Floating through colors and over infinite surfaces

Ligeti's "Lontano" is a captivating sound experiment. © Charles Thibo
Ligeti’s “Lontano” is a captivating sound experiment. © Charles Thibo

Can you imagine a surface made of sound? Let’s try this: Imagine a black surface, indefinitely long, extending into space. Okay? Now, we move on: The surface is not just black, but lined with glowing pink, yellow, green and blue lines, running parallel to each other. Still with me? Now the lines starts vibrating, like strings on a guitar or a violin. Got it? Brilliant. Now you are ready for “Lontano” – a vibrating piece written by György Ligeti in 1967 and illustrating what the representatives of the “Neue Musik” define as Klangflächen and Klangfarben* – sound surfaces and sound colors.

Orchestral clusters

If you listen to the piece, you will right from the start understand what that means and why it is fascinating: By using orchestral clusters, it allows an unlimited array of sounds, unbound by compositional conventions, extending into time as our vibrating colored lines extend into space. Or resembling the myriad of different tones in the realm of color. The abstract experiment was just an intellectual exercise to illustrate the general idea. I find it easier to jump from the image of an actual surface to the concept of a sound surface, than to imagine a sound surface right from the start. “Atmosphères”, written in 1961, follows the same concept: ten minutes of drifting in a sound cloud.

As you may recall from a previous post on Ligeti, his music has very little to do with the “classic” classical music: music from the Baroque age, from the 19th century. However, Bach wrote his organ works for the people of the 18th century and Schubert his Lieder for his fellow citizen. Composers of the 20th century like Ligeti reflect in their music the 20th century, the age of electronics. And as such, they deserve the attention and respect that we usually reserve for their predecessors, long dead by now. And of course, we can still venerate Bach, Händel, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

A modern violin concerto

The Violin Concerto, written between 1989 and 1993, is very different from the two pieces I just discussed. Almost 30 years lie between the piece, and the differences illustrate how far Lugeti was willing to go. Here, the emphasis lies not on a continuous sound, but rather on the different isolated elements that progressively form a unity. In the different movements strings, percussions and winds produce apparently random sounds , but after a few minutes you can actually hear recurrent strings of notes – I lack a better word, since the notes do not really form a melody – and gradually the structure appears.

According to the conductor Hannu Linto of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, “the work incorporates influences from Medieval and Renaissance music, from late Romantic music and from various contemporary styles.” I didn’t find any of those influences, but the piece conjured a picture of people chatting, overheard by someone else: You get bits and pieces of conversations, some make sense, others don’t, some you don’t even hear. According to te partition, some parts are explicitly played out of tune. Bizarre, but quite interesting, both from the idea and from its transposition to music.

The three pieces have been recorded by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the violinist Benjamin Schmid. The Violin Concerto is also available on a recording by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the violinist Christina Astrand.

© Charles Thibo

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