györgi ligeti's aventures

ode to the discrepancy between word and deed

Ever since - some forty years ago - I heard them for the first time, they have had me in their grip: Ligeti’s Aventures. And they have not lost that grip after all these years. Quite the contrary. The same goes for two other works from 1962: ‘Atmosphères’ and ‘Volumina’. In this essay, however, I confine myself to the unparalleled ‘Aventures’, in my view – perhaps apart from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck – the only great, though negative ‘opera’ of the twentieth century. For, even though the work – in the best tradition of Webern’s ‘Bagatelles’ – lasts for a mere eleven minutes, there is a great deal to say about it. Not least because it is governed by the discrepancy between word and deed.

To begin with, there is geti’s intention to create an imaginary language.

When a composer wants to write for voices, he faces the problem that voices cannot sing unless they articulate words. Words are borrowed from a text to which the composer has to subordinate himself. If he wants music to speak for itself, he obviously can resort to speechless instruments. But when he cannot refrain from writing for voices – after all, voices are the primeval instruments – and when he wants those voices to speak for themselves at that, he inexorably has to neutralise the text some way or a another. There are lots of possibilities. The early polyphonists used to reduce the text to a mere filler. When it turned out to be too short in relation to the melody, it was adapted by singing several notes on one and the same vowel. Also the tempo of speech was not always respected: it often was thoroughly slowed down (cantus firmus). To the effect that language was robbed of its meaning and reduced to pure sound. Another method is to choose a random vowel or syllable and to simply repeat it: as with the syllables ‘do re mi fa sol la si’ used for singing notes, the ‘lalalala’ used when one has forgotten the text, not to mention the inventive improvisations of jazz-singers.

Not otherwise does Ligeti proceed in his ‘Aventures’. He wants to write for voices without having to subordinate himself to a pre-existing text. By his own account, he attempts to create a text in an imaginary language. He therefore lets the words fall apart in isolated syllables such as ‘ku’, ‘pi’, ‘khè’, ‘poe’, ‘tha’, ‘tho’ in measure 24*. Sometimes those isolated syllables are joined to new ‘words’ such as ‘tu-hai’ or ‘kitupa’, equally in measure 24, as did Schwitters in his ‘Ursonate’. But elsewhere Ligeti goes even further: he lets the syllables fall apart in separate vowels or consonants. Also these may be joined to sequences of vowels, such as ‘uu-oo-aa’ (measures 4, 28, 48, 93), or of consonants, such as 'tschthsdcfddj' (measure 20-23 ‘stage whisper’) or 's-z-zj-sch' and 'f-v' (measure 44). And every reminiscence of words is entirely lost when Ligeti lets a sequence of vowels change in a sequence of consonants pronounced with the mouth closed (varying around the ‘m’), whereby the vibrato is gradually transformed in a babbling movement of tongue, lips and cheeks’ (‘Plappern’) (measure 65 to 89). In these cases, a linguistic logic is transformed into a purely musical one: the need to exploit all the possibilities of the voice. Instruments cannot ‘pronounce’ different ‘vowels’ and from the ‘consonants’ only always the same. Voices have no such shortcoming: they can produce a real ‘Klangfarbenmelodie’ on their own – which induced Berio to make the trombone ‘speak’ nevertheless by manipulating the sourdine, ‘singing in’ and so on.

Also from the normal tempo of speech does Ligeti deviate, not only by immoderately stretching it, as in the ‘nuhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidha’ in measure 47, but also by excessively speeding it up, to the extent that one wonders how the singers succeed in pronouncing it altogether. Thus, in measure 47, the ‘Olympic runner’ has to pronounce PEtomopodonorobolotodorobomono DEpamabla CIdurulumupumuTHODJ (see excerpt above) in top speed, and ‘articulate’ at that! Although Ligeti hesitatingly adds: ‘not at the expense of speed’...

It remains to be seen, then, whether Ligeti is really out at creating an - although imaginary - language. Since not only does he reduce language to what is music in it - its sonorous body - he also spares himself the detour through language by introducing plain non-verbal elements: pure auditory expressions. Also these are not absent in classical music: just think of the countless interjections such as ‘Oh!’, ‘Oh weh!’, ‘Ah!, ‘Oimè!’ – or of the more contemporaneous ‘Yeah! Yeah!’. The fact that these are noted down with letters, like words, nearly conceals the fact that we have crossed the boundaries of language. All the more so, since we are not dealing here with more or less standardised insertions in a text, but with a extended range of non-verbal expressions. Some of them can still pass for words in that they are noted down with letters: the ‘h-h-h’ (panting) in measure 1, the ‘hmmm’ in measure 8, the ‘bèèèh’ and ‘psst’ in measure 92 and the ‘ahaa!’ in measure 98. But others are just indicated with their name: ‘laughing’ in measure 6, ‘babble’ in measure 90. And just like vowels and consonants, also these purely auditory expressions are joined to entire sequences, like in the continuum ‘Räusperen, Lachen, Weinen, Ächzen, Stöhnen en Röcheln’ in measure 12-14. Also the already mentioned ‘stage whisper’ (noted down as a sequence of consonants) belongs here. Since, even when it is words that are whispered, these only become a whisper when they are no longer understandable and hence are transformed in a purely auditory phenomenon.

And as if that did not suffice, with Ligeti - just like with Schwitters - the auditory expressions are joined with what we call ‘kinetic stimuli’: the various sounds with which man uses to endorse his movements – think of Japanese fighting. In traditional music we have Papageno’s ‘Heisa, heisa, hopsasa!’ and Brünnhilders ‘Heiatoho!’. Their counterparts in Ligeti are the threatening gesture endorsed with ‘vvvvè’ in measure 6 or the mechanical - ‘clockwork-like’ - movements of the singers in measure 45 which are articulated with ‘tit’ ‘cit’ ‘kit’.

The last ties with languages are, finally, severed when Ligeti introduces real sounds, such as the explosion of a paper bag.


Ligeti, then, does not so much create an imaginary language. He rather dismantles language as such and finally disposes of it altogether. And Ligeti’s rage does not stop short of language. In his endeavour to free music from the fetters of language, Ligeti seems to want to get rid of music itself. For all the above-mentioned sounds are no longer sung on the tones of a melody and are no longer embedded in a harmonic accompaniment nor woven into a polyphonic fabric. At first sight, it seems impossible to tell those sounds from natural sounds as they can be heard in the real world.

It would be deceiving, though, to understand this metamorphosis, in the vein of Rousseau, as a return to a supposed primeval state when language was hardly discernable from music. Or, to state it in ontogenetical rather than phylogenetical terms: as a regression of language and music to the source whence they originated in individual life: the primeval scream, weeping.

For all that sounds is not music. Auditory expressions and ‘kinetic stimuli’ are real phenomena: they belong to the auditory appearance of man, just like a face to his visual appearance. And just like visual reality, also auditory reality can by conjured up. For there is also something like auditory mimesis: as when the actress imitates Desdemona’s dying scream or the singer don Giovanni’s cry of terror when he is driven in hell.

But, as is immediately apparent from these examples: not every auditory imitation is music. To become music, it must fit the pattern of fixed tones and the concomitant tonality, and submit to the regularity of metre, which transforms the sequence of impulses into rhythm. Such was already the fate of Vivaldi’s murmuring brook or Beethoven’s cuckoo, not to mention human speech elevated to singing in the opera. If it cannot put up with such transformation, it remains what it has always been: pure auditory imitation, just like the recording of a bird or the dialogue of the actors, the auditory counterparts of the visual imitation of a bird on a painting or a character on the scene. We thereby do not leave the realm of art. Ordinary auditory imitation can conjure up not only existing reality, such as dialogue and the sounds of nature, but also the most divergent imaginary worlds. That is amply demonstrated by a lot of ‘electronic music’, which, in the decennium preceding the creation of ‘Aventures’, began to reclaim this new mimetic domain. But, for a good understanding of the true nature of ‘Aventures’ – or of the development of music and audible art in general – it is important to tell ordinary from musical auditory mimesis.

Because the point is precisely that the very characteristics that elevate ordinary auditory mimesis to music are borrowed from what is sound in language! When speaking, we use tones with a fixed pitch pertaining to a scale in a specific mode. And because of their diverging duration and weight, the syllables of the words generate rhythm and metre. Auditory expressions, on the other hand, have no fixed pitch: they freely glide through musical space. And - apart form laughing and panting - they are not rhythmically articulated: that applies only to words. Only when subordinated to language is the gliding of sound replaced with a movement between fixed pitches and only through joining syllables to words is generated articulation and hence rhythm and metre. That is how auditory mimesis usurps the magic that binds the ear to speech. Music even enhances that magic by replacing the gliding between fixed pitches with sustained pitch and metre with regular measure. Only thus do the hysterical yells of a angry woman develop into the coloraturas of Mozart’s Queen of the Night. And that transformation not only concerns auditory expressions, but speech itself: when music stages speaking beings, they are transformed into the divine beings Rousseau imagined in primeval times. Even though, in fact, these are nothing more than the imaginary beings that saw the light of day through music.

But music also borrows elsewhere. Whereas it takes its hypnotising spell from language, it takes its contagiousness from the power of kinetic stimuli to provoke and synchronise movement (Bühler). And that is all the more easy when repetition is predictable, as with the articulation of words, but foremost with marching, trashing or rowing. Whence measure. Which, once adopted through music, also facilitates the coordination of singing.

As it happens, the very characteristics that transform ordinary auditory mimesis into music have been corroded during the twentieth century. With atonality and dodecaphony, first the magic of tonality is broken, then the sympathetic-synchronising power of measure, until finally only isolated tones in an unarticulated time are to be heard in serial music, which no longer makes use of a measure that can be felt, but merely of a ‘notational measure’. And also this development goes hand in hand - although timidly and merely occasionally - with a relapse of singing on a fixed and sustained pitch into speech gliding between pitches: think of the ‘Sprechstimme’ in Schönberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’. In this sense, Ligeti’s ‘Aventures’ are the accomplishment of this trend. In the tradition of Stravinsky, the elimination of language in music is far less dramatic. Here, it manifests itself above all in the increasing importance of what music owes to the ‘kinetic stimuli’: the unleashing of pure rhythm in ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’.

AgAgainst this background it becomes apparent that Ligeti’s unwillingness to submit himself to the demands of language is only a façade, hiding a far more deeper unwillingness that is not perceived as such: the unwillingness to further dwell in the realm of music. Or to call a spade a spade: the unease in music.


The unease in music should not be mistaken for the anti-mimetic élan that has wreaked havoc in the plastic arts by now for some hundred and fifty years. Already the title of ‘Aventures’ should prevent us from doing so, not to mention the titles of the two other masterpieces Ligeti wrote in 1962: ‘Atmosphères’ and ‘Volumina’. Nobody will doubt that in Aventures Ligeti conjures up an entire world through sound.

Even though we still are moving within the confines of art, by giving up sustained pitch and metre it seems as if we have left the realm of music. geti unknowingly seems to admit this when he calls his ‘Aventures’ a ‘mimodrama’. from way back, theatre has been the natural habitat of non-musical auditory mimesis: its constituting element is dialogue, pure auditory mimesis of dialoguing dramatis personae, and also behind the scene there is ample use of auditory mimesis of a whole array of sounds: from thunder with metal plates, through wind with silk, to horse’s hooves with coconuts. No doubt, theatre is more than mere auditory mimesis: the actors are moving in the visual dimension as well. Also in ‘Aventures’, the musicians are supposed to endorse their auditory acting with a whole array of facial expressions, gestures, postures and even full-fledged actions.

No opera, then, but speechless ‘mimodrama’ without music. But it would be misleading to simply reduce Ligeti’s ‘Aventures’ to speechless theatre. Even when screams like ‘vvvè’ are accompanied by a threatening gesture, they could as well do without, and then merely conjure up the concomitant movement. Whoever merely listens to ‘Aventures’, misses the visual aspect of the drama, but precisely therefore might imagine the evoked movements more accurately then when they are actually performed through the singers/actors. What is more: in passages like the great solo for the baritone in measures 47-48, the gestures of the body have become movements of the voice, to the extent that we cannot possibly conceive how they could be adequately performed by an actor. Here, auditory mimesis has swallowed visual mimesis. The acting of Ligeti’s musicians comes to resemble the sporadic and incoherent expressions and gestures of the singer of a song, rather than the full-fledged acting of an actor on the scene. Which also manifests itself in the fact that Ligeti relegates the task of performing to actors on the scene, whereas the singers are hidden behind the scene.

In addition, the mere fact that it is the voice that is 'gesticulating' and not the body, should remind us that we have somewhat overshot the mark by asserting that in ‘Aventures’ music threatens to be dismantled to pure auditory mimesis: however unwillingly, the sounds continue to move between the fixed pitches of the scale. To be more precise: some of them are meticulously noted down with notes (such as the laugh in measure 7), others with crosses and blocks (such as the ‘desonorised coughing’ in measure 7), still others have been replaced with linguistic signs (such as the question marks in the final solo – see the example above – referring to the gliding intonation of a question). It should be granted, however, that they thereby seem not so much to be elevated to the level of music. Rather do they seem to cling with their fingers on the fringe of the rock while threatening to fall in the abyss. And their anchoring in music is further enhanced by the fact that they seldom stand on their own: thus, the laughter in measure 7 seems to burst out of the long sustained tone played by the instruments. Such a thing can never be heard in the real world. But it is a magnificent evocation of the – in our case repressed – tension that is building up before being released in the laugh. It cannot fail to remind us of the final scene in Mozart’s don Giovanni, where the slowly built up tension is released in an awful scream: in both cases the unbroken expression breaks through the fetters of music – a time-honoured mimetic trick.

And the certain impression that we are still dealing with music is, finally, only enhanced through the intervention of instruments. They are the real anchors that prevent Aventures from drifting away to the waters of pure auditory mimesis. Strange enough, since precisely in the beginning of those same sixties when ‘Aventures’ saw the light of day, the avant-garde was trying out various new ways of playing, whereby every conceivable sound was got out of instruments that were deliberately not designed for it: think only of Ligeti’s own ‘Volumina’ for organ and the already mentioned ‘Sequenza’s’ by Berio. In sharp contrast with the freely experimenting voices, in Ligeti’s ‘Aventures’ the instruments are producing rather familiar sounds. Only sporadically do they walk more adventurous paths – as in the impressive passage in measure 98 where the players have to rub their instruments with paper or their fingernails. Such reversal is all the more strange since instruments are after all designed to idealise the human voice – that is why their whole make-up is focused at producing articulated sounds on a fixed pitch. While their forebears relapse in a pre-musical world of natural sound, their descendants continue testifying to what has been lost – they are the rock on which the suicidal voices are trying to cling. Thus, the rather conservative instruments are the counterparts to the through their regression revolutionary voices.

Here as elsewhere the eminent mimetic instinct of Ligeti’s saves him from ending up in a blind alley.


Thus, while Ligeti aimed at reversing the traditional relationship between language and music through trying to coaxe language out of the sound of music, he threatens not only to free music from language as such, but also to rob it from all that is language in music itself.

There are more discrepancies between intention and deed in ‘Aventures’. Take the ‘scale of emotions’ that Ligeti lies at the base of his work. Already in Schönberg’s dodecaphony (twelve-tone music) all the twelve tones of the chromatic scale were organised in a fixed sequence: the ‘series’. In ‘serial music’ this ‘serial principle’ was so extended as to encompass other dimensions - other ‘parameters’ - of music: not only rhythm, dynamics and timbre, but also space and so on. In ‘Aventures’, Ligeti adopts this procedure, although he no longer focuses on pitch, rhythm, timbre and dynamics but on ‘expressions’. He proposes a spectrum of ‘groups of expressive characters’ as follows: the first "group" comprises expressions of irony, mockery, derision, abnegation; the second embodies melancholy, glum, sad, depressive characteristics; the third consists of mirthful, humorous, joking expressions; the fourth is erotic, full of desire but also of aggression, linked with frustrated desire; and the fifth makes use of fear, the ghost-like, the mesmerizing.
What first catches the eye is that the flag does not cover the cargo: not all the expressions in Aventures fit in the scale. Where, for example, shall we place that masterly outburst of the baritone in measure 47-48? It is the caricature of a wildly gesticulating patriarch – we cannot help to be reminded of the meanwhile famous chimps that are trying to demonstrate their dominance. At best we could categorise it in a combination of two ‘expressive groups’: ‘irony’ and ‘agression’.

And that reminds us of a second shortcoming of Ligeti’s scale: it has no inherent logic. Not only are opposing emotions such as ‘eroticism’ and ‘agression’ subsumed under one and the same category, other poles have to manage without their opposite. Thus we would expect a group of ‘manic characters’ as a counterpart to the ‘caractères dépressifs’. But there are none. Unless we understand the group ‘irony, mockery, derision, abnegation' as such. But why, then, not include the third group 'mirthful, humorous, joking expressions' as well?

And the second shortcoming lays bare a third one: the scale is eminently incomplete. A superficial listening to the work immediately reveals that not the whole spectrum of human ‘expressions’ is covered. Of the broad array of feelings expressing love, we only get ‘erotic’ sounds such as giggling, heavy breathing and voluptuous moaning. And – in view of the magnificent bloom of love in classical music – that is surely rather meagre.

Behind the all-encompassing order suggested by the serial procedure goes hidden the complete opposite of it: sheer arbitrariness. Or rather: a remarkable one-sidedness. It is as if one would let a pure tonal melody pass for of a twelve-tone series. Obviously, Ligeti did not submit to a serial logic. Rather was he led by its complete opposite: mimetic logic. He is out at evoking a specific world, and in that world there is no room for the whole array of expressions, let alone for a succession totally determined by a serial principle.


Suppose we so extend the spectrum that it comes to encompass the whole array of emotions. It would immediately become apparent that it cannot become complete as long as we restrict ourselves to pure auditory expressions. To begin with, the purely auditory expressions of love are rather limited: the sound of a kiss, ‘mmm’, panting and the screams of the orgasm, and that’s it. Already broader is the spectrum of verbal expressions: lovers address each other with short, gently whispered phrases, and they love to echo each other. But only in singing is fully unfolded the whole array of loving feelings – as the old Darwinist philosophers of art, who regarded the calls of rutting animals as the primeval song, already knew. In the song, the verbal expression of love is not only elevated and brought to full bloom through extending echoing with singing together, it is also enriched because only music knows to convey all the tenderness and passion that real lovers express through facial expressions, gestures and postures. Further, in contrast with love, which is rather inaudible by nature, aggression and dominance are rather noisy affairs, which hence would tend to be over-represented in a scale of pure auditory expressions. But also here it applies that anger and rage do not so much express themselves in yelling, stamping, kicking and throwing, as in the way of speaking. And it is only music that succeeds in elevating and enriching those expressions by equally evoking the concomitant facial expressions, gestures and postures through sound: think only of the impressive tones with which Mozart’s Commendatore drives don Giovanni into hell. For the mystery is precisely that those sustained tones are conjuring up the imposing posture of an impressive appearance: such a posture is not precisely audible in the real world! It is, on the contrary, rather its motionless silence that petrifies us. This is music at its best: it is able to conjure up not only movement, but also motionless standstill through – non-moving – sound.

Thus, the spectrum of emotion cannot become complete unless it comes to encompass also verbal, but foremost musical expressions. The reverse is equally true: when we take the spectrum of emotions as a point of departure, it immediately becomes apparent that ‘Aventures’ does not encompass the whole spectrum of auditory expressions. We miss the battle cry, the alarm, the crying for help, the yelling in panic, the burst of anger and above all the primeval scream: weeping.

A veritable ‘scale of the emotions’, then, would consist of a progression from the most elementary expressions to their musically most unfolded forms. And on a second axis would figure the whole array of emotions. Only on such a chessboard of combined parameters could be properly played a genuine serial game.

Such double shortcoming of Ligeti’s ‘scale of emotions’ is not only inspired by mimetic considerations. It uncovers the deeper resistance that lies at the roots of the unease in music, that in its turns lies at the roots of the unease in language. The unease in music itself has its roots in the unease in love in all its forms: the taboo on music is merely the expression of an underlying taboo on love – not otherwise than the mimetic taboo (see: ‘The erotic eye’, in preparation).


Out of these elements Ligeti builds a ‘serial’ structure, in which the various emotions are polyphonically interwoven. No opera, hence, with a linear story divided in separate numbers, but a sequence of various combinations of emotions determined by a serial logic. Also here ‘language’ in the sense of a ‘story’ is refused. We spare the reader the trouble to further analyse this structure. For we stumble here on another discrepancy between intention and deed. The disconcerting simplicity of Ligeti’s construction is rather a farewell – if not a parody on – the serial procedure, than an extension to the new parameter of emotions.

For everything seems to indicate that Ligeti’s ‘serial logic’ has been no more than an occasion, if not an alibi to unabashedly set foot on the mimetic domain that came into view through serial music. To understand this, we have to look through the trees of the structural to see the wood of what is conjured up through it – no differently than Ligeti, who used to point out that serial music sounds otherwise than it was thought out.

Let us, then, in his very own ‘Aventures’ listen to what there is to be heard with the naked ear. The work falls apart in nine episodes**, often neatly separated by full measures of rest. Five of them (I,II,III,VI,VII) are introduced by long sustained tones, as if it were the strophes of a song. Every episode is centred around the appearance of a kind of ‘supervisor’. His presence is intimated through a sustained, threatening tone, which is only absent in episode IV, VIII and IX. That threatening tone is not the announcement of the impressive appearance of a respectable figure such as Mozart’s Commendatore calling don Giovanni to account. Rather is it the prelude to the indecent, if not obscene sounds with which the ‘supervisor’ indicates that he is stirring himself: measure 6 in episode I and measure 11in episode II. When also the subordinates are stirring themselves ever more audaciously, the supervisor bursts out in an ostentative display of power: the heated oration in 47-48 and the loud slams in 50 and 57 of episode V, the catching ‘Ahaa!’ in measure 58 of episode VII. Until he is somewhat reassured and retires in the swelling threatening tone in measures 105-107 of episode VII. To finally become silent in episodes VIII and IX.

The sustained tone – just like the motives creeping around the sustained tone of the Commendatore in the finale scene of Mozart’s don Giovanni – is equally the expression of the way in which the terrorised subordinates are shirking out of fear for the supervisor’s all-seeing eye that is resting upon them. But when the ‘supervisor’ happens to turn his back, or to content himself with producing obscene sounds, the subordinates seize their chance to indulge in some forbidden activity. According to the horny laughter and the consequent giggling of the girls, the greedy panting in episode I is released in some transgression or other. To judge from the sounds in measure 15 and 16, the ‘subordinates’ have done something that makes them disperse. In episode III they seem to seize their opportunity without catching the supervisor’s eye: they hastily whisper or eagerly proceed to action, scattering now and then, until the threatening presence of the ‘supervisor’ makes them calm down. But in IV there is no stopping them any longer. They lash out at one another. Which provokes the heated oration of the supervisor. Whereupon they burst out again and are called to order by the ‘supervisor’ wreaking havoc. So that they behave well again and eventually sink in the hypnosis of terror. In VI they renew their provocations of the ‘supervisor’, but, after some self-restricting admonitions, they subdue to terror again. When they seem to plan another forbidden undertaking in VII, the ‘supervisor’, only pretending to look the other way, catches them red-handed. On his ‘Ahaaa!’ the sinners are paralysed into veritable musical pillars of salt in episode VII: by their loudly immobility they are trying to outdo each other in proving that they have done nothing wrong! In VIII they clash with each other. Whereupon the ‘supervisor’ reaps the fruits of his ‘divide and conquer’ in episode IX.

All this cannot fail to remind of the proceedings in boarding schools, classes, play-grounds, work-floors, offices, barracks, not to mention all kinds of hierarchies. Or also: of a troop of baboons where the alpha-males are anxiously trying to defend their dominant position. Or more striking still: of Freud’s primeval father trying to monopolise all the women in the horde, facing the constant attack of the excluded sons trying to make a deal behind his back, until the primeval father ‘chases, castrates or kills’ them. Also herein do Ligeti’s Aventures have something in common with Mozart’s don Giovanni, where throughout the whole opera the scoundrel is trying to escape the growing horde of deceived husbands, to finally be called to account by the Commendatore - even when there is worlds apart between the struggle of the champion of monogamy and the sympathetic libertine on the one hand, and the terror of an obscene power-mad person against a revolting mob, that, as a way of resistance, only knows to bring forth the grimace of pure transgression.

The nearly strophic structure of Aventures, then, is not only a parody on serial composition. The ‘serial’ unpredictability - and here again Ligeti’s eminent musical-mimetic instinct is popping up – is transformed into the striking rendering of the way in which life under terror is structured. In a world where everything has to be done in the dark and where behind every corner lurks betrayal – Ligeti was born in 1923, is a Jew and a Hungarian… - there is no place for any organic flow. Thus, unpredictability becomes the red thread that binds all the strophes internally and among themselves.

Ligeti’s reinterpretation of formal procedures is all the more masterly because there is a perfect match between the world conjured up and the means used. No better way to render the breakthrough of the repressed than to let the auditory expressions in which it is embodied break loose from the order of language and music. And no better way to render the chaos unleashed through the terror of the primeval father than to parody the terror of serial over-structuring and to let it loose on a material that thoroughly resists structuring as such. That is why this work could only have been written at the moment when the hegemony of the serial principle was contested from all quarters. By confronting serial music with its true face, Ligeti delivers it a final blow while at the same time laying bare the truth of human relations in our era.


And that brings us to the last contradiction between word and deed. Up to now, we completely passed over the fact that ‘Aventures' is not at all absolute music: there is a libretto written by the master himself. Hence, the above is merely a rendering of the way in which I have been approaching the work for a long time. For, by reason of circumstances beyond my control, only much later could I lay hands on the libretto and still later could I witness a real performance of the piece. That is the fate of most of the music in my collection. For I can only blame the circumstances for the fact that in the case of ‘Aventures’ the transition to the second and third phase took so long. As a matter of fact, I have always to overcome a certain resistance when reading the text to vocal music. And such hesitating develops into straight unwillingness when it comes to assist at a real performance of an opera. For, even though some works – think of madrigals, songs of Schubert, the Tristan – only gain when the text is taken into consideration, as a rule I cannot but experience a confrontation with the visual dimension as a straightforward disenchantment. All too often does the introduction of the visual element spoil the music, because the world conjured up in music is totally different from the world as it appears in the visual dimension. From a musical point of view, the love-duet of Tristan and Isolde is completely convincing. But, on the scene, you have to witness how the poor singers are desperately trying to pretend that they love each other. The problem is related to that of the relation of program-music to its program. The 'Fantasia quasi Sonate' "Après une lecture de Dante" – a work of that other great kindred spirit and fellow countryman of Ligeti’s – may be considered as the continuation of Beethoven’s endeavour to merge the sonata and the sonata-form, as in the ‘Grosse Fuge’. When reading the program, one cannot escape the feeling that the richness of the music has been given a narrowing interpretation: it loses more than it gains.

All these considerations justify a first approach of vocal music as if it were pure music. And that goes especially for Ligeti’s Aventures. For, great was my surprise when I laid eyes upon the libretto! I could not possibly link the scenes described in it with the music, unless I had meticulously transferred the indications from the libretto to the score, measure for measure.

And then it became fully apparent that the libretto - as if it were a greedy polyp - takes control of the music and disturbs its coherence by placing all the elements in a new context. Thus, in the beginning we hear several voices – the whole group of subordinates – heavily pant, but only the baritone appears through a cut in the curtain. Here, there are less actors than suggested in the music. The reverse is true in measure 47-48, where, on the hysterical outcry of the baritone, first a first double and then a second one appears, until they are finally joined by the real baritone. The baritone is split not only simultaneously, but also successively: he lends his voice - as far as it does not merge in the background music as such - successively to a ‘cavalier-poet’, an Olympic runner, a North-Pole traveller with looking glasses and a professor teased by his female pupils. And, finally, the coherence is utterly destroyed in that the libretto introduces lots of events that are merely visible. Think of the Golem in the first place. He does not make any noise, and his movements are nowhere represented in the score: he appears ‘some measures before the end of the scene’ (i.e. before measure 46), silently makes ‘two or three strides’ in measure 50, to finally dissolve in the dark. At best, you could consider the sustained tone as his musical appearance, were it not that it is to be heard throughout the entire mimodrama as the embodiment of the terror of ‘primeval father’, of which the Golem is merely the faint shadow in folk-lore. Is it not rather surprising that the only figure on the scene that could pass for a primeval father has completely detached itself from the very music wherein he has so convincingly been embodied in flesh and blood? And the same goes also for the three sculptures of Laokoon, the series of slides, the steam-engine and the anatomic wax-model. It looks as if Ligeti has attempted to combine an existing musical logic with a superposed visual logic into an encompassing whole. But the visual logic cannot possibly be reconciled with the compelling musical and mimetic logic of this marvellous music. It reminds me of the way in which Stockhausen transformed his 'Kontakte' in 'Originale' (in 1961!)

Hence, rather than with a ‘mise-en-scène’ of music, we are dealing here with a ‘visualising away’ of the music, a veritable ‘mise-hors-musique’. It immediately reminded me of the way in which a dreamer tries to makes his dream more coherent – Freud’s ‘Sekundäre Bearbeitung’. Even though not the transposition of images in words is responsible for the censure here, but the transposition of music in images. And even though, paradoxically enough, the strong ‘narrative’, if not ‘strophic’ character of the music, is translated/censured through the dreamlike, incoherent - ‘surrealistic’ - imagery as we know it from the contemporaneous theatre of Ionesco and Becket. It thus turns out that Ligeti released music from the fetters of language only to subordinate it to a new reign: that of the image.


In ‘Aventures’, Ligeti summons up new mimetic means in view of the disclosure of mimetic domains hitherto left fallow in music. But these new mimetic means are not at all a new ‘musical language’, in which everything can be ‘expressed’. They have only a restricted ‘mimetic domain’: the attempts to escape from the all-pervading terror.

That becomes apparent as soon as Ligeti begins to compose a new composition in the same ‘style’ between 1962-1965: the ‘Nouvelles Aventures’. Despite - or as a consequence of - the attempts to concoct a new whole out of parallelisms and oppositions to ‘Aventures’, the mimetic impact has thoroughly faded. Which did not prevent Ligeti from presenting both works as a new whole: ‘Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures. Musikalisch-dramatische Aktion in 14 Bildern’.
And it comes to its apogee when Ligeti writes his ‘Grand Macabre’ (1974-1977): a full-fledged opera after a libretto of Michel de Ghelderode. Even though Ligeti had to go to some lengths to find a suited text, the way he walks here is the very opposite of ‘Aventures’: he no longer hesitates to subordinate his music to the strange logic of a pre-existing story. As a consequence, also his musical means have to be adapted. The sighs, cries and screams that in Aventures were wriggling out of the grasp of music and language, are now nestling in their musical and linguistic envelope again. Hesitatingly though. For what we get to hear is not the full melodic and harmonic music of the classic period, but the musical medium of the twentieth century, that, as already mentioned, begins to forsake precisely the characteristics that elevate auditory mimesis to music. We get a mixture of Bergian melodies, Schönbergian Sprechstimme, and conventional spoken passages like in the German Singspiel. The ‘imaginary language’ of Aventures survives only as an indecent episode in the periphery of a whole that is enveloped in music and language, as a kind of reversed atavisms in the musical ‘regression’ towards a more familiar medium.

Such linking up with the pre-serial mimetic means of the twentieth century is convincing as long as we are dealing with the burlesque figures in Ghelderode’s universe. But it is totally incompatible with characters like Amando and Amanda, the couple in love, utterly at loss on the scene as well as in music. Already within the confines of Ligeti’s scale of emotions there was no room for a couple in love, as little as in Freud’s primeval horde. And that goes especially for ‘Le Grand Macabre’. In order to let a loving couple convincingly sing, it will not suffice to fall back on the means developed by Schönberg in his Pierrot Lunaire or by Berg in his Wozzeck. Only a return to the world of the Salomé by Richard Strauss, or, better still, of the Tristan by Wagner would do – Verdi’s Traviata or Mozart’s Figaro would be too much of a good thing. But also here the unease in music continues to haunt Ligeti: it seems as if he is only ready to fall back on the kind of music that is already corroded by the very taboo on music. The same Ligeti that was ready to go back to Berg when it came to embody the ‘primeval father’ in the more concrete, burlesque characters of le Grand Macabre, is not prepared to fall back on Wagner. Only as an allusion, if not as a caricature, is the latter present in Ligeti’s music, just like in the finale scene of Aventures, where the moaning of the alto cannot fail to remind of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’. Still, the musical rapture of Amando and Amanda, however disfigured, has something of the melancholy tune that Bela Bartok – another great fellow countryman of Ligeti’s – lets resound amidst the rhythmic turmoil of the last movement of his fifth quartet only to soon let it be sucked up in the whirlpool of the forces unleashed again – or of those ‘Nachtmusiken’ and other epiphanies in Bartok’s works. And it is surely no accident that also Ligeti’s ‘Nouvelles Aventures’ introduce a similar breakthrough of caricatured music (also from the point of view of ‘content’: church music!). Those breakthroughs of homesickness seem to be the counterparts of that sardonic laughter resounding in the beginning of ‘Aventures’: the embodiment of the parodying stance taken by Ligeti on contemporary music in the first place, but – witness the ‘mise-hors-musique’ of Aventures – also on his own music. That is why that very laughing that Ligeti cannot give up has something of the jeering of don Giovanni, whose demonic urge is after all merely a vain effort to silence the voice of the Commendatore, resounding deep in his inner self. And it speaks volumes that the sacredness of that call breaks through in Atmosphères and Volumina. These - this time unbroken - epiphanies express the longing stirred by the unease under the reign of terror. Only in these works is accomplished - as well on the level of music as on the level of ‘content’ - the mystic elevation of Wagner’s Tristan, otherwise than in Richard Strauss’ Salomé or Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. All this makes it all too plain that the taboo on music is itself merely the epiphenomenon of the underlying anti-ideal and anti-utopian taboo on love in all its forms.

That is why the real accomplishment of Aventures is not to be found in Nouvelles Aventures or Le Grand Macabre, but in Volumina and Atmosphères. While, in the Nouvelles Aventures, the mimetic domain is fading away behind the mimetic means, in Le Grand Macabre it is extended without finding the proper mimetic means. In Aventures, on the other hand, the newly discovered mimetic means perfectly match the newly discovered mimetic domain. They are not torn apart in that mimetic means and mimetic domain each go their own way.

That is what Ligeti’s Aventures have in common with other masterpieces, such as Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Richard Strauss’ Salomé or Wagner’s Tristan. And it remains to be understood why, ever since the Tristan, such breakthroughs are only followed by their decay and not by any further development.

Wherewith Ligeti's Aventures be granted their due place in the Pantheon of Music!

© Stefan Beyst, January 2003.

 * This and the following 'quotations' are merely an approximative rendering of the phonetic notation in the score.
**The nine episodes are: I (1-9), II (10-18), III (20-37), IV (38-48),V (49-88), VI (89-97), VII (98-107), VIII (108-113), IX (114-115)


BAUER, Amy: ‘Ligeti and Nonsense – Aventures’
LENTZ, Michael: ‘Sprechen macht die Musik. Ein Ausflug in Grenzbereiche’, Donaueschinger Musiktage, 2002.
MICHEL, P. : ‘György Ligeti’ Ed. Minerve coll. Musique ouverte
SABBE, Herman: Ligeti, Lezingenreeks Radio 3.
Friedemann Sallis, An Introduction to the early works of György Ligeti. Studio, Köln, 1996.
SPANGLER, Eric: Language and Media: An Examination of Ligeti's Artikulation and its World of Discourse


Györgi Ligeti: Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures. Musikalisch-dramatische Aktion in 14 Bildern. Musik und Libretto van Györgi Ligeti. Henry Litolff's Verlag/C.F. Peters, Frankfurt-London-New York, nr 5935.


György Ligeti : Chamber concerto ; Ramifications ; String quartet N° 2 ; Aventures ; Lux aeterna, Deutsche Grammophon 423 244-2, 1983.
György Ligeti : Requiem ; Aventures ; Nouvelles Aventures, Wergo WER 60 045-50, 1985 (with Bruno Maderna!).
Györgi Ligeti, Varèse, Penderecki,: Cerha, Springer, Vox 5142, 1996:
Györgi Ligeti e.a. Esa-Pekka Salonen Sony 62 311, 1997
Györgi Ligeti: Aventures etc., Boulez, Universal 471608, 2002


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