Saturday, August 4, 2018

Gyorgy Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds

György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange SoundsGyörgy Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds by Louise Duchesneau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though I am an avant-classical enthusiast, I am by no means an expert. I cannot read music and the instrument I play is electric guitar, and that, badly. But I'm willing to learn a few things, even if I clearly don't have time or the gumption to become a true aficionado. So you'll please excuse this layman's delve into a work that would speak far more clearly to the musically-trained. And yet, I can't help but think that while the intellectual appreciation of the book might be somewhat heightened by such training, my enjoyment of the book was only slightly hampered by my admitted ignorance. One need not have a thorough understanding of musical notation to appreciate Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds .

In fact, I wonder if such an acute focus on the music on the page itself might not get in the way of really enjoying the exploration of Ligeti's creative mind. Chapter Eight, in fact (which I would argue should have been Chapter One or Two, for the sake of the untrained reader), "Rules and Regulations: Lessons from Ligeti's Compositional Sketches," an essay by University of Washington Professor of Music Theory Jonathan W. Bernard, is an enlightening look into the many different methods Ligeti used to notate his own music-in-progress. Bernard shares a loose taxonomy of the "sketch types" Ligeti used while composing: Jottings, Drawings, Charts, Tables, and finally, Music Notation. Color plates in the middle of the book showing Ligeti's original papers augment the reader's experience. Here, one can get a more visceral feel for what Ligeti's music "looks like" on paper - a wonderful thing for those of us who are visual-kinesthetic learners! If you, like me, have little or no musical training, I would recommend starting with Chapter Eight.

There, now that you've read Chapter Eight, turn to Chapter One: "'We play with the music and the music plays with us;: Sandor Veress and his Student Gyorgy Ligeti," by University of Calgary Musicology Professor Friedemann Sallis. This will give you the background on Ligeti's early studies, the discipline instilled in him by Veress, and his growth both with and against those teachings, much of which was (later) pushed by political circumstances around him, especially the suppression of folk traditions and traditional folk music by the mid-20th-Century Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Now that one has this background, the reader can (should?) then skip up to Chapter Seven, written by Ligeti's long time assistant (and co-editor of this volume), Louise Duchesneau: "'Play it like Bill Evans': Gyorgy Ligeti and Recorded Music". Here we explore Ligeti's like and dislikes and take a deep delve into his personal record collection! I found this fascinating, not just because of Ligeti's wide interests (he took a liking to Supertramp at one point, after being introduced to their music by one of his students), but because Duchesneau here outlines the entirety of Ligeti's career, conveniently parsing his music into several distinct phases. Though the borders between these phases were not always crystal clear, sometimes they were, as in the time when he rejected "Modernist" work and returned to his Hungarian folk roots after a many-decades-long absence or, more properly, intellectual exile (partially self-imposed, partially imposed by the external chilling effect of having to flee oppression of expression).

From there, one may read the rest of the book in order (yes, you have my permission), as the sequence of Chapters Eight, then One, then Seven, will give you all the under-girding you need to contextualize the other essays, which vary from examinations of specific pieces to poetic connections, Ligeti's fascination with African music, his appreciation for and the influence on his music by the principles of chaos and fractals, Stanley Kubrik's use of Ligeti's music in his movies (an amazing cross-media examination that my Humanities professors would have loved), and impressions of those who were his students.

One theme that ran through the book, whether explicitly or implicitly, was that of a man un-moored from his homeland who longed to retain some aspect of that homeland which he had left, but who was not blindly beholden to the place of his birth and childhood. This is where the book connected with me emotionally, rather than just intellectually. I am an American citizen, born in Germany into a U.S. Air Force family, and have lived all over the world. Though I love the place I live now, it has taken me many years to call any one place "home". With the recent passing of my parents (who lived in California, though I only lived there for three years, and two of those years as a married man not living at home - not to mention the fact that I was very happy to leave California when that opportunity presented itself), I feel even more "unmoored" and adrift in the world. While Madison has become home, largely because we raised our children here and do genuinely love this city, I still get the occasional sharp pangs of wanderlust in me and long to just begin walking and keep on walking until I can walk no more. But where would I walk? Of course, I would explore new places, I can't help myself or my curiosity. But I have a longing, at times, to go back to see the places I have been before, the places I have lived before, with the full knowledge that some of those places, most, really, don't actually exist as I knew them then. The air base I lived at in England is now a British spy base, and I could not go back and see the places where I spent considerable time. The little town in Minnesota where I lived with my grandmother for a year, has grown from about 3,000 residents to over 17,000, The base I lived at in Italy has been essentially demolished and replaced by a city. The base I lived at in the Philippines may still be under volcanic ash, so far as I know. And the military hospital I was born in now bears almost no resemblance to the place my parents knew. But I still want to see these places, at least once. Ligeti, I think, shared some of the same sentiments, if not the same feelings, given the loss of family members to the holocaust, his flight from his homeland, and his itinerant life abroad. Perhaps I am just projecting, but we wanderers tend to understand each other. The feelings of humans displaced (whether voluntarily or not) are complex and often shared in their complexity and intensity, at least that has been my experience in talking with others who have moved frequently, particularly those who have moved to places where their language was not the local tongue, where they were strangers in a strange land.

Paul Griffiths, in his essay "Invented Homelands: Ligeti's Orchestras" captures the connection between these experiences and Ligeti's creative drives perfectly:

The Violin Concerto is the richest of his invented homelands, and may persuade us that feelings of belonging are complex, ambiguous, mutable and probably illusory.

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