issue 23 :: June 2014

previous contents next

Interview: György Ligeti

An interview from about 1995 concerning the composer’s Violin Concerto. Originally published in German, translated into English by Peter Stradada, too late to be included in MMPP 9.
Duchesnau: The history of your Violin Concerto is somewhat unusual; there are two versions. The original version was composed November 1990 in Cologne. The soloist was Saschko Gawriloff; the work is also dedicated to him. What prompted you to approach a kind of traditional format again after you already composed a piano concerto (1980-1988) and a cello concerto (1968)?
Ligeti: In 1982 I wrote my Horn Trio, also composed for Saschko Gawriloff. After many performances of this piece, Saschko asked whether I would write a concerto for him and naturally I said yes. When composing the Horn Trio, I looked for an alternative to equal temperament tuning; that always interested me, and the solution I found at that time is directly connected with the instrumentation: the piano is kept in equal temperament, the violin plays in pure fifths, and in the first three movements I wrote for natural horn. Only after I heard these different levels of tuning, I developed the conception for the Violin Concerto. Actually without the Horn Trio there would be no Violin Concerto.
Duchesnau: You initially wrote a three movement version, which you then revised and extended to five movements. The composition of this work, which was premiered in October 1992 in its final form, was obviously not a simple process.
Ligeti: No, not at all. After I heard the first version, I was dissatisfied with two aspects of the piece. I wanted to write a highly virtuoso work in the tradition of the great violin concertos. I always have at the same time an abstract mental picture and a sensuous, tactile feeling for the instruments for which I write. When I had the first ideas for my Piano Etudes or for the Piano Concerto, the physical impression of the piano keys under my fingers became a part of my musical conception. If I imagine a melody or a figure, I must physically sense the instrument, and this was missing with the violin. Before I began to compose the Violin Concerto I had, as always, very intensively studied the technology and the literature of the instrument. My models were Paganini, Ysaye’s Solo Sonatas [for violin, Op. 27], Wieniawski and Szymanowski. However, this did not replace the missing conception of feeling the strings under my fingers. I never played the violin, and was never in the position to feel it. For me to write for the violin was like speaking Japanese!
Duchesnau: Between the two versions of the Violin Concerto, you developed “Loop,” one of the parts of the Sonata for Solo Viola. This piece seems to have caused fewer problems for you.
Ligeti: That is correct, but I couldn’t have composed “Loop” — a very virtuoso, idiomatic piece — as fast, if I had not already worked on the Violin Concerto. If the piece for viola came first, I would have had the same difficulties. When I composed “Loop,” I already solved the basic problem with the violin techniques (for me, the viola is only a larger violin). Thus the second version of the Violin Concerto also came together faster than the first.
Duchesnau: It seems to be also less complex than the first version.
Ligeti: Yes, between the two versions I spent time in the hospital and I used the time to study the late string quartets of Haydn. From Haydn one can learn how to achieve the clearest effect with the simplest means. If he had to decide between a rather ornate structure and a skeleton, Haydn always chooses the skeleton. He does not use a note that is not necessary. I used this principle to avoid unnecessary complexity in the second version of the Violin Concerto and stated that I had came nearer to my ideal conception.
Duchesnau:You spoke of two problematic aspects with the composition of the Violin Concerto. What was second?
Ligeti: I already mentioned that I was on the search for an alternative to equal temperament and that many ideas for the Violin Concerto developed during and after the work on the Horn Trio. In addition to the normal orchestral instruments in the orchestra of the Violin Concerto, there are a violin and a viola scordatura [detuned from the other instruments] as well as many instruments with inaccurate pitches such as ocarina, recorder and slide whistle. I also indicated where I wanted natural horn and natural trombone or where the wind players should play small pitch deviations. I looked for imprecise intonation and a dirty sound. I also wanted more or less pure spectra by means of the two scordatura strings, for which two horns and the trombone produce; I imagined marvelous new harmonies. Particularly in the first movement (“Praeludium: Vivacissimo luminoso”) it was like the shifting of a three-dimensional cross word puzzle, in which the three dimensions — harmony, melody and instrumentation — had to fit perfectly. The work on this first movement, completely developed on the overtones of the scordatura strings, was very laborious. I introduced a Super Gesualdo sound, but the speed is very fast, and the shimmering effect, which I wanted to reach, is perceptible only if everything is played very exactly. In the second movement (“Aria, Hoquetus, Choral: Andante con moto”), the overtones are played by the horns and the trombone, less from the scordatura instruments. I use ocarinas and slide flute in this movement also: totally detuned instruments, which mix with the precise harmonious spectra. In the third movement (“Intermezzo: Presto fluido”) overtones by trombone and horns are predominantly played, and in the fifth movement (“Appassionato: Agitato molto”), the scordatura strings appear again.
Duchesneau: You mentioned your interest in alternative tuning systems. Was Ramifications (1968), in which two string orchestras were tuned a quarter tone apart, the first piece in this direction?
Ligeti: If I look back, it becomes clear me that I – whether consciously or unconsciously – was always on the search for an alternative to twelve-tone equal temperament. I believe the idea actually developed with my piece Atmosphères (1961). When I first heard the shimmering sound, which I could only imagine in earlier times [under Soviet rule, where such ideas were forbidden –Ed.], I understood that what I looked for lay between noise and musical sound. The next step away from equal temperament was the Requiem (1965). In this piece it is not possible for the choir always to intonate correctly: the piece is simply too dense. The shimmering effect automatically results from intonation inaccuracies of a large number of voices and instruments. The idea to write Ramifications in quarter tones came to me after I had heard the Requiem. However, I did not want to write a piece of quarter tone music. On the contrary I was on the search for the iridescent, dirty, shimmering sound from Atmosphères and from the Requiem. Naturally I was influenced by much of what I heard and read, but I had the feeling that I could be led astray from the equal temperament system. In the case of the Horn Trio it was naturally Harry Partch who led me, not so much his music, but his tuning system and its application for his instruments. The Diamond Marimba, which I once played, was for me an important stimulus. Not only Harry Partch, but also different ethnic musics contributed to my increasing rejection of equal temperament. I knew and loved gamelan music since the sixties, and later I heard Iatmul music from a people who live on the Sepik river in New Guinea and whose music system is based on pure overtones. Still later, I became acquainted with Claude Vivier’s strange and singular harmonic language. You can find traces of this in the second movement of my Violin Concerto. Lastly, I must also mention the influence of the Yamaha DX 7 II synthesizer. Although I am impressed by the various sound possibilities of this instrument, I decided in the end not to use it since I do not like its electronic sound. I used it however for the preparation of the piece, in order to experiment with different tuning systems, which I then transferred to acoustic instruments.
Duchesneau: In connection with the Violin Concerto, the composer and musicologist Stephen Ferguson spoke of “Polytemporality,” in order to express the apparently disparate stages of a heterogeneous imagination are explained as homogeneous. Would you say that this applies with the Violin Concerto?
Ligeti: Ferguson’s text is marvelous, but I ask myself, whether, Polytemporality belongs to the world of postmodernism, of which I have very ambivalent feelings. Nevertheless, it is true that I use very heterogeneous elements: I have in the second movement polyphonic technology of Hoquetus David that [Guillaume de] Machauts used [in the 14th century], with the melody of my third Bagatelle for Wind Quintet (1956) as cantus firmus. A further example: the slide whistle and streicherpizzicatoeffekt at the end of the fifth movement originates from Shostakowitch’s Fourth Symphony. Or the Choral at the end of the second movement, which is affected surely by the Choraelen in Stravinski’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920). Many layers of conscious and unconscious influences are linked into an organic, homogeneous whole: African music with fractal geometry, Maurits Escher’s illusions with untempered tuning systems, Conlon Nancarrow’s polyrhythmic music with “Ars Subtilior" [complex 14th Century French music that was often scored in a playful, graphic way, in the shape of a heart, for example]. So that something new and complex can develop, I always try to merge these outside impulses with my internal pictures and ideas.
previous contents next