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Master of Discordance

You may know Gyorgy Ligeti's music from '2001,' but that's only an introduction to the remarkable composer.

April 19, 1998|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Driving north along the San Diego Freeway, cresting over Mulholland Drive and into the San Fernando Valley on a recent glorious morning--cerulean sky, fluffy clouds, crystal-clear air after a night of rain--I had an out-of-auto experience.

Traffic was light, the windows were closed and a piece of ethereal modern organ music was playing on the car stereo. It was "Harmonies" by Gyorgy Ligeti, the Hungarian composer prominently featured by the Los Angeles Philharmonic this month and next. This is music of sustained chords that change almost subliminally and feel as though they float in space. They took me with them.

I am hardly alone in having chanced upon this sensation with Ligeti's music. You may have taken a similar trip. If you've seen Stanley Kubrick's famous 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" projected on a large screen and heard it through an enveloping sound system, you, too, have drifted through the void on the wings of Ligeti. His is the spacey music.

"2001" gave Ligeti his 15 minutes of fame, especially thanks to his music being included on the popular soundtrack recording, along with Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube" Waltz and the opening fanfare to Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra." The psychedelic generation couldn't get enough of something like Ligeti's 1960 orchestra piece, "Atmospheres," which Kubrick used as an overture to set the tone of "2001." What hippie, after all, would not succumb to this continuous tapestry of orchestral sonority? On the surface it is a wall of static sound. But listen deep and you notice the flux, a swirling gradual transformation of sound. Here was exquisite music that confirmed a new generational attitude, namely that mysterious wonder lies behind every mundane exterior.

It is not very likely that audiences will have quite the same mind-set when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts "Atmospheres" on Friday as part of the festival the Philharmonic is calling "Around Ligeti" in celebration of the composer's 75th birthday on May 28. Times, we all know, have changed. But so, too, has Ligeti and our sense of him. He is now an old master. His works, if not exactly common, are played and recorded more often than the other European avant-gardists of his generation. Salonen has been lately championing Ligeti with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, Paris and Salzburg, and he is one of the main participants in Sony Classics' indispensable Ligeti Edition (which is up to seven CDs).

With this kind of perspective on the composer, we now see that Ligeti's music not only covers a wide spectrum of styles, but ultimately all of it is concerned with inner workings, be it of natural phenomenona or machines or the brain, with clocks and clouds and craziness. "Atmospheres" is part of a larger, grander universe.

Twenty years ago Ligeti wrote an absurd, apocalyptic opera, "Le Grand Macabre," thattakes place in a grotesque never-never land called Breughelland, and it is tempting to think that he had his own roots in mind. He was born in Dracula's country, Transylvania, in 1928 and endured a horrifying youth as a Jewish teenager in Nazi Hungary. His father and brother perished in a labor camp. He, however, was drafted into a special unit of the Hungarian army for "unreliable" minorities and forced to undertake dangerous missions, such as carrying explosives to the front line. He escaped and hid in Budapest. Even the war's end brought only temporary relief. Although Ligeti was able to continue his studies and enroll in the Budapest Academy of Music in 1945, the new Soviet rule in Hungary brought more repression.

It is tempting, as well, to interpret all of Ligeti's music as coming out of a world in which nothing works quite as it should, a world in which the preposterous is the norm and you had better not trust appearances. But first there was Bartok as a key early influence. No great surprise in that; Bartok loomed over Hungarian music and his were the few Modernist scores readily available after the war. Still, Bartok's modern techniques were not officially approved, and it was his folk music style that initially attracted Ligeti. Following in the footsteps of his father, the young composer was an avid socialist and believed in Social Realism, and he gladly wrote in the approved musical style meant for lifting the workers' spirits.

That didn't last long. Once the implications of Stalinist Realism took hold in the early 1950s, namely outright repression, Ligeti rebelled. Although anything faintly resembling modern art was forbidden, radio waves could not be suppressed across borders and Ligeti got wind of a radically new kind of music from Europe. The avant-garde works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, in particular, rejected all the emotional trends of music before the war, especially the lingering Romanticism from the previous century.

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