Interview of György LIGETI

presented in Monk Mink Pink Punk #9

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Interview by Pierre Gervasoni
First published in the World, September 27, 1997
Reprinted online at http://membres.lycos.fr/yrol/MUSIQUE/LIGETI/ligeti2.htm
Translated into English by Josh Ronsen, October, 2003

 
PIERRE GERVASONI: Leaving Hungary [in 1956] determined your musical career. Have you ever imagined what music you would have written had you stayed?
GYOGRY LIGETI: Yes. Scores such as Apparations or Atmospheres, conceived in Cologne then in Vienna, testify to my discovery of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. Therefore, what I would have done without these influences, while remaining in Budapest, would of course have been different. But not enormously so, because in the summer of 1956, before leaving Hungary, I had written a score for orchestra [Visions] which corresponds to a more primitive first movement of Apparations. This use of chromatic clusters and very dense textures already formed a personal trait. My development in Hungary would have perhaps been similar but taken longer, as it was the case for György Kurtag, whom I consider very close to myself.
PG: Do you hunger for a Hungarian identity?
GL: My mother tongue is Hungarian. I do not hold any nationalist sentiment. I am not related in a patriotic way to Hungary, but I am attached to the language, poetry and literary culture. But for the rest, the culture is European. In Japan, in Indo-China, in Indonesia, great native cultures have existed for thousands of years. In Europe, only the languages change. The culture, it is technology.
PG: In a article published in 1985, you preached a modernism of today which would be neither "retro" by nostalgia for tonality nor academic through surrender to a posthumous, curdled avant-garde. Is such a modernism still noteworthy?
GL: Yes, there are always composers who do Mahler or Vivaldi, or to even write meditations on Pérotin. However, I do not think that it is wise to continue a strict avant-gardist march. On foot only! I also hate overly elaborate scores where the writing should be admired more than the music. For me, music is an acoustic phenomenon, and a score is not useful which cannot communicate with the players. My own work naturally evolved during the last ten years because I looked into scientific and ethnomusicological knowledge which have been my sources of inspiration for some time. However, I am a dilettante interested by all sciences, natural, social and human. Like a sponge, I absorb all. But don’t consider that I take a model whatever it is, biological or otherwise. For example, it starts from a branch of mathematics which defines cellular automats whose configurations develop in the manner of an organization. This theory interests me but not for a direct application.
PG: Where are you in the search for an alternative to the tempered system sought since the beginning of the 1980s?
GL: I considered the question much earlier, in particular with Ramifications (1969). The Double Concerto (1972) also is microtonal. I was greatly influenced by Harry Partch twenty-five years ago [in 1972 -ed.], when I was in California, and I even had the occasion to play his instruments. He sought as much as possible to leave the equal division of the octave into twelve semitones, which was useful for the tonal system. Today we have other possibilities, a continuum of colors as Ferruccio Busoni had dreamed before.
PG: The Concerto for violin seemed to advance in this direction, in particular with the use of ocarinas and slide-whistles. Do you plan to continue such an experiment?
GL: Without a doubt in chamber music. In my Sonata for Viola (1991-94) created for Tabea Zimmermann, there is a first movement where various microtonal deviations are prescribed corresponding to the natural harmonic spectrum. The first movement, for example, is conceived from the harmonics of F , but the viola does not have an F string. It is thus necessary to produce the harmonics of F while playing normally on the C string, and by controlling the accuracy of the intonation by ear; one operates to some extent starting from imaginary strings. I would like to extend these experiments to a quartet.
PG: You have just completed a significant rewriting of Le Grande Macabre, presented last summer at the Festival of Salzburg and to be shown in Paris next February. The opera again attracts composers. Is this the means for them to have a more obvious social function?
GL: I do not think so. The social function is something that I do not represent myself. All that I could imagine could never be but illusion. The reality of society is absolutely not influenceable by what I think. This is why I deviate from all the Utopias. I do not believe that an artist creates by wondering whether one needs him or not. Me, I create because I need to do it.
PG: In a discussion with Clytus Gottwald, you declared ten years ago, that it was "natural that a generation is hostile to the fathers and approaches the grandfathers." You seem to achieve today the unanimity of very different composers young and old. Is this to say, without lack of respect, that you consequently appear among my "grandfathers"?
GL: I am an old Sir today, but I preserved a form of curiosity. I am not engaged in the direction which has to cultivate my own prestege as some cultivate their style. I am never content with what I did. I always seek.
PG: To doubt oneself regularly constitutes a great risk.
GL: Without risk, one does not accomplish anything; one remains mediocre. When I left Hungary, I had no idea what was going to happen; perhaps I was going to be shot at the border...

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