American Composers Remember György Ligeti (1923-2006)

American Composers Remember György Ligeti (1923-2006)

Martin Bresnick, Roberto Sierra, and Anne LeBaron all shared hours of music and conversation with the compser. Here they celebrate their great friend and teacher with us.

Written By

NewMusicBox Staff

Photo: Schott Promotion/Kropp


When György Ligeti died on June 12, 2006, the media called up clips of Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. Though the use of Ligeti’s music in the soundtracks to these films may have accounted for his celebrity among the general public, they of course represented only a corner of the avant-garde composer’s influencial music and uncompromising personality.

His renown among composers was quite another matter, however, and his influence world-wide. Here in the States, his teaching time was limited, but quite a few American composers made the journey to his doorstep. Martin Bresnick, Roberto Sierra, and Anne LeBaron all shared hours of music and conversation with the composer. Here they celebrate their great friend and teacher with us. —MS

A Memorial from Martin Bresnick

I was a 21-year-old graduate student at Stanford in the spring of 1968 when I first saw a score written by György Ligeti. My teacher and mentor John Chowning had left a copy of Atmospheres for me to look at on the table of his faculty resident’s cottage on a sunny afternoon in Palo Alto. I was never the same after that. John had been patiently leading me into what can only be called the “heroic age” of computer music—hours spent computing very short test samples of sound at 3:00 a.m. at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence facility while more sinister (or naïve) colleagues plotted saturation bombing patterns for the Vietnam war during the day.

There on the table was music that cut the Gordian knot of our painstaking computation by simply making the conventional orchestra a robust sound source—each individual string and wind part contributed its own micro-voice to a superbly controlled and always transforming mass sonority. I quickly tried to find other music by Ligeti, but it was not until later that year, when Kubrick’s 2001 came out, that I was able to hear, on a recording that contained only truncated excerpts and was surrounded by not particularly apt electronic music by the usually wonderful Mort Subotnick (Oh, why Mort, why?), parts of Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux Aeterna as well as Atmospheres itself.

From then on I became a “virtual” Ligeti student, although it took me another four years to become a real one. With some research I found out that Ligeti was living in Vienna, so in September of 1968 I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to Austria. I’ll skip over the eight months of terrified waiting for the results of the application while fighting the draft both back east and in California. In short, by the autumn of 1969, I was off to Austria on a Fulbright and preparing for what I anticipated would be the most remarkable year of my life. Upon arriving in Vienna, I immediately called Ligeti. But to my shock and dismay he told me that while he was happy to have me as a student, he had just received a German DAAD fellowship and was leaving for Berlin.

I did have a great year in Vienna—though one quite different from what I had hoped. I studied at the then Akademie fuer Musik with Gottfried von Einem and Friedrich Cerha—both very interesting musicians—and attended two public presentations Ligeti gave at special composer events in the city. He was utterly charming as a lecturer, at once plainspoken and wittily elusive. In May of 1970, I was able to attend the world premiere of the not quite complete Chamber Concerto performed by the Austrian new music group Die Reihe under Cerha’s direction. Ligeti, always late with his commissions, had only completed the first three movements. The Chamber Concerto remains indelibly imprinted in my brain and ear. For many years I had to be careful not to simply rewrite it in my own work.

When I returned to Stanford to complete my graduate studies, John Chowning and I plotted to bring Ligeti to California. I am not sure how John and the music department did it, but to my amazement they succeeded. And so, in January of 1972, I began my actual, official studies with György Ligeti.

As a teacher and as a person Ligeti was a charming and slyly attractive blend of graciousness and what might be described as a ferocious awareness of the inescapable (for him) hierarchies of quality and originality. At the outset of his composition seminar at Stanford he quickly decided that most of the students were naïve beginners, and he would only teach them as a group. It was terrifying to watch him separate the sheep from the goats—flattering for the sheep, naturally, but devastating for the goats! Luckily, I was one of two students he decided to see privately for individual lessons.

These lessons were no ordinary encounters. They would start at an agreed upon hour, but then go on as long as Ligeti had something he found interesting to talk about. We talked about my music (which to me, at that tender age, seemed hopelessly unworthy of his time), about his music (he was then writing the Double Concerto, and he was turning over his much delayed opera, Le Grand Macabre, in his mind), and about music in general. He thought the new computer music John Chowning was developing was very promising. He wanted to meet Harry Partch. He was interested in Steve Reich and Terry Riley, but the list of people he was definitely not interested in was long and damning. The most devastating thing he would say (quietly and politely) about someone was “this is not very interesting” or, “this music is just scraps from the floor of Darmstadt.” At this point in his life, he was still just becoming “György Ligeti,” and he expressed a joyful musical curiosity and enthusiasm that completely persuaded me.

Ligeti and I worked together until June, after which he left California for his job in Hamburg. He was never again to spend his time teaching so extensively in the U.S. I tried to remember everything he said in our private lessons and public lectures, as well as the comments he made while coaching his own music for performance (here he was truly devastating about any deviation from his numerous directions). And I do remember much more than I can say here at this sad time. Just before he left Stanford, in one of my luckiest and proudest moments, György Ligeti and John Chowning jointly signed and approved my final doctoral composition.

From then on, I saw Ligeti from time to time in different corners of the world—New York, Paris, Berlin. Although he always treated me as a friend and colleague, I knew better—he was the amazing master, I the devoted apprentice. Memorably I once visited him at his Hamburg apartment in July of 1982. I had dropped my music off with him before we were to officially meet—he wanted to listen to all of it, despite the fact that he looked very ill—and he told me to come back in two days. I lived those 48 hours in a hell of anxiety about his opinion of my work and his health.

When I arrived, his warm and spontaneous welcome relieved my anxiety about the music. I was so overcome by his enthusiastic approval that I had to struggle to keep my focus. Then he showed me the first movement of his as yet unfinished Horn Trio. The work was to be premiered that August and was far from complete. I was astounded and frightened by the opening chords of the first movement. I recognized at once this piece was an homage to Brahms in name only. It was, in fact, a “Lebewohl” like the Beethoven Sonata, but for whom had he composed this wry musical farewell? Ligeti looked so ill and disheveled I was afraid it was his own goodbye to the world. Later I learned his mother had died in that year—completing by natural causes what the Nazis began in 1945. All of his childhood family in Hungary was now gone. Despite his disheveled condition and my vigorous protest, Ligeti insisted I stay until we were done talking and listening. Our day together that July began at 3:00 p.m. and ended long after midnight.

The music of the Trio, profoundly personally expressive, and in the final movement unbearably desolate, is for me both a pinnacle of his consummate command of form, counterpoint, and color and a convincing move away from the denser micro-polyphony of the ’60s to the great melodious and polyrhythmic music of the etudes and the last concerti. What is more, hidden in the Trio is the haunting Transylvanian folk song that Ligeti had collected—à la Bartók—and first used in his Musica Ricercata for piano, and then orchestrated as the elegant 7/8 movement of the Six Bagatelles for woodwind quintet. This piercingly beautiful melody from the old country was now reclaimed by the immigrant Ligeti, and would continue to appear, more or less disguised, in his most significant music (the Piano Etudes, the Piano Concerto, and Violin Concerto, among others) to the end of his life.

In 1979, at the request of the musicologist Laurel Fay, I delivered a paper on Ligeti to the music section of the Institute for East European Studies. The title was “György Ligeti: Immigrant to the Avant-Garde.” I still believe that title to be an apt description of his life’s trajectory. This great Hungarian-Jewish master arrived in the West in 1956 with what was stuffed into his extraordinary musical mind and the few suitcases he could carry. For the rest of his life he struggled with the dislocations and shifting strategies of an immigrant from a small but culturally rich country: What ideas to take from the old land? How much of the new land to adopt? How to represent oneself effectively in a new culture and language?

From the outset in the West, Ligeti was excited and challenged by—but also sharply criticized—Boulez (see his essay on Structures in Die Reihe). Ligeti doubted the value of both total serialism and Cage’s chance music (and he pointed out their sonic similarities in his “On the Metamorphosis of Musical Form,” also in Die Reihe). He taught at Darmstadt but disdained the ideological and a priori aesthetic approaches he found there. He called for a new music that was neither “modern nor postmodern” and wrote an “anti-anti opera”: Le Grande Macabre. He smuggled species counterpoint into cluster music and repeating, pulsate rhythms into the a-periodic and atonal music of the sixties. He worried constantly about whether his own music was sufficiently new, while at the same time writing chaconnes and passacaglias of old-fashioned technical complexity. He demanded nothing less from his students than complete mastery of our inherited musical tradition and would never accept ignorance of any new musical source or technique as an excuse for some imitation or ineptitude. In the end, I think he could never completely reconcile himself with the prevailing fashions of new music (despite his resolute search for novelty), nor could he return (however much he yearned for it) to the vanishing world of his and our past. He took what he could carry with him, and he never quite returned.

When Ligeti came to Yale in 1993 for a celebration of his 70th birthday, I drove to the airport in Hartford to bring him to New Haven. When we arrived, he asked me, with a sly grin, to carry his two suitcases up to the hotel room. As I lifted them I was astonished to find that, although one was quite normal, the other was impossibly heavy. “What do you have in this one?” I asked, straining to maneuver it onto a stand. He was very amused. “Go ahead, open them both,” he said. The lighter one revealed his rumpled clothes, but as I opened the heavy one, it nearly exploded, spilling some of the contents on the floor. As I bent to retrieve the fallen items, I saw what they were: volumes and volumes of virtually the entire repertory of the greatest music ever written for the piano—Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Schubert, Scriabin, Brahms, and Debussy. “You see,” he said, smiling, “I put the etude I am now composing on the piano next to some Chopin or Schumann. If I can still bear to look at it, I let it stay. Otherwise…”

I have so many, many more Ligeti stories in my mind and heart. Perhaps some day I will tell them. But for now I must grieve and mourn my lost friend and master. Farewell, György!


A Memorial from Roberto Sierra

Ligeti and Sierra, ca. 1985

In the summer of 1979, I was at a crossroads. A friend of mine told me that there was an interesting summer course at the Centre Acanthes in Aix-en-Provence with Ligeti as the invited composer. At that point I only knew Ligeti’s works from some concerts that I attended during my studies in London and through recordings.

My decision to attend that summer course turned out to be a very important event in my development as a composer. One afternoon, Ligeti asked the participants (around 100 young composers) to submit scores for him to look at. I submitted my first String Quartet, not knowing how he would react. By then it was clear to me that Ligeti was very rigorous and did not waste time with uninteresting music or ideas. After looking at my work he asked me to come to meet with him privately. He commented that he liked my work—even more, it was the only piece that he liked from the bunch—and asked about my plans for the coming year. I really had no plans and, in fact, did not know what to do, and he asked if I would be interested in coming to Hamburg to study with him. This was the beginning of a relationship that lasted decades, first as a student and then as a friend.

As a teacher, Ligeti was ruthless. He did not suffer fools lightly and expected only the highest standards. So most of what transpired in the class was fierce in terms of criticism, but we all loved the exchange. The classes were held in his Hamburg apartment, and all of the students were present (the number was around five composers per year). We trickled in around 2 p.m. and would usually stay until late in the evening. During class we talked about all possible subjects, from current political events to pop music. He relished in the “new,” which could be the latest trends in literature or the sciences. This was accompanied by a warm personality and a sharp sense of humor. I remember one afternoon, when he was bothered by a rather pedantic work from one of my classmates. As if he was at a loss for words, he just asked him: “Why do you wear octagonal glasses?” We all laughed, including the student with the funny looking glasses.

Leaving Hamburg in 1982 was not an easy decision. Ligeti tried to persuade me to stay longer, but I had made up my mind. After six years in Europe, I was homesick; I needed to go back to the tropics. I stayed in contact with him, and visited him in Hamburg on several occasions. During one of the visits I remember seeing the manuscript of the first movement of the Violin Concerto. When I asked him about it, he commented that he was rewriting it, that the first version was not good enough. Here was a man obsessed with technical perfection and longing for that music that nobody has written before.

My last visit to Hamburg was particularly touching. He was already looking very old (in the last ten year his physical deterioration was notable), but his mind was as sharp as ever. I wanted to play for him my Piezas Imaginarias, and he said that he would listen, but that he would not make any comments. I figured that by now, since I was not a student anymore, he did not want to offend me. To my surprise when the last piece of the set was finished, he turned to me and said, “Roberto, this is music written on the highest level, in the grand tradition of western piano music.” I usually find praise empty and banal, but coming from him it meant the world to me.

We talked and reminisced for a while longer. At one point he was pondering on the state of affairs and the direction that music was going in Europe. He was rather pessimistic and said that “no one is interested anymore in serious music.” To me this was shocking coming from a man at the pinnacle of fame, but I realized that he was reacting at the changes in the European cultural milieu. I believe that his pessimism may have been too strong, but as many works that came out of modernism are now gone and forgotten, Ligeti’s works will survive not only because of their absolute mastery, but also for their wonderful and profound emotional content, and for how they capture the imagination of the listener.


A Memorial from Anne LeBaron

Passionate, obsessively curious, charming, attracted to paradox, opinionated yet open-minded—these traits come to mind as I think of György Ligeti and recall the heady experience of participating in his composition class at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater in 1980-81. To study composition with Ligeti was to be granted entrée into his score-studded home and studio, to be privy to his passions of the moment (often the same passions he spoke of decades later), to share a meal with him and a half-dozen or so other students, and finally, to listen to and critique our various compositions or works-in-progress. These feisty, multilingual, and often harsh interactions became so intense among the students that Ligeti split the group into two separate components in the hope of engendering a more civil discourse.

The final class I attended began with Ligeti playing a most unusual bootleg recording from the film Black Orpheus, graphically depicting verbal and percussive sexual coupling and too explicit to be used in the film. He took immense delight in the musical attributes of the soundtrack. This experience was revelatory for me. His net for what might be musically valid (and valuable), no matter how unorthodox, was wider than any composition teacher I had known.

When Ligeti admired and respected composers and musicians, he was lavish and thorough with praise. For instance, when he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in 2002, he asserted that James Tenney was one of the greatest American composers living, in the company of Ives, Partch, and Nancarrow. Some twenty years earlier, his excitement revolved around Scriabin, DeeDee Bridgewater, the Baka Pygmies, and, again, Nancarrow. He encouraged those of us in the class to bring in music that we found stimulating and empowering. He would never hesitate to take issue if he didn’t agree with our choices, and always had compelling reasons for his coolly dismissive comments. He was unflinchingly honest, in a charmingly brutal way.

Before returning to the U.S. at the close of my Fulbright year, Ligeti advised me to avoid academia. “They will crush your spirit,” he warned. His caution was taken to heart—perhaps that’s why it took me ten years to finish my doctorate.

The “spirit” he spoke of, I’ve always thought, harks back to the composition that gained me acceptance into his class, Concerto for Active Frogs. This graphic score, infused with theatricality, would have spoken to his appreciation for the absurd. In fact, Ligeti’s flirtation with the Fluxus movement is yet another fascinating strand of his early “absurdist” leanings, culminating many years later in his one opera, Le Grand Macabre.

I last saw Ligeti four years ago, during the Kyoto Prize ceremony and following workshops, in San Diego. He held forth for most of the afternoon, brilliantly analyzing his own work, and concentrating on a few specific works from his Piano Etudes. The seminar was held in an small theater at the University of San Diego seating about 150 people, with screens on either side of the stage for the video presentations, and an excellent sound system. Ligeti was very particular and insistent about the level of the sound during the playback of excerpts of music, and about when the lights should come down—he was a real stickler for coordinating the elements of video, sound, and light.

“When Conlon Nancarrow came to Europe in 1983, my heart was thumping,” Ligeti confessed at one point that afternoon. “For me, the greatest composer of our time. We developed a friendship. My friendships are developed with the people who I find exciting—scientists, mathematicians…like Tenney, Chowning, Max Matthews, [the mathematician Benoit] Mandlebrot. This is a huge family of composers in the experimental field.”

In the context of discussing his Piano Etudes, Ligeti said: “When I first heard Terry Riley’s In C at Temple University, I was very impressed. The common denominator between Conlon Nancarrow, African music, fractal geometry and biology: growth from simple to complex. I have to tell you, I don’t imitate Conlon Nancarrow or Harry Partch, or the African musicians. This is something else. The knowledge of what other people did is so important. I imagined here the four great piano composers—Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, Schumann—because this is the starting point.”

The question was asked: “What subjects would you advise conservatories to teach their students today?” James Tenney, who Ligeti had selected to host the day-long seminar on his music, answered, “Musical acoustics; the literature of the 20th century.”

Ligeti continued the answer: “I completely agree, but I will add that it’s very important to have a high level of knowledge of non-European music: Asian, Javanese, Thai, Australian, the whole African complex south of the Sahara, Arabian, Iranian, and North African. I’m extremely interested in polyphonic music so I gravitate toward the African musics. For me, popular culture is very important, such as the blues. I learned traditional technique in Budapest, figured bass, traditional harmony, counterpoint was taught. Lizst had been there, in the Conservatory, and Bartók. We had no modern music; it ended with Beethoven. When I discovered the richness of harmony of Chopin or Schubert, there were no books. Debussy opens a whole new world, is the most important innovator of early 20th century music. Schoenberg was very respected, but…for orchestration, the texts of Rimsky-Korsakov and Koechlin are crucial. I learned orchestration mainly by listening. My best teachers were Haydn and Stravinsky.”

What isn’t conveyed here, of course, is the tempo of Ligeti’s speaking, the vast range of nuance in his inflection, timing, and the emphasis on certain words—or his generosity and warmth, extended to James Tenney, as well as to the most musically unsophisticated members of the audience who submitted questions. György Ligeti, with his astounding musical facility, his intense imagination—fueled by science but also by absurdist notions—and his inquisitive yet discerning nature, was a huge influence on my development as a composer. I was most fortunate to know him and to be in his presence as a young composer making her way in the world.