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Music

György Ligeti (1923-2006)

How many of you listen to "modern music" (i.e. Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Kurtág, Xenakis, etc.) for sheer pleasure? I've been into this stuff since very early childhood so it's just as pleasurable for me to listen to a Mahler symphony as a Stockhausen opera.

But I completely understand the fact that our 21st century ears are still plugged into the 19th century ... our "pop" music is diatonic, the TV jingle is diatonic, the scores for Star Wars are definitely diatonic (or sometimes chromatic ... chromaticism can be used in both a diatonic and dodecaphonic context).

Most people react to non-diatonic music with a feeling of having listened to noise, incoherent musical sounds, or -- often -- just an annoying waste of time.

So I propose this experiment. Listen to all or some of the following four compositions by György Ligeti and observe your reactions:

  1. Atmosphères (1961)
  2. Requiem (Kyrie) (1963-65)
  3. Lux Aeterna (1966)
  4. Aventures (1962)

The first work is for orchestra; the other three all involve singers.

2001: A Space Odyssey
directed by Stanley Kubrick

Yes, I'm certain most of you recognized the above music as part of the score of this cinematic masterpiece from 1968. Were you able to enjoy the music on its own merits, or did you immediately begin to associate the sounds with images from the film?

It's not an academic question, because audio and visual cues comingle in our brains, and sometimes fuse together!

  • Atmosphères plays over the first three minutes of the film, before the MGM logo even appears. You could say that the music "sets the mood," or in its urgency, is subtly telling the audience to quit jabbering and prepare for the experience. But if you soak up this non-visual prelude, you will find a gigantic pay-off later in the film.
  • The next Ligeti we hear is when the apes meet the monolith -- the music is the Kyrie from the Requiem. This music will accompany every appearance of the monolith, except the final one. We see the syzygy as the music reaches a peak and Kubrick cuts it off abruptly. The camera looks out on the African plains and the Moonwatcher episode begins, culminating in the bone/satellite Also Sprach section.
  • Lux Aeterna makes its first appearance when Floyd's shuttle is approaching the monolith site. The music takes a break while the crew has sandwiches and coffee, and then resumes until it turns back into the Kyrie -- the leitmotif of the monolith -- and is overwhelmed by the high-pitched shriek of the radio signal.
  • If your home-video version leaves out the Intermission, you've missed Atmosphères again. Shorter than the opening cut, but still an important cue to what will come next.
  • A supertitle: "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite." Kyrie returns as we observe another syzygy -- this time from Jupiter. We hear almost the entire movement (Kyrie eleison = Lord, have mercy) -- nature's cosmic terror; mercy seems irrelevant!
  • Now the payoff from having heard Atmosphères so often. As Bowman passes through the Star Gate, and we observe his face in a frozen scream, we hear ten minutes of music, accompanying one of the best-known scenes in cinematic history.
  • In the alien apartment, we now hear Aventures for the first time. Strange vocal noises pierce what seems like silence.

The actual techniques Ligeti used to compose these works is fascinating, maybe a subject for a future post.

Oh yes -- Kubrick and all his lawyers somehow neglected to pay (or even correctly credit) Ligeti for his brilliant music. Ligeti sued; it was settled, and all must have been forgiven, for Christiane Kubrick accompanied Ligeti to the premiere of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), after Stanley's death.


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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly

Radio

I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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