lørdag den 21. maj 2011


On 1 June, Copenhagen has a rare chance to experience György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962). The piece is better known as “the metronome piece”, and for a good reason: it is scored for 100 metronomes that are simply wound up and left to run down. The work, and a couple of related ones from the same period, is markedly different from the rest of the Hungarian composer’s oeuvre, and its eccentricity is usually explained with a reference to Fluxus. The score of the Poème symphonique was reproduced in the first issue of the Fluxus newspaper V TRE, which makes the connection an obvious one. The fact that it appeared there probably means that Fluxus’ spiritual father, George Maciunas, planned to include it in one of the Fluxus yearbooks that never appeared; most of the material he collected for publication in the yearbooks ended up being printed in V TRE and/or as a single edition.
As a work, the Poème symphonique fits the Fluxus repertoire very well: it is simple, funny and concrete, it is what Maciunas called “monostructural” – but it is too easy to explain its wackiness with a reference to Fluxus alone. Ligeti himself has tried very hard to make it an organic part of his oeuvre by relating it to later, more acceptably musical works (his String Quartet No. 2 from 1968, more specifically the pizzicato movement in it), and musicologists tend to connect it with the mechanical style the composer developed towards the end of the 1960s. The only possible conclusion is that there is not a single story to be told about the work, but that it is possible to tell at least two. One of them is based on continuities, the other on breaks. One of them is connected, via the idea of the oeuvre, to the ideals of high modernism, the other via the suggestion of radical alterity to the notion of the avant-garde.
The appearance of such easy binaries ought to make one stop and think again.
Fluxus was different, but it was not unique. The type of experimentation it is known for, is characteristic for its time, and although the artists associated with it were more radical than most, their interests were shared by others. At the time when Maciunas collected the score of the Poème symphonique, he was interested in what he called “concretism”, a tendency in art to let phenomena be themselves. What he saw, or rather, failed to see in an oddly perceptive way, was a tendency amongst artists to abandon form as an artistic category. Fluxus works, and many other works of the same period, can no longer be filed on the basis of outside characteristics, but have to be understood from the inside out, as process. They have, so to speak, made the leap from invertebrate to vertebrate, from external shell to backbone. This reference to evolution is misleading, because the leap they made marked the change from modernism into postmodernism, and therewith the abandonment of all evolutionary thinking. Works such as these exist in what Rosalind Krauss famously called the “post-media condition”. 
Eric Drott, who devoted a long article in The Journal of Musicology to the metronome piece and two other works of Ligeti’s that are commonly associated with Fluxus, concludes that the piece does not conform to the Fluxus standard, amongst other reasons because it criticises recognizable musical conventions. The way the score is formulated, for example – extremely verbose and overly specific , with lengthy instructions about how to procure 100 metronomes, how to make sure that they are returned to the right owner, etc.; you will find the full text here – is interpreted by Drott as an ironic commentary on the typical modernist score of the time, with the attached elaborate instructions to the performer. As such, it is a specifically musical work, but at the same time it is not. The score does not contain a single note, but consists of words alone, and is therefore accessible in a way that is entirely different from the classical musical score. It is part-music, part-written word, and entirely something different.  It ventures out in that mysterious no-man’s land between the established media that Dick Higgins called intermedia.
At one level, the level at which Maciunas connected with the work, it is a musical piece that makes no effort to hide the nature of the material it employs, namely, the ticking of 100 metronomes. At another level, the one at which scholars such as Drott understand it, it is a supramusical piece that critiques certain musical conventions. Both interpretations are perfectly valid, but they fail to notice the way the piece behaves. Certainly, one of the things it does is cause performances, like all musical scores, but it also changes the status of the score. Its title, Poème symphonique, places it at the crossroads of poetry and music, but actually it inhabits a previously unclaimed territory in between music and the written word. It is intermedial in nature, but what is even more important is that it experiments with the score as a means to an end and turns it into an end in itself. As much as the presentation of a certain body of sonic material and as much as a critique of certain musical conventions, it is a postmedial work that can just as easily be read as a text as it can be performed as a piece of music.
Oh well. Whatever it is, I look forward to hearing and seeing it on 1 June.

2 kommentarer:

  1. Nice essay Peter! Actually it is strange that the piece is not performed more often: it’s one of the few pieces by a famous composer that does not require any musical training. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a performance once, and it was...well, very nice.
    The piece is not as different from the rest of Ligeti’s oeuvre as it may seem. Its place within the oeuvre is perfectly logical, both historically and compositionally:
    1. Coming from communist eastern Europe into the western avantgarde feast in 1956, Ligeti was eager to try out everything and worked hard to connect with many avantgarde developments in a very short time. He adapted many approaches and techniques, internalising them, criticising them and quickly moving towards his own style. In doing so, he - unwittingly? - turned into an unlikely pioneer in many areas: electronic, serial, post-serial, conceptual and process music, and possibly more. His own unique orchestral style as it evolved in the early 1960s clearly bears influences of all those threads. So like many other pieces from this period, Poème... is - as you argue correctly - simultaneously an experiment and a critique (with the ironic humour that characterises much of his work).
    2. But Poème... was more than that: musically it is a statement explaining the ‘cluster’ pieces he was developing at the time. The distinct style of those pieces are created by what he called ‘micropolyphony’: polyphonic structures on a micro-level resulting in large, gradually evolving textures. This is exactly what happens in the Poème, and if you look at the score of, say, Atmosphères for orchestra you can literally see Poème symphonique: dozens of instruments with different rhythms - and what do they sound like: clouds of sound. The main difference being that Atmosphères also uses pitches. ‘Clocks and clouds’ is another telling title of one of his pieces - staccato process music on one hand, floating clouds on the other, but actually they are the same thing.
    Martijn Voorvelt

  2. Right. Now I have heard the piece, so now I feel I can respond to Martijn Voorvelt's response in an appropriate manner.

    But first of all, many thanks for your additions and comments.

    The first thing that struck me about the piece was how quiet it was. It did not rattle frantically, but merely puttered on. Secondly, it was much more organic than I expected. It started out as tropical rain on a corrugated plastic roof, changed into a wind chime going nuts and ended as a wind chime muttering sleepily to itself - it actively encouraged all these thoughts about wind and rain and other natural phenomena. And thirdly, I did not think it had the "cloud" effect that is usually described. Instead, I experienced the development of the piece as a series of changes of state, from monolithic to patterned to monolithic. It starts out as a storm of clicks, but as more and more metronomes come to a standstill, rhythmic patterns emerge, hugely complex at first, but easier and easier to follow as the amount of metronomes adding to the patter becomes less and less. The third state is silence, when the last metronome has stuttered to a standstill.

    And now to my blog entry. Of course both positions, of the Poème as a radical work of avant-garde art and as an organic part of Ligeti's oeuvre, are perfectly valid, but what I wanted to draw attention to other aspects of the work. First of all, I wanted to make explicit the way in which the two positions mirror the classical opposition between modernism and avant-garde. Secondly, I wanted to argue that these positions are meaningless in the face of an art that tends more and more towards the formally indefinable. More specifically (and thirdly), I wanted to point out that even though the work can sometimes be experienced as a piece of music, it is always accessible as a written text. It is a text among texts and as a text, it performs a certain action. However, both forms, the musical and the written , perform the same action, so form, I wanted to argue, is a secondary concern here. Hence my use of Krauss' term "post-medium".

    But anyway, Martijn Voorvelt, thank you very much for an extremely relevant, informative and knowledgeable comment. More such comments please!