György Ligeti’s Études as Ethos

By Adolf Alzuphar

Friday, October 13, 2023

A  musician’s fascination with another musician’s work is a quest for self. Music, at its best, is another word for ontology, and a musician studies another’s to say “this is,” and that “I am.” Han Chen’s fascination with György Ligeti’’s work—music that Ligeti composed as a Hungarian Jew who narrowly escaped death in a concentration camp—does just this, delving into what it means to be human. 

In 2021, Han Chen was preparing for his album on Ligeti’s Études, LIGETI Études Capriccios, released on NAXOS in May of this year. It was COVID-19 lockdowns in New York, and the city’s social life was at a standstill.

Ligeti’s work is particularly concerned with dreaming amidst tragedy. Bothered by the fact that Chen was not interacting with other composers, he shared his anxieties with fellow composer and friend Nina C. Young who offered that perhaps he should commission explorations of what he was practicing. 

Excited by the idea, Chen did just that. He was practicing 10 of Ligeti’s Études at the time, and so he decided to commission 18 of his friends and their recommendations to explore these 18 Études.

How does one pick 18 musicians to commission? Is that not extending one’s self to eighteen conversations, 18 frameworks for both understanding and misunderstanding? A network of 18, each person composing with the freedom to compose to the music of their truths. 

A rainbow of 18 colors, if there is ever to be one. Chen wanted a wide range of musical styles and was fine with a composer going with or against the Étude. Chen was also fine for the composer not to explore the Étude in the end. The pieces came in, some bringing new ideas to Ligeti’s work, and others staying close to Ligeti’s intent. 

Chen split these into six distinct sets.  Chen calls this “a bigger narrative”. What if Gustav Mahler had ever done the same for Wolfgang A. Mozart’s music in Vienna? If Heitor Villa-Lobos had done the same in Brazil for Andrés Segovia’s music? What would it tell us about the times they lived in, the people that meant something to them? Would we not be able to listen to not only music but also life itself? What Bhuddists refer to as pratityasamutpada or co-arising; the sound of a city’s musicians busy living, befriending each other, and making music together.

Connection, Chen believes, is the future of what we consider to be “classical music.” In the way that Chen was able to connect with friends and collaborators around Ligeti, Chen believes that surviving the future, and unpredictability in general, is the mission of music. For classical music to help others do this, connections must be made and felt between those who make music, and those who engage with the music composed or performed. 

Sounding different, Chen says, is the surface of the music, but much of the language of classical music is similar. For example, ascending and descending staircases, and immersive atmospheres, are the languages with which one connects with others, but there should not be an absolute idea of what music is. Its diversity should be embraced. Freedom in common language is what Chen sought in these 18 commissions, as if to blossom the future of music. 

Ligeti is understood to be a high modernist, but Chen loves his simplicity. According to Chen, Ligeti takes foundational ideas and explores them to the point where you no longer recognize them. As humans, Chen believes, we should strive to learn from Ligeti’s compositions. We should not make things too complicated and should communicate through core ideas. 

The beauty in the journey is heard in the structure Ligeti builds around these core ideas, the colors, tones, and timbres “dazzle” Chen. The visceral aspect of this journey floor him. The composers he chose also sought to be as visceral, though it is not music that is easy to play. Onions and their many layers are also visceral, Chen notes, as an example to ground Ligeti’s music in. 

Music is made special not only by the person composing or performing this music but also by the place and time of the music. Ligeti composed around the Second World War and immediately after, a time of immense tragedy and complexity. Chen was first enamored with these “aspects of human life worth experiencing” that one hears in Ligeti’s pieces in Hong Kong as a middle school student. There Chen first played Ligeti, and Ligeti’s music has jumped out at him periodically since. 

These days, Ligeti reminds Chen of being a very young idealist. As his idea of how music can affect the world changes, Ligeti continues with him, through life and its shadows, sun and rain, pleasure and pain, a companion in the long years wherein we come to know and live what it means to be human.

About Adolf Alzuphar

Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic. He also contributes to The Brooklyn Rail and to the LA Review of Books.