György (Sándor) Ligeti

Hungarian Born 28 May 1923

Born in Dicioszentmárton, Transylvania, Gyorgy Ligeti's family moved soon after his birth to Kolozsvár, where he attended the local school and conservatory.  He continued his education at the Budapest Academy of Music and after graduation researched Romanian folk music extensively.  In 1950 he was appointed a professor at Budapest, and he remained there until 1956.  As befit a composer in a communist country, he wrote tonal, acceptable works, scarcely recognizable as the work of the composer we know today.  Few works from this period are well known, although the Romanian Concerto (1952) has been recently revived, as have many of his choral works.  At the same time, Ligeti was secretly developing experimental techniques, and when in 1956 he left for Vienna he was able to realise his ideas with the help of new contacts such as Karlheinz Stockhausen .

Invited to work at the West German Radio studios in Cologne, Ligeti had the opportunity to experiment with electronic media, testing out certain new ideas in tape works such as Artikulation (1958).  He lectured at the avant-garde summer courses of Darmstadt from 1959, and in 1960 a performance of his work Apparitions at the ISCM festival made his name worldwide.  Connections with champions such as Pierre Boulez have led to a consistent growth in his status as a leading contemporary composer, and he has received many prestigious awards and academic positions across the globe, continuing even now to produce important works.

Like many 20th-century composers (Erik Satie and John Cage spring to mind), Ligeti is largely (and rather unfairly) known for his foibles and unusual influences - a love of broken clockwork and African polyphony have informed the multi-layered rhythms of works such as the Chamber Concerto (1970).  Many consider this approach to rhythm the most influential aspect of his compositions, and it blends well with the ethereal, cloud-like string textures of his earlier pieces.  Unlike many composers Ligeti has a fine sense of the ridiculous - the quasi-slapstick of Aventures (1962) gave Boulez (nicknamed 'The Ice-Man' for his serious demeanour) a bout of the giggles during a televised performance; Ligeti deems this an understandable response.  His opera Le Grand Macabre (1978) also contains many humorous elements, along with, appropriately enough, the macabre.

Ligeti's most widely heard work, the Lux Aeterna (1966), was brought to the public's attention in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, largely because Kubrick had run out of money and could not comission an original score.  However, Kubrick continued to use Ligeti's music when financially solvent and his Musica ricercata can be heard in Eyes Wide Shut .  Thanks to these and the continuing high profile performances of Ligeti's works, we can hope that his reputation continues to grow.

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