Conversation with Ligeti at Stanford

presented in Monk Mink Pink Punk #9

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Interview by Louis Christensen, California, 1972
first published in Numus-West, No.2, 1972
prepared for the web by Josh Ronsen, February 2003


LOUIS CHRISTENSEN: Now that you have been here for a quarter at Stanford, how would you assess the differences between the new music atmosphere here on the West Coast compared to Central Europe?
GYORGY LIGETI: I think it's not a musical question; it's a general culture question. I don't know the East Coast. This the first time I have been to America, and I have come directly to the West Coast. If instead of San Francisco I had come to the East Coast, perhaps it would not be so different from Europe; but here the situation is very different.

I think to have a highly artistic culture level or atmosphere, you have to have large cities and very much communication between individuals; for instance, composers between composers, painters between painters. If I think of painters, they enter exhibitions and competitions and find out what everybody is doing.

But I have concentrated on music and only on composition. The fact is that here, on the West Coast there is one very large city, which is Los Angeles but it's not a real city and then San Francisco, a real city but a smaller one and then (I was never outside of California) I know San Diego, which is a small city.

In Central Europe you are very quickly informed about everybody. For instance, I am living in Germany and Austria I know what Stockhausen is doing, what Kagel is doing, what somebody, perhaps some new man in Italy is doing, and so on because the distances are very short.

There's no longer a single center for new music. Even the central position of Cologne is no longer at the level of importance that it was in the '50s when everybody came to Cologne and met and had a common interest. But those mutual influences still exist because there are many cities and every city has some activity. If I consider activity in only one city, it's very poor; but together there is this question of the quantity; which at the moment gives a quality of...

LC: A kind of interaction?
GL: An interaction, yes. So, you do not have to wait. For instance an example: One of the, I think, very important new pieces is Kagel's Staatsthearter in Hamburg. Now, you can have information of this piece from music reviews or newspapers or perhaps after some time you can see in TV or in movies an excerpt from this piece. You can hear after two or three years the gramophone recording of the piece, which is not enough because you have to see the piece, too.

But really to be informed of what a piece is you have to be there and see it live. Now, Hamburg is very close to everywhere, so it was very simple for everyone who was interested to go to Hamburg and see the piece. And I think this is an advantage. I don't think there are better composers or a better artistic cultural situation in Central Europe. For instance, in many respects I have here in America a better feeling, better than in middle Europe because people are much more free, they are much more open open to everything.

LC: Receptive?
GL: Receptive. Not so much this prejudice of old tradition or this false proudness of tradition, which, for instance, is a very typical Viennese attitude. But this is lacking here. This is good.

But one of the advantages of Middle and West Europe is that people who want to have quick information can have it immediately and do not have to wait, for two years or three years.

Let me tell you an example. Coming to America, I (it has nothing to do with the West Coast) have heard for the first time in my life some compositions of Steve Reich, and I was very impressed with them. If, for instance, Reich would be in the same situation in Europe, immediately everybody would have heard his pieces. Here, because of the geographical situation, the cities are isolated. You can fly in four or five hours to New York, but you don't fly there. This is one of the problems here.

So, in some ways my feeling for the situation here in composition is that it is provincial, provincial in that people are still in a university or a town or in a conservatory being there, developing their own ideas. This is very well but not having enough communication with other people forces you very often to have to "invent the wheel."

LC: You have to do everything yourself.
GL: Yes, yes, to start from the beginning. You have this feeling?
LC: Yes! That's the reason that I throw myself into this crazy do-it-yourself project with NUMUS-WEST. Why can't we have some of that exchange of information, the result of which ought to be a generation of a better climate for new music, for new works.
GL: Absolutely! Sure! But then, even the personal presence is important... to be there and hear the new piece... immediately. Even if there was good communication from San Diego to Vancouver on this, I do not think this is enough. It's bad that the East Coast is so very far away and Europe is very far away.

The question is whether to be a good composer it's necessary to have very much information. If you are Mussorgsky or Charles Ives or Harry Partch--this kind of original talent does not need it. They are exceptions; and people exactly like Ives or Ruggles or John Cage even, these are very typical American products doing everything themselves.

LC: Yes, all they need is already in the environment they're in.
GL: Yes, and communication from the outside is not very important. Now they, I think, are exceptional persons and for many composers and artists in general it's very important to see what other people are doing and then to reflect... "oh, perhaps I have to make a revision of my thoughts, because that is something interesting. I don't want to do it, but it gives me some idea of how to go." It depends on the type of individual.

I can relate an experience I have had here which is not from music but which was very striking to me: I was in San Diego and some people, composers among them, told me of new experiments with laser beams for use in the modern theater for the purpose of having multi-dimensional decorations.

LC: Light effects?.
GL: Yes, light effects, and they invented this application there. Then, two days later I was in Valencia at California Institute of Arts and somebody told me exactly the same thing: "We have invented a new application for laser beams." I think perhaps it's not only the geography of the situation (they are three hours away from each other); it's the attitude or educational tradition of Americans, especially in the West, to be pioneers and to make everything by themselves, to invent.
LC: That's a wonderful idea. I think that strikes very deep to the attitudes the farther you move West... You must do everything pretty well yourself.
GL: I think coming to America has given me very interesting experiences. The most interesting thing for me was the work of John Chowning with the computers right here at Stanford because I think the real computer music begins with this. Until now they have made composing programs or very poor experiments in acoustics. I think Chowning is the first who puts the two things together and composes directly with the computer and composes music which is entirely based on the thinking possibilities... (not of the computer; the computer is doing what you want it to)... but on this feedback effect that the use of computers has on the thinking of the composers.

So I think this is so important that you can compare it with the situation at the Cologne electronic studio in 1952-53, the beginning of a new thing. I had no information of it in Europe. Nobody in Europe, I think, has information of just what is going on here at Stanford.

LC: But they'll have it now, through NUMUS-WEST [and MMPP -ed.]
GL: Yes, now, it begins. I told you before, I came here without knowing it existed. As I told you, I like very much for instance, a composer I mentioned, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Harry Partch. These were some regions of music I didn't know. So this was very new and striking.

I think Europe is also closed inside because, for instance, information of new things happening in America especially on the West Coast, is very poorly known in Europe. Or what is happening in Japan is very poorly known in Europe. Central Europe has only the advantage that its closed area is large enough to have an inside culture competition between... for instance, somebody hears a new piece of Stockhausen and he thinks, "Oh I want to do something else, but on another level." You have to do what you do on a very, very high level. This is lacking here. It's more an approach of trial-and-error..

LC: Pioneers, that's it! That's us!
GL: It's a fact. It's something very different.
LC: Well, then, if we may turn to Ligeti the composer. Have you had a chance to get acquainted with synthesizers?
GL: Yes, but I personally am more interested in the possibilities of doing work with computers. Have you heard John Chowning's pieces?
LC: Yes, and I think it was one of the most "mind-expanding" experiences I've had, because the illusion of the motion in space is more real than one that's real, through this perfect calculation of what becomes strong Doppler effect The one drawback, of course, that every time you use electronic sound you are losing something that nature has...
GL: Yes, exactly. You can produce reverberance electronically, but not the same. It's not the same. Let me tell you something. If I hear only recorded music, it can be tape or records, I can forget this typical sound of loudspeakers and I can concentrate on the music; but the moment when live music and music through loudspeakers are mixed (and there are so many pieces of this type now), I am very disturbed because in the real room you have a reflection or reverberance that is the characteristic sound of the space. And then from the loudspeaker there are electronic sounds giving you the illusion of a different magnitude in space because it's the reverberance of the tape and the two things cannot be combined. No I think that the computer has possibilities...
LC: They may get there.
GL: Yes. Everything...
LC: They're just not perfected enough.
GL: Yes but it will be. And then, something which is fantastically new... not to buy instruments but to build programs.
LC: Of the mind.
GL: Yes, the abstract instruments.
LC: Yes, we don't have to ask someone to donate millions of dollars to build a new concrete shape, like Poeme Electronique [the electronic tape created by Varese in 1957 that was played in a curved building designed by Xenakis for the World's Fair. -ed]. You can build whatever shape room you want through the computer. But, we are still faced with the same question: what do we do between now and the time when the computer program is so perfected that it can come close to live sound? In your work--the organ works or your works with the extraordinary complexity of many simultaneous cells moving around--there is that "live"...
GL: Impression or illusion of space. This is on a different level.
LC: But, for example, I never forget the moment of hearing your Requiem live for the first time, because I had just heard nothing like it. Just zero--nothing! And the effect was, as I try to express it, as if I heard the sound bubble up and crawl along the walls and then sort of burst up... Sometimes strange things appeared to happen in mid-space, when the complex sound seemed to burst...
GL: Because of the complexities. It's like an optical illusion. You have a drawing in two dimensions and you give it perspective. This is just subjective; it's not there, but... No, in those days I was constantly thinking of achieving this illusion of a musical space, which only has an acoustical existence in time.

And, therefore, I am now so very interested in John Chowning's work, because without knowing of these possibilities, I was looking in instrumental music for similar results.

LC: Well, what you're saying now is exactly what occurred to me on the way here "My, God! Ligeti has done what Chowning has done analytically by means of programming!"
GL: Yes.
LC: He explained to you, no doubt, like he did to me, how the accepted idea about the nature of tone color turns out to be false. But we wouldn't know that, we would sense it. You sensed it.
GL: Yes, without knowing.
LC: That's right. But he shows that tone color--the interrelationship of overtone amplitudes--is a function of time, not a static. Always the interrelationships change. In other words, the effect is the same fantastic new interplays and new events--as your music creates in space. A marvelous world of microsound events!
GL: I am very much interested in coming back after one or two years to learn more about this; and I have some ideas for pieces, which are only possibilities now.
LC: May we print that?
GL: Yes. Now I have no time because I have to teach here and work on a new piece which is still unfinished.
LC: The radio stations play a role in Europe by sponsoring and broadcasting new music programs, but they don't here... with some rare exceptions.
GL: I know. Now I think that in Europe it's an advantage to have radio stations sponsoring new music. It was better in the '50s, middle good in the '60s, and it's decayed now, you see.
LC: It is?
GL: Yes, it still continues, but there is a general shifting of the interest of radio stations toward TV and popular music. In the '50s there were some of the radio stations, for instance, in Cologne and Baden-Baden and Hamburg, which very much concentrated on sponsoring new music. Now they are not so much interested, but in the meantime the number of sponsoring stations has grown so the opportunities for having commissions from radio stations are the same, only not concentrated on a few. It is a general interest. it's not hot or cold, it's medium!

No, instead of this in America, there are the universities as music centers which doesn't exist in Europe because they have no campuses there and music is not in the universities but in the conservatories and the conservatories are not as traditional as they were before, but...

LC: But their limitations are so severe because of the stipulation that they are for performance training.
GL: Yes, yes, exactly.
LC: So you don't necessarily have the input from composers or music historians The beauty of the American idea is, of course, the interdisciplinary campus.
GL: Yes, which is much much better, I think.
LC: In many ways, especially for some of the ways new music is developing. Now, the next thing is that you have on the American campus not only music but you have art, theater, and ballet. So there are many advantages here. But it's not always professional.
GL: It is mixed. Now, l think that American universities have this advantage, but they have, also the disadvantage that the university is closed in its unity and you live there comfortably, having good discussions in fellowship and all these people coming from the outside remain on the periphery. You are too much closed.

In Europe, for instance, If you are teaching or studying at a conservatory, you belong only "with your little finger" to the conservatory just enough to do your job or to learn your profession and then you have many influences and exchanges of ideas in your life apart from the institution. For instance, there are many festivals in Europe. 90% of the music is bad, but 10% is always interesting and so you have new challenges. Festivals are not so important here.

Now, coming to your question on the radio sponsoring it doesn't exist in America You have here some other sponsoring institutions. Perhaps in Europe the advantage is that new music is broadcast on radio in every country so it's not so centralized, but you can hear all the new pieces.

But an advantage now in America is that recorded music on gramophone records is much more available. These popular and low-priced records there are several labels this doesn't exist in Europe and recordings are on the average much more expensive. Here you have music which is not by the established composers you have quicker recorded information, and you can buy it for three dollars or four dollars or five...

LC: $2 98! [What century was this? -ed.]
GL: Yes, $2 98! This fills the same function as the radio in Europe.
LC: That comparison is marvelous what the radio does in Europe, the cheaper radio does in Europe, the cheaper record labels do in America.
GL: Yes, perhaps not so efficiently. The radio is more efficient because it is quicker. Here you do not always have the contents of the programs announced in advance...
LC: Yes, and that is a serious disadvantage. You cannot make selections. You have to be a fan and hear the entire program, and if you're lucky, there's a radio station in your town that has a weekly new music program ["Commercial Suicide" on KOOP 91.7 FM here in Austin. - ed.]
GL: But I think that in Europe the main information does not come from the music festivals, which are... there are many, many festivals as so people who have time are going there, or, for instance, a composer interested in the compositions of other composers. It's very simple because the distances are so very short, especially short in Germany, so you can hear immediately live new pieces.
LC: Please tell us about your newest piece, Melodien.
GL: It was a wonderful performance in San Francisco [May 17-20, 1972 -ed.]. I couldn't know it beforehand but just going there and seeing that Ozawa knew the score and everybody did their best made it a really wonderful performance and with only two rehearsals.
LC: Too little rehearsal time is one of the things that hold new music back.
GL: But really, this piece, Melodien proves that it is possible because this is one... let me get the score here and I'll show you... it is my absolute most difficult piece... oh, for orchestra, not for chamber music. It is very simply and traditionally notated.

Originally it was notated like an Ives piece in different tempi, but I wanted to reduce it for one conductor, because it's not a large orchestra. Let me show you some very complicated... for instance, in this passage they are playing different tempi, so it's a chaos... but you have to play the dynamic markings very, very exactly if for instance, this tone did not have a mezzo-forte, you could not...

LC: It has to come in and out?
GL: Yes... It is forte at this moment... because everything which is louder is fitting a harmonic scheme; all tones, marked piano are like ornamental tones, so if they are performing very exactly, you can hear a shape... of louder tones.
LC: I know what that reminds me of... In synthesizer music one talks about an "envelope" parameter... and those dynamics work somewhat like an envelope around the body of sound.
GL: I can show you more exactly. I have some pages here of... oh, I think... these two pages. This is the design of the pitches that are determining the simultaneous movement from pitch to pitch. For instance, I have a very compressed cluster; then I expand it like a spider web. Then the minor seconds are going to be major seconds, then minor thirds, and so continually expanding. At this moment it breaks off and only two threads are left, and then they again expand, filling in with more pitches, only there is no harmony because everything consists of melodies, but different melody patterns at different speeds, and always they are aiming for these focal points.

Here, I have a sketch which contains only the pitches which are important... these, expanding or compressing pitches. Then I write in the different melodic shapes very freely. They are independent lines that fit these pitches exactly and also have other pitches. So, in many of these places, for instance, I have a crescendo and diminuendo... the point of crescendo--it's exactly one of these pitches in the underlying structure.

LC: Otherwise it would be just a big blur.
GL: Exactly, having always the twelve pitches...
LC: At all times
GL: Yes, but in this moment if you very quietly play the piece, you have this shape of pitches or intervals or harmonies which are always...
LC: That are brought out...
GL: Exactly. And it is possible to do it because I heard it in San Francisco. And even with two rehearsals it can be done if everybody in the orchestra has good will and if the conductor clearly understands everything. I was very surprised. The thing which I thought would never work, it was fantastically clear. With the Ozawa performance, the theory that two rehearsals are not enough for new music is canceled out.
LC: It's quite an experience to see the score. How long is the performance time?
GL: Oh, between 13 and 14 minutes.
LC: Is this a regular sized orchestra?
GL: No, it's smaller, single winds and only two horns and a small string orchestra. It can even be with soloists in the strings because there is no divisi.
LC: To emphasize the idea of the linearity of the melodies.
GL: Yes. It must not be too blurry. Everything is very clear, like many threads you can see through.
LC: Also, since the dynamics are so important, the changes can be made more pronounced by a single player. A group might blur it.
GL: It is for a group, the size of which is like the Haydn orchestra: six first violins, six seconds, four violas... This is the maximum; I don't want the whole orchestra. The more exacting passages are played by soloists even if it's string orchestra: or I have two violin solos or viola solo, cello solo and a double bass solo.
LC: Now besides the Double Concerto for flute and oboe that you are now finishing, are there other commissions?
GL: Oh, yes I have many plans and there are actual commissions. It's terrible...
LC: To have so many commissions?
GL: Six or seven years ago I would be very lucky to have them; and now have too many. I want to compose a piece for two pianos; and I have all the ideas for the piece. Then, the San Francisco Orchestra has commissioned an orchestra piece, which would be somewhat like Melodien, but even more graphical, more transparent. It's a nobler, more... I want to dabble with this idea of controlling pitches simultaneously, but then giving the possibility of different meters, different tempi and this kind of structure.
LC: So, given this, that makes so much stronger the possibility that you will be back here on the West Coast...
GL: Oh, yes, I will surely come. The first performance should be in San Francisco in April, 1974. I'm not sure of the exact date, and independently, I hope to come back here for six months or so in order to compose pieces with computers [sadly, I do not think this happened -ed.]

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