MUSIC / Composer's odyssey: Bayan Northcott recounts the strange career of Gyorgy Ligeti, before today's 70th birthday celebrations at the Barbican

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IN FEBRUARY 1957 a 33-year-old Hungarian-Jewish composer was brought to the Cologne home of the young Karlheinz Stockhausen in a state of collapse. In fact this was merely the latest trauma in the life of Gyorgy Ligeti.

Born (appropriately enough given his subsequent penchant for the macabre) in Transylvania, on 28 May 1923, he had only escaped carting-off to Auschwitz with the rest of his family by chance. After the war, he had to make his musical way in a Stalinist state in which nothing more radical than the simplest Bartok was permitted and composers were under orders to be accessible - often developing in the process a clandestine longing for the complexities of Western avant- garderie that would seem incomprehensible to today's detractors of Darmstadt.

During the brief Eastern bloc thaw of the mid-1950s, Ligeti was finally able to study at least some 12-tone Schoenberg and actually risked life and limb to hear the first broadcast of Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge while the Soviet tanks were rolling in to crush the Hungarian uprising. His subsequent, perilous flight to freedom and Stockhausen was not so surprising.

Slowly reviving under the ministrations of his charismatic host, Ligeti embarked on a detailed analysis of Boulez's rigidly serial Structures for two pianos - only to come up against a paradox Boulez himself has ruefully acknowledged already: that totally predetermined music tended to come out sounding totally random. Yet perhaps only Ligeti could have drawn the conclusion that, if such were the case, every possible note might just as well be played at once. Actually, this harked back to a secret hankering of his Hungarian years for a music in which all detail of part writing, all differentiations of instrumental colour, would be subsumed into vast, virtually static clouds of texture. What even his phenomenally sensitive ear may not have anticipated until he realised his ambition in his first mature orchestral pieces - Apparitions (1959) and Atmospheres (1961) - was the strange immanence of such homogeneous sound spaces. One seemed to hear more in the way of sonic configurations than were actually being played - like the visual interference patterns of Op Art.

If such fugitive impressions could be caught and realised as composed foreground detail against the quasi 'harmonic' background of slow-moving sound-clusters, then something like a dialectic, parallel with, or counter to, classical tradition, might gradually re-emerge. In the baleful Requiem (1965) - which Stanley Kubrick appropriated for the soundtrack of 2001 without its composer's permission, though greatly to the enhancement of his fame - and in the luminous Lontano (1967) for large orchestra, Ligeti developed a tightly woven technique of internal counterpoint that caused his clusters to throb and shimmer. In the Chamber Concerto (1970) such pulsations began breaking out in a dozen contrasting accompaniment patterns - tickings, bubblings, twitterings - often in teasing superimpositions. And in Melodien (1971), long tendrils of melody began to float to the surface of this by now many-levelled activity. Meanwhile, the implicit tensions between 'hard' mechanical patterns on the one hand and 'soft' textural drifts on the other had begun to yield formal possibilities as in the suggestively titled choral and ensemble piece Clocks and Clouds (1973).

Or so it is tempting to read Ligeti's musical evolution into the 1970s. In fact, he seems to have been driven quite as much by a sense of the bizarre, deriving in part from a Hungarian literary tradition - such writers as Gyula Krudy and Sandor Weores - still little-known here, and by the grimmer absurdities of life under the Nazis and the Communists. Accordingly, his more serious efforts were regularly interspersed by seemingly Dadaist pranks such as the notorious Poeme symphonique (1962) for 100 metronomes, or the tragi- comic dramas to abstract phonemes of his two sets of Aventures devised between 1962 and 1965. Yet in the mid-1970s he bade fair to fuse his sonic researches and maverick theatricality in an evening-length music drama (not so much an anti-opera, he explained, as an anti-anti-opera) entitled Le Grand Macabre. Based on a play of the Belgian surrealist, Michel der Ghelderode, and launched with a cod- Monteverdi fanfare for 12 motorhorns, this concerns the arrival in the corrupt kingdom of Breugelland of the sinister, yet possibly phoney, Nekrotzar to announce the imminent end of the world. The situation enables Ligeti to pile up a wondrous processional of distorted quotations for Nekrotzar's entrance as Death, to exploit his most searing clusters as the dread moment approaches, and to lavish his most refined lyricism on the lovers Spermando and Clitoria who spend the entire opera in erotic oblivion. In the event, the apocalypse seems to go off at half-cock, leaving life much as before yet somehow lapped in a ghostly limbo. . .

Shortly after the Swedish premiere in 1978, Ligeti faced his own possible nemesis from protracted heart trouble, and when substantial scores began appearing once more in the early-1980s, the music itself seem to come with a strange, limbo- like ambiguity. On the face of it these more recent works sound closer to tradition models than anything he had produced before Le Grand Macabre. The Horn Trio (1982), subtitled 'Hommage a Brahms', is duly cast in four character- movements and even runs to Brahmsian octave-doubled thirds. The Piano Concerto, which appeared in stages between 1986 and 1988, opens in brightly superimposed ragtime vampings like some throwback to the 1920s 'jazz' stylisations of Milhaud or Martinu. The folkloristic skirlings of the Violin Concerto (1990-92) could be plausibly related to the tradition of Bartok, just as the patterned arabesques and poetic resonances of the solo piano Etudes Ligeti has been writing since 1985 seems to resume the techniques of Chopin and Debussy.

Yet on further acquaintance such works prove less continuations of their models than hauntingly hollow simulacra: the contours one first takes for themes in the Horn Trio prove merely to be irregularly distorted repeat patterns filling the spaces themes would traditionally occupy. It might be possible to interpret the quality of these pieces - so close to, yet far from 'ordinary' music - as the most sustained of Ligeti's jokes: a Borges-like insinuation, perhaps, that at the time of Le Grand Macabre the universe somehow flipped from matter to anti-matter without anyone noticing. But it is difficult not to hear, for instance, the glacial entropy that overtakes the final bars of the Horn Trio as something altogether bleaker: an implication that, after the cultural dislocations of a catastrophic century, living tradition, the entire past itself, can only be evoked as an aural mirage, a kind of musical life-in-death.

If one still hesitates to diagnose Ligeti's art as fundamentally tragic, even terminal, this surely reflects in the first place the paradoxical vitality, inventiveness and precision with which he has continued to keep at it over some four decades. Then again, his very apprehension of the death of musical meaning in any traditional sense has manifestly freed him to realise some of the most exquisitely 'meaningless' sonorous images, some of the most electrifyingly absurd juxtapositions, in post-war music. So much should be obvious even to the first-time listener to tonight's 70th birthday concert given by the London Sinfonietta in the composer's presence: a programme under Marcus Stenz encompassing the Chamber Concerto, Melodien, the Piano Concerto, the ultra-absurdist Fragment (1961) and Hakan Hardenberger in a recently scored trumpet fantasia on Le Grand Macabre. And since Ligeti's 'meaninglessness' has audibly intrigued any number of younger composers, it could yet prove the inception of an increasingly meaningful tradition of its own.

Ligeti at 70 details and ticket offer: page 26

(Photograph omitted)