Atmosphères, György Ligeti

by tacet

Atmosphères is incredibly sensual music. With his second major orchestral score, having fled the cultural isolation of life behind the iron curtain in 1956, Hungarian composer György Ligeti announced himself as a significant proponent of the European avant-garde. Receiving its premier in October 1961, Atmosphères was originally conceived as an electronic piece but the composer was forced to return to traditional orchestral means after becoming frustrated by the still rudimentary technologies of sound synthesis. In the process he recast the orchestra – seen by many in the post-war avant-garde as an irrelevant, archaic institution – as a site of endless potential for contemporary sonic exploration, assembling huge static clouds of steadily morphing musical textures.

Famed for bestowing Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of modern cinema 2001: A Space Odyssey with that unforgettable aura of glacial grandeur, Atmosphères is so intoxicating and mysterious, as well as synaesthetically visual, that it is ultimately a disservice only to experience it alongside accompanying images – however otherworldly they might be. Devoid of any melodic or harmonic progression, Atmosphères is a kind of atemporal music. Instruments enter almost imperceptibly, rising furtively from the mist before gently receding, and as such there is no concept of beginning or end, only abstracted sounds and textures hanging motionless in time and space.

This radical new musical language was in part facilitated by Ligeti’s recently developed technique of micropolyphony. For much of Atmosphères the instruments of the orchestra are treated individually, following unique, precisely defined paths and coalescing into a shimmering mass of sound from which no single melody can be distinguished. Countless separate musical lines interweave to create a rippling, but homogenous, aural surface minutely detailed and vitalised by the seething activity beneath. The possibility for the micro and macro concerns of a piece of music to be so symbiotically intertwined was one of the major innovations of Ligeti’s music.

On the one hand, Ligeti’s musical language is that of an uncompromising modernist, propelling the listener into uncharted aural territory and challenging accepted conventions of musical expression, and indeed over the course of the second half of the 20th century his was a name synonymous with the European avant-garde. Yet beneath this façade there is a humanism that pervades his entire output; whilst Atmosphères may initially give off a steely air of reticence, every moment of its development is informed by Ligeti’s desire to carry his listeners on a kaleidoscopic auditory journey through alien musical landscapes.

This music is at once both tactile and vague, seductive and esoteric: a mesmerising testament to the intrinsic beauty of sound itself.

Below is a recording of Atmosphères followed by a brief listening guide.

Following the opening static 59-note chord, Ligeti introduces a second massive cluster of notes at 1:39. Whilst the pitch played by each instrument remains the same for the following minute of music, there is an illusion of harmonic progression as various instrumental groups rise and fall in volume; listen in particular for the striking clarity of the harmony in the brass at 2:10. At 4:20 note the extreme contrast in pitch as Ligeti moves from the highest register of the orchestra to the lowest – as if framing the cavernous aural space into which the piece is projected – before introducing a passage of micropolyphony in the strings from 4:37 to 5:23. After a nightmarish transition through a gauntlet of rasping brass, Atmosphères gradually dies away in a translucent haze of brushed piano strings and tentative flurries in the violins.

As one of Ligeti’s better known pieces, Atmosphères has been recorded a number of times; the sadly out of print recording above is directed by Claudio Abbaddo with the Vienna Philharmonic and in lieu of this performance I would recommend Jonathan Nott’s reading with the Berliner Philharmoniker, released as part of Teldec’s excellent Ligeti Project.

To delve further into this era of Ligeti’s creative development, his pieces Lux Aeterna and Lontano would make good starting points. The music of Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi also emphasised subtle shifts in texture over melodic and harmonic development; Ohoi, a shimmering piece for strings, comes highly recommended.

Artwork: Number 1 (Lavender Mist), Jackson Pollock

by Thomas May