LIGETI Talks to Adrian Jack

presented in Monk Mink Pink Punk #9


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Interview by Adrian Jack, 1974
first published in Music and Musicians, issue 263, v.22, #11 July 1974
prepared for the web by Josh Ronsen, February 2003

On May 7, the English Bach Festival put on a concert at the Elizabeth Hall of some of Gyorgy Ligeti's most recent works. The program included Melodien, Ten Pieces for wind quintet, the Double Concerto and the British premiere of Clocks and Clouds. Ligeti came over for the occasion from Hamburg, where he has been living since last October, and I went to his hotel to interview him. The room was in a mess, the lounge was crowded, so we decided to go to a coffee shop, but he fled in horror from the Muzak. Eventually we found a deserted conference room back at the hotel. And Ligeti talked. And talked. His disclosures pour out with manic enthusiasm and without punctuation. The grammar is idiosyncratic, the vocabulary limited. When his command of English fails him, he mimes furiously. For the most part I have preserved his original words. Some I have omitted, for in the attempt to shape an idea more distinctly, Ligeti often repeats himself, and others I have changed, doing some shaping myself. -Adrian Jack
ADRIAN JACK: What do you first think of when starting a new work? Many people are obsessed with the textures of your pieces. I wonder to what extent you think of the overall form and how you engineer that. Then how do you arrive at the details, and how do you decide what the harmonic content should be, for instance?
GYORGY LIGETI: I could tell it very exactly, but I have to simplify.
AJ: If you like, you can talk about one piece very exactly.
GL: No, let me first think generally. I can say the first idea of a piece is always music—not sound—but really music. I tell you something: everything comes from when I was young, 14 or 15 years old—I came very late to music. I began to study piano when I was 14 years old, and immediately I began to compose. I remember from this time I was very involved in music—it was Beethoven symphonies. We lived in a very provincial town in Transylvania, and I began to have this custom if I was going to school, 15 minutes from home to school, to imagine music (it was Beethoven-like because of what I had heard in symphony concerts or on the radio). It had to be a short symphony or a piano concerto—anyway, it had to be a whole piece from home to school. And if I had a longer way, for instance to my piano teacher, it was about 40 minutes, so I had time for a Tchaikovsky-like work. And perhaps this is the method which I have maintained all the time for composing music. The first thing is always to listen to the music, though I no longer imagine Tchaikovsky-like sounds.

I can tell you why I am not interested first and foremost the methods. This comes from the custom of performing concerts in my own imagination, and therefore it is for me so primary and important the piece as it will really sound. So I imagine the piece--not generally, but as sound going from the beginning to the end. It will change very much when it is written, but that is always the first thing. And I have to listen to it ten times, perhaps 100 times, this imagination, repeat it always.

Then comes the real construction of the score, which is according to this imagination, but there is always a feedback. When I am beginning to write the piece, I find that I have always to change my first imagination. The final piece is absolutely not the same as my first imagination. I make certain plans, but the piece is never fitting these plans. In any case the next step is always to have a drawing—no notes. I am never writing directly scores. They are very similar to what is called graphic notation, but I did that only one time, in Volumina, my organ piece. I make drawings and colors which have meanings only for me—a scenario with cue words... which kind of texture—only to help me.

After many such sketches I transform into notation. And I prefer the traditional notation, especially for larger ensembles. I write in the language of the orchestral players because there is no time to explain. If for instance, the piece is very simple—take for instance many Penderecki pieces (I like them very much), like Fluorescences or Anaklasis—they have a new kind of notation, effective, very adequate to the piece. Because my pieces are much more complex, I have to give details for the players which would be too simplified with graphical notation. My notation has perhaps, a very large percentage of redundancy. Many people ask, 'Why are you always precise?' You see if I would not notate it so precisely, the result would be under the level I want. I'm more precise than is necessary. I have also this idea: if you are some people dealing with computers, you have to transform, you cannot speak with the computer. So for me people are people, but the orchestras are complexities or a human machine, and I have my piece in the language of this machine. People say, 'Oh Ligeti, he is traditional.' But I always say, 'But my music is absolutely not traditional in sound and in form. Only my means are traditional, because to use the existing musical production possibilities--orchestra, string quartet, theatre, opera.' If I write electronic music, naturally I will write scores which will fit the electronic equipment. But I use humans who have a conservatory study. They have not to think what this note means: they immediately play it.

AJ: You say that, while the notation is traditional, the sounds and the form are not. What is untraditional about the form?
GL: I would like to make in every new piece an overall formal process which is quite unique. So it should be no scheme. If you take for instance traditional sonata form or rondo form, this is one thing, but even if you go to Cage's music, or music like happenings, given the methods you can predict what will happen. In any case my pieces are not so very different. Every piece is somewhat different but not absolutely. But I am much concerned with having different formal [patterns]. For instance one piece which is vanishing, or another which will be cut. I think now of Debussy. He abandoned traditional forms. For instance, if I take a work like Jeux, what happens in the details is very traditional, the waltz pattern of rhythm, but you never can predict what will be the next one. So from this point of view I am very close to both Debussy's and Boulez's approach to music, and therefore I am interested to have only the new kind of form.
AJ: So you're not interested in establishing types, because Jeux and the forms of Boulez's music are too complex to create a precedent.
GL: Exactly.
AJ: But do you arrive at an idea of form intuitively, because after all you did follow a method in Atmospheres—the sections are proportionally related—and in Apparitions there is a serial scheme, isn't there?
GL: Yes, exactly. But if I apply a method or a scheme or a pattern, I don't want to repeat it. The musical language or the style—because I am the same—is not changing very much. But even so, there was a change, because at the time of Apparitions, Atmospheres and the Requiem, I was more concerned with this thick polyphony which destroyed harmony and rhythm. Then came a reaction against myself. At one time rhythmic patterns and harmonies and intervals were boring for me, and therefore I destroyed them, but now the destruction of the patterns is boring too and so, in my Chamber Concerto, for instance, I have come back to very clear melodic patterns in a new way. For instance Atmospheres is built on very clear proportions with a certain construction. The next piece, Volumina, which is very close to Atmospheres, is not based on arithmetical proportions. This is longer and this is shorter...
AJ: It's more sculptural...
GL: Exactly. To make from time a kind of sculpture. Sculpture which is empty. And next, if I go to Aventures, which was immediately after Volumina, there was no more proportions, no sculptural or geometrical proportions, but different times of emotional reactions which will be frozen—deep-frozen and transformed in a musical form. Also I had different layers which are simultaneous. Or in Melodien, where harmonic fields attract the melody. If you would see the sketches, not the drawn sketches but the first scored sketches, there are always two lines above—two systems—having all those intervals, so I had those intervals and the time, and the melodies had to fit those intervals, not exactly, but...
AJ: But how did you decide those intervals? Was there some kind of method?
GL: Yes. You see this kind of more constructive work is at the first moment imagination. Let us take the beginning of Melodien. There are chromatic scales in many instruments, you have a whole space—you know, intervals—which is filled up with scales. The first imagination was not exactly which pitches, but only ascending streams which are combed through so that certain pitches will fall out. Then I have a next comb which is more...[demonstrates different spacings between his fingers]
AJ: You filter them, in other words.
GL: I filter them, yes, until only one top note remains. This was an overall process which was a musical imagination. Then I made a drawing. The drawing is this kind of very dense picture showing the filtering and also the bands of scales becoming narrower and going in the high registers, Then comes the next step: fixing the lowest and the highest. Oh, it's more or less arbitrary—not arbitrary, but it's in proportion with other [pitch limits]. For instance, if you take this lowest point and highest point and other points, pitches or intervals in the piece, the overall form is like a skeleton, which is very defined. It's not told if this has to be a central note which is C and the other has to be E flat. At first it’s only in this region, but then I fix it exactly. Take a piece like Lontano. It begins with an A flat, and after a time everything is on many octaves of C. So important for me was the major 3rd, which is dominating in all this piece. So these main constructive pitches give on the overall form—they never repeat themselves, so this is something coming from twelve-note music, though the music has no twelve-tone structure. This is partly imagination without exact definition and partly definition which comes afterwards.
AJ: You said before that you didn't like repeating yourself in forms. Nevertheless a number of your pieces conform to the two movement idea of sostenuto and then agitato. Isn’t there a contradiction between the fact that you like pieces to dissolve into the air, as it were, as if the sound had always been there, yet you split them into separate movements? Stockhausen has said that the time has passed for having separate movements, that it is a dualistic idea.
GL: Yes. You see for me in my music these two main types—this continuous type and the splintered type—are about the same. I had this imagination that music was there, is there and will be there. We are looking at it as through a frame. So if my pieces have a beginning and an end, they are only a frame. Now coming back to these two opposite types which is very static and very [mobile]. The structure or rather the texture is the same in the two types, only one type is the whole and then I take a scissor and make from this a small section, These sections are always static inside. The most typical is the Ten Pieces for wind quintet. For instance in this piece, the ten pieces have a certain number of elements of certain patterns, absolutely non-static. And there is one piece having only one of those elements. It's the ninth piece, which has only long sustained notes. But the other pieces are like a kaleidoscope: you have a different pattern but the same pieces. There are elements—harmonic, melodic or rhythmic patterns—in each piece, put together in a different way. There are 20 such elements altogether, but there are not the same elements in every piece, the number varies. So the elements are really the products of cutting, but they could form on an imaginary level a unity. But on the level of the music they are cut up, Yet they are not collage, because they are not heterogeneous. The elements are really linked and they have a certain progression.
AJ: Nevertheless the music is not dynamic in the sense that it could only begin when it does and could only end when it does.
GL: No, I can put the frame here, but I can also put it there. If I have a music, it is fixed the beginning and the ending but I want to make the illusion that it could be different, it could begin differently and end differently. Actually it doesn't change, it's fixed, but it gives the illusion that it could be different. For instance an open form for me is not that I can change the music, or variable form, but I have to create with the music the illusion of openness. And there are many such types, not in the overall form but in the detailed form, coming back in every one of my pieces. One is 'enter imperceptibly,' or another is 'stop as if cut from a tape.' So in essence there is a unity even if in appearance there are two opposite types.
AJ: When is your opera scheduled for production, and have you any ideas how it will be staged?
GL: It's scheduled for the Stockholm Opera in November 1976. And the producer will be the librettist, Michael Meschke.
AJ: It's based on some characters from Bruegel's pictures apparently. Has it some kind of plot?
GL: You see, when I started, I was very interested in theatre. I have already made Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, but they are concert pieces. They have also a libretto but no plot. I was very interested to go further with this abstract kind of opera. I planned together with Gentele, who was at Stockholm--then he went to the Metropolitanto write something for Stockholm. And so I began to plan this opera in the mid-sixties, just after I'd finished Nouvelles Aventures. My first plans for a whole evening's piece were very similar to Aventures.

After a time I had this feeling if I have only an abstract opera without plot, with only feelings and emotions and so on, it's possible for a short time, but not for a large form in time. So I was looking for a real plot. Finally I found a theatre piece of Michel de Ghelderode. He died in the fifties, I think. The pieces are from the twenties or thirties. He was Flemish, but he wrote in French. This play was called Ballade de Grand Macabre. He is I think a very important precursor of Beckett and Ionesco, and very close to Artaud—of this kind, not exactly surrealistic, but this kind of theatre. Especially close to Ionesco. I like this kind of theatre very much, but I could never imagine taking a piece by Beckett for instance and making music with it. Why? I would only destroy it with music. I was always on the search for a libretto like Don Giovanni or Figaro, which wants music, which lives through music. This is a very simple piece. I like very much Jarry's Ubu Roi, but I can't do it because Penderecki's just writing an opera on this.

AJ: So do a better opera than Penderecki!
GL: Oh I don't know—he's very good. Anyway this Ghelderode is very close to Jarry, the surrealists and so on. And this theatre piece is the Last Judgment, the end of the world, but it's buffo, it's very humoristic. The opera will be called only Le Grand Macabre. 'Le Grand Macabre' is Death. He's a simple figure for death, and he's in charge to kill everybody. But he's a very curious Death. He's not doing well his job. He is always wondering where his scythe is. And there is an astronomer who predicts that the end of the world is coming by the stars. So Ghelderode was inspired by one of the Bruegel paintings, The Triumph of Death, in which Death is shown with a skull and his scythe, on a horse, going into a town of the Netherlands, and everything is burning. So Ghelderode put the plot in an imaginary town of Flanders—it's called Bruegel-land. And this Death is a very human figure. He becomes drunk, and he wants to make love to the wife of the astronomer. It's a very tumultuous situation, and he forgets to kill people, and so death is no more, and so he is the only one at the end who is dead. So people will live for ever.

This was the piece. I made it with the help of Michael Meschke. He's the director of the Swedish Marionette Theatre, one of the finest in Europe, I think. He's just done Ubu Roi for marionettes. He has very much a feeling for mixing marionettes with real people. He transformed the Ghelderode piece, which is too long for music, and the libretto finally turned out to be something very close in style or character to The Barber of Seville. The persons are very simple. There is no deep psychology, nothing ambiguous. It's like a marionette play. I didn't want to make a 19th Century opera or Berg's Wozzeck, nothing with complex human feelings or characters, but really a plot with a double bottom, which is terrible and comic, and which has to have music, and where the dramatic situation is not living without music. So it's closest perhaps to Rossini. The music will not be Rossini, but it has a terrible tempo and very simple situations. Everything is very fast, like a comic strip.

AJ: Do you mean by 'double bottom,' that it has a false bottom—a trick ending—or that it has a dualistic basis?
GL: Both. You see, the characters are very clear, but you never can know whether it is serious or not. You can never know if Death is really death, a supernatural being—or simply a human, a false prophet (you know there are those sects foretelling the end of the world). You always have the feeling that this person can only be a fake. In this plot so many different stories are woven in, therefore the stories become ambiguous. Death is at the same moment a kind of Don Quixote and has his Sancho Panza and his Rosinante. But his Rosinante is not functioning, so he takes his Sancho Panza (it is a drunken Flemish ordinary man—he is the only person that doesn’t believe that he is Death), and this Sancho Panza makes him drunk so that it will turn out that he was Death, but he cannot kill persons. So the supernatural layer of the story is corrupted by Man. When Death is the only person who dies, he is coming from the supernatural level to the normal level. It is a false bottom, because you have the feeling it is tragic, but this is only mask, and under this, if you take this off, it's very comic. But if you take it away further, it's tragic again.

I remember one very interesting film. There is a hare, and he is coming in a ghost city in the Wild West of America, and he covers himself in a cloth, so these bandits are very afraid, but not really afraid, and they are going, 'Ah, you are a fake ghost,' and they take it off. But there is another ghost under it: 'Oh! What's this?' It’s the next cloth. Take it off, take it off! It's always cloths! And so the moment they believe it's a ghost, they run away. But we see that it is the last cloth, and underneath is the hare. I only take this film, which I like very much, because this ‘'It is a ghost. It isn't a ghost. It is a ghost’—and then in the end it isn't a ghost.

AJ: But do you plump for one meaning in the end?
GL: No, No!
AJ: Then do you take the libretto as having a moral?
GL: Absolutely not. It has no moral.
AJ: You enjoy it for what it is.
GL: Exactly.
AJ: How are you going to set the words? Will you set the words of the play as naturalistic dialogue?
GL: Partly, but when they are really singing, like in Aventures.
AJ: Non-semantic?
GL: Non-semantic. It will be many things: for example where you understand exactly what happens and it's a real plot. I always had the feeling that in opera, even where there is a written libretto, I cannot understand it. It will be mixed. Everything that is artificial—singing and coloratura—will be without words. But because there is naturalistic dialogue, there will be spoken dialogue and recitativo so that you can understand. But it is very much reduced. There are very few, words in it. Very much action.
AJ: Will there be a complete break between sung and spoken sounds?
GL: No. There will also be Sprechgesang, but it will all be so mixed that there can be, for example, a coloratura ending in a word you can understand and then vanishing. But in any case these words which you can understand—spoken or Sprechgesang or cries—are only cues for the understanding of the plot. Only what is absolutely necessary. If for instance there is in this Bruegel-land, this country, two parties, the black and the white, which are always quarreling, they will be two marionettes, with the sound coming from outside. These will be the only two characters represented by marionettes. For this political quarreling I need no words, I need only gestures—musical gestures. And then in the scene of love between Death and the astronomer's wife (she is a leather-sadistic, you know, and the astronomer is a very feminine, gentle man, and she is beating him) there is no need to have words. She is the first woman that Death is interested in, because she is terrible. At the end she will kill Death. She will survive. So therefore there will be many things sung and non-semantic. Few words. But it will not be Sprechgesang like in [Schoenberg’s] Pierrot: there will be many different degrees between sung and spoken, and it will always change. There will be a melodic singing line, for example, then one word; or there is coming a person like a speaker and telling us what happens only for a moment then vanishing.
AJ: Will the music seek at any points to express the words in a more conventional expressionistic manner? For instance in your Requiem sometimes that does happen.
GL: Yes. I think not. Not in the sense of the Requiem. It will be so close to Aventures, but much simpler. I want to go very far away from this post-Wagner opera, which was at its best in Berg's Wozzeck. It will be more artificial, frozen. Very cool.
AJ: Have you any definite ideas about decor?
GL: Yes, I even know the singers and so forth. It will be very artificial, not naturalistic. Even if it will be like Bruegel, you know, the world of Bruegel, there will be no direct reference to Bruegel. And you should always have the feeling that it's not a real world, it's always artificial. What happens is also a mask you can take it away. So it will be very much manneristic and stylized. For instance the marionettes, the ministers, will be very small perhaps or very high, or even the persons could be. Everything will be like you could look at it in these mirrors, false mirrors; somebody can be even so high, going to the ceiling.
AJ: Will it be staged behind a proscenium arch?
GL: This is not clearly defined at this moment. Meschke wants to bring it out from the proscenium arch, but in the last few years there were so many directions to, for instance, begin in the foyer, and for this piece I am not sure whether it will work, so this is something which is at this moment open. It's only a technical question, not a dramaturgic question.
AJ: How much of the music is written?
GL: Oh, nothing!
AJ: Do you know the instrumentation?
GL: Not exactly.
AJ: What are you writing at the moment?
GL: Now I had to write my last, my definitely last orchestral piece (you know because I had so many orchestral pieces), which should have been the first performance May 1 in San Francisco. It's a piece called San Francisco Polyphony, because it's very polyphonic and San Francisco asked me for the piece. I have to work now two or three more weeks. Then I start the opera.
AJ: I was going to ask you why you wanted to write an opera at all. Kagel, for instance. has said that opera had its last word in Lulu or even Wozzeck. That we want a completely different sort of music theatre now.
GL: Yes, yes. Exactly. Do you know his Staatstheater? Repertoire is the best part of it. It is beautiful. On the gramophone record it's not very... You have to see it. And I think really Kagel went to an extreme by doing something new, by destroying the opera. I believe I have the same, how do you say? ...very close to Kagel in the traditional opera, exactly in the form of Wagner, Strauss and Berg. And if I say opera, I mean not that it is an opera, but a piece you can play in the opera house, with the technical materials of the opera house. In Kagel's piece there is a kind of anti-opera, because he is dealing with some elements of opera. For instance the singers are singing in chorus, the chorus are singing solo, the ballet is not dancing, everybody who cannot dance is dancing, the swan of Lohengrin is coming without Lohengrin.
AJ: It's a familiar kind of situation in other Kagel pieces, isn't it?
GL: Exactly. To take reality and reverse it. I like Staatstheater very much. I think it's one of the those important things that happened in musical theatre in the last ten or so years. In any case, for Kagel, you have to know the whole opera tradition to understand what he is twisting. And it's like a demolition. But I am not going in this direction. Kagel has done it. I don't want to ironize Opera. I like very much theatre. It will be a piece for theatre, with music as an integral part—as the main part. It’s not in the opera tradition. Although it has connections with Rossini—not musically, but in the tempo. But it has this connection with the movies. It is something which is done in the opera house, but it is outside the opera as a genre Therefore there will be no expression, no opera situations.
AJ: Did you ever think of any form of staging when you were writing either Aventures or Nouvelles Aventures?
GL: Only after. They are primarily musical pieces. I had the idea of theatre, but only illusory theatre.
AJ: Were you stimulated by anybody else's example? By happenings?
GL: Yes, but not by anyone in particular. At the end of the fifties and beginning of the sixties came the happening movement from America. I was interested in an ambiguous way. I made some happenings—you know my piece for 100 metronomes?—but I had the feeling that I am not a happening person. You know the Fluxus group? I am not belonging there. After a time I had the feeling they take their job too seriously. And I am not serious like people like LaMonte Young and George Brecht or even Cage. I will tell you exactly what is between me and these happening people. They believe that life is art and art is life. I appreciate very much Cage and many people, but my artistic credo is that art—every art—is not life. It is something artificial. And for me all the happenings are too dilettante. You see, I want, if I am the audience, to see a perfect music, or a perfect painting. I don't want to take part in it. I don't want that this fence between the piece and the audience be abolished. I don't want to be involved. It's the feeling of distance. I am not saying that my opinion is for everybody.
AJ: But that fence is still there with Kagel, isn't it?
GL: Yes, in this way Kagel and I are very close.
AJ: But you are more aesthetic than Kagel, aren't you? You are more concerned with making a finished piece.
GL: You are absolutely right. Kagel is more concerned with making a method. He is more involved in how to do the things. He has an imagination about what will happen, the realization, but this is secondary, and from this point of view he is closer to Cage or to Stockhausen or the different Americans. It's more a method to do things: take this and this, do this, and the final result can be so or it can be so. For me the methods are only a means to reach a certain result. If I think music now, I always imagine first the piece as it will sound. I am looking for how to write it, how to have this result. In Kagel it's vice versa. I don't want to give material to the interpreter and tell him to do something with it. It's my imagination. I have never given performers any more freedom than they are given in Beethoven. For me, a work of art is a finished and defined thing. It has nothing to do with everyday life. Indirectly it has to do with life, but it does on a different level. Always this kind of mixing of life and art results in something that is not very well made, because art is a very sophisticated, complex product of imagination. Kagel also has a very artificial, high level of doing things, but he has this more or less uncertainty of the final result.
Adrian Jack (born 16 March, 1943) studied at the Royal College of Music in London and the Warsaw Conservatory. He has written music criticism for more than thirty years and until 1994 was on the staff of the BBC as a script-writer for music programs. He has also taught at the Royal College of Music and was for many years director of a new music series at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts. Much of his own music has been broadcast, and includes many piano pieces, some of which are rather like diary entries, and six string quartets.

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