Monday, October 6, 2008

An Unexpected Ligeti Fix

I really do not like to miss an opportunity to hear a performance of the music of György Ligeti; so, while I was not particularly tempted by tonight's program by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, I was delighted that they arranged one of their Contemporary Insights events devoted entirely to the first work on the program, Ligeti's "Sippal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel," sung by mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger accompanied by four percussionists, none of whom were identified (but I recognized William Winant among them). For those for whom Hungarian is as tongue-twisting as it is for me, all those syllables translate to "With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles."

I have always felt that Ligeti was one of the more accessible of the composers who pursued all manner of experimental approaches to their work in the wake of the Second World War. As I have previously observed, the only time I ever saw Pierre Boulez with a smile on his face was in the presence of Frank Zappa; and, even when his music could be construed as at least slightly playful, Karlheinz Stockhausen always looked deadly serious. The most notable exception to this prevalence of the dour was John Cage, who was never ashamed to write about his "sunny disposition." Fortunately, the trend changed once we got out from under the "tyranny of algorithms" that was occupying many of these experimenters; so there were a lot more sunny dispositions in the final quarter of the twentieth century. In many ways, however, Ligeti led the way in this attitude change, because he always managed to find wit in what he did.

"Sippal, Dobbal, Nádihegedüvel" (thank God for copy-and-paste) is one of his later works (composed in 2000); and the wit begins in the title. As I mentioned, the work is for mezzo and four percussionists; and, while all four of them have to blow into one kind of pipe or another in the course of this fifteen-minute setting of seven Hungarian poems by Sándor Weöres, the closest any of them get to a fiddle comes when one of them strokes a cymbal with a bow! Ligeti is playing with our expectations before we even start to form them; but then Weöres is doing the same with our expectations of poetry, two of which are in nonsense syllables, at least one of which has a folk quality, and most of which boil down to rather simple syllables (which is probably advantageous for any singer unfamiliar with Hungarian). The result is a healthy supply of good-natured fun, whose music tweaks all sorts of conventions, from folk music collected in the field, through composition based more on sonorities than on the usual conventions of counterpoint and harmony, all the way to the Eurovision Song Contest (getting its best ribbing since the days of Monty Python). Yet, as is again almost always the case in Ligeti, there are sublime moments that lie down with the ridiculous as securely as Isaiah's lamb keeps company with the wolf.

Since the work was only fifteen minutes long, the Contemporary Insights audience got to hear it twice, along with a fair amount of explanation, much of which was helpful. Unfortunately, none of that explanation touched on Ligeti's wittier side, which I found quite unfortunate. Music is often most poorly served by those who take it too seriously!

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