to the aeroplane, from the sailboat to the
submarine, from the courier to the radio telegraph, from the
flintlock rifle to the Bertha cannon and from serfdom to
bolshevism and communism.4
The changes would be equally radical in theatre as new attractions, such as
the cinema, the café-concert, the musical and the Chinese shadow theatre
would again question its very existence.
The European theatre’s transformation was a process of continuous
interaction between the dramatic writing and the scenic representation
modes, based on rethinking the concept of mimesis, i.e. the relationship
between the artistic creation and reality. Toward the end of the 19 th century,
there was already a saturation of naturalist aesthetics, namely the exact
description, the observation of mechanisms and the recording of details, all
meant to achieve a most accurate reflection of the real world. The ideal of
some writers and theatrical people was no longer to create the realist
illusion. The effort of making everything on stage happen ”as in life” was a
tendency which, up until the end of the 19th century, reflected the mutual
interaction between painting and theatre, namely the existence ”of an
immediate relationship between the painting’s enactment procedures [...]
4 Constatin S. Stanislavski, Viața mea în artă [My Life in Art] (București: Editura Cartea Rusă,
1958), p. 9.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 261
and the evolution of theatre”, as shown by Pierre Francastel.5 As of 1880,
when electricity would become generally used, the attempt to create a
naturalist stage setting was becoming inappropriate and old-fashioned. The
”emptiness of naturalism is nowhere more obvious than in the theatre”
Pierre Quillard would proclaim, in a manifesto article entitled “About the
Absolute Uselessness of Exact Enactment”.6 Hence, neither painting nor
theatre any longer had the function of reproducing reality and each of them
would explore other ways of conveying artistic experience.
Along with the revolution in lighting through the use of electric
spotlights, a second influence which contributed to the radical
transformation of the European stage was Wagner̕ s aspiration to create a
performance which he called Gesamtkunstwerk, in which he aimed to achieve
a perfect fusion of the arts. The development of a new musical-dramatic
language that would meet the requirements of such a performance is
enhanced by the special care Wagner took with the stage setting, which the
German composer took to include a new conception of scenery. This
involved the manipulation of lighting levels in the performance hall, which
constituted a great novelty at the time, as well as placing the orchestra in a
dedicated pit (at the theatre in Bayreuth). Becoming invisible to the public,
the orchestra produced a music which appeared to come from nowhere and
whose “projection” translated into action on stage. The ideas Wagner
experimented with in his own creation are documented in his famous
volume, Opera and Drama.7
Based on the principles of Wagnerian drama, Adolphe Appia (1862 –
1928), a Swiss architect, decorator and director, developed his reflection on
5 Pierre Francastel, Realitatea figurativă [Figurative Reality] (București: Editura Meridiane, 1972),
6 Pierre Quillard, “De l′inutilité absolue de la mise en scène exacte“, in Revue d′art dramatique,
tome XXII, avril-juin, 1891 (Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1971), p. 180.
7 Opera and Drama, written in Zürich in 1851, published in Leipzig in 1852.
262 Mihuț: Practices and Theories
the reunited resources of music and light, which he regards as basic
elements of the new scene setting type. His theories, as well as some stage
experiments which he would carry out, grant him the status of being one of
the pioneers of modern theatre.8
Starting from the question: “What are we looking to see in the
theatre?”, Appia shows that we come to the theatre to witness a dramatic
action. In order for this to take place, the character̕ s presence on the stage is
absolutely necessary. The actor is the essential factor of the scenography and
the stage needs to be cleared of anything in contradiction with the actor’s
presence, to allow his body to move freely in a three-dimensional space. The
stage setting will be nearly choreographic, and the two basic elements
highlighting the actor’s body will be the light and the music. Music allows
the structuring of the stage̕ s space through rhythm. Light, regarded as “a
music of space”, becomes the base for all stage effects. By exploiting the
fluid character of light and its infinite potentials, Appia clears away all
decorative elements which charge the stage. The two-dimensionality of the
painted background, illuminated by electric light, contradicts the actors’
three-dimensionality. Thus, Appia would keep on the stage only certain
mobile elements – stairs, vertical volumes, or inclined planes – which can be
combined in different ways, creating what he called “rhythmic spaces”. The
architectural stage setting replaces the painted one, and the power of
suggestion provided by the music and light will create a dream-like
atmosphere, stimulating the spectator̕ s imagination.
8 Between 1895 and 1923, Appia wrote important theoretical works, such as The Mise-en-scene
of Wagnerian Drama (1895), Music and Enactment (1899), The Living Work of Art (1921), and Still
Nature and Living Art (1923). In 1891 and 1892, he designed the scenery and the mise-en-
scenes for Wagner’s operas Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and
Tristan und Isolde. He directed Tristan at Milan’s La Scala, 1923; Das Rheingold at the Basel
Opera, 1924; and Die Walküre, also at the Basel Opera, in 1925, for which he also designed the
stage setting and lighting.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 263
The Symbolists would also regard music as the most natural
companion of the drama due to its power of suggestion. The stage is
conceived as a space of fantasy, which is why Symbolist playwrights wish to
achieve a reduction of the decoration to the bare minimum. This is because
they consider that the performance not only harms imagination, but it is
truly impossible and useless. For that reason, the reading is, in their view,
preferable to the performance, because through the imagination, the
spectator is capable of recreating and mentally projecting the universe
conceived by the playwright. Quillard, in his article on the futility of an
exact direction, also shows that the stage setting must depend upon a
certain dramatic system and that if this is symbolic, then its direction can
only be symbolic. The word, musical by nature, has the power to create the
scenery. The spectator’s imagination is stimulated by the suggestion of the
verse and thus “theatre is going to be what it needs to be: a pretext to
dream”.9 This is because to the Symbolists, the dream is a different kind of
stage. Their conception approaches Freud’s, who defined the dream as a
special representation, in symbolic images, of phantasms and also Eugen
Ionescu’s, who in a discussion with literary critic Claude Bonnefoy, argued
that the dream can be viewed as an essentially dramatic event.10 This is due
to the fact that in any dream we find ourselves in a situation expressed by
images and characterized by a strong sense of reality.
The Symbolists did not stop at just removing the scenery from the
stage, but they also wanted a theatre without characters and, as such,
without actors. In their view, the actor has two drawbacks: on the one hand,
being subject to emotions, he is inconsistent and imperfect; on the other
hand he is too concrete, which is why they tried to find some substitute for
the actor which did not limit the imagination. One of these substitutes
9 Quillard, ‘De l′inutilité absolue’, p. 182.
10 Eugène Ionesco, Între viață și vis. Convorbiri cu Claude Bonnefoy [Between Life and Dreams:
Discussions with Claude Bonnefoy] (București: Editura Humanitas, 2017).
264 Mihuț: Practices and Theories
would be the marionette, which is reminiscent of idols and which, being
devoid of life, becomes merely a symbol. Edward Gordon Craig broadly
theorizes the nature and benefit of using the über-marionette as necessary to
reduce the unpredictable and ephemeral character of the performance.11 On
the other hand, because Craig regarded the director as the absolute master
of the performance, he believed that the actor should obey the director̕ s
conception like an instrument. Craig’s poetical theatrics rely on two
elements: hieratism and motion, which despite their contradictory
appearance would give birth to a coherent vision of the performance. He
considers that the sources of inspiration for the theatre must be nature,
music and architecture, which are fit to be expressed symbolically. A
practitioner of stylising and of a theatre-specific rhythm, he regarded the
performance as a form of pure art. For that reason, he criticizes Wagner’s
vision, saying that a performance cannot be a reunion of all arts, as it is itself
a specific form of art.
Alongside the perspective that Appia opens, the one proposed by
Craig is one of the closest to what we can call minimalism in theatre or
opera stage setting. Passionate about the study of the stage architecture, he
concluded that its history is one of decadence – from the ideal model of the
ancient theatre to the naturalist one, loaded with the ballast with which it
was attempting to produce the illusion of reality. He predicted the drastic
reduction of the decoration to the mobile elements – his famous screens –
that could be handled in a shorter time and with the help of which not only
images, but “thousands of scenes in one scene”, that is, movements in close
connection with the progression of the dramatic action, could be created.
Fascinated by the virtualities of the Elizabethan stage and by Shakespeare,
in whose plays he acted as a young man and towards whom he had an
ambivalent attitude of admiration and contestation, Craig also dreamed of a
11 Edward Gordon Craig, On the Art of the Theatre (Memphis: General Books, 2009), p. 42.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 265
mobile scene that could expand, thus no longer restricting the movements of
the actors. An actor of the Theatre of the Future who was to play in such a
space would compose his masterpieces, not from a written text, but based
on voice, mobile scenery and movement. In the end, due to his perfectionist
spirit, Craig ended up considering, like the Symbolists, that the theatrical
opera could not be played and that it was rather intended for reading than
Another source of inspiration that influenced both the Symbolists
and Craig and which would later exert a strong fascination with other
creators was that of the extra-European theatre traditions of East Asia. First
of all, oriental theatre traditions offered a model of a complete performance,
in which singing, music and dance are of equal importance and which, with
an extreme economy of scenic means, manages to be emotional and
convincing. The reciter, who opens the drama and accompanies it,
constantly reminds the audience of the fictitious character of the events.
Still, telling and singing, he helps the spectators mentally design their
context and details of the action. In the European theatre, the explicit
display of theatre conventions, such as stage instruction banners as was
practiced by Surrealists, the direct intervention of the director in the show,
or the famous Brechtian distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt) – all of them
ways to shatter the theatre illusion – are reminiscent of this reciter’s
presence as echoes of oriental dramaturgy. Secondly, the stylized play,
symbolic gestures, costumes, or make-up, coded in a mute language,
fascinated European creators who were increasingly concerned with
creating a purely theatrical language, primarily targeted towards the senses.
Finally, oriental theatre would prove to be an inexhaustible source of
inspiration for the training of actors, whose education would have to be re-
thought to live up to the challenges of a new type of performance.
266 Mihuț: Practices and Theories
In his theoretical writings, Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), said that he
was searching for a new theatrical language, whose grammar he needed to
find and through which he intended to give the actor's body the original
place that had been lost. The gesture will be the raw material for this
theatre, which sets in motion primitive forms and, in order to awaken the
spectator and produce in them a true revelation, demands from the actor a
total dedication. Like Craig, Artaud believes that, in order to be saved, the
theatre must accept a process of regeneration, asceticism and purification.
For Artaud, theatre is the genesis of creation and is a vital activity whose
stake is not merely artistic, but existential.12 The theatre needs to be restored
to the effectiveness of a symbolic ritual practice. Thus, staging combines
techniques that must allow control of the obscure forces brought to the
surface by the actor; directing becomes an imperative necessity for
embodying a thorough ritual that guards the actor from unpredictable
events. The actor's action will be enhanced by a different use of space, light
and movement. Artaud wishes to replace the poetry of language with the
theatre's own language, which includes all the means that can be used on a
stage and which are: music, dance, body plastics, pantomime, mimics,
gestures, intonations, architecture, scenery and lighting. Artaud's entire
poetics rely on the physical reality of the stage – seen as a space for rituals –
and on the metaphysical/magical effectiveness of the theatrical act. His
theoretical works echoed the aspirations of performance creators who felt
the need to redefine the vocation of theatre and direction as autonomous art.
Since the 1960s, a stream of diverse aesthetics has prevailed in scenic
practice, which is rooted in the exploration of body language and voice, the
cultivation of acting intensity, and experimentatio n with the various
possibilities of interaction between actors and spectators in scenic spaces
cleared of stage setting elements, useless materials or unconventional spaces
12 Antonin Artaud, Le Théâtre et son double, in Œuvres (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2004), p. 505–
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 267
(streets, unused factories, airplane hangars, mountain plateaus, etc.).
Notable representatives of this movement are Judith Malina (1926–2015)
and Julian Beck (1925–1985), who founded the “Living Theatre” in 1945,
Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), who led the “Laboratory Theatre” in Poland,
Peter Brook (b. 1929), who in the 1970s set up “The International Centre for
Theatrical Research” in Paris, Charles Marowitz (1934–2014), co-founder
with Brook of the famous “Open Space Theatre” in London, Eugenio Barba
(b. 1936), founder of “Odin Theatret”, Jacques Lecoq (1921–1999), founder of
the International School for Theatre and Mime, and Robert Wilson (b. 1941).
What is surprising is that, although they may not have heard of Artaud
when they began their theatrical experiments, they went in the direction
that he had opened up through his theoretical writings.
However, in the experiments of all these theatre creators, two major
concerns are visible: the development of a new theatrical model – the
physical theatre, in which the text was to be replaced by a body “writing” –
and a concern for space whose quality is considered to be decisive for the
actors’ play and for the relationship that is established between people.
Brook says that a good space “is where one meets and puts together
different energies” and that “in order for something of quality to take place,
an empty space needs to be created […]. However, no fresh and new
experience is possible if there isn′t a pure, virgin space ready to receive it”.13
This is true both in terms of the outer, hollow space of the stage, and of the
inner space of the actor. Inner hollow space can be equated with the actor’s
state of being ready for work, for the experiences and demands he will face
in rehearsals. In this sense, Charles Dullin asserted that an actor must purge
13 Peter Brook, Fără secrete: gânduri despre actorie și teatru [There Are No Secrets: Thoughts on
Acting and Theatre] (București: Editura Nemira, 2012), pp. 20, 18.
268 Mihuț: Practices and Theories
himself in order to let himself be inhabited by a character, and Grotowski14
would say that educating an actor does not mean to teach him something
but to un-teach him, rid him of all the blockages and his organic resistance
to the process of metamorphosis in which he is engaged. This is because
there is no difference between the inner impulse and the external reaction,
and thus, naturally, the actor's inner shaping will become the scenic
universe perceived by the spectator.
After this very brief review of the most significant figures of
theatrical theory and practice during the 20th century, we can notice that,
although the principles of minimalism mainly refer to the theatrical space,
they did not only concern the architectural and stage setting reform of the
stage and were not just an aesthetic option. They also expanded to the
language – often replaced by silence, music or noises or shouting – to the
movement and even to the presence of the actor, which has sometimes been
put into question. On the one hand, these minimalist principles reflect an
impulse of de-materialization, whose cause we can also assign to a crisis of
human representation, which has also been amply reflected in
contemporary plastic arts; on the other hand, they mirror an aspiration for
transcendence, a hunger for those things that are lacking in life, a hunger for
the invisible, and for a fuller reality than the daily one, as Brook has stated.
The mental theatre, imagined by the Symbolists, mirrored an intense desire
to escape the grip and the limits of materiality. Their aspiration was to
transfer the theatrical representation into the sphere of imagination, in order
to unleash the most fertile force that is spontaneity and, with it, the
eminently human capacity, which is creativity. The virtual show born from
the projections, fantasies and dreams of the unconscious could thus be freed
from any constraints and unlimited. Emptying the stage has highlighted the
14 Charles Dullin, Souvenirs et notes de travail d'un acteur (Paris: O. Lieutier, 1946); Jerzy
Grotowski, Spre un teatru sărac [Towards a Poor Theatre ] (București: Editura Unitext, 1998), p.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 269
actor and has made him the main vector of this theatrical renewal. And
when the focus is on inter-human relationships, automatically we are no
longer bound by time or place.
The definition that Brook assigns to the empty space, and which we
stated at the beginning, is perhaps the most complete and appropriate
definition of theatre. Thus, we come to the conclusion that the renewal of
the theatre consisted in its return to its original state, to its very definition.
For the ancient Greeks, theatron (θέατρον) meant the place where they met
to look directly at the actors who played. But it was not just the act of
looking. Since that time, the theatre has entailed a meditation on the seen
and even upon the act of seeing; looking has become a “thoughtful glance”
and an incentive for imagination. Because theatre actually means, beyond its
material aspects, a search for meaning. Greek tragedy therefore remains the
canonical model of theatrical minimalism, i.e. the most efficient model – and
a kind of “Paradise Lost”, nostalgia for which would be shared by opera
creators at the end of the 16th century, reformers of opera and theatre in the
18th century, and even those of the 20th century. Seen in this perspective,
theatre history is an illustration of the myth of the eternal return.
270 Mihuț: Practices and Theories
Artaud, Antonin. Le Théâtre et son double. In Œuvres, p. 505–9. Paris: Éditions
Brook, Peter. Fără secrete: gânduri despre actorie și teatru [There Are No Secrets:
Thoughts on Acting and Theatre]. București: Editura Nemira, 2012.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Touchstone, Rockefeller Center, 1996.
Craig, Edward Gordon. On the Art of the Theatre. Memphis: General Books, 2009.
Dullin, Charles. Souvenirs et notes de travail d'un acteur. Paris: O. Lieutier, 1946.
Francastel, Pierre. Realitatea figurativă [Figurative Reality]. București: Editura
Grotowski, Jerzy. Spre un teatru sărac [Towards a Poor Theatre]. București: Editura
Ichim, Florica, and Anca Mocanu, eds. Liviu Ciulei acasă și-n lume: Antologie
teatrologică [Liviu Ciulei at Home and in the World: Theatrological Anthology]. 3
vols. București: Fundația Culturală „Camil Petrescu”, Revista „Teatrul azi”,
Ionesco, Eugène. Între viață și vis. Convorbiri cu Claude Bonnefoy [Between Life and
Dreams: Discussions with Claude Bonnefoy]. București: Editura Humanitas,
Quillard, Pierre. “De l′inutilité absolue de la mise en scène exacte“. In Revue d′art
dramatique, tome XXII, avril-juin, 1891. Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1971.
Stanislavski, Constatin S. Viața mea în artă [My Life in Art]. București: Editura Cartea
Wagner, Richard. Oper und Drama. Leipzig: J.J. Verlag, 1852.
Minimalism and Popularity in Hungary
in the 1980s: Group 180
Group 180, founded in Budapest in 1979, was committed primarily to
presenting and introducing works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. It soon
became known not only in Hungary but also abroad, and managed to
establish a personal relationship with the American composer Steve Reich.
In a letter to the members of the group, he declared that their 1984 recording
of his Octet and Vermont Counterpoint was the best apart from that of his own
orchestra.1 In addition, the debut of the group in Zurich received a positive
critical response.2 In a 1989 study in the prestigious journal American Music,
Brent Helsinger referred to the recordings of Group 180 as clear instances of
minimalism applying in the mainstream of European concert life. 3 The
Western appearance of Group 180 became a topic of discussion in Hungary
as well: János Breuer expressed suspicions that – despite its signs of non-
professional quality – it could have become accepted abroad only as a
The preparation of this study was supported by the National Research, Development and
Innovation Office, project number 123819.
1 “A 180-as csoport tagjai: ‘Visszahang’” [Members of Group 180: “Echo”], Muzsika 27/12
(December 1984): 47. Sándor Kovács’s criticism appeared in “Napjaink zenéje” [The music of
today], Muzsika (August 1984): 12–15.
2 Julianna Wirthmann, “Visszhang” [Echo], Muzsika 27/10 (October 1984): 47–48.
3 Brent Helsinger, “American Minimalism in the 1980s,” American Music 7/4 (Winter 1989):
272 Dalos: Minimalism and Popularity in Hungary
curiosity: a group from behind the Iron Curtain playing banned American
Breuer’s negative view of Group 180’s professionalism concurred
with the domestic reception of the group at the time. To understand the
discussions around its activities, it is important to emphasize that some of
the American minimalist repertoire was already known in Hungary at that
time. As the critic Sándor Kovács remarked in 1984, performances of Reich
works in a Budapest concert hall were no longer an “act” in the “vehement
sense of the word. […] Listening to Reich’s music doesn’t mean any more
listening [to it] as opposed to something else, but listening to music besides
many other things.”5 The critic’s phrasing shows that public performance of
American experimental music in Hungary in the mid-1980s was not seen as
political resistance, but as one possible direction in a plural musical culture.
The recognition given to minimalism arose from another group of
composers and musicians, the New Music Studio, founded in 1972. This was
influenced by American experimentalism, especially that of John Cage. It put
several minimalist pieces into its concert programs from 1975, mainly ones
that a small group of musicians could perform.6 One New Music Studio
member, László Vidovszky gave a lecture on May 18, 1975, on the works of
La Monte Young, Reich, Glass and Terry Riley, sourced mainly from Michael
Nyman’s book on American experimentalism, which at that time was
available only in English.7 Moreover, the mediation of Frederic Rzewski and
4 János Breuer, “Az édentől keletre?” [East of Eden?] Muzsika 27/10 (October 1984): 34.
5 Kovács, “Napjaink zenéje,” 13.
6 Tünde Szitha, “Az amerikai minimálzene hatása az Új Zenei Stúdió zeneszerzőire az 1970–es
és 1980-as években” [The influence of American minimalism on the composers of the New
Music Studio in the 1970s and 1980s], Magyar Zene 38/2 (May 2000): 127–139; 130.
7 Szitha, “Az amerikai minimálzene hatása,” 130. Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage
and Beyond (New York: Schirmer, 1974.) The Hungarian translation appeared only in 2005.
Michael Nyman, Experimentális zene. Cage és utókora [Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond],
transl. Tibor Pintér (Budapest: Magyar Műhely Kiadó, 2005).
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 273
the support of the US Embassy enabled the New Music Studio to invite
Steve Reich to Budapest, where he gave four lectures in June 1977.8 The
Studio’s concerts of 1970‒1990 included Glass’s works five times, Young’s
twice, Reich’s ten times, Riley’s five times, and Rzewski’s eight times.9 It is
more telling still that in those twenty years, Cage’s works appeared at Studio
concerts 51 times, Stockhausen’s 20 times, and Kurtág’s 21 times. The figures
show clearly the Studio’s stylistic priorities.10
In a study of how American minimalism influenced the members of
the New Music Studio, Tünde Szitha revealed that Zoltán Jeney and László
Vidovszky turned only occasionally to minimalist techniques, while László
Sáry showed a marked predilection for the repetition technique.11 In light of
this, it is surprising that the Group 180 members had such an intensive
relationship with Vidovszky, who had composed the work 190 for them. As
the title suggests, it was intended as a parody, primarily of Rzewski’s and
Reich’s style.12 The closing chorus of Vidovszky’s opera Narcissus and Echo
(1980‒1981) uses repetitive patterns again as an ironic reference. Such ironic
use of the technique reveals Vidovszky’s artistic doubts. His first work on
minimalist principles, C + A + G + E Music no. 2 (1973), also shows in its title
that the starting point of his composing ideas is not Reich or his generation,
but John Cage.
Michael Nyman’s famous book, which brings Cage’s works based on
chance procedures and repetition practice into its investigation of
8 Szitha, “Az amerikai minimálzene hatása,” 130.
9 Zoltán Jeney and Tünde Szitha, “Az Új Zenei Stúdió hangverseny-repertoárja 1970–1990
között” [The concert repertoire of the New Music Studio between 1970 and 1990], Magyar
Zene 50/3 (August 2012): 303–48.
10 Szitha, “Az amerikai minimálzene hatása,” 131–32.
11 Szitha, “Az amerikai minimálzene hatása,” 132–33.
12 Szitha, “Az amerikai minimálzene hatása,” 132–33. Vidovszky, however, didn’t mention
that the piece was a parody when speaking about it: László Vidovszky and Kristóf Weber,
Beszélgetések a zenéről [Conversations about music] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 1997), 66–69.
274 Dalos: Minimalism and Popularity in Hungary
experimental music, describes minimalism as a trend that relies primarily on
the reducing the musical means used, while encouraging the listener to
ponder the sounding processes.13 Although this definition identifies two
central features of experimentalism, it fails to clarify that “minimalism”
covers a variety of trends, from simple repeated structures to rock music,
from experiments in music theater to jazz, or motionless music by Morton
Feldman or La Monte Young.14 Richard Taruskin states that the Steve Reich
generation sought to revolutionize new music by turning against not only
the academicist Darmstadt avant-garde but also John Cage’s ideals.15
This rupture is apparent between the composing activities of the
New Music Studio and the Group 180. The reduction of means and the
interest in slow music processes appear in both groups, yet chance
procedures take precedence in the New Music Studio’s musical research.
Continual pulsation, an essential element in repetitive music, need not
appear in their compositions. It is the phases of the steps that create
rhythmic equality, for example, in Jeney’s End Game of 1973, whose musical
process is formed from the final steps of a chess game, a “found object.” So
the whole musical process does not rest on pulsation functioning as a
permanent pattern, as in repetitive music. Jeney’s other pieces take a similar
László Sáry’s compositions are closer to the “classic” form of
minimalism. Tünde Szitha believes that his use of repetition technique
13 Nyman, Experimental Music, 72–75.
14 Nyman introduces in his book all types of minimalism. There have been more experiments
in grouping the trends of minimalism since then: see Helsinger, “American Minimalism in the
1980s,” 433–34; and Peter Niklas Wilson, “Der reduktionistische Impuls: Minimalismus
zwischen Fluxus und Popkultur,” Neuer Zeitschrift für Musik 1616/5 (October-November
2000): 12–15; 14–15.
15 Richard Taruskin, “A Harmonious Avant-Garde? Minimalism: Young, Riley, Reich, Glass;
Their European Emulators,” in The Oxford History of Western Music, Vol. 5 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2005), 351–410; 353.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 275
operated principally to solve formal problems.16 However, it seems more
important to note that Sáry orientated himself in relation to the repeated
directions found in certain board games. This playful character appears
sometimes in the scores, which function primarily as playing instructions
without notes, as in Terry Riley’s composition, I + I, performed by the Studio
using Nyman’s book as a source for the notes.17 Sáry’s affinity for such
musical board games is documented in a later volume, Creative Music
Exercises.18 The board-game character is underlined by the titles, which link
to repeated natural phenomena and visual connotations connected to the
eternal circle: Drop after Drop (1974), Pebble Playing in a Pot (1976), Omphale’s
Spinningwheele (1985), Fives Repeated (1985), The Voice of Time (1988, dedicated
to Group 180), and Sunflower (1989).
Yet the outlook of Sáry’s scores is strikingly traditionalist. This is
reinforced by his fondness for the technique of the canon to create constant
movement and repetition. For example, in his Canon to the Rising Sun (1987)
he writes down the canon melody, referring to the number of repetitions
above the given bars. From the second page Sáry scores a six-part
elaboration of the melody. Sáry’s canons also recall many other techniques
inherited from old musical traditions. Often a hocket appears in the
structure, creating a melody from the notes of the individual voices (Drop
after Drop). Elsewhere, each section is generated from the rotation or
permutation of the same motifs or melodies, so that the repetition is unheard,
yet its presence is clear (Pebble Playing in a Pot, Omphale’s Spinningwheele,
Fives Repeated, Sunflower). The structure of the pieces reflects the pick-up and
delay processes of a board game that comes into being step by step.
16 Szitha, “Az amerikai minimálzene hatása,” 130, 133.
17 Jeney and Szitha, “Az Új Zenei Stúdió,” 316.
18 László Sáry, Kreatív zenei gyakorlatok [Creative Music Exercises] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 1999).
276 Dalos: Minimalism and Popularity in Hungary
There is a recognizable traditionalism in the choice of titles and theirs
connotations as well as in the pieces. These include references to Western
culture. Other compositions of Sáry and Jeney go further in attempting to
incorporate Hungarian musical tradition into the minimalist style. Such
newfound traditionalism contributed much to the growing acceptance for
the Studio on the Hungarian contemporary music scene. This acceptance
was reinforced by the fact that the members of the New Music Studio were
all former students of Budapest’s Liszt Academy of Music, whereas the
Group 180 members seemed to be outsiders to a contemporary observer.
Only three of them had studied at the Academy: Béla Faragó, István Márta,
and András Soós (the latter studied not composition, but choral
conducting). 19 It consisted mainly of musicians studying at the Teacher
Training College in Budapest, such as the composers László Melis and Tibor
Szemző. Due to the unstated hierarchy in Hungarian music, this left them
unable to compete with the members of the New Music Studio, and not only
due to their being a generation younger. So their professional status was
fundamentally determined by this drawback: they were seen as dilettantes,
as instrumentalists, and as composers.
Sándor Kovács, for example, saw a kind of make-believe in the
program notes the composers wrote for their pieces, which they presented as
master works “rich in underlying layers.”20 Yet according to Kovács these
“arty” pieces are at best exercises in repetitive style or copies of classical
repetition music. The dilettantism emerged in Steve Reich’s second,
scandalous visit to Budapest in 1985, at the invitation of Group 180. The
poster advertised a concert that failed to occur. Tibor Szemző announced on
stage that the American guest would present a paper instead of a concert,
19 See Máté Hollós, Az életmű fele. Zeneszerzőportrék beszélgetésekben [The first part of an oeuvre.
Composer portraits in conversations] (Budapest: Akkord, 1997). The conversation with
András Soós is on pages 94–98.
20 Sándor Kovács, “Korunk zenéje ’82” [The music of today 1982], Muzsika (January 1988): 19–
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 277
but in the end the program changed again, with Reich willing only to
respond to questions and show a film displayed a few days before.21
Another aspect made the work of Group 180 still more suspect: it
was attracting a new audience to concert life. Sándor Kovács was surprised
that crowds were waiting to enter the authors’ night of István Márta,
although all tickets had been sold. 22 János Mezei was shocked by the
audience’s response to the music: “Their spontaneous reaction after the
concert slightly reminded me of popular music events.”23 Kristóf Csengery,
hinting at the audience’s socialization in popular culture rather than classical
music, pointed out that the audience did not notice the anchor’s mistake in
speaking about Bartók’s 45th String Quartet, but snorted when she
misnamed the concert’s main organizer, the composer Tibor Szemző.24
As Richard Taruskin put it, American minimalism was part of 1960s
counterculture. It opened concert life to a new audience without traditional
music education, which came from outside Western concert practice.25 This
audience music conveyed a communal, somewhat esoteric experience.26 A
similar process ensued in Hungary: the Group 180 audience came largely
from the rock-music sphere. It was no coincidence that Tibor Szemző’s
Optimistic Performance (1988) accompanied its imitation of Jewish cantillation
with amplified rock music. So the Group 180 members must have decided
consciously to operate at the borders between dilettantism and
professionalism as a reproach to academic concert activity. Yet it signified a
professional demand that the Group aimed to work with the Amadinda
Percussion Group, founded in 1984, one result of which was a joint first
21 Kristóf Csengery, “Hangverseny” [Concert], Muzsika (June 1985): 39–43; 39.
22 Kovács, “Korunk zenéje ’82,” 21.
23 János Mezei, “Hangverseny” [Concert], Muzsika 33/6 (June 1990): 44–45; 45.
24 Csengery, “Hangverseny,” 40.
25 Taruskin, “A Harmonious Avant-Garde?”, 363.
26 Taruskin, “A Harmonious Avant-Garde?”, 383, 407.
278 Dalos: Minimalism and Popularity in Hungary
Budapest performance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim in October 1984, only three
years after its American première.27
It is unquestionable that there are pieces by the Group 180 that
follow classical models of repetitive music. The ground for these is the
continual rhythmic pulsation accompanied by repetition of motifs and
melodies. Works like László Melis’s Etude for Three Mirrors (1980) and
Ceremony (1981), Tibor Szemző’s Water-Wonder (1982), Béla Faragó’s Seiko for
100 quartz watches (1984) or István Márta’s Doll’s House Story (1985) for the
newly founded Amadinda Percussion Group represent various versions of
this classical repetition style. Béla Faragó’s The Spider’s Wedding (1982) for
five tom-toms, with its detailed instructions, follows the concept of a board
game in the same way as Sáry’s compositions. One can notice in these pieces
typical features of American repetitive music: the form is constructed from
rhythmic patterns and repeated motivic or melodic sections, the music
sometimes reinforced electronically and the steady, slow change of the
sound in the forefront. They turn against the use of the twelve-tone scale to
build a new diatonic harmony.
The most successful work in this early minimalism of Group 180 is
Faragó’s piece for ten instruments, The Spider’s Death (1983). One hears
clearly the changes in the different sections. Faragó uses two types: one is a
transformation, where one section gradually takes shape from another such
that only some of the ten parts vary while the other instruments remain
unchanged. This layer is permanent, although it also undergoes small
changes. The other type appears as sudden changes representing new
thematic material in the new section. Here the key too alters. The piece
follows a conscious key plan coincident with the changes in the sections: D
dorian–D minor–A minor–F minor–D minor. The D minor sections are
27 Kristóf Csengery, “Korunk zenéje, 1984” [The music of today 1984], Muzsika 27/12
(December 1984): 21–28; 28.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 279
thematically akin and the end of the piece recalls the beginning. Each part
forms an autonomous layer, which allows the use of counterpoint between
the parts. As in repetitive works in general, but especially Faragó’s works,
much of the originality stems from the colors of the instrumentation. That
applies particularly to the oboe solo (after “C”) and the deep bass of the
trumpet (13 after H).
However, the Group 180 members followed the practice of the
classical school of repetition only in this early period; they soon began
seeking new ways toward personal styles. Faragó’s professor at the
Academy of Music, the modernist Attila Bozay, described the young
composer’s aim as “to make the repetition style more individualized.”28 The
directions in Faragó’s search are clear: the lyric sound and jazzy effects of
Whenever You’re Away for two guitars (1985), the use of sitar and tabla in Has
It Not Become Colder? (1986), and the short distinctive miniatures of Musica
Ficta (1987) show an openness toward jazz, eastern music practices, and
Robert Schumann. This “individualization” of the repetitive style, however,
is rooted in European tradition and a clear sign of the Western musical
thinking from which minimalism, originally, in the 1960s, had wanted to
“Individualization” thus means in this case “Europeanization.” It is
telling that Faragó applies a Nietzschean sentence quoted from The Gay
Science in his Has It Not Become Colder? Franz Kafka’s writings are the main
source of inspiration in The First Day (1979) and in Gregor Samsa’s Desire
(1987–1991). In A Note on a Dream (1990), Faragó depicts one of his own
dreams.29 In connection with the “Spider” trilogy (The Spider’s Orgy, The
Spider’s Wedding, The Spider’s Death), Márta Grabócz speaks of the composer
28 László Magács, Faragó Béla zeneszerző [Béla Faragó, the composer] (Budapest: private edition,
29 Faragó speaks about the program of the piece in his self-analysis: see Attila Retkes, Young
Composers’ Group, Anthology IV, CD-booklet, HCD 31192 (Budapest: Hungaroton, 1995), 7–8; 8.
280 Dalos: Minimalism and Popularity in Hungary
having a private mythology.30 All this indicates that there is a message in
Faragó’s compositions: explicit, unsaid content in the background of the
works that plays a key role.
Steve Reich emphasized in his study “Music as a Gradual Process”
the idea that one of the most important features of minimalist work is that it
contains no secrets that cannot be heard.31 This he asserts not only of the
structure and shaping of pieces, but of hidden programs behind them as
well. Faragó’s works, however, cannot disguise their author’s experience in
classical music training. He works with traditional forms. A Note on a Dream,
for example, follows Bartók’s arch form (A1-B1-C-B2-A2); according to the
author’s self-analysis, the central C section creates a classical variation.32
Márta Grabócz saw classical movement types in László Melis’s Etude for
Three Mirrors.33 Clearly the Group members moved toward the classical
tradition and soon turned their backs on the anti-traditionalist ideals of early
minimalism. Their interest in early music is revealed already in András
Soós’s MA thesis (1980), where he derives minimalist music from the
repertoire of the twelfth-century Leoninus, from canon technique, from
tenor mass practice, and from Bach’s C major Prelude in the first volume of
Wohltemperiertes Klavier.34 István Márta, who was concurrently a member of
both the Group and an early music ensemble, often used Baroque pseudo-
quotations conspicuously in his works (Our Hearts – Fragment of a Requiem,
30 Márta Grabócz, “180-as lemez: másodszor” [Disc of Group 180: second time], Muzsika 30/2
(February 1987): 46–47; 47.
31 Steve Reich: “Music as a Gradual Process,” in Writings on Music, 1965–2000 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002), 34–35.
32 Faragó in Retkes, Young Composers’ Group, Anthology IV , 7.
33 Márta Grabócz, “Magyar és amerikai szerzők minimálzenéje. Melis László, Steve Reich,
Frederic Rzewski és Szemző Tibor műveiről” [Minimal music of Hungarian and American
composers: About the works of László Melis, Steve Reich, Frederic Rzewski and Tibor
Szemző], in Zene és narrativitás. [Music and narrativity] (Pécs: Jelenkor, 2003), 200–204; 204.
34 András Soós, Út a legújabb zenéhez [Road to the newest music], MA thesis (Budapest: Liszt
Academy of Music, 1980), 15–17.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 281
1983, Blinds, 1985). In this respect, his J. M. W.’s Strange Meeting with Romeo
and Juliet (1986) marks the peak in a process of linking of repetitive music
with Baroque formulae of motion, which appears foremost in the fast
movements of concertos. Allusions of this kind to the history of music
clearly propelled Hungarian minimalists into the terrain of postmodern
The turn to tradition led István Márta toward using Hungarian folk
music elements in his works. This appears in his four-part composition,
Lesson 24 – Christmas Day (1981), which uses a pentatonic motif throughout.
The motif, echoing the famous Peacock melody used by Kodály in his
Peacock Variations, appears in all four movements, undergoing a radical
change from a chorale-like setting through jazzy solo improvisations and use
of medieval rhythmic modes combined with the effect of a jazz orchestra.
Márta quotes Hungarian folk music in The Wind Rises I (1987) and Doom – a
Sigh (1989) as a layer with a montage structure. Here a clear shift is seen in
Márta’s œuvre from classical repetition-based structures toward use of
montages, found objects, and electronic devices.35 László Melis experimented
in similar directions in Maldoror’s Songs, as did Tibor Szemző in The Sex
Appeal of Death (1981).36 The latter, though he uses elements of repetition,
focuses primarily on a long bass bourdon, coupled with a reading by a child
of a philosophical text full of strange words. The reading and the bourdon
together create an alienated effect: an unemotional talk about death.
35 Hollós, Az életmű fele, 60.
36 Márta Grabócz, “Élet tizenhárom évet…és feltámadt… Századunk zenéje. A Magyar Rádió
hangversenyciklusa 1988-ban” [It has lived for 13 years…and resurrected. Music of our
century. The concert series of the Hungarian Radio in 1988], Muzsika 31/8 (August 1988): 20–
282 Dalos: Minimalism and Popularity in Hungary
András Soós’s withdrawal from the Group in 1983 exemplifies how
members sought different ways out of classical minimalism. 37 The very
question was whether repetitive music could move forward at all. In his
Forgotten Melodies No. 1 (1983) and Open Dialogue (1986) the strongest feature
is use of a poco rubato instruction opposed to the constant pulsation of the
earlier repetition-based works. Particularly noticeable is the absence in Open
Dialogue of the tone C, whose emancipation had been a banner of the
minimalists since Terry Riley’s In C.38 The compositions of András Soós
document more than anything else a questioning of the possibilities and
future of the repetition-based music. All members of Group 180 turned their
backs on Hungary’s short-lived musical minimalism after some years of
seeking new directions, whether in electronic music, experiments with
theater or films, church music, or jazz-tinged neo-romanticism. László
Vidovszky’s doubts, it seems, proved legitimate.
37 His ’classical minimalist’ compositions are: Hangszínjáték [Play in colors and sounds] (1981),
Glasmusik II (1982), Pitch Control I (1986, dedicated to László Vidovszky), and Pith Control II
(1987, rev. 1990).
38 Soós himself refers to this in his MA thesis: Soós, Út a legújabb zenéhez, 17. It is important to
mention that all movements in István Márta’s piano piece cycle 100 kis zongoradarab [100 little
piano pieces] are in C.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 283
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