01/23/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: Ligeti

I admire Gyorgy Ligeti's stance and music. A survivor of both the Holocaust and Communism, he wasn't about to fall for the totalitarianism of the postwar European avant-garde. His musical offerings are always unique and personal. While an initial admirer of his Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto, I now find these pieces don't hold enough true material that seems to matter. A piece that still retains its luster is his Kammerkonzert. With its allusive textures, it's clarity of structure, not to mention it's dramatic contours, the piece works on many levels. The absence of harmonic motion or stasis, one of those things that it is all about, works well. Its larger structure is satisfying, with speed/time changes in each movement clearly delineated; the internal structure in each movement is sharp and well paced, and the materials never outstay their welcome. I still find it a tremendously satisfying work, much more effective than other pieces of the same era, such as Atmospheres, Lontano, Ramifications, which are finally, pedantic and dull.

The small and short stage works Adventures and Nouvelle Adventures are lusty, bravura and, well, adventurous. They become somewhat irritating because of their tortuous (oh yes, I know he wanted them to be this way, but even so...) vocal parts, which finally just become a bore. Le Grande Macabre, an opera, after it's marvelously fun multiple car horn opening, is dull and tedious, musically filled of existential ennui as the text suggests, but ultimately as boring as Penderecki's The Devils of Loudon, another nihilistic piece of around the same time.

I admire Ligeti's desire to keep learning and changing in the course of his career, to move beyond the known and the comfortable. While a few of the piano Etudes, which preoccupied him at the end of his life, are exquisitely beautiful, most are dull and tedious as they overly downplay certain musical parameters to emphasis others (usually rhythm presides over pitch), but the trade doesn't make for a successful compromise. Many of them also partake of Ligeti's love of speed, one of those clichés of the 20th century; while it may provide for virtuosity perhaps never heard before, it is an empty and often meaningless one. The few that are worthy of attention include Etude 2: Cordes a vide and Etude 5: Arc-en-ciel, as they are full of imagination in all musical domains. By the way, I don't think it coincidental that they are the only two etudes of either Book I or II that are marked 'espressivo.'

Every great composer also must have a strong style even if it changes over the process of maturation. Some of the Ligeti's stylistic traits are so simple however that they seem separated from something of real meaning-they become mannerisms. I am thinking of such traits as the music seemingly going either above or beyond where the keyboard actually stops; the separation of the aggregate (all twelve chromatic pitches) into two parts, one in each hand, that results in a neutral and dull playing field of pitch; his writing of dynamics that are only imaginary such as six p's or seven f's; and clusters, meticulously written out, which are of course impossible to play at the speed asked for. Nevertheless, among the European avant-garde of the post war generation, Ligeti has the clearest and most finally honed sonic imagination.