Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Last time our subject was Americans, and a varied lot they were. Who knew a person could write “American” music in so many different ways?

Actually you knew, and so did I. Let’s turn to a more complicated matter: what happens when a creative musician is displaced from his or her homeland?

Consider György Ligeti (1923–2006), a Jew born in Romania, raised in Hungary, and displaced twice, first to a World War II labor camp, then to Vienna in the brutal aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. He wrote,

I did not choose the tumults of my life. Rather, they were imposed on me by two murderous dictatorships: first by Hitler and the Nazis, and then by Stalin and the Soviet system. Common to both of these totalitarian dictatorships was the banning of “modern” art, which both systems considered to be “hostile to the people.” . . . Viewed objectively, the Nazis were more dangerous, but there nevertheless existed a hope that Hitler would soon be overthrown. The Soviet system, however, aroused more despair because it seemed to last forever. . . . Moreover, the Soviet system demanded that all its subjects be happy and that they accept of their own free will, even enthusiastically, this prescribed way of life, which consisted of mass rallies and parades in an atmosphere of constant deceit. . . . For decent people with integrity it was hell.

In Hungary all “modern” music was banned in 1948. Ligeti, an ardent modernist, “hid behind folk-music and ‘cultural heritage’” for a while. But the music he created after fleeing to the West speaks loud and clear about freedom and its rewards. It’s what we remember Ligeti for. It’s why we keep his music alive.

Ligeti began his exile by studying electronic music at Cologne’s West German Radio; during this period he also worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen. A bit later he developed an important compositional tool, micropolyphony. Basically, it’s a way of interweaving many independent lines in order to create complex textures that twinkle, shimmer, disturb, and disorient. Remember the scenes in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in which humans confront a mysterious monolith? You were hearing the micropolyphonic Atmosphères.


Much of Ligeti’s music also displays an impish sense of humor. His jokes can send us down a rabbit-hole in which events become increasingly bizarre. As the composer explained,

Anyone who has been through horrifying experiences is not likely to create terrifying works of art in all seriousness. [Rather, one adopts a stance in which] what is serious is at the same time comical and the comical is terrifying.

We don’t lack for recorded Ligeti, including efforts toward a Complete Works begun by Sony, continued by Teldec. Still, I was glad to see a new album of concertos and more from the Bit20 Ensemble (BIS -2209; SACD, download). It’s exceptionally well-recorded (of course!) and offers a useful introduction to this composer. If you already know Ligeti, better yet! You’ll enjoy these incisive, often brilliant new performances. Kudos to pianist Joonas Ahonen, cellist Christian Poltéra, and conductor Baldur Brönnimann.

What to hear first: the Piano Concerto (1985–88), product of one last radical change in the composer’s style. By the late 1980s he had abandoned both “total chromaticism” (i.e., atonality) and micropolyphony. Now he launched himself into a profound study of rhythm, drawing equally on African traditions and “the cyclically repeating spirals of fractal mathematics” (per Arnold Whittall’s program notes). What results is a roller-coaster ride of sputtering simultaneous rhythmic cycles, a Catherine wheel that barely avoids spinning off in several directions at once:

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That’s from the first of five movements. The second is a study in desolation, interrupted only by occasional horrific shocks:

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After you’ve fully absorbed the Piano Concerto, give the two-movement Cello Concerto (1966) a try. In spite of its age, it’s the most radical thing in the album; perhaps Ligeti meant to call into question the whole notion of a concerto. In the first movement, soloist and orchestra seem locked in competition: which can contribute least to the conversation? Silence continually threatens to break out:


The second movement (at 8’28” above) makes up for that with yards of manic energy, both silly and violent.

Time for Exile No. 2:  Thierry Pécou (b. 1965), born in a wealthy Parisian suburb to parents from the Caribbean, is more an explorer than a refugee. His website bio states:

For Thierry Pécou, to live is to travel, and to travel is to write, as if composing were both plunging into another universe, taking emotional possession of the place, and above all, stepping back, voluntarily becoming marginalized in relation to one’s everyday cultural milieu.

“Voluntarily marginalized”? He is fortunate in having eloquent apologists like Jean-Luc Tamby (for Harmonia Mundi) and Max Nyffeler (for Wergo) explain his aesthetic to us; otherwise we might easily conclude he’s one more cultural tourist, flitting around the world and then writing an Aztec Sacrificial Dance or some such. Think of Gershwin in the black churches of South Carolina, or Gauguin in Tahiti.

Or don’t—because ultimately Gershwin and Gauguin created some pretty good art out of their experiences. They did not consider themselves tourists. Nyffeler adds,

 [Pécou’s] emotional and intellectual relationship to culture is characteristic of many second- or third-generation immigrants: he is at home in two cultures. One is the culture of career and daily life; the other [exists] only as a projection arising from the depths of the individual personality—[it has otherwise] become impossibly distant.

Pécou brings impeccable credentials to his work: he began studying piano as a nine-year-old and later won First Prizes in Orchestration and Composition at the Paris Conservatoire Supérieur. But neither that nor all the anthropological insight in the world would matter if his music wasn’t first-rate.

It is. He’s a terrifically inventive composer, a superior re-imaginer of those “impossibly distant” civilizations in the Caribbean and—especially—the Latin America of the primordial Quechua, Inca, Maya, and Aztec worlds.

Here’s a taste:


That’s Manoa, from his album Tremendum (Harmonia Mundi HMC 905269), which I’ve recommended in this space before. The title track, a “Concerto-carnaval” for piano, flute, saxophone, cello, and five percussionists, gets wilder (see below). There’s also a lovely Danzón for solo flute that concludes the album on a quiet note. Beautifully recorded, with superb notes by Tamby.

Equally fine is an earlier Harmonia Mundi album (HMC 905267), Symphony du Jaguar / Vague de pierre. I especially like the Symphony, scored for solo winds and strings, five women’s voices, and orchestra. It’s a concerto grosso on ancient Mayan notions of time, specifically the cycles created by the rotation of sun, moon, and Venus through the heavens. Pécou uses “the trajectory of the sun (Kin) in its incarnation as the daystar, and in the form of a red jaguar in its journey into the bowels of the earth where it is regenerated.” Although this mythology plays out in detail as we listen, the music would be just as effective and pleasurable if you had no idea what it “meant.”

I wish I could recommend Pécou’s latest orchestral disc Orquoy / Changó / Marcha de la humanidad (Wergo WER 7318 2) just as enthusiastically. The music’s good; here’s a clip from Changó:

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but the recorded sound doesn’t quite measure up to what Harmonia Mundi offers, and sound—ambience, timbre, transients—is a crucial part of the Pécou experience. If you explore his music further, start with the two HM albums (earlier ones are also available) and then check out the Wergo collection.

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