György Ligeti

“A study in motionless”

If you have heard the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, you have heard György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, which was played in its entirety during the Stargate segment of the film. As one of the foremost avant-garde composers of the twentieth century, György Ligeti was a musical explorer; one of his favorite concepts was micro polyphony (a word of his own creation), which identifies the idea of sound mass, and “the perceptible [and imperceptible] transformation of sound in musical space.” This means that the music you hear will be comprised of dense sonorities comprised of simultaneous sounding of different notes crushed into a single body. The experience is like listening in a strange fog or haze. Clarity is not a goal.

Atmosphères (a part of the genre “sound mass” compositions) has been considered his most mature development of the concept of micro polyphony. (Penderecki’s Anaklasis and Xenakis’s Metastasis are other examples of sound mass experimentation). In 1988, the composer spoke of his deep fascination with “musical forms that are less process-like and more object-like.” At that time he explained, “Music as frozen time, as an object in an imaginary space…to hold on to time, to suspend its disappearance, to confine it in the present moment, this is my primary goal in composition.” (Ligeti, On my Piano Concerto)

To this end, he abandoned electronic music as a genre in the 1960’s in favor of instruments, which would better suit his ideas of transformation. He wanted change to be immediately perceptible, and this was not possible using electronically generated sounds, exclusively. However, he did find that certain electronic processes (such as manipulation of density) did aid in his goal of, or his version of, micro polyphony. (Sarah Davachi, Aesthetic Appropriation of Electronic Sound Transformations in Ligeti’s Atmosphères)

Micro polyphony is manifested immediately by the cluster chord, which opens Atmosphères, andconsists of 55 pitches spanning four octaves produced by strings and soft woodwinds.  As sound clusters overlap, fluctuating in their composition, movement is generated by dissolving, eradicating, and adding tones. The musical experience is as if hearing something from afar (which he successfully also produced in his work Lontano).  An especially beautiful shimmering sound mass occurs in the 87-voice canon. The illusory, auditory effect is suspension (stasis), but the fact is continual change. In Ligeti’s words, the experience of micro polyphony is like “viewing a hanging oriental tapestry, suspended outside of time.”

Ligeti’s packed, almost impenetrable score is filled with constant instructions on how this sensation is to be manifested. He wrote out detailed parts separately for each member of the orchestra. Some instruments are moving faster than others, some are sliding with harmonic glissandi, some are vibrating…traditional melodies and rhythmic controls are simply gone.  Keith Fitch, head of composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, summarized, “It is radical if you think about it. The conductor can only shape it. There is no way to cue every single person.”

Atmosphères was commissioned in 1961 by the Southwest German Radio and premiered on October 22, 1961.  The composer noted that after the broadcast  (which also included other work apparitions) he finally “became famous.” It was an unforgettable, stunning debut.

The ISO’s last performance of Atmosphères was October, 1970 conducted by Thomas Briccetti.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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