György Ligeti, Atmosphères

By Paul Griffiths

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

What Ligeti heard in his Apparitions was the possibility of composing “a canon so dense that it creates a texture, a static tissue.” Gesture and incident could now fade, to leave textures whose smooth unfolding has only one major discontinuity, when searing high piccolos are cut off and answered by double basses from six octaves below; even here the feeling is that the music has disappeared over the top of the pitch spectrum and reappeared at the bottom. Elsewhere in the work, and more usually, Ligeti achieves the sense of one uninterrupted sound mass by having his textures overlap with no clear divisions—entries are often to be imperceptible and extinctions gradual—or else by having one texture emerge out of another. Also important to continuity is the lack of percussion instruments, except for a piano whose strings are brushed at the end.

This was the first work Ligeti began after his time in the electronic music studio, and, as a composition of sounds and of layers of sounds, the score transfers to the orchestral plane an electronic manner of working. More particularly, the staggered chordal glissandos of his Pièce électronique No. 3 (unrealized at the time) have their equivalent in complex canon, or, to use the composer’s own term, “micropolyphony,” which he said he “would never have been able to develop . . . without the experience of electronic music.”

Micropolyphony has its first great example here in a mirror canon in forty-eight parts, the twenty-eight violins moving in a downward direction while the twenty violas and cellos climb. Hardly audible as a canon, by virtue of its general pppp dynamic level as well as its density, the passage achieves the global effect of a cluster being gradually compressed from three-and-a-half octaves to the space of a minor third. Where Xenakis or Penderecki might have achieved a similar effect with simple glissandos, Ligeti’s canon expresses his philosophy of precision and leaves even on such generalized music a personal imprint—in this case a hint of folk music coming from the canon’s subject. He also valued contrapuntal writing for its probity, for its traditional aura, and for its own sake: “The counterpoint of Palestrina and Bach, which was taught very exactly in Budapest, left a deep mark on me. I love whatever is constructed.”

The chromatic cluster—such as that of the forty-eight-part canon, or the stationary one across almost five octaves with which the music opens—is only one of the possibilities of Atmosphères. The second big cluster of the piece is reshaped by dynamic changes, which bring forward particular timbres (at first that of the strings) or harmonic colors: the “white notes” (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) and then the bright ring of horns, flutes, and clarinets together on the “black notes” (Ab-Bb-Db-Eb-Gb), these diatonic and pentatonic clusters projecting what Ligeti called “a kind of tonal iridescence.” There are also shimmering ribbons produced by many instruments in rapid vibrato, stippled textures in which brief fortissimos are dotted into a continuous pianissimo, and complex wavy patterns of string harmonics in several different metres superposed. These things and others arrive and leave as if of themselves. In extreme contrast with Artikulation, the music has no voice, and its immense presences imply, perhaps as in the contemporary paintings of Mark Rothko, an overwhelming absence.

Ligeti dedicated the score to the memory of the Hungarian-born composer Mátyás Seiber.