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Gyorgy Ligeti, 83; a Mercurial Composer Who Despised Dogmas

June 13, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

But after his experiences with the Nazis and then the Communists, Ligeti bristled at all ideologies, no matter how avant-garde. In the early 1960s, Ligeti wrote "Atmospheres" and "Apparitions," in which he explored thick, static clouds of texturally complex sounds. But his attention also turned to wacky vocalizing and imaginary opera in "Aventures" and "Nouvelles Aventures." In 1965, he completed his "Requiem," a Holocaust piece made of huge clusters of sounds that treats death as a horrible burlesque of terror.

In 1968, when Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti's eerie choral work "Lux Aeterna" in "2001," the composer inadvertently became a cult figure for fans of psychedelic music. The piece was inserted in the film without the composer's permission or even knowledge, and his new fame proved a mixed blessing, since it typecast him as a composer of trippy music.

Yet the 1960s and '70s were decades of great stylistic restlessness for Ligeti. In 1971, he came to America for the first time and spent a term as visiting lecturer and composer in residence at Stanford University. Although he had already met Terry Riley and admired his historic minimalist piece "In C," Ligeti now found himself deeply interested in the early West Coast Minimalism of Riley and Steve Reich.

He also met Harry Partch, who lived in the San Diego area at the time and whose systems of microtonal 43-note scale and extraordinary homemade instruments proved yet another revelation for Ligeti. And he took an interest in Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who lived in Mexico City and wrote pieces for player piano.

After Stanford, Ligeti moved to Hamburg, Germany, where he taught for 16 years at the Hochschule fur Musik and began work on his opera, "Le Grand Macabre," which premiered in Stockholm in 1978. In it, he employed many of the musical devices he had absorbed over the years to tell a ribald tale of sex and death in Breughelland, populated by a creepy figure of death and various weirdos.

But behind the farce, the opera proved on a deeper level to be a profound and powerful study of unfettered fantasy, and it was been widely hailed as one of the most important operas of the last half-century.

In Ligeti's last period, he turned to more traditional forms, writing concertos for piano, violin and horn, as well as two string quartets and his piano etudes. All have entered the modern standard repertory. Still, little about Ligeti's neoclassical style proved classical. He continued to respond to everything around him and took a particular interest in exploring African and Indonesian music.

In those pieces, Salonen hears in Ligeti a return to his Hungarian roots. "Despite the fact that he had such a horrible childhood in Hungary, he's a Hungarian composer," said Salonen, who led a Ligeti festival with the Philharmonic in 1998. "He was the most cosmopolitan of composers, but paradoxically, he remained very clearly defined in terms of his roots and language. His humor, especially, is very Hungarian."

So, apparently, were Ligeti's depressions. He had the reputation of being difficult to work with, demanding complete control and making unreasonable demands of performers. Angered by a Peter Sellars' production of "Le Grand Macabre" at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, Ligeti had a falling-out with Salonen, who conducted the production and was in the midst of a project to record all of Ligeti's music.

Aimard, who visited Ligeti last month, described him as having become "a very dark person" in his last years, especially once he was no longer healthy enough to compose.

"He was a very complex personality," Aimard said, "who could be very restrictive but who could not tolerate complete personal freedom. I think he paid for that in terms of relationships, but I also think that it gave him something special in his music."

Ligeti is survived by his wife, Vera; and his son Lukas, a percussionist and composer in New York.


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Selected discography

Some of Gyorgy Ligeti's works on compact disc:

* "Le Grand Macabre." Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor (Sony Classical).

* Piano Etudes. Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Sony Classical).

String Quartets. Arditti Quartet (Sony Classical).

* Piano Concerto. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Asko Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor (Teldec).

* "Atmospheres." Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Jonathan Nott, conductor (Teldec).

* Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano. Saschko Gawriloff, violin; Marie-Luise Neunecker, horn; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano (Sony Classical).


Compiled by Times staff writer Mark Swed

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