The Polar Music Prize for 2004 is being awarded to the Hungarian-born composer György Ligeti for stretching the boundaries of the musically conceivable, from mind-expanding sounds to new astounding processes, in a thoroughly personal style that embodies both inquisitiveness and imagination.
György Ligeti fled from Hungary in 1956, assimilating with astonishing speed the compositional techniques of the Western European avant-garde, of which he had previously been totally unaware. So it was not until he was 30 that he was able to realise the music that had been in his head for many years. His breakthrough came with his dense clusters, which shift imperceptibly between noise and harmony. The new sounds made on the old instruments have influenced composers all over the world. He first made his international name with Atmosphéres, an orchestral piece from 1961, and his typically evocative music became ensconced in the public consciousness when Stanley Kubrick used part of the work in his film “2001 – A Space Odyssey”. Other favourite images include the out-of-control clockwork machinery, and dangling spider-webs that become increasingly entangled (Chamber Concerto, 1968). His imaginary miniature operas without words but with expressive vocal sequences in phonetic script are like compressed strip cartoons (Aventures, 1962 and Nouvelles Aventures, 1965). The richness of Ligeti’s music lies in the breadth of his imagination, for he is equally comfortable with black humour as he is with thought-provoking incidents. (Particularly fascinating is Poeme Symphonique for 100 metronomes). All this is collected in his largest work, the opera Le Grand Macabre, which had its original premiere in Stockholm in 1978. It is one of the most frequently played operas of our times, and opens with an overture for 12 car horns, and closes with a painfully beautiful passacaglia, played after Death itself has died at Armageddon and everyone else seems to have survived…
In the 1980s Ligeti renewed his tonal idiom, basing it now on parallel tone patterns of different tempi (polymetrics). This gave him the impetus to create great illusory works out of musical fractals to confuse the listener into not being sure whether the music is fast or slow. He is also capable of rhythmic orgies as though “the Balkans lay somewhere between Africa and the Caribbean”. Ligeti is inspired by African drum rhythms, American minimalism and Conlon Nancarrow’s music for player piano. His principal work is a large anthology of piano etudes in three volumes, of which No. 18 is the latest. It is a magnificent, multi-faceted series of works that places Ligeti firmly amongst the great piano composers: Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. One of his most powerful works is his Piano Concerto from 1987, which combines virtuosity, nostalgia and rhythmic drive.
György Ligeti, who comes from an assimilated Jewish family, survived both Nazism and Stalinism thanks to a string of happy coincidences. He believes in a music that stylises and distils our grand emotions into a tapestry of notes that are both felt, smelt and that distort perspectives. His humanism shuns fashionable pessimism and obscure problemisation. Ligeti’s curiosity about the world is unabated. “Reality is both terrible and wonderful”