György Ligeti, Apparitions

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Ligeti left Hungary, in 1956, he took with him his scores and also his hopes—in particular, his hopes for a kind of music corresponding to a dream he had had as a boy, one of lying in his bed amid a fantastic silken web in which strange creatures and inert objects were suspended. He had tried to realize this dream in sound in Hungary, but lacked the technical means. In 1957 he tried again. Finally, in 1958-9, while working alongside Stockhausen in the Cologne electronic music studio, he produced Apparitions, a nine-minute score whose contents include, in his own words, “sounding planes and masses, which may succeed, penetrate or mingle with one another—floating networks that get torn up or entangled—wet, sticky, gelatinous, fibrous, dry, brittle, granular and compact materials, shreds, curlicues, splinters, and traces of every sort—imaginary buildings, labyrinths, inscriptions, texts, dialogues, insects—states, events, processes, blendings, transformations, catastrophes, disintegrations, disappearances.”

Ligeti had found his way to his dream by way of the orchestral cluster: the static band of sound in which volume and instrumentation change only slowly or not at all, and in which every note of the chromatic scale within a certain range is sounding. That technique had been used by Xenakis in Metastaseis (1953-4), but Xenakis’s work was unknown to Ligeti at the time, and unknown, too, to the audience of pure-stream modernists who responded noisily to the sonic sensuousness, drama, and humor of Ligeti’s composition when it was first performed in Cologne in 1960.

Apparitions is scored for a large orchestra without oboes, because, the composer explained, the work “has fundamentally an ‘unreal,’ ghostly sound, and here the oboes would have been too ‘concrete.’” The first movement is in two sections, related in duration by the golden mean, and is composed largely of homogeneous clusters (though there are also cluster glissandos and abrupt soundbites suggestive of the electronic essays)—phonemes which the music whispers or speaks, until it ends with a high cluster maintained by three violins heard from offstage.

As in several Bartók works, a slow, introductory movement is balanced by a faster and more substantial one, in this case an Agitato which begins with muted and jittery music for orchestral groups in different meters, and which moves wildly to its end with brutal stabs and the sound of a tray of crockery being hurled into a wooden crate lined with metal plates (“possibly wear protective goggles,” advises the score). The earlier great crisis in this generally pianissimo movement comes when all forty-six string players suddenly embark on loud tangled polyphony, each following a separate trajectory through the chromatic scale (with octave transpositions, so that the predominant intervals are sevenths and ninths). This moment in Ligeti’s musical dream gave him the clue to creating his next, Atmosphères.