Reading the Music

György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds gives an insider’s portrait of the composer of 2001: A Space Odessey

TVR Books | Cynthia Peck | March 2013

Requiem Kyrie master chart (Photo: Duschene&Marx)

The music of György Ligeti is hard to pin down. It mixes traditional and off-the-wall musical thinking, it is iconic, it is crazy. It asks for phenomenal performers and comparable listeners. And it gives marvellous rewards to both.

György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds is not a biography. It is rather a collection of essays, a memorial if you will, written by some of Ligeti’s closest friends, students and colleagues. It gives a rare insider view of the man and the composer, as well as discerning reflections on how he wrote his music and where he found his inspiration.


Ligeti (1924–2006) created a group of masterpieces that have entered the canon of postwar music. For the wider public he is perhaps best known for the three pieces appropriated by Stanley Kubrick (without Ligeti’s permission and without payment) as part of the score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that context these marvellously atmospheric works do not seem all that strange.

But as Heinz-Otto Peitgen writes, before meeting Ligeti he "had the usual misgivings when it came to new music." Indeed, the "serious" music of the 20th century is not everyone’s cup of tea. Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds opens a door, and as Ligeti himself did, it teaches "us how to listen, to his music, as well as to the music of others."

Ligeti also had a judgmental ear for the music of his time:

"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."

The music of Ligeti can be luminous, it can be spectacular, it can be wonderfully weird. Louise Duchesneau, one of the volume’s two editors and Ligeti’s personal assistant for more than 20 years, writes that it has its "own unorthodox eloquence".

Ligeti was born in Transylvania; he lost his father and brother in Hitler’s death camps, and then in 1945, as a young music student in Budapest, experienced the Soviet Communist repression in Hungary.


In 1956, Ligeti fled for Austria. This history gives his music a special meaning. Behind the wit is often a shadow of solemnity, which lends it power and expressiveness.

Ligeti "had more than the necessary intellectual equipment." He had "such a memory, such a mind, culture and curiosity." A curiosity that Duchesneau lets us glimpse in a list of Ligeti’s personal record collection: It included folk music from Europe, but also from the Middle East, Asia and especially Africa.

Sometimes some inside jargon is needed. As Ligeti wrote, "The polyphonic structure […]remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!)." Ligeti’s micropolyphony is a compositional technique in which many instruments play the same thing but at different speeds, creating dense sustained dissonant chords that shift slowly over time.

You don’t need to know the word to appreciate the effect, but reading about its relation to fractal geometry and chaos theory is enlightening.

Yes, some of the discussions in Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds delve into depths of musical analysis, whose details perhaps only a well-trained musicologist will follow. There is nevertheless plenty that any interested music lover will find fascinating.

Why read about music? Why not just listen to it? The answer is: We see the man walking through the door; we hear his voice through the voices of those who knew him. We meet his brilliance and his spirit; the music is given a special life. We begin to follow the "scent" of Ligeti. And our ears are opened.


György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands 

and Strange Sounds

Louise Duchesneau & Wolfgang Marx (eds.)

The Boydell Press, 2011 

pp. 298


Order online: "György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds" (Louise Duchesneau & Wolfgang Marx)


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