The music of Transylvanian composer György Ligeti was among the most innovative of the second half of the 20th century, with an inventive, personal style that eluded categorization and absorbed elements of all music past and present. An established figure in the European avant-garde, along with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, Ligeti wrote sublime, often eerie music with refinement and humor. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his output emphasized feeling over theory and eclecticism over ideology.
On Wednesday, February 15 and Thursday, February 16, Birdfoot Festival explores the music of György Ligeti with a two-concert mini-festival called Ligeti Split. The concerts conclude Birdfoot’s third Artist Residency, bringing together internationally acclaimed pianist and Birdfoot alum Danny Driver, violinist and Artistic Director Jenna Sherry, and horn player Roy Femenella.
At 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Birdfoot Backstage commences at Dillard University’s Cook Theatre featuring a performance and discussion about Ligeti’s semi-romantic Horn Trio and Études for Piano. At 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, Danny Driver presents a piano recital at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall featuring the rarely-performed Books I & II of Ligeti’s Études paired with Claude Debussy’s Images. Both performances are free and open to the public.
The first concert is a “special edition” of the Birdfoot Backstage event, as it presents a full performance of the Horn Trio and delves into its background and music from a performer’s perspective. Both the Horn Trio and Études are two works by Ligeti following a major turning point in the composer’s career, and the way the back story interweaves with the music is notable.
While not everyone may be familiar with the festival’s namesake, many may be familiar with his music, as it’s featured prominently in the Stanley Kubrick’s films 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. These unearthly-sounding works from earlier in his career make use of dense polyphonic textures, forgoing conventional melody and meter, making them a perfect compliment to Kubrick’s mise-en-scène.
“I find Ligeti fascinating for many reasons, but one is that he changed styles many times in his career,” says Jenna Sherry in a radio interview on Sunday. “The music in those [Kubrick’s films] is really nothing like this music—these Études.”
Indeed, as the 1970s progressed and the avant-garde was becoming increasingly obsolete, Ligeti found himself at a stylistic crossroads.
“The early ‘80s for Ligeti were a very interesting time,” says Jenna. “About four years before that he had finished his huge and incredible and absolutely insane opera Le Grande Macabre. … This took so much energy and was such a huge artistic output that he basically didn’t write much for about four years. Or he didn’t publish anything—he didn’t finish anything. And he said that he kept constantly trying to start things, but he felt a bit stuck.”
Regarding this dilemma, Ligeti once explained, “I am in a prison: one wall is the avant-garde, the other is the past. I want to escape.”
“What does he write next? What is his next musical expression?” Jenna muses. “As I understand it, he was teaching during this period and ended up getting exposed to a lot of music and new things through his students and these were incredibly wide ranging.”
Ligeti ultimately found an escape from this prison by opening himself up to everything musical—absorbing the works of Beethoven and Chopin, the solos of saxophonist Eric Dolphy and pianist Thelonious Monk, the drumming of Central Africa and the Caribbean, to name a few inspirations. His Horn Trio in 1982 and his first book of Études in 1985 reflect these influences and are some of the first pieces to reflect this major change.
“With the Horn Trio,” says horn player Roy Femenella, “for every three influences you spot, there’s about twelve that you missed. There’s just so much incorporated in it.”
“It’s really an incredible mosaic of a piece,” says Jenna.
And according to Roy, New Orleans is the perfect city to perform it.
“There’s such a vast range of cultures and influences that he drew on,” he says. “And this being one of the most multicultural and diverse cities, it seems completely appropriate to do this here.”
Click below to listen to the full 20th Century Classics interview with Jenna Sherry and Roy Femenella, conducted Sunday on WTUL New Orleans.
The “Ligeti Split” mini-festival runs from February 15-16. For more information about the event, visit Birdfoot Festival’s official website.