“Ligeti, composer of the extraterrestrial” on Arte.tv: portrait of a playful avant-garde

Hungarian-born Austrian composer György Ligeti.


Within the generation of avant-garde composers born in the mid-1920s – Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono… –, György Ligeti (1923-2006) seems to be the one, along with Luciano Berio, whose music remains the most playful. , the most protean and the most affordable by variously cultured ears.

Its primary quality is to create images, landscapes and mental scenarios. It is therefore not surprising that Stanley Kubrick used it as an auditory correspondence to the spatio-oneiric universe of 2001: a space odyssey (1968), as an anguished background sound in shining (1980) or as a haunting piano “jingle” in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

But this music, rich and diverse, can be appreciated just as much for its purely abstract qualities: the Symphonic poem for 100 metronomes (1962), dense forest of mechanical sounds, voluminous (1961-1962), for organ, a telluric score suggested by printed graphics, are two extreme pieces that nevertheless radiate both an undeniable charm and a pungent irony.

What the documentary recalls Ligeti, composer of the extraterrestrialby Herbert Eisenschenk, particularly successful, which Arte.tv broadcasts on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of the Austrian of Hungarian origin: in fifty-two minutes, the biographical portrait (the loss of a large part of his family in the Nazi camps, the passage to the West in 1956), psychological (his humor, his harshness) and artistic of the composer is perfectly described.

Notion of “mechanism”

We find Ligeti, thanks to filmed archives, but also his son, Lukas Ligeti, also a composer, and Vera Ligeti, his widow, a psychoanalyst by profession, born in 1930, who continues to receive patients. It is interesting to hear this one tell how her husband worked, willingly reclusive, and say how much she would have liked to understand the mental mechanisms of his so singular musical invention.

The notion of “mechanism” is also essential for Ligeti: he said that he had developed his taste for crazy machines and other machines very early on. “disordered mechanisms” hearing his father, at night, typing his science fiction novels… Modern times (1936), by Charlie Chaplin.

The author of clouds of static sounds (but in fact abounding with melodic-rhythmic micro-organisms) will return in his last years to a music anchored in a consonance and a rhythm sometimes close to those of Béla Bartok. The modernists will grimace all the more because they know that, behind this “reverse” stylistic transformation, there remained the same exacting standards and the same creative genius.

Ligeti was initially annoyed that Kubrick used his music in 2001: a space odyssey without asking his permission. There will even be a trial. The compensation will be insubstantial; the benefit in terms of fame, incomparable. Moreover, at the end of his life, after watching the documentary Stanley Kubrick. A life in pictures (2000), by Jan Harlan, producer and brother-in-law of the filmmaker, Ligeti will recognize in the American filmmaker a genius worthy of him, “a monster in my image”…

Ligeti, composer of the extraterrestrial, documentary by Herbert Eisenschenk (Germany, 2023, 52 min). On Arte.tv until May 19, 2024.

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