I went with my girlfriend to Amoeba Records this weekend–and of course, we both easily spent over a hundred dollars on records we previously never knew existed, yet could not afford to pass up.
But one of my purchases was a premeditated conquest. For a few years now, I’ve been selectively collecting the works of Gyorgy Ligeti, the Hungarian composer whose works have moved me like no other. As experimental as John Cage, yet as accessible as Ravel or sometimes even Bach, he’s perhaps one of the most enjoyable and moving of the near-modern day composers (he died just a few years ago, still in his prime). And this time around, I got Gyorgy Ligeti Edition Volume V: Mechanical Music.
Note that it’s “mechanical” music, not electronic music. Though Ligeti made great strides in electronic music early in his career, these pieces are mostly mechanical in that they are performed on somewhat traditional analog instruments that play themselves, based on instructions fed to them by reams of notched paper or MIDI controllers.
The first section of the CD is dedicated to the barrel organ, and while the calliope-like tone of this tiny organ takes some getting used to, it’s fantastic to hear some of Ligeti’s works composed for keyboards (performed elsewhere on piano) done by a machine that sounds childlike yet ghost-like in its lack of a true human touch. The piece “musica ricercata” is particulary disturbing because it recreates Ligeti’s famous minimal piano line from Eyes Wide Shut–but because it’s a barrel organ, the tones don’t decay or sustain at once, but rather pipe individually, long or short but not really soft or loud. And as things get more complicated and staccato, the pace moves impressively fast, faster than I’ve ever heard a pipe organ of any type play.
Same goes for the latter half of the CD, which is dedicated to the player piano. Here Ligeti and his henchmen tackle his Etudes, pieces which in their original human form were composed based largely on Ligeti’s exposure to Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who wrote player piano pieces of inhuman complexity. This CD allows Ligeti to return his own Etudes to a form more in line with their inspiration. In fact, we get to hear Etude XIVa, the original version, which was always meant for Player Piano and is blisteringly fast, yet somehow sounds organic despite being mechanically produced.
However, the reason most people bought this CD is probably because it chronicles a great performance of the “Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes.” This was first performed for television while Ligeti was part of the Fluxus Art movement (sort of an honorary degree of artistry, since they added him to their number without his asking), but don’t think of it as merely a conceptual piece or music for shock value. Because the Metronomes are mechanical and are wound so that they eventually run out of clicking power at different times, it’s a musical exercise quite similar to his Atmospheres (which starts with every note in the scale played at once).
Here, we start with every possible tempo playing at once. We begin in utter confusion, like popcorn going everywhere, or the chirping of a thousand crickets. Then the anarchy and chaos slowly condenses and morphs into something a bit more calm and familiar. Individual pockets of action and interest constantly bubble to the surface, speak their peace, then change into other things or fade into the background as new ticks and tocks emerge to distinguish themselves.
It’s a really gradual, almost glacial process, but eventually one metronome after another drops off, until we’re left with just a few tocking metronomes almost aligning themselves, then becoming dissonant again. Finally there’s just one metronome left. Tock…tock…tock.
In Ligeti’s mind, this is where the piece goes from the “maximal entropy” of its beginning and returns back to a simple maximal entropy of one beat. To me, I was surprised at how after nearly twenty minutes of hearing irregular rhythms, the return to a singular rhythm made me shudder a bit. I actually had visions of Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death,” and my feeling about the piece turned very ominous, very “for whom the bell tolls.”
It’s quite a different experience to hear this piece as pure music with your “eyes wide shut” than to sit and watch the metronomes as it plays out, so I suggest you try it both ways. The CD version is perhaps better, though longer, than the one performed here, but I guess there are no right or wrong ways to wind your metronomes!