Gyorgy Ligeti – Vocal Works

I am not sure how I became aware of Gyorgy Ligeti’s music.  It certainly wasn’t through his work on the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack, or because of his electronic compositions.  However, I’m now a raving, lunatic fan who can’t decide whether Ligeti’s oeuvre is a stone tablet of musical law that all people must obey, or a set of golden earrings that no other lobes but mine mayest wear. 

But for a long time, I was scared to check out his works for the human voice.  As a rule, I much prefer rock, country, and jazz singers (Mel Torme!) to operatic singers, who (aside from the grand Caruso types) tend to sound to me like Sir Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood, or more than a bit like Miss Piggy.

However, as with everything Ligeti does, he was able to make most of the works on this CD sound bigger and better than the notes that construct them, pushing the boundaries of what vocal music can and should be.   He picked out some pretty decent singers, wrangled the great Pierre-Laurent Aimard into playing the pianer, and got ’em all in a studio or two to hash out his greatest vocal pieces.  It’s hard to describe music like this, so I’ll just talk about my favorite tracks.

The first couple tracks on here are poems, mostly from Lewis Carroll, set to music.  Though I was really really hoping he’d do a version of “Jam Tomorrow, Jam Yesterday…”, there’s still some killer stuff here, including a version of just the alphabet itself on track three.  When track six starts with a fey “Off with her head!” then proceeds with Fury itself condemning a mouse to death, you know you’re in for a good time.

Track number seven, “Mysteries of the Macabre,” is probably my favorite track from the CD.  In this section from Ligeti’s opera, a female soloist sings her heart out telling a story in god knows what language, while rhythmic jabs from a xylophone, loud banging whatsits, hissy rattling percussive chimes of some sort, and several smarmy-sounding male shouts occasionally stab against the space her voice is filling. 

She ends the piece by repetitiously singing “ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka” over and over again, a cadenza with no melody but a lot of humanly, womanly and almost sexual breathiness on some of the notes, that finally culminate in a bombastic and pure and LOUD “KAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!” that knocks you flat with pain and triumph.

Track 8, “Aventures,”  begins with males and females literally hyperventilating.  Then things go relatively quiet, until after a pause suddenly there is whispering and hissing, the singers mouthing out phonemes of Ligeti’s own creation that have no literal meaning.  To my ears, it at first sounds like samurai from a Kurosawa film yelling at each other, then like the “shika-shika” sound the dude from Yello makes, then like donkeys braying, then like the Kipper Kids.  Every once in a while a drum snaps BANG, a little horn and plucked string comes in,  and a vocalist will hold a grand note, or the group will make a cacophony of noises that perfectly match the seemingly random plinking of a piano.   Then there are the sounds of laughing, of spitting, of shivering.  Then the singers hold grand notes some more, pausing for breaths at different times so that the notes are not all sustained at the same time or for the same length by any one singer. 
The background noises are not boring either–besides the brash punctuation we’ve come to expect from avant-garde composers ever since Stravinsky, we also get some interesting “what-the-hell-is-that?” vibrations in the low and high registers from piano and god-knows-what brushes or bells the percussion team for the Philharmonia orchestra is pulling up.  A couple times in the song, the singing subsides except for maybe a bit of beneath-the-surface chatter (god, this must have been fun to record) and you can still tell that, yes, this is a Ligeti piece. 

Tracks 9 and 10, “Nouvelle Aventures,” have more of the same, this time with an emphasis on repetitious phonemes that spin by so fast they sound like insects buzzing.  There’s also some panting, more punctuation with xylophone, and great male vocals.  Ligeti is great at hitting you with a flurry of notes all over the scale (e.g. his “atmospheres” piece for orchestra starts with literally every note in like a three octave scale being played at once but no two notes being repeated), coming at you so fast that you lose perspective of the individual notes and see the grand scheme, a bit like Pointillism in painting, and it’s interesting to see how he tackles this with the human voice.

 The final tracks on the CD are basically early stuff he did in Hungary, prior to his escape from the commies there in the fifties.  To mask the experimental music he was doing (seriously, the communists hated Stravinsky and even Liszt), he used nationalist Hungarian poets or traditional folk songs and scored those vocals with his out-there keyboards and orchestration.  It didn’t work–the commies made him shelve a lot of his compositions and never allowed many of them ever to be performed, except for a group of his peers–but it is interesting to hear this starting point in his career.  A lot of these tunes show up in Ligeti’s sixth CD in the series (the works for keyboards) but they sound rather nicer here, with vocals to accompany and flesh them out.

All in all, this is not a great CD to introduce someone to Ligeti–it’s just way too weird for someone not accustomed to his works.  I would probably advise a newbie to start with the aforementioned Ligeti VI or with his piano etudes.  But for someone looking to see where vocal music can be pushed, this will not be a letdown.


Oklahoman by birth. Angeleno by fate. I've been in half a dozen bands and own 25 cubic feet of old records. Thank God for Ikea shelves.

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