Gyorgy Ligeti -- Illusions and Allusions

presented in Monk Mink Pink Punk #9

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Interview by Herman Sabbe, 23 October, 1978
Translated into French and authorized by the composer on 4 February, 1979
First published in Interface, Vol. 8, 1979, pg. 11-34
Translated into English by Josh Ronsen, February-March, 2003

Abstract: The interview traces the background of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre (1977) through the whole of his career to a fundamental eschatological concern. It retraces its genesis and discloses sources of inspiration in literature and formal analogies to cinematography and the arts. Drawing a parallel with Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1976), it focuses on time neutralization, quotation techniques, the problems of synesthetics and acoustical illusion.

In April 1977, Ligeti finished the score to Le Grand Macabre, an opera in two acts and four scenes based on the play Ballade de Grand Macabre (1934) by Michel de Ghelderode. The work premiered at the Royal Opera of Stockholm, who had commissioned the work. After this, it had its German premiere, in the German language, at the State Opera of Hamburg, in October, 1978, and recently, the Italian premiere, in Italian, in Bologna. [in 1996, Ligeti greatly revised the opera and produced an English version, which is available on CD. -Ed.]

HERMAN SABBE: Do you want the performances done in vernacular language?
GYORGY LIGETI: It is indispensable. I feel that it is necessary for the libretto to be completely comprehensible to the listener.
HS: ...who has to be able to follow the story.
GL: Yes.
HS: ...even if this is only a pretext...
GL: Especially then, yes.
[Ghelderode’s theater work crosses between a so-called absurd theatre (or literally anti-theatre) and a critical theatre searching for identity. Echoing aspects of Alfred Jarry and Luigi Pirandello, the play carries out aspects of a total theatre of cruelty imagined by Antonin Artaud and prefiguring certain aspects of Jean Genet, Boris Vian, Eugene Ionesco and even Grotovski and the Living Theatre.]

[By several aspects, the theatre of Ghelderode exerts a particular attraction on musicians: the element of mime, incantatory lyricism, verbal flights, word-sonority, the attention given to the sound world (noises, music), finally the importance of the idea of the representation opening to a sensuality which transgresses the verbal text or score.]

[More particularly, a number of aesthetic characteristics and common preoccupations seem to connect Ghelderode and Ligeti: the obsession of Time and Death, surpassing this obsession by laughter and sensuality, the taste of the marvelous and farce, a certain demonic quality in the tradition of Romantic Agony, the sense of the excess, the process taken ‘ad absurdum,’ quasi-caricatural gestures, the mixture of lyricism, irony and hallucinations. -H.S.]

HS: Was this first meeting [with Ghelderode] fortuitous?
GL: Yes, I did not know Ghelderode. He is not well known in non French speaking countries. It was chance, yes. The name was perhaps in my subconscious. I remember that it was Jacques Calonne, who, in 1966, with Schlosskeller at Darmstadt, said to me: ‘Ghelderode, this is something for you, for your imagination’ I had told him that I wanted to make a musical theater piece. Then, I had forgotten that I had known this. It was by chance that Aliute Meczies found, in 1973, this piece of Ghelderode in a German anthology of absurd theater. She said to me: ‘Oh, this is something else you can use...’
HS: Then it was you who set the conditions of approaching the author. You had imagined a libretto, which you found by chance in Ghelderode?
GL: This is absolutely correct, because what I wanted to do in this opera (this is not a normal opera) came before, before finding Ghelderode’s play. The first idea came to me more than twelve years ago [1966], even before Nouvelles Adventures. I imagined a piece of musical theater which used all the technical possibilities of a great opera house.
HS: ...but, like Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, without semantic text, without a story?
GL: At the beginning, yes. But I wanted a piece of greater duration, a grand musical and theatrical construction, necessitating a plot, a pretext to transcribe emotions in a musical language, like Aventures. I thus developed a narrative borrowed from Ghelderode and set in an understandable text. In spite of that, the fundamental idea remains very close to the design of Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures.
HS: In 1966, you created a libretto which turned the vocal and instrumental action of Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures into a theatre piece. And, in fact, you then did the same thing, by grafting the action, the characters of Ghelderode on your pre-existent or pre-imagined music, and which carried its expressive characters and dramatic potential, an action which only had to be concretized, visualized, personified...
GL: This is so. Before it was not Ghelderode, I had worked for three years, from 1968 to 1971, on a version of the Oedipus myth. I had completed the libretto. This was a history of Oedipus, a free version after Sophocles, but with an unintelligible text.
HS: An intermediate idea occurring between Aventures and the Grande Macabre...
GL: Yes, there is a “speaker” (a narrator) who says what happens. It was slightly a parody of Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky. But this is not a fixed role, this speaker, he continually changes, like the other characters; even Jocasta can become Oedipus... the singers and the roles are interchangeable. Jocasta at one moment is a bass profondo. And what the narrator says is not necessarily the truth. Thus, he sometimes announces what will occur or sometimes he announces the opposite of what is going to happen. This is a well known story, that of Oedipus, modified in a surreal sense. But after the death of Gentele [director of the Stockholm Opera, a friend who had commissioned the work -H.S.], I was not able to continue... I couldn’t resume the composition of Oedipus.
HS: You had already realized a part of the score...
GL: Yes. I had used large selections of it in the Grand Macabre. As well as in two other pieces. Clocks and Clouds for women's chorus and orchestra and San Francisco Polyphony for orchestra, in large part originated from the prepared material for Oedipus. It is thus exactly like what you said: first the music, then the text. A part of the Grand Macabre is made from the music of Oedipus, with an adapted text.
HS: ...and which corresponds perfectly, as for its principal set of themes, with eschatological matters that have concerned you for some time...
GL: It is very close to what I had done in my Requiem in 1964, especially in the Dies Irae: an imagining of the end of the world, but very colorful very bizarre, populated with medieval imps... I rediscovered all that in Ghelderode’s play.
HS: We could go up still further, perhaps. Before the Requiem, Atmospheres for orchestra, wasn't this a sort of crypto-requiem (like Nouvelles Aventures was a crypto-opera), a music which articulates the emotional and picturesque content, but without being expressed verbally?
GL: Yes, and previously in Hungary, I had twice started to write a requiem.
HS: The requiem represents for you a general eschatological theme, which has no connection with any liturgy...
GL: Yes, my Requiem, my requiems are not liturgical. I am not Catholic, I am of Jewish origin, but I do not follow any religion. I took the text of the requiem for its image of the anguish, the fear of the end of the world.
HS: Exactly like you took, like you borrowed the text of Ghelderode, for the same reasons...
GL: It is the same theme for the end of the world, yes, but made ironic.
HS: Ghelderode’s text was for you, in the most literal sense, a pre-text, that you adapted, even profoundly modified...
GL: It is a brilliant theater piece. It greatly helped the music, stimulated my musical imagination. But I could not follow the text literally. I had to truly compose the text and the music as an unity. There were two phases in the adaptation. First, I told [director of the Stockholm Marionette Theatre Michael] Meschke: “Concentrate the piece in the manner of Jarry, of Ubu Roi.” Ghelderode had much semblance to Jarry. But it is also very Rabelaisian. This was not right for the music.

Thus the result of the first phase of the adaptation was a reduced version by Meschke. The plot of the Grand Macabre remained exactly like of Ghelderode‘s play, but simplified. I had taken this German text of Meschke as base material. Then during the composition, simultaneously, I further modified the language of this text, transforming the prose to verse and mingled it with Latin, often fake Latin. It was finally much longer than the definitive libretto. I then cut much from it.

HS: You replaced a number of fragments by absurd rhymes, phonetic passages, where the text becomes again, like in Adventures, a pretext to vocal articulation, where the music becomes the direct and single support of the emotional information...
GL: I especially wanted to avoid making a literary opera. The subtitle of the work is “Opera,” but this is not a normal opera, not in the sense of the Nineteenth Century.
HS: To return to what you did with Ghelderode, you changed almost all the names of the characters.

[The Grand Macabre himself, Nekrozotar, is transformed to Nekrotzar, an astute name as this emperor of death is in the final analysis an idiot (“sot” in French, “zot” in Flemmish); Videbolle, the empty-headed philosopher becomes Astradamors, a nice contamination of bad Latin, but who modifies the idea contained in his original name; his wife, Salivaine, she who salivates (sensual and chatty) becomes Mescalina; Porprenaz (or purple-nose), the drunkard, is now Piet-vom-Fass; Prince Goulave is now called Go-Go; Adrian and Jusemina (the fertile), the fine young man and the beautiful girl or the couple in love, are renamed as Spermando and Clitoria. (In Hamburg she was called more modestly, Hymenia!) -H.S.] [Ligeti later changed their names to Amando and Amanda, -J.R.]

GL: This is necessary for comprehension in different languages. Salivaine, for example, is very difficult to translate. This is why I have used Mescalina, combining “Mescalin” with “Messalina.” Everyone understands this. The new name for Porprenaz is taken from another character in Ghelderode’s works, Piet Bouteille.
HS: You also introduced new characters, the Secret Police agents and their chief.
GL: There is a bird messenger in the piece by Ghelderode. But it is very difficult to sing as a flying bird in an opera, unless a mechanical bird is used. Thus I transformed this bird into the chief of the Secret Police for a coloratura soprano voice, which is perhaps closer to a bird’s voice...
HS: Feminine voice, but a masculine role. Here, like in the Oedipus project, the idea of interchangeable roles, the idea of disguise/parody and transmutation of personality, in particular with the king with a child’s voice, at the extreme.
GL: Yes, I like things pushed to the extreme, I like the extremes, absolutely insane things, and much more in opera. I believe that, for an understandable musical success where the text is half the picture, one must push everything to the extreme, as much as possible.
HS: But, don't you, by emasculating Spermando, ridicule the idea of fecundation, which seems to me essential to Ghelderode’s final moral?
GL: I had even changed the final moral of Ghelderode, who is very much a cynic. Jusemina says: “You are so beautiful: but mainly I want to find a more beautiful boy, better at love.” Jusemina’s malicious proposal, which constitutes the end of Ghelderode’s piece, I omitted. It is a petty misogynist gesture on Ghelderode’s part. Elsewhere, in his piece, Salivaine is killed at the end, but not in my piece, I love women, I am not a misogynist.
HS: I believe you. But is this the sense that you give to these words of Jusemina? She says “You are admittedly beautiful, Adrian, but I dream of a man more beautiful than you.” Is this a vision of a cosmic future which acts as the vision of a more beautiful man, that is to say, of a more beautiful, better humanity? This interpretation certainly corresponds to the mythic dimension of the final scene: exiting the tomb, the reappearance of the lovers coinciding with the reappearance of the sun, suggesting the survival of the species, a new humanity... Does this message appear too optimistic to you?
GL: But this message is preserved in [my] opera. All this mythic dimension is there, even stronger. The end is the Triumph of Love. Death is dead? Now we will live. We make fun of what is death, the dark future. We live now, here.
HS: The triumph of Eros signifies for you: death in the rapture of the moment, suspended time...
GL: Yes, exactly, time suspended, the time of the end of the world which corresponds to true death, but also the death of the moment, that is to say love, that is something else.

Thus, it is the triumph of Eros: we live, we drink, we make love, but all that in disorder, as in real life. It is a rather sordid Eros, not entirely nice. We live, but life is not so beautiful. Therefore, this end is very close to the design of Ghelderode. It is not act of a true hedonism, it is not an act of happiness. Rather, it is sad, very sad. In my version, it is made ironic by the music, the text is not so ironic, but the music is much more, the finale music, this passacaglia, very consonant, very pretty, very pure, with sixths only, major and minor.

HS: This sentiment of suspended time, sometimes of rapture, seems to me to be caused by your music through the sensation of the listener to be at the interior of a moving space, to be enveloped in a fluid which covers all...
GL: I never thought of that. If it is in my music, I am not conscious of it. As a composer, I am very naive, of course...
HS: There is surely a very conscious attempt, on the other hand, to collect a perpetual motion, to induce another consciousness of reality.
GL: Yes, certainly. In this sense, yes.
HS: You employ two different methods, opposite from a technical point of view: by the continuity guaranteed by the absence of percieved gesture, perfected in your “micropolyphonic” music, and in your “mechanical” music, by a continual gesticulation, that one could paradoxically describe as uninterrupted discontinuity, thus continuing...
GL: In the gestural, but not mechanical, pieces, like the Grand Macabre or the second string quartet, it is the same gesture, generally very expressive, very emotional, which creates a certain distance, a very high temperature and at the same time absolute zero, frozen. This is an attempt to spacialize time. Chronological time runs naturally, but the music creates the idea that time does not exist any longer, it becomes space. That is an aspect which was very conscious to me, throughout the composition of Le Grand Macabre. I even introduced the idea, which does not explicitly exist in Ghelderode, in the text at the time when, sounding midnight, Nekrotzar announces his intention to destroy the world. I assembled fragments of the Apocalypse of St John and of Goethe’s Faust, notably, in the moment where Faust dies: “die Zeit steht still,” time stops, the hands of the clock fall. I exploited this idea of the end of the world so truly imaginative, this idea of death and love, of time which does not exist any more which is, as you said, very near to my music. This spatialization of time, this is what I consciously sought.
HS: This brings us to the problem of the form of the opera. On first listen, I had the impression that the secret of its unity resides in a system of returning allusions, which disappear, then surface later, distanced, analogues, different and similar...
GL: Yes, I believe that is so. It is not a true collage, but a succession of small scenes, like in comic strips.
HS: ...or the metamorphoses in animated films?
GL: Yes, I was greatly influenced, in Aventures and the Grand Macabre, by film, especially animated film and also Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.

But one must also look to the history of opera. It is very close to the opera of Monteverdi, which also has small forms which are not acts, small musical and dramatic situations which are discontinuous but in the overall structure nevertheless constitute a continuity. What also acts in the constitution of form is a technique which you mentioned as very Ligetish: mechanisms which are not completely exact, always slightly ruined. What makes the form of this opera, in detail, is basically by these little breaks, like when machines start at different times: a machine, an image, a scene supplants the other.

But, to better know the opera, I believe that one can also detect a great form there. I also changed Ghelderode’s story a little. I unified the last two scenes, which are rather long in Ghelderode. Thus, the adventure becomes less complicated, more collected and makes clearer the total form, which is that of “Meistergesang”: Stollen-Stollen-Abgesang. I have three Stollen [acts with climactic endings] and then Abgesang [the ending]. The three Stollen consist of three great crescendos, already present in the dramatic construction in Ghelderode: first scene: the meeting [idylle] of the two lovers, then the interruption of Piet-vom-Fass, then of Nekrotzar; second scene: also a meeting (this one malicious) with Mescalina and her Astradamors, large crescendo in itself, crowned by the arrival of Nekrotzar on [riding on! -Ed.] Piet-vom-Fass -- he is already accompanied by his Sancho Panza; the third scene: also a meeting, or rather a variation of the idylle, in the throne room of Breughellande, between the prince and his two ministers, and in this meeting, driving with great dramatic crescendo, enters Nekrotzar accompanied now by Piet-vom-Fass and Astradamors.

HS: They are three verses of the Dance Macabre...
GL: Yes, like in the first version of the piece by Ghelderode, for marionettes: a medieval dance macabre, for open theater. A world which has always fascinated me.

To return to the form, there is the first crescendo, the second crescendo, finally, more extreme, the third and largest crescendo. And then, the End of the World, and an Epilogue, very short, much more concentrated than in Ghelderode.

HS: While speaking about your Dies Irae, of your Grand Macabre, you said that it concerned overcoming fear with alienation. What fear?
GL: Fear related to death, especially with our current situation: at each minute, at each second, our world can perish. Not only from the atomic bomb; that would be a terrible simplification. But we have this feeling in us constantly, that at each moment we can die, not only individually, but all civilization.
HS: It is thus not a question of a fear provoked by a religious education, as it was probably the case at Ghelderode who remembered the threat of eternal punishment... for a cigarette smoked at the urinal.
GL: No, no. It is always very general. In my personal view, of course, I lived during the Nazi epoch in Hungary and then through the malicious Stalinist dictatorship. Millions of people died, suffered. But it is not also concrete, particular. It is not metaphysical either. It is a very real fear which we all have, but try to drive back, the fear that our civilization can perish. Like the fear caused by a comet in the Middle Ages. If we want to put it into words, actualize it, let us say it is the fear of the atomic bomb which at any moment can destroy the world.
HS: Here is a “millenarism” [i.e. old trait] which appeared early for you... In 1943, when you were hardly twenty years old, you wrote a chorus entitled Funérailles sur mer, in 1944 a cantata Et circa horam nonam etc. An early preoccupation with the eschatological...
GL: It indeed appears probable. However, I cannot, in these matters, give you a clear response. When I make music, I do not think of all this “background.” I construct my music by a very conscious effort, of course, but at the same time very naive, like I told you. I ignore this which works in me.
HS: However, this sentiment of generalized despair, of the “irreparable fugit tempus,” is familiar to you since your youth. Or then, is your dream, where you are caught a gigantic web, a tight web which filled up the room, this dream which you related in extraordinary detail, no particular significance for you? Is this only an anecdote of no importance?
GL: No! I think it has much importance. But it acts precisely, and particularly also in La Balade de Grand Macabre, to overcome this obsession, this fear, this death, this end of the universe. We know that we die, but we hope that this death never arrives. Thus, with Ghelderode, I made this attempt to vanquish the obsession: this end of the world is not a true end of the world.
HS: What you call “alienation” intervenes here. It is why you produced a forgery: a false apocalypse...
GL: A comic apocalypse. It is a little like that in Ghelderode: the alienation renders laughable an extremely serious subject. Nekrotzar, Death, perhaps he really is death, but he is ridiculous. Death is not a person like everyone else. A hodgepodge of the serious and comic, the distressing and laughable. This is the moment of alienation.

Another example from French literature is Boris Vian, who profoundly influenced me. With Vian as well, the terrible things, like in Ecunne des Jours, Pekin are all ridiculous. That belongs to a whole literary world which includes Jarry, then Ghelderode, then Ionesco.

And in English literature, there is Alice in Wonderland, ridiculous and terrible at the same time. And in Austrian literature, there is Herzmanowski-Orlando, a very important writer of our century who is hardly known, even in Germany. Herzmanowski, Vian, Kafka, these are for me a unity. Only, Kafka was always serious. Vian and Herzmanowski are very wicked but ridiculous, ridiculous with a sense of the serious. And in Hungarian literature, the great humorist Frigyes Karinthy. He is not known here. He is comic, so bizarre. And think of drawings, cartoons of outlandish anxiety, of Saul Steinberg and Roland Topor. Besides, Topor designed the scenery for the Bologna version of the Macabre. It is a world which very close to me. Also, certain Belgium painters, Magritte for example, surreally full of anxiety.

HS: And these celebraions of death that certain Flemish painters are fond of.
GL: Yes, I’ve known them since youth, Breughel and Bosch. Ensor a little later.
HS: Was surreality a part of your national hertitage, of Hungarian or Romanian culture?
GL: This is present in Hungarian literature. I mentioned Karinthy. There is also the great novelist Krudy, dead at age 30. Some call him the Hungarian Proust. This is an exaggeration. He was not a Proust. Or then a Proust modified, surrealistic. With him, like with Virginia Woolf in Orlando, there is a character who lives for several centuries, always different, young man after being a bag of bones.
HS: This reversibility fascinates you.
GL: I included in my music, unconsciously I think, two things from Krudy: a sentiment of suspended time and a sense of immobility. There are some novels by him where nothing happens. It is winter. It is in the Hungarian lowlands. There are some houses, widely dispersed. The people are completely isolated, nothing happens, they are in houses covered by snow. It is surreal. Krudy is very close to the painting of Magritte, of Delvaux: immobile things, fixed characters. In Topor’s drawings, it is similar. And then, with Krudy, there are characters who constantly reappear through his novels. He wrote more than one hundred novels which almost form one grand novel. In particular a widow who lives only in the middle of a large deserted plain. Her husband was sometime a meteorologist, sometimes a professor of physics, sometimes a manufacturer of machines. The house is full of clocks, with barometers, hygrometers, all kinds of apparatuses. Like in Escorial, where there were clocks as well, that even before they have all wound down, it is necessary to start agin from the first.
HS: Did this suggest to you the idea for Poéme Symphonique for 100 metronomes?
GL: Yes, perhaps so. All my interest in mechanics comes from there. When I was five years old, someone gave me a book of Krudy's, undoubtedly by mistake. I could read very well at five years, but the books of Krudy are not for children, but perhaps the title suggested a childish world. It was very melancholic. I was greatly impressed. I was sickly, I was a very withdrawn child, and I read Krudy in a hiding place, in the attic, in the summer. From there my affinity with the surreal, with irrational mysticism, notably with Magritte, Ghelderode... It is by chance that they are both Belgian, I do not have a particular fascination with Belgium.
HS: The fact of having had a Belgian manager in Hamburg...
GL: The fact that Gilbert Deflo is Flemish is of no importance. He could be French, German, English. At the time when I sought representation in Hamburg, I saw his production of L'Amour aux Trois Oranges of Prokofiev in Frankfort. I always ask Dohnanyi, the manager of the Hamburg Opera, to engage it.
HS: To return for one moment to the idea of alienation, which drives us far through Europe. In the Macabre, you also wanted to compose alienation, to produce it through musical forgeries…
GL: Yes, it is why the part is full of quotations which are not true but false quotations.
HS: False quotations or quoted falsities? [Des citations fausses ou de fausses citations?]
GL: The latter, I think. There are borrowings of certain types of musical writing that I distort, and there are types of writing which give the impression of being borrowed and are not. In any case, that produces the ironic distance which I wanted.
HS: Irony, is it not a means of relativising ad infinitum, of never really taking a position?
GL: It is a certain position, very clear, a position very serious, comic and sad at the same time, but very clear, between--

[A friend of the composer enters and the interview is interrupted for a few minutes. Irony demands that the question of irony will not explored further.]

HS: The false musical situations, by the technique of allusions, woven from inclinations to quotation which are then frustrated, seem to form an integral part of your recent music. I constantly find them in Three Pieces for Two Pianos, for example. [This is the only other composition that Ligeti composed during the work on his opera, which lasted for three years. It is in three parts, like the title indicates: Monument, Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the background), and Movement. -H.S.] Your "Selfportrait" is found between "Monument" and "Movement." I see there, on my part, a rather pleasant idea: you [Selfportrait], hyphenated between what coagulates, consolidates, solidifies [Monument] and, what is liquefied, spread out, shaken [Movement]. Have you thought of this?
GL: No, no, or unconsciously at least. The title Selfportait is not significant. It should not be taken literally. It is only a word. I unified the techniques of Terry Riley and Steve Reich and my technique of musical mechanisms. These three techniques have some common points. The first title of this piece was "Stilleben," "Still life with Reich and Riley." I wanted to mention them, because of these technical similarities with what I have done for a while. My Symphonic Poem for 100 metronomes from 1962 was something similar. But the parts were completely independent. I did not know either of them at this time. It is not a question of priority. It was something in the air. When I heard a minimalist piece for the first time—it was In C by Riley—it greatly pleased me. But it was already after my composition Continuum. I was astonished to hear something close to what I had done. Then, I met him, and I greatly liked this character. Much later, in California in 1972, I heard Violin Phase by Reich for the first time. I also met him a little afterwards. Then, I made this small homage to Reich and Riley, by utilizing the “pattern transformation” technique of Riley and the “phase shifting” technique of Reich, and by combining them with my technique of “grids,” lattices or trellises, or stroboscopes, as I did in the Second String Quartet [1968, see especially the pizzicato movement "Como a meccanismo di precisione" -H.S.] All that has its beginning in the piece for metronomes and already existed in Aventures and especially Nouvelles Aventures. It is a type of work, as you said, that is very personal. To return to the Selfportrait, I realized that I could not preserve the title of Still Life. Reich and Riley are quite alive. Thus the new title of “Selfportrait with Reich and Riley.” And this small allusion to Chopin.

[At the end of this piece, Ligeti introduces the rhythm of the final movement of Chopin’s Second Sonata. It is an effective quotation, although since done by Ligeti, skillfully made up. If the third piece “passes through the shadow of Brahms,” this is due to a paraphrase of Brahms-like writing, that is to say, a false quotation. -H.S.]

HS: In spite of the astonishing technical similarities that one could not deny, there however remains a great divergence of the musical thought, between you and the minimalists.
GL: Riley and Reich and Glass and all these American minimalists come from an artistic background completely different from mine. I come from the tradition of Central Europe. Minimal art constitutes a very different thinking, even opposed to that tradition, especially in regards to formal conception. I make closed forms. But I have a great interest in their music.
HS: These Three Pieces for Two Pianos constitute a link between your previous compositions and the innovations introduced by the Grand Macabre
GL: I composed these pieces during my work on the Grand Macabre. And certain aspects are found in both works: The invented quotations as you say (Chopin), the reproductions of composing techniques (Reich and Riley), the paraphrases (allusion to the pianistic technique of Brahms and Schumann, very fleetingly). But there were always allusions in my music. In Lontano [for large orchestra in 1967, - H.S.], there were also allusions to the Romantics, Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner. They are not quotations in the sense of Stravinsky. The first time that I really took existing musics by deteriorating them, it is in the Grand Macabre. It is a technique close to Pop Art (not of Pop Music!), especially English Pop Art. I particularly love Peter Blake, who makes collages which are not painted collages [Blake is most famous for making the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band -J.R.]. It is an art which isn't naive, but permits a certain degree of innocence. Think of Blake’s painting, "Self portrait with badges," very ironic and melancholy, and his painting "The Balcony" of characters in a park, in the back and in a make-believe collage, a balcony which holds the royal family which seems to be a newspaper photo but which is, in reality, painted. Steinberg himself also often painted that which resembled photographs...
HS: You have often spoken of formal analogies which link your music to certain pictorial or cinematographic techniques. Do some synesthesic aspects exist in your connection with visual art?
GL: Yes, yes I believe so. I am a very synesthesic person. When I think of music, I always think of the shapes and colors or inversely shapes and colors I always associate with music. Also, with tactile elements and with several other things as well: all the numbers, all the words, all the letters have for me colors--very different from those of Rimbaud! It is a question, of course, of the connections, the very intimate connections, subjectively very risky. But painting, literature, music, yes, those are bound together, those form a group for me but not in the Wagnerian sense. In this respect, the Grand Macabre is not at all a Wagnerian opera. I hate everything which refers to Gesamtkunstwerk, I detest all which has this pretension, all that has a certain pretension. There is a unity of text and music in my opera also, but without pretension.
HS: I would like, in finishing, to ask you to explain an important esthetic problem which comes up in regard to your work. I want to speak of the difference between what is written and what is perceived in performance (in hearing)...
GL: Yes, it is true, I often work with acoustical illusions, very analogous to optical illusions, false perspectives, etc. We are not very familiar with acoustical illusions. But they are very analogous and one can make very interesting things in this domain. For example, creating the illusion of a certain rhythmical succession which is not actually played. In my piece for harpsichord, Continuum, the harpsichordist executes a succession of extremely rapid notes, if possible at the rate of 15 or 16 attacks per second. After a moment, one forgets this first speed, and one hears a second layer, a second rhythmic stratum, which is the result of the frequency of the appearance of certain notes. For example, when I have a trill of two notes on one hand, and three notes repeated on the other, and I introduce gradually this third note in the first hand, a new rhythmic series will free itself, an acceleration which is not an accelerando that is played, but which is the result of the distribution of this note over a certain period of time. This distribution which is spatial, which is a rescoring in the space of the score, becomes in the flow of time a pattern, a rhythmical Gestalt which is not actually performed as such. In the Three Pieces for two pianos, often the two instruments mix themselves up.
HS: It is to deceive the ears [trompe l'oreille, a play on trompe-l'oeil which means dummy effect, bluff, fake ­Ed.]?
GL: Exactly. And the same thing is produced in the Grand Macabre, and also in my earlier pieces, in the micropolyphony of Apparitions and Atmospheres. There are new timbres, new colors, which are not due to the timbres of the instruments, but which are the result of a transformation of a rhythm in timbre, because there are some rhythmical successions of 15 to 20 attacks per second. It is not a technique that I invented. Gottfried Michael Koenig applied it for the first time around 1957, in the Cologne electronic music studio. I simply transplanted this technique to the orchestra.
HS: It is a work which exploits the phenomenon of thresholds of perception, which composers have taken from experience in [electronic] studios.
GL: One would never have invented this technique, imagined this possibility, without the work at the electronic studio. But I may provoke the same phenomena with normal instruments and with voices, in using them in great number, all separately.
HS: The electronic techniques have therefore become superfluous?
GL: No, the primitive electronic music produced manually with the help of the tape recorder or similarly with synthesizers, is out of fashion in my opinion. But the use of computers, which is only beginning, opens up revolutionary possibilities. Not only the possibility of producing some new musical structures but still some truly new musical forms. I have not yet worked in this domain, but I am very interested in it and I believe in it.

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