GYORGY LIGETI: Distinguished and Unpredictable

presented in Monk Mink Pink Punk #9

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Interview by Dorle J. Soria
First published in Musical America, v.107, #4, September 1987
Prepared for the web by Josh Ronsen, February 2003

The largest music prize in the world—often referred to as the "Nobel Prize in music"—is the University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, established in 1984 by a retired Louisville engineer. The prize is $150,000. It is not such a great sum in this Southern city, home of the famous Churchill Downs race track and the annual Kentucky Derby, where horses bring legendary prices, but in the music world, where very few composers ever become rich, it is a bonanza. In 1986 the winner was the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti, the distinguished and unpredictable avant-garde composer who received this windfall for a new phase of his work, a set of six difficult and brilliant piano etudes with names ranging from Disorder to Rainbow. Characteristically, Ligeti will give his prize money away—that is, after taxes, because the prize does not resemble the Nobel in being tax exempt. He plans to distribute it among needy young composers. He himself is now successful, influential—his 64th birthday was celebrated May 28—but he remembers clearly what it was to have been young and poor, a victim of the forces of evil let loose in the world.

He said: "I will spend it mostly on musicians from distant countries. For instance, in my classes there is a young Chinese I will help. But it will be for musicians anywhere, not only those who come to Hamburg to study with me and who need assistance," We said: "But you should keep a little for yourself. Surely there must be something you need or want." He shook his head. “For the past ten years I have had no financial problems. This prize is more for glory. And it is very beautiful to have it. But the money is more for the young. When I was younger I was completely without money—when I was studying in Budapest, when I was a refugee. I lived under the Nazis and under the Communists. They were both eager for my life. When the chance came I escaped. Those were very difficult years. I know what it is to need help and not to find help. It makes me happy that now I can give it."

We were talking with Gyorgy Ligeti in New York. It was last winter. We had only met him once before, a long time ago, in Tanglewood in 1973. He was now grayer and slower of movement. But his ideas were as fresh, his mind as far-reaching. He greeted us with warmth and seemed to remember every detail of that summer's encounter. I had sat in the room, the buzzing of bees outside, of the little Nathaniel Hawthorne house and observed his class. Then we had gone to lunch at the Red Lion Inn. Driving along the sleepy New England countryside he had said, in wonder: "This is where Charles Ives wrote The Housatonic at Stockbridge." He recalled the lunch. "The apple pie was very good."

It was then he had told us of the opera he was planning. The libretto was to be based on the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode's Ballade du Grand Macabre.

"The story is of the end of the world." He said it would not be a "normal opera—Berg was the last." We were confused.

"Lulu, a normal opera?"

"Certainly," said Ligeti. Years later, writing of his opera, he said he sought "a highly colored, comic-strip-like musical and dramatic action... The musico-dramatic conception would be far from the Wagner-Strauss-Berg territory, closer to Poppea, Falstaff, and The Barber, and yet very different, owing nothing, in fact, to any tradition, not even to that of avant-gardism."

Le Grand Macabre had its premiere in Stockholm in 1978, then went on to impress other cities, including Hamburg, Bologna, Paris, and London. It has yet to be heard in this country, although scenes and interludes from the opera were introduced, semi-staged, at the New York Philharmonic Horizons '86 Festival. But, wrenched out of context, it awaits a full, revealing performance. The New Yorker's Andrew Porter, who reviewed with enthusiasm the English premiere, wondered that "none of the adventurous big American companies has yet taken it up." Ligeti is also surprised.

But, when we saw him, he was too busy with the present to brood on the past. Besides, he says: "Now everything has changed." He has entered a new period in his life and work. In recent years he has had a prolonged struggle with high blood pressure. He thought he would never fly again, never come to this country again. But the prize was an important thing in his life. He took the risk. He flew here with his wife and 21 year-old son to receive the prestigious Grawemeyer Award.

We asked the same question we had asked years before. What opera was he now writing? He smiled his self deprecating smile. "What opera am I thinking of writing? It is very pretentious. Yes, pretentious. I will write an opera on The Tempest—if I live another fifty years. That is all for the future. Now I will expand my piano concerto. At the Graz Festival, Mario di Bonaventura conducted this piano concerto of mine. After the performance I realized I wanted to add one or two movements to it. I had the feeling that the music must be longer. It is now three movements. I will add two."

A piano concerto in five movements?

"Yes. It doesn't matter. The Brahms Second Concerto is four movements, the Prokofiev No.2 is four movements, the Prokofiev No.5 is five. If I want, why can I not write five movements? Or even six?" [The two additional movements were completed by 1993 -Ed.] And after the concerto? He will continue the series of piano etudes which won the prize, the set of pieces one of whose aims is "to produce the illusion of simultaneous different speeds, produced by only one artist, the pianist." He is also planning a violin concerto. He will write it for a Hungarian violinist. "Sascha Gawriloff. He is very good."

But first on his calendar is a series of madrigals for the King's Singers, a British vocal group of six. "I know already the music I will write. But the words? I have not yet decided. It will not be like Italian madrigals, though the source, musically, perhaps goes back to Gesualdo. I look for something English. Perhaps rhymes from Lewis Carroll—nonsense rhymes for the text." The Jabberwocky? We quoted: "Twas brillig and the slithy toves..." But he stopped us. "That is too pretentious." What about Mother Goose? Or Edward Lear? No, he didn't know Lear but he liked the idea of Mother Goose. We recited "There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.." He was enthusiastic. He said: "Stravinsky used Mother Goose. He was influenced by Mother Goose, indirectly, but very beautifully." He added: "Hungary has very beautiful folk poetry. But I do not want to use Hungarian verses for British people."

We asked about his musical "influences." We had read—in the New York Times—that he had been influenced by the new field of fractal geometry "whereby physical objects are conceived as consisting of smaller and smaller identical shapes." He said: "Yes, fractals are what I want to find in my music. They are the most complex of ornaments in the arts, like small sea horses, like the Alhambra where the walls are decorated with geometric ornaments of great minuteness and intricacy, or like the Irish Book of Kells, those marvelously decorated borders and capitals. The most complicated ornaments—perhaps not art, perhaps geometry. It is a very complex music, difficult to describe. I only want to give a metaphysic for my music. After all, music is not a science."

Another late musical influence has been Central African polyphony. "I found this useful to reinforce my ideas. It is the possibility to have three rhythmical levels. I don't really use bars. I write bars, for the musicians, because they have to be together. It is difficult when you have different speeds at the same time. But don't think that this it mathematics. There are some constructions in it but the whole thing is music." He first discovered Central African ethnic material through the recordings of an Israeli ethnologist and composer Simcha Aron. "In my piano concerto I developed this polyphony to much higher complexity. I think in harmony and rhythm I have found it. But in melody I still search."

Other influences have been John Chowning, head of the computer music center of Stanford University, and Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who has lived all his life in Mexico City and whose "complex and rhythmically spectacular player piano studies Ligeti discovered by chance in a Paris record shop.

But his first great influence—and the lasting influence of his life—was Bartok. "He was the greatest Hungarian composer. He was the idol of everyone in Hungary." Later there was Stravinsky, an important influence on the young composer. More recently there have been Monteverdi and Gesualdo and "the old Netherland school" Ligeti emphasized, however, that "It was an influence, not a mixing of styles. Gesualdo was very important to me, I wanted to do something which corresponded to him. But my own language! I don't use old music."

Ligeti lives in Vienna, but for many years he has spent a good part of his time in Hamburg, where he is a professor at the Hochschule fu:r Musik. Does he like Hamburg? He asked himself plaintively: "Do I like Hamburg?" He answered himself, softly: "No. Not the atmosphere. But I like the young composers. A few are from Germany but half are from the Far East. I have three Japanese, one Chinese, one Korean. But I can only take so many, teach so much. Here in New York a gifted young composer came to see me backstage after my concert. He wanted to come and study with me. I said: 'If you were Mozart I couldn't take you.' " He shook his head, sadly, regretfully.

Does he ever go back to Hungary? He fled the country during the uprising of 1956. Yes, he has returned since "but for very short stays." We said we knew a well-known Hungarian musician who had recently visited both Czechoslovakia and Hungary; he reported that in comparison with the oppressiveness and dreariness of Prague he had found Budapest modern and lively. Ligeti commented drily. "Yes, that is the best part of the prison and the best cell. If you come from Paris to Budapest you think you are in Moscow. But if you go from Moscow to Budapest you think you are in Paris."

He used to like to travel. "But that when I was young. Then, after the war it was impossible to travel, after so many years of Hitler and Stalin. Now, when it is possible, I am much older and I have so many things to do, so many plans. I need all my hours."

But he must relax at some point. What does he do when he is not composing or teaching? "First of all I listen to music. I like music. A year or so ago I read in one of the papers a series of interviews with composers of my generation. One of the questions was: 'What music do you listen to?' Most of them, and I shall not tell you their names, said, 'I have no time to listen' or 'I don't have to listen.' Me, I like music. I have time. I listen to all kinds of music—new music, old music, music of my colleagues, everything. Also I like very much to play the piano—but for myself." He had started to study the piano when he was 14. "It was too late. I knew I never could become a good pianist. But I play for myself; Scarlatti, Schumann, Chopin. They are the best for piano." But he rarely goes out to opera or concerti. "I like to stay home and listen to recordings. I am a hi-fi fan. And to play the piano."

But while in New York he found  time to indulge other interests, painting and architecture. He went to the Metropolitan Museum three times.

"Cezanne is one of my favorites," he said. And he was fascinated by-and critical of the soaring new buildings. He told us that "the worst" was the A.T.&T. building. "Write that this building is an example of what I don't want to do in music. But don't tell Phillip Johnson. He will want to sue me. Like Stanley Kubrick." He referred to “the man who stole my music," the producer who had appropriated Ligeti's music for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. "He wanted to sue me because I said bad things about him." He went back to his architectural findings. "The Seagram building. That I admire very much. But the A.T.&T.—no. It is the capitalist version of the Fascist monument—but less menacing. But don't write that. Because I am pro-capitalist." He laughed at this thought of himself.

And books? Does he find time to read? Perhaps philosophy? He destroyed this lofty idea of himself. "No. I don't read such boring things. Life is too short." But he admits to enjoying detective stories. And then, there is his favorite, Lewis Carroll. "Once, in London, the BBC asked me what was my favorite English book. I said Alice in Wonderland. We quoted: "Do you think at your age it is right?" He was serious. "Alice is a wise and wonderful book."

He has said: "I have always had an interest in picture puzzles, paradoxes of perception and ideas." He is partial to such authors as Kafka and Borges, to the philosophic escapist Hungarian poet Sandor Weores, to the French novelist and playwright Boris Vian, and to Saul Steinberg. "Steinberg is great. I should like to meet him." We said we knew him, that he played the violin. Next time we would try to arrange for them to meet. Ligeti's blue eyes sparkled. He spoke also of Hungarian poetry. In Hungary, poetry has a popularity which it has in few other countries.

"There is a wonderful Hungarian literature, especially in lyric poetry. There is a great living writer—I know him personally—Sandor Veres. One of the greatest poets, like your. . . but I don't know any great living English poets. Perhaps like Auden."

He was in New York with his family. His wife Vera is a psychiatrist. His son Lukas is also a musician. He studied percussion and composition in Vienna. "He is a jazz player," said his father. "Of course he wanted to come to New York. New York is the dream world, the center of jazz and rock."

"Then he is the second generation of musicians. Or do you come from a musical family?" we asked. At which he told us a surprising story.

"There was a very famous musician in our family. He was a great violinist, an internationally known teacher. He was Leopold Auer. He was my great-uncle, the brother of my grandfather."

Of course, we knew all about Leopold Auer—the teacher of Heifetz and Elman and Zimbalist. Tchaikovsky had written his Violin Concerto for him, but when Auer wanted to make changes Tchaikovsky was angry and withdrew the dedication. But that was all in St. Petersburg. We had thought Leopold Auer was a Russian.

"No. He was Hungarian. He was born in Veszprem. That is near Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe, where the Royal Family used to stay, the same part of Hungary where my father was born." Ligeti himself was actually born in a provincial town with a very long name, Dicsöszentmarton, which before World War I was Hungarian, then became Romanian. "People often thought Leopold Auer was Russian because he lived in St. Petersburg so long, almost fifty years. He came there in 1869 to be soloist in the Imperial Orchestra and to teach at the Conservatory, and he stayed until after the Revolution.

"My grandfather was not a musician but he was an artist—a painter, a decorative painter. My father was a bank clerk. He was also a Utopian Socialist and he wrote a Utopian novel. It was a kind of allegory or fairy tale. It was about a Miraculous Purse. It was about a land where money had no worth, no value, a new world where everyone lives without money. I was very critical of my father's Utopian dreams. I knew would be very worried if he had to live in such a world.

“My father's name was also Auer," he continued. "But then, in the last generation, it became common for Hungarian Jews to change their names to Hungarian names. Auer in German means pasture or meadow, and so it became Ligeti because Ligeti in Hungarian means about the same thing—'from the meadow.' "

We commented: "What a pleasant, peaceful name."

"I am not peaceful." He was indignant at the thought.

"Then are you violent?"

"No, not violent. But somebody else must answer that question. Perhaps the better word is emotional yes, I am an emotional man."

Since Ligeti is usually pronounced, at least here, with an accent on the second syllable, we asked if that were correct. "No. It is pronounced in Hungary with equal emphasis on each syllable. But it doesn't matter. Say it as you please."

He is a most interesting man, passionate and provocative, idealistic and down to earth. Characteristic is this story he told of himself.

“In the newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung they publish a regular feature. Every week they choose a question of general interest which they put to some well-known public figure, and they publish the answers. To me they asked these two questions. What would be for you the greatest happiness? And what would be for you the greatest disaster? To the first question—there was only a small space for the answers—I replied: 'A just society.' To the second: 'If a just society were realized.'”

The Utopian and the cynic had answered—two sides of Ligeti's nature. Perhaps that is why he says of his music: "It is not for the audience, it is not even for me, but a thing in 'itself."

When he left we thought of the paradox of this extraordinary composer. Then we remembered his favorite Alice and a conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice. Humpty Dumpty says: "When I use a word it means just as I choose it to mean—neither more or less." "The question is," said Alice, whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is” said Humpty Dumpty, "Which is to be the master—that's all." Gyorgy Ligeti, is certainly the master.

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