Spatial Explorations

By Leon Botstein

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

This final concert of our 2007-2008 season was inspired in part by the death of György Ligeti, who died two years ago on June 12. His biography can serve as a mirror of the course of twentieth-century history. Ligeti was born in Transylvania, a Jew in a multi-ethnic and polyglot region of what is now Romania but was once part of Hungary. Among Ligeti’s artistic ancestors was his great uncle Leopold Auer, the legendary violinist and pedagogue. Although his parents were sent to Auschwitz, the young Ligeti was condemned only to forced labor by the Nazis. After the war he studied composition and ethnomusicology in Budapest. Having grown up in the unstable and violent context of interwar Eastern Europe, dominated by competing nationalisms and anti-Semitism, Ligeti subsequently experienced the first decade of Hungarian communism in all its Stalinist rigidity. In the wake of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 Ligeti moved to the West and lived long enough to witness the fall of communism and the resurgence of provincial nationalism in Eastern Europe. By the end of his life, György Ligeti had secured a deserved reputation as a great composer and prophetic voice who was able to transform modernism in a way that allowed it to breathe more freely. His music is music of our time, entirely independent of the clichés of both modernism and post-modernism—a truly original voice.

Ligeti’s experience of the volatile twentieth century encapsulates the essential nature of modernity: the reconfiguring of the relationship of the individual to the world. Directly related to the politics and history of the period, and indeed a significant outgrowth of it, was the twentieth century’s transformation of our understanding of the universe and of space and time. It is no coincidence that the unprecedented disorder and destruction of the past that characterized the first half of the twentieth century was accompanied by utterly original thinking about physics and the relative universe, and that many groundbreaking technological achievements were made possible by advancements in modern warfare. Our realization of the enormity of the universe and the absence of any notion of absolute space and time reflected, at least in part, a reaction to our sense of the instability of the modern world, and a fundamental questioning of our place in it. Only the ages of Galileo and Newton witnessed similar fundamental intellectual sea-change in the way we perceive reality.

The twentieth century was marked by the consciousness of an expanding universe and the increasing recognition of the humble place occupied by the earth. Among the seminal events of the twentieth century was the onset of space travel—of satellites, interplanetary probes, and moon landings. These innovations were presented as advancements, and offered a sense of optimism and faith in scientific progress and human imagination that countered the memory of war-time devastation, and offered a sense of security during the Cold War. The conquering of space, the rise of technology, seemed to camouflage the instability of society with a vision of connectedness and collective human endeavor that promised to provide some sort of lucid justification of ourselves. Both optimism and ambiguity were promoted in science fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which may be heard Ligeti’s Atmosphères), Star Trek and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But there was (and is) also a pervasive anxiety about the questions raised by our explorations of the universe and of physics. The pondering of our infinitesimally small occupation of space is an uncomfortable notion for many (which has helped inform a resurgence of religion among other forms of conservatism). In terms of popular culture, for all the wonderment of Star Trek, there are also xenophobic wars with the alien species, or the image of the mad scientist with his finger “on the button.” Our curiosity is tinged with a fear of leaving familiar understanding behind for the unknown, of having all our cherished conventions uprooted in favor of something that possibly, once proven, may not be ours to control. Instead of science offering us the comfort of knowing at last exactly what our position is in the cosmos, we are left with the same question that our earliest ancestors asked—just where are we?

This conflicted reaction to the modern world and its ever-changing philosophical and scientific premises deeply informed modern art and music. All of the composers on today’s program were interested in the idea of space—not just outer space but sonic space as well. Their breaking away from a unidirectional construction of sound, the conventional experience of the concert hall, reflects both the liberating spirit of experimentation that characterizes the modern, and an intense self-reflection regarding how we hear, the relativity of our position, and the accuracy of our perception. Their breathtaking parallel between the cosmos and the microcosm of our individual experience conjures the thrilling and disquieting relativity of the modern world. The very concept of space is scrutinized in these remarkable works, and the distance between performers and listeners becomes as speculative as the distance between planets.

If Ligeti’s achievement and originality framed the inspiration for this concert, he himself was inspired by an isolated, early twentieth-century innovator, almost the Charles Ives of Scandinavia, Rued Langgaard. As Peter Laki points out, Langgaard’s Symphony of the Spheres was an important influence on Ligeti. Andrzej Panufnik, like Ligeti, fled communist Eastern Europe (in Panufnik’s case, Poland) during the 1950s. Panufnik is one of the twentieth-century composers whose music should not be permitted in the midst of our anti-modernist enthusiasm, to fall into oblivion. Finally we thought it best to open this unique concert with a composer whose voice, in terms of originality, can be fairly compared to Ligeti. Born in the same generation, Tōru Takemitsu, who died in 1996, helped to reconceptualize sound. Like the other composers on this program, he was inspired by the lone, individual human fascination with space, time, and the universe of which the earth is part. The sonic response to existential contemplation is most brilliantly reflected in this work that bears the title of one of the more famous constellations. The structure of the work reflects the way the constellation appears to the naked eye—from the vantage point of our small planet.

All of these works turn to speculation about the universe, space, and time back into the human experience of music, so that the listener can experience sound on many different planes by restructuring the way sound is produced, where it comes from spatially, and how it is perceived and remembered. This is music that can only be heard acoustically and can never be accurately documented by recording. The multi-dimensional experience of space in the imagination is transformed into the multi-dimensional experience of sound in the concert hall. It is fitting to note that the heavens have long provided inspiration and a structural metaphor for composers. This concert is a modernist version of a tradition that dates to antiquity and the Renaissance: the notion of the harmony of the spheres as an aesthetic ideal for music.