Ligeti’s Études in an intriguing presentation

OUT HEAR, transition_projects, Ligeti: Danny Driver (piano), Andrew Stephen (actor), Netta Jones (direction/video design), Omola Obisesan (video assistant). King’s Place, London 23.5. 2011 (KC)

György Ligeti: Études

No 1 Désordre
No 5 Arc-en-ciel
No 4 Fanfares
No 3 Touches bloquées
No 2 Cordes-a-vide
No 10 Zauberlehrling
No 8 Fern
No 13 L’escalier du diable
No. 5 Arc-en-ciel

A strange situation, it was.  In the small, wide auditorium of Hall Two, we had a large screen stretching across most of the stage, towards the back. On a metal table to our right, was a console and a television screen.  A wooden chair stood there, too, with rounded, slatted back. We also had a man – the actor. Sometimes, he depicted the organiser of the visuals (the man-in-charge – a wizard of Oz?); at others, he played the responder, reacting to the visuals he appeared to have invoked at a touch from his keyboard. Often, the television screen showed a miniature of the image on the larger screen. Not always, though – sometimes, the images differed, having a life of their own.

Below the stage to the left was a piano, hardly visible. Here sat Danny Driver, the quiet-mannered, amazing pianist, with his page-turner standing beside him. He performed the Études – ‘an extraordinary sequence of virtuoso works for the piano’. Like their nineteenth-century  counterparts, they were both ‘pedagogical tools’ and pieces for performance, pushing ‘pianistic techniques’ to the limits of what was possible. Ligeti calls this non-purist music, consisting of ‘Jingling masses that displace, interpenetrate and resolve into each other – floating networks that rip and tangle …’ The player’s two hands may play in different keys, striking the notes in different rhythms. One study had the pianist’s right hand playing only ‘ivories’ while the left hand played ‘ebonies’ only.

The programme notes refer at length to the wide, eclectic range of Ligeti’s musical curiosity and voracious reading.  Look through the Études and you will find indications of Guillaume de Machaut, Nancarrow, Central African tribal beats and pulses, South American salsa and jazz … of chaos theory, fractals and fragmentation, of computers’ multi-layers and super-human speed.

In their eagerness to display the breadth of Ligeti’s intellect, the programme notes came close to leaving out the most striking component in all this – the warm, intuitive, world-embracing humanity of the composer. In both the aural and the visual arts, I have read many a programme that extolled the fascinating intellectual interests of the ‘maker’, and then introduced me to seeing or hearing  the dry, dismal, wizened creation that clung to its coat tails. Not so, Ligeti. The studies glitter mercurially with humour, emotion and – above all – the sense of a human being alert to the context of his life on this planet – the world during his lifetime. It’s easy enough to be a jackdaw – to pick at this and that that catches your eye. It’s easy enough then to make a brilliant copy – as Stravinsky did with Gesualdo, Pergolesi, Verdi, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. What Ligeti does – so exceptionally –  is to investigate some new field and find (put his finger on) what of himself is there. As a result, in these Études, Ligeti discloses himself as a presence throughout the universe. Wherever he glances, peruses or observes, he finds something of himself. It is an ultimate modesty. He finds that he is part of everything – part of the universe. This is self-knowledge the listener can enjoy.

Danny Driver’s adroit, nimble, sensitive fingers brilliantly evoke some of the meanings of the score, while on the screens on the stage above, Andrew Stephen, acting on directives from Netta Jones, invokes the music visually – showing, for example, layers of implication, interaction and involvement simultaneously at work or ten adroit, independent  fingers skipping about the keyboard in brilliant, directed dexterity.

Ken Carter