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György Ligeti: music of the imagination by Richard Steinitz

From Transylvania to interstellar space

György Ligeti, the renowned avant-garde composer, is 80 tomorrow. In Hungarian Transylvania, where he was born in May 1923, Ligeti's childhood unfolded happily. His parents, cultivated Jews, lavished him with books and music. But the threat of European war was deepening. In 1944, the teenage Ligeti was forced to work in a Jewish labour battalion. His father and brother perished in Nazi camps; his mother, an ophthalmologist, survived Auschwitz because she had been useful as a doctor. Ligeti managed to escape the round-ups by hiding in the ghetto.

At the war's end, Ligeti pursued his musical interests in Budapest, but composing under Soviet censorship was dispiriting. In 1956, following the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt, the composer fled to the West. At Darmstadt, and later at Cologne, Ligeti's belated encounter with the European avant-garde was an inspiration. He eagerly absorbed Stockhausen's electronic tape compositions and befriended the Italian composer Luigi Nono (whose 1964 choral work, Remember What You Have Done in Auschwitz, must have resonated painfully).

Ligeti first came to prominence in the West in 1968, when his music became the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's use of Ligeti's Lux aeterna, Atmosphères and the shattering Requiem, though unauthorised, introduced the composer to a diverse audience. Ligeti was played on John Peel's Radio One show alongside Captain Beefheart and T-Rex, as well as classical programmes. His swathes of shimmering voices perfectly complemented Kubrick's images of interstellar voyaging. Film music would never be the same again.

In terms of pop culture, Ligeti's choral masterpieces are a forerunner of the meditative, pulseless drones of Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. But, as Richard Steinitz shows in this fascinating companion to Ligeti, they derive from the great polyphonic motets of the 16th and 17th centuries. In Budapest, Ligeti had studied Palestrina and other Renaissance composers; traces of their multi-voiced sacred works can be heard in his work for female chorus, Clocks and Clouds (1973), with its atmospheric sound clusters and sheets of flute and celesta sounds.

However, Ligeti's music always had a forward-looking edge. His earliest piano works fused Hungarian folk melodies with angular audacities in the manner of Bartók. This adventurous spirit informed Ligeti's most important work composed behind the Iron Curtain, the String Quartet No 1 (1953-54). An impressive achievement for a 30-year-old, it combined avant-garde sonorities with the composer's trademark fairytale grotesquerie.

By the time Ligeti's first great orchestral work, Apparitions, was premiered in 1960 in Cologne, he was on his way to recognition. Though the work has no metre or pulse, it trembles with energy and what Ligeti then called "micro-intervals" (tense interludes of silence). The piece was to herald some of the most extraordinary music of our time.

After half a century of writing music, Ligeti is one of Europe's most fascinating and original composers. Steinitz, himself a composer, has served his subject well in this rewarding (if occasionally over-technical) listener's primer.

Ian Thomson's biography 'Primo Levi' has won the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award 2003