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19 May - 03 June 2020

An Art Without Ideology

During the 2019 edition of the Bergen International Festival several works by Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) will be performed. Festival Director Anders Beyer has interviewed Ligeti on several occasions, also in connection with the composer’s 70-year birthday May 28, 1993.

György Sándor Ligeti. Photo: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo

You were born in a part of the world (now Romania) that became forbidding and insecure early in your lifetime. Recently unrest has flared up again. What were the early years of your life like and what do you think about the recent reports of terrible things in your former homeland?

It shouldn’t be forgotten that because of the rearrangement of the states and borders after World War I the 1920s were a difficult time for the whole of Europe. There was social chaos everywhere, culminating in the great crisis of 1929-30. It didn’t matter whether one lived in Hungary, Romania or Poland. The perception of Romania under the Ceausçescu regime and communist dictatorship was not a reality in my childhood. My mother tongue is Hungarian. Transylvania belonged to Hungary for a long time and Hungary belonged to Austria because of inter-marriages, from the 15th century on. In Transylvania it was possible to speak of Romanian, Hungarian and German, folk heritages co-existing in the same region. They were not integrated, the three completely different cultures existed separately.

For Hungarians it was a shock to have to submit to Romania after World War I. The authorities were Romanian, and Romanian became the official language. Hungarians who were the minority naturally didn’t care for that. But on the other hand, one has to remember that the Romanian people in Transylvania were subjects of Hungary for several hundred years. One can conclude, looking at the current catastrophe in Yugoslavia, that any form of nationalism is an abomination and totally crazy injustice.

We all wish to live in a free and democratic world, no matter who has authority. One should be free to speak whatever language one wants. Until the outbreak of World War II my childhood was happy enough. There was adequate welfare and Romania was a completely normal country to live in—a very corrupt kingdom, but one could live freely. It has been 44 years since I was in Romania. This was in the Soviet-type dictatorship of Gheorghin-Dej, but what came after, under Ceausçescu, was worse. Since 1989, with the fall of Ceausçescu, the political situation did change somewhat, but poverty and hopelessness still prevail.

Though I grew up in Hungarian culture, I greatly admire the Romanian language too, which is a beautiful romance language closely related to Italian with mixed Latin, Slavic and Greek vocabulary, having a rich literature, scarcely known in the West.

Your closest family suffered terribly in the last war because they were Jews: your father died in Bergen Belsen, your younger brother was murdered in Mauthausen and your mother survived Auschwitz only because she was a camp doctor. How were you able to survive that hell?

I was not taken to the concentration camp, but instead was called into the work service in the Hungarian military. It was a terrible period in my life. Before, I was attending the conservatory in Cluj (Kolozsvár) but suddenly in mid-January 1944, I was put in a work camp. End of May 1944 my whole family had been deported to Auschwitz. From 800 000 Jews in Hungary 600 000 were deported, and the majority died or was killed. It was a shock to realize that we were to be exterminated.

How was it possible for you to go to Germany after the war (that is, after the Hungarian Revolution, in 1956, ed.), work as a composer and, in the first few years, also be a shrewd observer of the problems and developments in new music? You left the country that you have called your ‘sounding board’. Was it difficult to survive as a human being and retain your personal integrity when you had cut all ties to the past?

That did not have much to do with Hungary, but rather with the communist system. The Hungarian regime was allied with Nazi-Germany in the war but wanted to withdraw from the alliance in 1944. As a result, on 19th March 1944 the German army occupied Hungary, the members of the government were imprisoned, and Nazi rule was established. The deportation of the Jews followed. Naturally there were many Hungarians who collaborated with Hitler. In other places there was much more opposition, for instance, in Denmark, Holland and Norway. But after the war I felt completely at home in Budapest. We were hopeful, yes, we didn’t suspect that the Soviets would create a new dictatorship. Between October 1945 and end of 1947 there was a freely-elected government that was oriented to the left with a very positive attitude toward artists and intellectuals. But this turned out to be a fake.

The police were in the hands of the communists, and behind the stage the Stalinist dictatorship was introduced, step by step, in a shrewd way.

From 1945 to 1948 there was a shortage of food, and 80% of the houses in Budapest had been destroyed. As a student I lived for a long time in a suburb that had not been completely destroyed. My home was a mattress of 2 square metres in the kitchen. There was no blanket or quilt, nor any heat. Russian soldiers lived in the house. My food was left-overs from their meals. There was no transportation; we walked everywhere. At the music academy all students received food once a day from American and Scandinavian aid organisations.

We lived a miserable life. There was no soap to be had; we washed once a month at most. Try to imagine that for a couple of years there wasn’t one window to be found in Budapest. It was an improvised life. Apparently, many people live like that in Russia today. But at that time we were happy that the terrible war was over and that the vile Nazi dictatorship was finished.

After three years, everything was more or less in order. When winter arrived we had windows, sometimes even heat. In the course of those three years wonderful literature, music and visual art sprang up. During 1948 the communist dictatorship was formed. The deputies who didn’t submit to the communists in the parliament were arrested. Those who would not cooperate with the party disappeared. Some, whose lives were at stake, tried to escape over the border. But people didn’t have passports and the border was mined. In December 1948 the communists held firmly the power and the mass arrestations began. We young intellectuals didn’t know what to do; we were dazed. It was as though we were drugged. We had experienced the Nazi dictatorship but didn’t know the rules of the game with the new Stalinist dictatorship. Myself, I did not read newspapers, but practiced the piano. I did my assignments and composed in the library of the Music Academy, which was usually even heated.

During the Nazi dictatorship I was an idealistic, very left-wing socialist. But towards the Soviet Union I was suspicious. We had very contradictory information. In September 1945 some friends and teachers asked me, that I should enter in the Communist Party. I had a shaky feeling, I refused. But I remained a believer in “socialism”. Being a naive socialist, I composed a cantata. It was for my final examination as a 25-year-old at the music academy (Franz Liszt Academy) in 1948. I had been asked for a cantata for four soloists, chorus and orchestra as a final project. In the next year, 1949, a World Youth Festival was planned ‘for freedom, against imperial oppression’ where the work was to be performed. I actually believed these socialist slogans and began to compose the cantata in the summer of 1948 together with my friend Peter Kuczka, who wrote a text on freedom for all people. When I began the work, I was completely sincere and honest; I believed in the cause. But when I finished the work in the spring of 1949, it made me sick to my stomach. I was nauseated by the degree to which these socialist ideas were used for a filthy purpose in the worst possible police regime, with mass arrestations and executions.

 

You can hardly imagine how horrible daily life was; spies were everywhere. One did not dare say anything, and one had to be careful not to be betrayed. People who worked in an office or in a factory had to check in half an hour earlier in order to listen collectively to the reading of the Communist party newspaper. The following day the workers were examined on the previous day’s reading. All daily life was regimented. The concept of freedom no longer existed. We constantly had to take part in assemblies and pretend that we were happy and satisfied, we lived in a tight labyrinth of lies. In reality we were bitter—bitter, sorrowful and totally desperate. Every aspect of private life was ruined in this collective. If I had been an opportunist, I would have been able to say ‘yes’ to all of this and would have become an official composer for the party. I could have had a big career, but I could not do it, I would not have done that even under duress.

One day in February 1949 I was encouraged by the Hungarian KGB (AVO) to become an informant and to betray some Catholic friends. The following Tuesday I was to go and report compromising details. I didn’t go and therefore expected them to come and arrest me. That didn’t happen – they made do with putting me under observation.

After the premiere of the above-mentioned cantata in August 1949 (I was thoroughly unhappy about the performance, but couldn’t prevent it) I was criticized by the composers’ union (all composers were forced to join the composers’ union). The criticism was that there was a fugue in the work which was considered ‘clerical’ and ‘reactionary’. I was asked to compose a new cantata on a new text that praised Rákosi. Mátyás Rákosi was the Hungarian dictator at the time “Stalin’s most faithful pupil”. I could not publicly refuse because that would mean being thrown in jail, so I asked for time to think about it for a few days. Earlier I had received an invitation to travel on a scholarship to Romania to study folk music. I got even a passport (valid only for Romania) and a visa. I left Hungary as quickly as possible to avoid having to respond to the request for the Rákosi cantata. I was in Romania for almost a year, and thankfully the Rákosi cantata was forgotten in the meantime.

When you lived in Budapest you made many arrangements of Hungarian folk music. Was it to oblige a political system that wanted music ‘rooted in the people’, as opposed to ‘formalist’ music?

 

My ‘genuine’ compositions—for example, the First String Quartet, the solo Cello Sonata, Musica Ricercata, the woodwind quintet (Bagatelles) – were all barred. I rejected all the officially approved communist texts based on socialist realism, but to be involved in arranging folk music was no compromise for me. I knew the Hungarian and Romanian folk music traditions quite well. Kodály and Bartók were my models. It was partly a compromise – and yet – ultimately, a little one, for my ‘own’ compositions couldn’t be performed. But some of those choral works based on folk music were played on the radio and sung in concerts. I have never compromised politically, and I was always careful with the texts of the folk music, so that they could not be interpreted politically. These things were tolerated, however, and a few works were even published.

It is difficult for me to explain this. I would like to have Lutoslawski sitting here next to us; as a matter of fact, he has lived through the same thing. He also wrote ‘real’ compositions for himself, and pedagogical works and folk music arrangements – not for the regime – but as pieces that were intended to be performed. A composer must also have performances; it is important. I had to ‘camouflage’ myself and my works. When, for example, I composed that first string quartet which was forbidden, I had to cover up my activity by writing other works that could be performed. Otherwise they could have said that I was finished as a composer and could have told me to go to work in a factory. You have to see my thoughts and feelings in the context of the feelings of the whole people (with the exception of fools, fanatics and shrewd opportunists). In October 1956 the Revolution broke out as a spontaneous, not planned burst of the desperation of 10 million Hungarians. (Later it happened everywhere, no social system can be based on perpetual lies.) In December 1956 I left Hungary – together with 200 000 people. I could not more live under this repression and hopelessness.

 

In the former West Germany you met, among others, Herbert Eimert, Gottfried Michael Koenig and Karlheinz Stockhausen. You started to work in the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne and took part in the Summer Courses at Darmstadt. In unusually insightful articles published in Darmstädter Beiträge and other journals, you took part in the aesthetic and theoretical discussions of the time with critical contributions on, among other things, electronic music and serial music. Why did you confront these musical forms? And then, looking ahead: have the new technological advances late in the century given you the desire to try out those ideas about musical materials that you chose to avoid earlier?

I don’t think of it exactly like that. I didn’t distance myself from electronic and serial music because I was opposed to these forms. I criticized the music from the inside, so to speak. For example, I composed electronic music myself. I accepted fully and completely the aesthetic and theory of serial music that Boulez and Stockhausen derived from Webern and from Messiaen’s Mode de Valeurs et d‘Intensités, but I developed these ideas further. That’s what became the static, micropolyphonic forms. These forms have their origins in serial and electronic music. In Apparitions, Atmosphères and Volumina, for example, I composed for instruments as if I were composing electronic music. What I learned in the electronic studio I applied to instrumental and vocal music. I was not against serial music, but critical of certain aspects of the style of serial composition, which became ‘dry’ for me too quickly. I wanted ‘living’ music.

 

That I later went back to technology with great interest, for instance, computer technology, is actually due to the fact that I never lost interest in these things. It would be better to talk about a continuity. However, I have to say that electronic music as practiced in Cologne at the end of the 1950s was far too primitive. A true Fourier synthesis (additive synthesis, ed.) couldn’t be achieved, it was only possible to copy several (not too many) individual layers on top of one another. It was a ‘manual’ studio, there were no synthesizers. We could only produce sine tones, we could only filter regions of ‘white noise’, and we had to manually cut and splice pieces of tape together. In this, Gottfried Michael Koenig was the greatest master. I regard his work, Essay, as the most significant electronic piece that was made using this manual montage-technique.

In the electronic music studio I learned a lot about acoustical illusions, acoustical possibilities in general, that I subsequently ‘translated’ into instrumental music. The reason that I didn’t continue to work in the electronic studio after 1958 was that I couldn’t get satisfying results. Much later, with computer-generated sound, we had unimaginable possibilities. I have had many compositional ideas that originated in computer generated forms and sounds but finally I realised them in the realm of traditional instruments, not with computer generated sounds. When I still refer to acoustic instruments, it is because their sound is more ‘noble’ according to my aesthetic criteria.

And fractals are only one of the fascinating areas in the computer world?

Simply one among many. Fractals have meant a lot to me since the time that I saw Peitgen’s and Richter’s first computer generated pictures in 1984.

I have the distinct impression that you drop an idea the moment it becomes established and develops into the ideology of a school. In the latest issue of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik you say that your project is to establish an ideology-free style. This attitude was probably also the reason that your success with micropolyphonic works developed into a crisis for you, one that, as I see it, took on existential dimensions. There were a number of years before the Horn Trio when you composed nothing. You have mentioned that it wasn’t a crisis for you alone, but it was also—or should have been—a crisis for all of 20th-century musical composition. What did you mean by that and how did you work your way out of the crisis?

In the four years before the composition of the Horn Trio I didn’t finish a single work. I had hundreds of sketches for my Piano Concerto, but I couldn’t get any further. It was rooted in specific musical problems that crystallized into two directions: one that preserved the avant-garde concept formulated in the 1950s in Darmstadt by Stockhausen and Boulez; and another that led to the minimal music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and to continually expanding post-modern tendencies in neo-tonal directions.

I had a composition class here in Hamburg. Many of my students accepted tonal music completely. Some of them had pop music as a point of departure. Their idols were no longer Beethoven, Webern, and Stockhausen, but Bob Dylan, for example.

I had realized before that avant-garde music is too ‘dry’, too academic, but I couldn’t stand the postmodern tonal—modal kitsch either. Therefore, I tentatively tried a different direction. The Horn Trio has postmodern features. It is not a postmodern work, but it is my ironical flirtation with postmodernism. I perceived that I could neither use the expression of the avant-garde nor the postmodern sounds but had to find a completely different third way. The way out was, when it comes down to it, the first six Piano Etudes (the first cycle) from 1985.

 

You have said that one can’t be sure that it is the best music that survives or that composers get their deserved place in music history. You have referred to Mendelssohn, who discovered Bach. When it comes to 20th-century music, I think of a composer like Giacinto Scelsi, who was discovered by Jürg Wyttenbach and Francis Marie Uitti. Do you think that we are confused by misplaced criteria to such a degree that a lot of high-quality music is suppressed?

Yes, I am afraid of that. It’s been that way with all the arts. Giacinto Scelsi is a very good example. And a thoroughly original American composer like Harry Partch is virtually unknown in Europe. The most extreme example is Conlon Nancarrow. In 1972 I was invited to Mexico City by the Goethe Institute. There I met Mexican composers, old as well as young. Nancarrow wasn’t mentioned once. Later quite by accident I came upon Nancarrow’s music and found out that he lives and works in Mexico City.

There are composers who are good at promoting themselves, but there are also those who work in silence and have no sense of self promotion. In these cases, it is pure chance that decides whether they become known or not.

There were different destinies back in time. In the late middle ages, in the 14th century the names of the composers who survived were those who lived the longest. Guillaume de Machaut lived 77 years (ca. 1300-1377) and, thank heavens, survived the plague. If he had succumbed in the great plague of 1348, he would not have existed as far as music history is concerned. That one man, Machaut, turned the history of music in a new direction. Another reason that he survived was that he carefully ordered copies of his works – in beautifully illuminated manuscripts. Machaut was narcissistic with a propensity for ‘self-stylisation’ in the manner of today’s film stars. He was the star of music and poetry in France during his time. Through Machaut’s music Philippe de Vitry’s way of thinking about mensural notation was developed further. Another example is Guillaume Dufay who was born in 1400 precisely one hundred years after Machaut. He also lived a long time – 74 years – and eventually made a highly significant mark on the music of his time. Dufay, who had learned a lot from Dunstable, became the central figure in Franco-Flemish music. Without Dufay all of European music would have been different because composers like Ockeghem and Obrecht based their music on Dufay’s work.

Very important composers of the generations between Machaut and Dufay have, only accidentally, been recognized in our time. Ciconia is one of them. If the American medieval-renaissance expert, Thomas Binkley, had not made a recording of the composer’s chansons on EMI at the beginning of the 1970s then we would not know of Ciconia today.

Gesualdo was also unknown for many years. He is one of the most original composers of all times. I like to compare Gesualdo from about 1600 with Hugo Wolf from the end of the last century. They were both great masters of chromaticism who had an unbelievable intuition when it came to expressing a text in music. Hugo Wolf is known because he worked for a time in Vienna. Gesualdo was known in his own time in Ferrara, but then his tradition was broken. The centre of music was moved to Venice, and Ferrara became an insignificant place. When I was a student, Gesualdo was simply one of 500 names one might know casually, by chance.

There are so many examples: Senleches, Solage, Hasprois, de Caserta—lots of names. Most people don’t know these composers at all. But their works existed. The musicologist Willi Apel transcribed the French Chantilly Codex from old to modern notation. It was published in the 1960s and included these totally unknown composers. Since then different English consorts have performed and recorded some of this music. Suddenly we discover that Senleches and Solage were unbelievably great composers – on a level with Machaut, Dufay and Ockeghem. With his completely unusual way of harmonizing, Solage was the Stravinsky of the late middle ages.

Is the musical world poised to move toward the same conditions as those of the world of visual arts – toward a situation where money drives art? I think, among others, of the case of Górecki, who is now bound hand and foot by his publisher as a result of the financial success of the Third Symphony. Adorno’s fear of the smothering hand of the culture industry is more relevant now than it ever was. All the hysteria about who has the most numerous and the most prestigious premieres point in that direction.

I utterly hate the superficial and mendacious consumer culture. Visual art is almost totally corrupted by commerce. Music is also corrupted, but only in part. The biggest corruption here focuses on star conductors, star singers, star instrumentalists. Some of these stars are, however, very good musicians. Jessie Norman is a star, but still one of the greatest singers. Star culture and consumer terrorism is at its worst in the case of conductors. Karajan was a big sinner in this regard, given his connections with the business world – however, he could be an excellent conductor, when he took the necessary rehearsing time.

The danger with respect to this century’s composition is far less. The case of Górecki is a minor, grotesque and amusing episode. The same could happen to any composer who is sufficiently close to tonality or modality and uses some trendy “new age” or other religious text. It could just as well happen with John Adams or Arvo Pärt. It is purely accidental that it was Górecki. It is just as irrational as a virus; suddenly a new mutant of the influenza virus emerges and everyone gets sick.

The serious part of composition is not threatened by business- or consumer-terrorism because there are no ‘wares’; it can’t be sold. The prestige surrounding premieres is quite a risible and sleazy affair unfortunately. In comparison with visual art and the enormous production of a Karajan or a Bernstein, it’s pretty small change we are talking about. I have been associated with the big business world only once, namely with the film 2001 by Stanley Kubrick. My music was used without my permission and I wasn’t paid for it. I finally had to get a lawyer and have a compromise arrangement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

You have just been in the USA. There, new music has apparently been affected by market forces. What happens in the USA often happens a decade later in Europe. Just look at composers like Adams and Corigliano and their dependence on commercialism. Previously you have been affectionately critical of American minimalism – in the work Selfportait with Reich and Riley. Minimalism, at its worse, is consumed as pure entertainment music and the genre attracts more and more fans in Europe. As for European art music what do you think about the possibilities of maintaining a meaningful discussion of aesthetic criteria while retaining the concept of authenticity?

I have a very clear position in that regard. I am convinced that a group of composers can stay free of market dictatorship. In your question you take as a starting point the idea that marketing is much stronger in the USA than in Europe. I see no difference between a work’s destiny in the USA and in Europe. In all the industrialised countries the market and consumer demands are the same in the deepest sense. The notion that what happens in the USA happens ten years later in Europe was true in the 1950s and 1960s, but no more. The difference has been levelled out.

Beware: a composer also has to live, it is necessary to earn money. We shouldn’t create the false impression that it is necessary to be poor in order to create art. Paul Cézanne was wealthy and didn’t have to sell one single painting. It is a beautiful example of money creating independence.

I detest those of my colleagues who want to sell themselves, to get to know the right people, to make the right connections with a recording company, and to join the right circles. You quite rightly emphasise the problems with authenticity. Surrendering to commercialism and insisting on authenticity at the same time is impossible.

Are you moving farther and farther away from the concept of the avant-garde? I’m thinking of your burning interest in ethnic music, in cultures far from the one we know in Europe, in the rhythmic complexity of African music that comes to the surface in the Piano Etudes and the Piano Concerto, among other works.

The concept of the avant-garde has had many political connotations since the time it was connected with socialist utopian thinking about another and better society. That was the avant-garde movement’s program circa World War I. I’m thinking, for example, of Russian futurism, constructivism and supremacism in the poetry of Mayakovsky and the art of Malevitch and in the music of the young Shostakovich, Mossolov and many others. That deeply conservative man, Stravinsky, never considered himself to be avant-garde. He always said, ‘I am a conservative classical composer’.

I see a clear connection between the avant-garde and socialism. The exceptions are, for example, Schoenberg and Webern who were conservative and deeply rooted in their tradition. But the whole avant-garde ideology cannot be separated from a belief in the dream of a better future for mankind. As a result of the collapse of ‘real’ world socialism – which I prefer to call ‘surreal’ socialism – a large question mark now hangs over socialist ideology: is it at all possible? Personally, I am, as I always have been, in favour of greater justice and a society without oppression. But I have become sceptical about the possibilities after all that has happened and will continue to happen. The ‘real’ socialism, that which doesn’t function anymore, created the worst possible nationalism with war, suppression, religious and racial hatred. I see no end to all of that. What each of us can do morally is to act decently and refuse to believe in crazy ideologies.

Given that, you can understand that I have distanced myself from the avant-garde, the artistic directions that were derived from Marcel Duchamp: Cage, the ‘happenings’ at the end of the 1950s, political theatre, and Fluxus in the 1960s. Danish cultural life was also influenced to a great extent by these important movements. Cage’s importance cannot be overestimated, the anarchic concept of art where everything is allowed, and everything is possible, was a great liberation. But it was only possible for a short period; these ideas were quickly used up. For me the concept of the avant-garde as an ideology, a utopia, a project, is old-fashioned after all; it is too academic. When I hear composers today who compose as they did in Darmstadt 30 years ago, I say to myself: ‘Well but the world has completely changed since then!’ On the other hand, the kitschy world that we have spoken about – fashion design in rose, purple and turquoise from Milan, hi-tech advertising on glossy paper, postmodern architecture – is just about unbearable. I detest it; it’s false, lies, a façade, bad theatre.

When everything is said and done, the direction that the French call retro, this postmodern glance backward, is false and kitsch. On the other hand, the avant-garde has become professorial. But between these extremes there are so many new possibilities.

When one listens to your work one can hardly avoid noticing the humour. Alongside an unusual self-critical and serious attitude, humour has a strong presence in your musical universe. I’m thinking for example of the lecture ‘The Future of Music’ or the metronome piece, passages in the opera Le Grand Macabre, or parts of the Aventures pieces. In the archives of Danish Radio there is a TV broadcast from the beginning of the 1960s where you pedagogically draw on a board at the same time as your electronic piece, Articulation, is being played. It is highly humorous, but the humour slides imperceptibly into seriousness. The metronome piece is more than a provocation; it is incredibly refined, a many-layered polyphonic creation. As I see it, it becomes human and accessible. It is as if your music often says: ‘This piece is not what it pretends to be on the surface’. Can you explain this?

I have never heard anyone sum it up as beautifully as you have in your question. I cannot add anything: I don’t compose consciously. I cannot talk about my intentions with respect the humour, seriousness, depth and irony in my music. I can only write music. I agree with you and can only be happy that you have formulated it in this way.

As for extreme exaggeration as a means of expression: painters and authors like Breughel, Bosch, Jarry, Vian, Kafka, have all fascinated you and inspired your art. Does your fascination with these artists lie in their representation of something unreal, as though these extremes turn into their opposites and express something generally human?

Yes, I believe so, but I wouldn’t call it unreal. For example, in Kafka and Bosch you have people or objects from real life. They are presented in a dream-like context. And often much more concentrated than in everyday reality. For that reason, I feel a strong affinity with these painters and writers – and with many others, for instance, Cézanne and Goya. The latter’s series of copper etchings, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War, ca. 1819, ed.), contains the most unbelievable criticism of military war crimes.

I should mention Sándor Weöres from Hungary. He was a kind of Mozart of Hungarian poetry; with an unbelievable lightness and virtuosity, he uses understatement to express very deep thoughts about life. He was a writer who opposed ‘importance’. In Az undor angyala (The Angel of Nausea) he says, ‘Don’t be pompous’. This has become a kind of motto for me: to work against arrogance and pretence.

In Skandinavia we have had the chance to hear the first nine Etudes for Piano, the Violin Concerto and the Piano Concerto. From your pen has also come Nonsense Madrigals, and Irvine Arditti talks about new string quartets from you and Stockhausen. How does your compositional landscape look right now? You have already spoken about microtonality. What are the current problems for you since the beginning of the 1990s?

So far (till 1999) I wrote 17 piano studies. I finished a Horn concerto. Currently I work on a song cycle (poetry by Sándor Weöres in Hungarian) with percussion accompaniment. When these works are finished I want to devote myself to an old dream, a theatrical fantasy: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass. This work will take 2-3 years. After that, I have promised the Arditti String Quartet a new quartet.

Do you mean a new opera based on Carroll?

No, it won’t be an opera. The cast will be a small one because the new harmonic possibilities with micro-tonal intervals can only be realized with soloists. Alice shall be played by an actress since no singer would be able to be on stage the whole time. It has to be a young actress who can also sing. The rest will be singers. I will use Carroll’s mathematics, nonsense poems and much more. Lewis Carroll’s world is as close to me as that of Bosch, Breughel and Kafka; all of them look at reality in a completely individual, somewhat “crazy” way. It can’t be an opera, it’ll be a musical or a revue with acrobats and stage machinery. In addition to singers and acrobats, there will be dancers, pantomimes and a little orchestra of 20-25 players, each of whom will be used as soloists.

Between the traditional and modern. The statement is almost a cliché, but it still says something important about your music; it is radical and traditional, it reworks the surviving material into something new. One finds tradition everywhere in your music. Can you describe very concretely how you work with – and possibly also against – tradition in a particular piece? Take for example, one of the Piano Etudes.

Let’s take the Sixth Piano Etude, ‘Autumn in Warsaw’. What is traditional in that piece? It is a fugue. It’s a fugue theme, this lament melody. The theme is partly mirrored and there is stretto. It all depends on the possibility of using the fugal technique of augmentation and diminution. In Bach’s work diminution was 2:1. In Machaut’s work the rations of 3:1, 3:2 and 4:3 are also found, because mensural notation provides the possibility of dividing up the longa, brevis and semibrevis into two or three. This tradition became fashionable and took the form of the hemiola which lasted into the 19th century (a rhythmic pattern in which the on-going accentuation of 2 x 3 in a 6 beat bar shifts to 3 x 2 before shifting back to 2 x 3). We see it often in Chopin’s, Schumann’s, Brahms’s and Debussy’s piano music.

In my piano pieces I have used the hemiola from mensural notation in addition to a similar, but much more complex and ambiguous metrical structure from African music. I want to compare it with the phenomenon that Maurits Escher has called ‘convex/concave’. This generates the puzzle pictures in African music.

African rhythm contains not only the possibility of augmentation and diminution in relationships of 2:1 and 3:2, but also of asymmetrical relationships. I have extended this idea with the relationship up to 11:7 and even to 13:11. I use prime numbers most often so that doubles don’t result: 3, 4, 5, 7, 11, and 13. Now 4 is not a prime number, but I can use it if I don’t use 2, and then I can have the very useful relationships of 4:3, 5:4, 5:3, 7:5, 7:3, 7:4. These are very simple proportions, but not relationships that we can hear. We can figure out triplets against duplets, but septuplets against quintuplets are much harder to hear. Instead, I can produce with these rhythmic relations the illusion of several layers moving simultaneously in different speeds.

It’s possible to talk about several traditions in my piano pieces: mensural notation, African music for xylophone and balaphone, Bach’s fugal technique as a structural means and, pianistically, Chopin’s piano works. Chopin composed piano music so that a pianist feels the melodies and the harmonies with his fingers on the piano keys. His piano movements are set so that the hand’s anatomy ‘fits’ the mechanism of the piano. His inventions are quite tactile. This can be found to a great extent in my works. It’s also found in the music of Schumann and Scarlatti. Acoustical, optical and tactile elements are melted in my music for the virtuoso; it’s music that is rooted in a sensual relationship to the act of performing the music.

It is well-known that you have no message for mankind, that you say ‘no thanks’ to having your music interpreted within a conceptual framework encompassing utopias and ideologies. Is this pessimism à la Beckett? Don’t you believe in progress? Don’t you have a dream or a hope in your best hours? If so, have you ever had the desire to reflect this in your music?

I don’t consciously wish to reflect anything in music. If a message can be interpreted in the music, then it’s fine but I don’t know anything about that. I wish to be a decent person, nothing else, and so I am suspicious about all ideologies and messages. My experiences with horrible political systems like national socialism and communism have taught me to avoid any kind of “great system” and belief.

In response to your question about hope and progress, I’d like to say that I don’t share the Beckett-inspired pessimism. Even though he was a great author, I find his position artificial and mannered. After a while it became a cliché in Germany and western Europe – not in the USA and England – to follow him. It was fashionable to see everything as “tragic”. Terrible things are happening all the time, after all. We can read about it every day in the newspapers. Five hundred years ago, one couldn’t read about it, simply because there were no newspapers. In 1915 part of the nationalist Turkish military killed about one million Armenians; that was the first act of what later became Auschwitz, and Stalin’s mass murder in the Soviet Union. And Mao, and Pol Pot, and so on. At the time, no-one knew that the extermination of the Armenians in Turkey had happened as it wasn’t in the newspapers. Auschwitz, also, was kept a secret. If Hitler had won the war, there would not have been any report of the mass eradication of six million Jews and hundreds of thousands of gypsies.

Hope? Yes – but on a completely different level for I don’t believe in any religion or ideology. However, I believe in the rational sciences, especially natural sciences, and also social sciences – but when and only when it is practiced with intelligence and honour. By that I mean that one has to start with facts, set up a hypothesis, then prove it, or try to falsificate it and only thereafter initiate a provisional theory. This is Popper’s central idea, and I consider it as the soundest “philosophy” of all possible “philosophies”. Ideologies are systems that profess to explain everything. True science will not explain everything, only small parts of the whole. I entertain great hope for science and technology. The average life-span in Japan after the war was 60 years; now it is 79 years. I call that progress.

This conversation with György Ligeti is an edited version of Anders Beyer: ”An Art Without Ideology”, published in: Anders Beyer, ”The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time.” Ashgate Publishing, London 2000.

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