Portland Piano International preview: Madness, Mayhem and Mastery

Tamara Stefanovich plays some of György Ligeti's "impossible" Études.


Nazi-occupied Hungary, an army labor camp, family in Auschwitz, Soviet occupation. Escape by train, hiding beneath piles of mailbags. Then, under fiery skies lit by Russian rockets, fleeing on foot for ten kilometers—finally to safety.

Once you know even this much of György Ligeti’s life, how can you not hear it in his music? And if you think you haven’t ever come across anything by him, go watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again and note the part when the “moonbus” heads off to see the mysterious monolith. You’ll be listening to an excerpt from Ligeti’s choral piece, Lux Aeterna (1966), one of four of his pieces in the film (used without his permission, but that’s another story). Read more about Ligeti’s life in the bonus sidebar below.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

His music doesn’t belong to any particular style. It spans such varied works as that choral piece, another one for 100 metronomes called Poème symphonique (1962), orchestra works, string quartets, and a two-act opera Le Grand Macabre (1974–77). For the Hungarian-born composer, who died at age 83 in 2006, his ordeals amid political regimes, musical bans, war and exile all live in the complexity, chaos and contradiction that shape many of his compositions—especially the Études pour piano (Studies for piano, 1985–2001).

Thanks to Portland Piano International, we’ll get to listen to seven of the études from the hands of Yugoslav-born Tamara Stefanovich on Monday, October 20th at 7:30 p.m. in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. She’s one of many pianists around the world who perform the Études, and there are at least nine different recordings of them — both rare for contemporary classical piano works composed in the past few decades. Stefanovich will start the recital with Olivier Messiaen’s Curlew (Le Courlis cendré), “Fire Island” 1 and 2 from Four Rhythm Studies, and Franz Liszt’s Variations on Bach’s Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing (Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen). In between each Ligeti étude, she’ll play an “Étude-tableau” by Rachmaninov. While we all sit quietly in our seats, pandemonium is going to hit that piano once the Ligeti leaps off its strings. But don’t worry, Stefanovich will have it all under control.

Entropy and Extremity

The progression from order into disorder is expressed in most of Ligeti’s 18 Études, influenced as they were by his years of rootlessness, the piano études of past composers, contemporary classical music and jazz, the music from sub-Saharan Africa; and his fascination with fractal geometry, chaos theory, computers and the eccentric art of M. C. Escher.

Each only a few minutes long, the Études “integrate extremes in all aspects—acoustics, dynamics, sound quality, instrumental gestures, emotional or theatrical interpretation, processes, transformation of ideas, malleability of the form and surprises. They open up completely new acoustical spaces. Some are short, musical catastrophes, like a tragedy of errors, but in a very well-controlled form,” French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard told me in April 1998. “His music is not just a challenge for him. This is a way of life, from somebody who likes the dangerous, the extreme situations, who likes the borders. He is an isolated, ‘crazy’ artist, with crazy hair, crazy eyes. And he enjoys flirting with this craziness in musical expression.”

I met Aimard then in Los Angeles to interview him for my in-depth article on him and the Études, published in the January/February 1999 issue of Piano & Keyboard magazine. Ligeti dedicated two of the Études to him, and chose him to record his piano music for Sony.

In 1997,  Stefanovich attended Aimard’s performance of Boulez and Ligeti, “and I was blown away,” she says by Skype from Berlin. So she went to the Cologne Hoschschule where he taught and soon he invited her into his class. Since around 2000, she and Aimard have performed Ligeti’s Études and Three Pieces for Two Pianos, and pieces by other contemporary classical composers, some of which they’ve also recorded. She’s been playing the Études for 15 years.

A Panoply of Influences

When Ligeti discovered the music of sub-Saharan Africa, it led him to explore similar polyphonic and polyrhythmic possibilities, with simultaneous symmetries and asymmetries. The rhythmic and metric complexity of the Études comes straight from his regard for 20th-century maverick American composer Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano (1940s–1990s). Ligeti’s gradual transformation of sonic and rhythmic patterns, and deceptive melodies and rhythms heard one way and played another reflect artist M. C. Escher’s metamorphoses and absurd perspectives. Even the jazz-piano idioms of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans are hinted at in Études No. 5, “Arc-en-ciel” (“Rainbow”) and No. 8, “Fém” (“Female”).

The sciences make an appearance in the Études, too. Computers suggested to Ligeti an algorithmic mentality, with preset rules yielding to a process that unfolds on its own terms, as in the images based on Benoit Mandelbrot’s uncovering of fractal geometry—the unique, self-similar natural patterns found in everything from the surface of a virus to the Rocky Mountains. Another influence for Ligeti was chaos theory’s examination of the shaky balance between order and disorder, as in his orchestral pieces, Apparitions (1957) and Atmosphères (1961) .

You can hear all of this in No. 1, “Désordre” (“Disorder”). It applies, as an underlying framework, not the actual rhythm of African music, but its basic pulse. The pianist plays a steady rhythm, but irregular accents sometimes produce a turbulent result. A melody in three segments (of four, four and six bars) oscillates between three-plus-five and five-plus-three eighth notes per bar. The right hand plays only white keys, the left hand only black, while scale patterns fill the unused eighth-note beats, yielding a hectic, “mad-machine” pace.

Pierre-Laurent-AimardThis type of challenge arises again in No. 6, “Automne à Varsovie,” whose title refers to the Warsaw Autumn Festival, a major venue since the mid–1950s for contemporary classical music. In a quieter moment, the right hand plays a fugue-like passage in two multisonic layers (polyphony), a different tempo for each voice (polyrhythm). A number of bars later, the layers increase, each again at different tempi. Meanwhile, the sixteenth notes create an “impressionistic, curtained background,” Aimard said. “After a moment, there are so many layers that, as a listener, you cease to hear the polyrhythmic polyphony. Little by little, almost imperceptibly, it becomes a big spiral that gradually stretches out into space, like a huge monster of the sea.”

In No. 3, “Touches bloquées” (“Blocked Keys”), which Ligeti wrote as a study for the chromatic scale (with a virtuosic demeanor inherited from Romanticism), both hands from the start take turns blocking the keys, punching holes in the rhythm. “This is the big joke,” Aimard noted. “You hear not a quick, flowing arabesque, but an extreme, jagged, hysteric rhythm.”

Chromatic scales rapidly fall in No. 9, “Vertige” (“Vertigo”). At first, they occur in the same register and repeat at irregular intervals at the same place on the keyboard. But, gradually, they begin to descend, changing in timing and length, the one in front leading the one behind.

Ligeti also brought to the Études his vast knowledge of other music for the piano. The fifth étude alludes to a technique used by Chopin and Schumann, with a syncopated rhythm of two beats occurring in the space of three (hemiola). “All of the Études employ physical and musical gestures, such as big-octave playing [No. 3] or a type of scale [No. 7], that connect very obviously to Debussy,” Aimard continued. “Ligeti takes this heritage and transforms it, sometimes very humorously.”

Ligeti gave Debussy’s whole-tone scale a twist in No. 7, “Galamb borong,” which resembles gamelan music (reflected in its fake-Indonesian title, a juxtaposition of two Hungarian words). Initially, each hand plays a different whole-tone scale. “When they are at a small distance from each other, you hear a Debussy effect,” Aimard told me. “But when they reach the outer, extreme registers, the combination of the two whole-tone scales is lost; you don’t hear them anymore. They are now a distorted version of themselves, and completely troubled.”

Controlled Craziness

Ligeti’s Études are not only impossible to categorize, but also they are seemingly impossible to play. “Some are written in such a way as to try to destabilize the interpreter, so that you must take a risk, each time,” Aimard said that day. “Their pedagogical goal is not so much traditional, in terms of developing a virtuosity. Rather, you must create yourself. You must find a way to go from one dimension to the other, to integrate the craziness in the playing—to make the Études possible, to make them live.”

Each of the Études makes a strong musical and muscular statement. As Ligeti points out in the liner notes, “For a piece to be well-suited for the piano, tactile concepts are almost as important as acoustic ones.” Aimard knows this well. “Ligeti disconnects the acoustical effect from the gestural, creating a brilliant illusion of perception,” he told me. “In fact, he is organizing a schizophrenia. He is fascinated by certain kinds of pathology. And if you want to master this music, to control it, you have to confront your own limits as an interpreter, as well as the pathological dimension in the music, all the while keeping a clear mind and eye.”

In No. 9, “in your physical memory, you feel the gesture of the chromatic scale, but because Ligeti uses it as an ostinato, quickly and continually repeating itself, this creates another physical feeling altogether,” Aimard said. “You feel a transformation of this memory. Acoustically, at the beginning, you hear the chromatic scale, like Escher’s perpetual waterfall. Then, it drowns on itself until you can no longer hear the chromatic scale, though you continue to feel it in your fingers.”

Along with tactile tricks, the Études brave a precarious balancing act. In No. 1, with its steady African rhythm and irregular accents, between the hands midway through “there’s so much rhythmic compression that the polyrhythm seems out of control. But it isn’t,” Aimard said. “The pianist must work very hard to control it, while minimizing the potential distraction of his efforts to the audience. At the same time, if he controls it too much, the craziness of the moment is lost.”

As Stefanovich puts it, playing Ligeti’s Études “is a bit like driving and looking outside while talking on the phone and you have a child by your side eating. It’s a lot of multitasking. But neuroscientists have discovered that your brain cannot follow two things at the same time, anyway. Instead, you’re switching your attention between things extremely fast, but you don’t perceive that you’re doing that. Also, unless you are in a coma or sleeping or induced with drugs, you’re always making decisions from the brain and the emotions; they’re always connected.” For Stefanovich, that means “you should not go through the piece thinking, ‘Relax the left shoulder’ or ‘This should be faster,’ or ‘Oh, I’m feeling stiff’ or ‘The sound is not right.’ You have to surpass this level and go much further, and connect the sound with something very visual, or feel it as very soft or metallic or of blue light, or else. You have to go much more into an imaginary world.”

The Ear of the Audience

What does Stefanovich want us to receive from her playing of the Études? “The beauty and the poetry, the lyricism and the drama and humor,” she says. “And I look forward to feeling a bit risky and like anything could happen, good or bad. That’s what I want the audience also to feel, that we’re both in a concert in a moment of utter risk-taking. And maybe something beautiful could happen, but maybe not. But we still are in this adventurous spirit.”

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Stefanovich will take us further into that spirit by pairing Ligeti with Rachmaninov. “I want the people who would come to a Rachmaninov recital to discover Ligeti and vice versa. I also wanted to kind of make fun of my own story and the story of all the pianists who are mostly playing Rachmaninov and thinking themselves very grand, because the music is so beautiful and everyone loves it. And I wanted the two composers in the same room and see what happens—one who looks to the past with a feeling of loss, and a longing to go back there, and the other with eyes to the future.

“I think also there are things the two share. There is this richness of register that they like, to have a lot of notes to juggle and see how the mixture of virtuosity could create new musical spaces. The beauty of Rachmaninov is mostly in the way he played it, a very elegant, noble, slightly objective way, not this movie-music way that we hear a lot today. And Ligeti is much more dramatic and emotional than people usually perceive. Whenever I’ve played this pairing, my experience is that people come away thinking, Wow, Rachmaninov is not so sentimental, and Wow, Ligeti is very overpowering in an emotional sense. So we’ll see how that goes in Portland.”

Stefanovich is not interested in giving us something we already know we want to hear and then have us go home “and everything’s calm and comfortable,” she says. “Instead, just try not to have preconceived notions of how the music should be, and how it should be played. And to not look for things that you know, but to let yourself be lost. Because when you get lost, then you find more important things. I hope people would be provoked to hear different things, and that they would be surprised and say, ‘I’ve never heard music sound this way,’ not ‘This was good’ or ‘This was bad,’ ‘I like it,’ ‘I don’t like it.’ It’s nice to not know if you like it or not—and that you’re just amazed.”

If there’s anything we can expect from Monday night’s concert, it’ll be that.

Tamara Stefanovich performs Sunday (music by Bartok, Beethoven and Ives) and Monday (music of Ligeti, Messiaen, Liszt and Rachmaninov), October 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. Tickets available at Portland Piano International.

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer in Portland. © 2014 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

Bonus Track: Crossing Borders, Pushing Boundaries

It’s only fitting that Ligeti wrote a cycle of études that thrives at the integration of extremes and stretches the limit of what can be played, given the extreme circumstances of his life.

It all began on May 28, 1923 in Dicsöszentmárton, in the center of Transylvania just before the region was lost to Romania. By age 14 he started playing the piano and wrote his first piece. Four years later, he decided to become a composer; and when his family moved to Kolozsvár, in 1941, he studied under Ferenc Farkas and Pál Kadosa.

Gyorgy Ligeti

György Ligeti

In January 1944, during the Nazi occupation of Hungary but before the deportation of the Jews, Ligeti was sent to an army labor camp where he helped transport heavy explosives to the front line. Six months later, his mother, father and brother were carted off to Auschwitz, the latter two never to be heard from again. He deserted during battle, returning to his home city now under Russian occupation, and stayed there until the war’s end.

Then he left for Budapest and studied again with Farkas and with Sandor Verress at the Franz Liszt Academy. Here, Ligeti composed Hungarian folk-style choral pieces influenced by Bartók, Stravinsky and Kodály. At the same time, he wrote more complex, radical chamber pieces and songs. While he continued to produce Hungarian folk-song arrangements, Ligeti, a self-declared anti-Communist, also felt a need to write (prohibited) new music, such as his Musica Ricercata (1951–53), 11 pieces for piano.

During 1953–54, Hungary was completely isolated from the West. But with the Hungarian Revolution, Ligeti could finally receive scores and records from abroad, and he listened for the first time to (scrambled) broadcasts of the music of Stockhausen. Ligeti corresponded with him and Herbert Eimert, directors of the electronic music studio in Cologne, which landed him a scholarship. In December 1956, he and his wife escaped by train and foot to Austria. Afterwards, back in Cologne, he composed electronic music bordering on bizarre vocal utterances, such as those heard in Artikulation (1958).

Ligeti spent several years bringing himself up to date, musically. By the early 1960s, he had written his first important works, including Atmosphères for orchestra. These works aligned themselves with the avant garde, yet in some ways also rejected it. Simultaneous-sounding octaves, for example, were not found in the music of Stockhausen and Boulez. Ligeti, however, used them in pieces such as Requiem (1963–65) and Chamber Concerto (1969–70).

In the 1970s and early 1980s Ligeti found himself musically homeless. By then, the avant garde had faded and, feeling musically unattached to any particular stylistic movement, he wrote fewer pieces, among them the Horn Trio (1982) and Piano Concerto (1985–88). It was the Etudes that eventually coaxed him out. They were his first major composition in eight years, and he eventually completed three books of them. Other pieces followd — a set of six a cappella compositions with his Nonsense Madrigals (1988–93), his Violin Sonata (1993) and Viola Concerto (1994), among others. Ligeti never got a chance to write the second opera he’d planned, before he died in Vienna on June 12, 2006.

— Claire Sykes. © 2014 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Brava for a wonderful article on one of THE great composers of the last 60, or so, years!

    Yes, my very first exposure to modern classical music was via the Ligeti excerpts that Kubrick so expertly wove throughout “2001” – I saw/heard it @ the Hollywood Blvd. Cinerama Theatre when it first came out & went to Phil Harris” record store the next day to buy the Wergo LP of Ligeti’s “Requiem.”

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