06 December 2011

Distance as Illusion in György Ligeti’s Lontano

More than a mere “transitional” work, Lontano represents an arrival as well, at once an extension of and a departure from the music with which György Ligeti made his name. Lontano no less than the now-archetypal Atmosphères could legitimately be described as achieving a static quality, but these are two very different kinds of stasis. In the case of the former, as the title would suggest, distance is the operative principle, and therefore, one might infer, illusion as well. With increasing distance, large objects appear smaller, loud sounds softer, and bright light dimmer; this is the stasis of Lontano, a matter of perspective rather than an inherent quality of the object itself. Indeed, Ligeti’s communication of metaphorical distance through very real music which also stands exceptionally well on its own is masterful; yet in extending the metaphor a bit further, an important feature of this music is that the closer one gets to the object in question, the greater intensity it displays, thereby pointing to the illusion that distance has created before ultimately restoring it.

Ironically given this emphasis on distance, on a technical level, one might say that Lontano puts micropolyphony under a microscope. In the layering of voices, tight intervals, denial of pulse, and use of cannonic succession, one easily recognizes a clear connection to Ligeti’s by this time well-established methodology. Even so, a direct comparison with Atmosphères suggests a conscious move towards higher resolution and the unified application of this decision across all parameters. This much is clear from the most superficial level right down to the smallest details of pitch, rhythm, and orchestration.

In all but its densest moments, Lontano maintains a notable transparency of texture, perhaps the most striking contrast with Atmosphères given what the two pieces have in common. Concerning the wind instruments, Ligeti leans heavily on the more transparent woodwinds and reserves a sparing (and therefore very traditional) role for the brass in the most intense orchestral climaxes and only very occasionally as autonomous contributors to sparser moments. As the pre-eminently transparent instrumental family, the strings are, of course, central to the orchestration here as well, and Ligeti takes full advantage of their unique capabilities. Mirroring the approach to texture and timbre (and, it should be said, in no small part as a direct result of it as well), interval (if not harmony in the broadest sense) and very occasionally melody are granted moments of notable clarity, and thus a crucial and perceptible (if subsidiary) role in this music. One is reminded in spirit, if not in content, of the music of Berg, conceptually rich atonal music moments of which one cannot help calling “pretty.”

The opening thirteen bars or so are remarkable for the uniformity of timbre achieved among instruments from several different families. The tessitura of this section, centered more or less around the pitch Ab4, is ideal for achieving this effect as it places flutes, bassoons, and a lone harmonic-producing cello in ranges which, if not truly “extreme” for those instruments, are nonetheless among the more anonymous and less characteristic. The same could be said of the contrabass and viola entrances in mm. 12 and 13, though by this time the pitch material has become more varied. The brief contributions of three stopped horns (mm. 5-7) and a muted trumpet (mm. 7-8) are the least timbrally anonymous of this passage, though they are minimally disruptive on account of being muted, and add a tasteful, if fleeting, bit of contour and “sizzle” to the texture, perhaps the first hint at the masked intensity of this distant object even as it remains, at this early juncture, still quite far away.

Having established all of that, it is befitting the metaphor of distance (a blurring but not wholly obfuscatory mechanism) that the timbral unification of the orchestra here is palpable without being complete, and that Ligeti obviously intended just this. Though there are many fewer pitches than voices, the first true “doubling” of parts (i.e. two or more instruments playing the same pitches and rhythms for several beats or measures) does not occur until the flute and clarinet sections enter with identical material in m. 14. Until this moment, the severely limited pitch material and independence of line remain somewhat incongruous with each other, as do the meticulous obfuscation of meter through odd subdivisions and the substantial separation of pitch events in real time. The result is something like micropolyphony at rehearsal tempo: the texture suggests stasis yet the rhythmic contour is slightly too deliberate to truly permit it.

To understand the importance of this point, it is useful to remember that Ligeti claimed to have been consciously influenced in his first mature style by a particular psychoacoustic phenomenon which he read about during his early years in the West, namely that humans cannot perceive sounds less than fifty milliseconds apart as discrete events1. It is worth pointing out, then, that Lontano “by the numbers” was obviously cut from a different cloth. Assuming relatively strict adherence to the unambiguously-stated metronome marking of quarter=64, the length of a single beat in real time can be established as roughly 0.9375 seconds; the real-time values of one-third, one-fourth and one-fifth of a beat (0.3125, 0.234375 and 0.1875 seconds respectively) follow from this value, and can be used to obtain the difference in real-time between virtually any two onsets in the opening, where subdivisions of the beat into three, four and five parts predominate. Further, in dividing 0.234375 again by 4, one finds the duration of even 1/16 of a beat not yet smaller than the 50 millisecond threshold. Such it is that Ligeti does not appear to have granted himself the necessary materials to appeal to this device; rather, to create the illusion of stasis rather than true stasis itself, he has put them under a perceptual microscope, where they are still very efficient in ensuring the absence of pulse, but where individual onsets are nonetheless quite perceptible.

By m. 15, the texture is somewhat flatter even though some isolation of instrumental sections persists. The total amount of material (pitch, rhythm and timbre alike) is greater here, and true “doubling” is in play for the first time. In m. 19, there is a realignment of sorts and a further wrinkle: a tutti rest on beat 3 in the flutes and small subsets of violas and cellos (instruments which had not been coordinated in the preceding bars) before these instruments take up the next micropolyphonic canon together. This is the beginning of the end for the middle ground, the ensuing string-dominated texture moving further yet towards density and stasis.

It is owing to the transparency of the opening several bars that the perception of melody becomes a possibility, if one less strongly suggested by the score itself than by its realization in the air. After nearly six bars comprised of a single pitch (Ab4), the first change (to G4 in mm. 6-7) is relatively sudden and complete, occurring in eight voices while leaving only three behind, and occupying barely four beats of time. This is then displaced by a yet more sudden (though less complete) migration towards Bb4 across the final two beats of m. 8. As the pace of change accelerates with the addition of the pitches A4 (mm. 9-10), F#4 (mm. 11-12) and B4 (mm. 12-13), an optimization point is reached; that is, the rate of change of pitch has become just quick enough to legitimize a melodic hearing while the overall texture has not yet become too dense to permit it.

By m. 15, the music is teetering on the edge of upsetting this balance without wholly obliterating it. As such, it is more risky to generalize about how this section might be heard by any given listener than it is with the more extreme textures, but this music is, in any case, among the most striking in the piece, and certainly more so very much because of rather than despite its ambiguity. Here, the cannonic lines are comprised of more total pitch-classes and in substantially closer succession than at any previous point, resulting in a heightening of tension. Parts are truly “doubled” for the first time, specifically between flutes and clarinets in mm. 14-15 and among various like string instruments, two or three of which can rarely be considered “doubling” in an orchestral setting, yet by withholding this technique (or at least its application to moving cannonic lines) until this point, Ligeti is able to use it as a gorgeous change of pace. The effect is a step closer to archetypal micropolyphony, but a small one: timbres have just begun to blur and harmony would be difficult to ascertain, but one could not be faulted for hearing melodies (plural) here, perhaps even counterpoint between earliest and latest statements of the line A-C#-C-C#-D#, initiated in m. 14, b. 4 by two second violins, picked up in earnest by the first violins throughout m. 15, and again by oboes and flutes in m. 16, (with oboes in the higher octave and flutes supporting, nearly inaudibly, below). The line D#-C#-B-G#-A# is treated similarly in mm. 18-21, and, as a descending line, lends the passage a certain amount of resolution after Ligeti had previously “left us hanging” on the high D#.

As ponticello strings continue to take over and then, by m. 29, b. 4 are left entirely on their own, the clarity of the opening is conclusively subsumed. It would be difficult to argue, either in terms of the literal content of the score or of elapsed clock time, that Ligeti has not succeeded here in communicating a gradual process of change, and that this does not serve to further the metaphor of distance. Equally important, though, is what the clarity of much of the opening might say about a nonetheless distant object, namely that it is in fact boiling over with an intensity which distance cannot fully mask.

The next such gradual transition is less gradual (by both standards) as it involves the appearance, propagation and then sudden disintegration of a single pitch-class over less than half the time. This is pitch-class C, first appearing in this capacity simultaneously in piccolo, flute, bassoon and violins in m. 31, and quickly becoming all-pervasive, though not exclusive. Though the winds essentially “join” a string line in progress, their collective force, distinct timbre and statement in rhythmic unison cannot help but create an articulation of structure, even at the severely low dynamic level Ligeti asks for. Predictably, as C becomes more insistent, this repression of dynamics cracks for the first time in the form of crescendi from mezzo-piano (already the loudest dynamic marking to this point) to forte in small groups of strings (first violins in mm. 36-37, second violins in mm. 37-38, and violas and cellos in mm. 38-39). The “boiling over” metaphor is again apt: this is an object which reveals greater agitation the longer it is observed, and is perhaps drawing closer.

The next truly new texture to be introduced begins in m. 41, b. 4, where tuba and a pair of violins are laid bare in their most extreme registers. Such it is that Ligeti continues to walk the line between timbral clarity and obfuscation even with only three instruments playing. Indeed, as contrabassoon (m. 43) and contrabasses (mm. 43, and 46-48) join the fray with similarly extreme low notes, one is reminded that timbre can be as anonymous as pitch in this range. The tessitura then begins to contract ever so slightly. On the high end, groups of violins are added one by one a half-step (m. 47), minor third (m. 48), perfect fourth (m. 49), major third (m. 50), perfect fifth (m. 51) and tritone (m. 53) away from the very highest pair, though these pitches are so high as to more or less defy any melodic or harmonic hearing. The more perceptually obvious relaxation of tessitura happens on the low end, beginning in m. 46, where a gradually ascending bass progression is pieced together (often with overlap) among tuba, contrabass clarinet, various contrabasses and trombones with contrabassoon and a single contrabass anchoring the collection with the original Db1. Like the brass in the opening and the use in the strings of flautando and sul ponticello effects in combination with tremolo from D to E, the contrabass section outburst in m. 51 (Ligeti asks for it to be “like a sudden eruption”) points to the violent intensity that distance has been concealing. The brass are granted their greatest autonomy between G and H, completing this registral contraction.

Perhaps the moment of greatest clarity (though it remains among the most “distant” as well) is the string section entrance the last eighth note before m. 57. The collection consists of every Bb and E from Bb1 to E6 excepting E2, with the top note produced as a harmonic. Here, textural, timbral and polyphonic transparency are all at their height, and stasis (traditionally obtained this time) is near-complete. If the distant object has drawn closer over the preceding several minutes of music, here it most definitely recedes. As the pitch material is gradually diversified and tremolo effects reintroduced after I, density (if still not the most thorough micropolyphonic kind) is, for the first time in Lontano, Ligeti’s modus operandi for an extended period of perceptual and structural time. The strings, befitting their traditional place in the orchestral hierarchy, now carry the load, divided at times into over thirty parts and with most lines doubled somewhere in each instrumental subfamily. Wind sections are initially still treated as units (for example, reeds in m. 65 and horns in m. 73), but by M have splintered nearly proportionately to the strings. At O, a degree of collective behavior is restored, again in the horns and also in the low reeds, prefiguring the striking effect of Q, where the string section, after obliterating the texture for dozens of bars, is silent for seven whole beats and the winds are again featured, treated in a manner strongly reminiscent of the opening. The cascading effect at R is more about range than instrumental family. The strings, having had their moment, are back to being just another group among many, their staggered entrances after R nearly inaudible and their time brief. By m. 106, the contrabasses are left hanging alone, sul ponticello and almost inaudible until another “eruption” begets the next main textural shift. True stasis returns fleetingly in m. 112, marking a major structural division. Rehearsal V is almost the opening in microcosm, and for that matter, under yet further magnification: the various onsets throughout the first three and a half bars are as temporally isolated as nearly any in the score. The sustained string cluster which joins W and X is of no less structural significance than the stasis of m. 112, lending symmetry to this brief interlude and also abruptly bringing it to a close.

The A Tempo in m. 122 also represents a somewhat more “macro” version of micropolyphony, this time as much a matter of the weighting of various lines as of their content. Unlike the opening several bars, where no two parts are precisely rhythmically aligned, here there are only a few distinct parts and each is doubled by several instruments. This has a few important consequences. First, it again makes possible, if only ambiguously, the perception of melody. Though the strings are more or less evenly divided between the three most rhythmically active lines (that is to say between those which would be most readily perceived as melodies) with a few players sustaining longer note values, the distribution is not so even in the winds, with English horn, third bassoon and contrabassoon all playing the same line, and no more than two winds assigned to any of the others. Though for acoustic reasons the English horn, by virtue of being the wind playing in the highest octave, will tend to be heard most readily as the lead melodic voice, the “extra” player here really is the contrabassoon. Ligeti has no two winds performing the same line in the same octave, meaning that giving this line to three voices versus only two for the others is not only a textural weighting but also one of tessitura. (The line does appear in this lowest octave in the strings, but only in one of six divided contrabass parts, a much less substantial voice than Contrabasoon, even at pianissimo). The texture here also serves an important structural role, articulating this moment as something unmistakably new; the distant object is drawing closer yet, soon to arrive at its closest point before receding.

The tremendous orchestral tutti after beat 3 of m. 127 is constructed cannonically from the line G-A-Bb-A-B, an exact inversion of the preceding English horn “melody” (D-C-B-C-Bb). Along with the final emphatic statement of what distance has been concealing, symmetry, it appears, is also gaining importance as the piece wends its way toward conclusion. Discrete structural divisions achieved through variations in orchestral density are also beginning to occur more rapidly. At AA, the high D# in the strings brings the listener as close as one would ever want to get to whatever metaphorical object or idea might have previously been hiding across all that distance. Then, at BB, a truly striking unity of purpose is articulated in the flute section, a unison ascending half-step clearly orchestrated to the fore and impossible to hear otherwise, and followed by numerous ascending and descending echoes to the end, the most unambiguously melodic content in the piece, albeit the most economic as well.

Though perhaps destined to be viewed by mainstream observers as an avant-garde work, Lontano really is, in the context of Ligeti’s own work and that of his contemporaries, a piece which thrives where so many others fail, namely on the middle ground. It is music which paradoxically appears clearest at its most distant and denser at it draws closer. The point here of doubling, for example, a sustained woodwind pitch with tremolo sul ponticello violin on the very same pitch is quite different than in archetypal micropolyphony; it is not to create a truly flat surface, but to carve out mere low relief, a masterstroke given the seemingly intractable challenge of musically portraying intensity at a distance. Similarly, rather than using the brute force micropolyphony of Atmosphères to mask timbre entirely, Ligeti masks the masking, so to speak, by constantly inhabiting an ideally ambiguous space between timbral clarity and obfuscation, a sophisticated and ingenious sonic analog to the effect of distance on visual phenomena. As far as this “transitional” work is concerned, the journey is of at least equal importance to the destination.

1. Griffiths, Paul. Györgi Ligeti. London: Robson 1983. 26.

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