On a requiem

Requiem Kyrie master chart | Photo: Duschene&Marx

Image Source: Requiem Kyrie Master Chart, from Vienna Review

This morning I listened to an old CD recording I had of György Ligeti’s Requiem, which transported me, with its mesmerising and floating clouds of sound, back to my love of avant-garde music.

Ligeti was a Hungarian composer who fled the communist regime, and pursued his development of new musical techniques in Austria. The Requiem dates from 1965, and together with several other excerpts from Ligeti’s music was featured in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. To me it resembles a chorus of the city of the dead, reeling in horror at the destruction of culture at the hands of culture through the horrible first fifty years of the twentieth century. And this chorus has all the chaos and detailed and movement of a great fallen city.

Through techniques I cannot really explain, and certainly not reproduce, Ligeti composed music that is strangely mobile, as if it comes not from one source or place, but is alive in the air, moving to and from many places in a desperate clambering to beauty in the face of horror. I recall in the late 1980s I attended a concert conducted by Pierre Boulez at the Sydney Opera House. The ensemble performed one of Ligeti’s chamber works, and my abiding memory of the concert, other than walking past David Malouf at interval, was how Ligeti’s music seemed to move all around the concert chamber, and worked its way through wormholes in the physical soundscape that no other music does.

Back then, when I was a graduate student, I was committed to the avant-garde, and in some ways I still have something of that post-romantic belief in transcending the structures of culture that you are bequeathed so that a terrible new beauty will be born. And this was Ligeti’s philosophy. He said in an interview once

When I think of the avant-garde, I have this image in my head: I am sitting in an airplane, the sky is blue and I see a landscape. And then the plane flies into a cloud: everything is grey-white. At first the grey seems interesting if you compare it to the earlier landscape, but soon becomes monotonous. I then fly out of the cloud and again see the landscape, which has completely changed in the meantime.

I believe we have flown into such a cloud of high entropy and great disorder…. The instant I emerge out of the cloud, I see, and this is being very critical, that the music we wrote was in fact rather ugly.

I am not sure anymore if I will ever emerge from the cloud – or is it smoke and ash? But, at least for today, Ligeti’s music reminded me that beauty can be born, despite terror, and without changing everything, changing it utterly.