György Ligeti interviewed by Benoît Delbecq

Thanks to Frédéric Goaty at Jazz Magazine/Jazz’man for authorizing the translation and reproduction of this interview for DTM. 

This was the second time Benoît tried to interview Ligeti.  After an initial failed attempt, Olivier Gasnier of the  FNAC Montparnasse had called Benoît: “Ligeti is here! In my shop! You should come right now and ask him for the interview!” Ligeti had been browsing, and Gasnier showed him discs from Uganda and other regions of Africa. Benoît couldn’t get away, but Gasnier gave Ligeti Rhymes by the Recyclers and told him to listen to “Brushes.”  The next day there was a fax from Ligeti’s secretary: “Mr. Ligeti enjoyed your music and will be happy to do an interview with you next time he comes to Paris.”

Benoit took along the fine French jazz writer Stéphane Ollivier, who participated in the discussion, transcribed the tape, and edited the interview.  The following translation is by Benoît Delbecq and Ethan Iverson. Ligeti spoke fluent English in addition to Hungarian, German, and French:  it’s too bad he can’t look this over and double-check everything!  However, Benoît and I believe the essence is correct.

Originally published in Jazz Magazine number 484, France/Belgium/Switzerland/Québec, September 1998.  At that time, the Jazz Magazine editor was Philippe Carles, who asked Benoît to interview Ligeti.

Hotel Rivoli’s lobby, Paris, February 1998.

Benoît Delbecq:  In the booklet of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s CD of the Etudes pour Piano (Sony Classics) you mention that both Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans have had a significant influence on you.

György Ligeti:  Indeed, in the sphere of jazz those musicians are truly my favorite.  Their touch, their poetry.  In jazz music there are great virtuosos like Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum, but it’s something else. Do you like Peterson?

BD:  Er…I mean…what he plays now…

GL:   Yes, it’s commerce !

BD:  Nevertheless on the very topic of virtuosity…

GL:  It’s impressive!  Just like Albert Ammons or James P. Johnson, who worked on a sort of a – let’s call it – poetry of the speed.  Now, there is this disc where Chick Corea plays with Herbie Hancock.  One finds there incredible polyrhythms with subtle offsets that, to my sense, are based on a perfect knowledge of both Latin American and African music.  It’s one of my favorite jazz discs.  But, for me, the great poet-composer was Monk. As far as touch is concerned, Bill Evans is a sort of Michelangeli of jazz.  Do you agree?

BD:  Absolutely!

GL:   Because you’re the jazz pianist here! I have nothing to teach you.  Monk doesn’t have a flashy technique, neither does Duke Ellington, but nevertheless that’s where the most beautiful music is.

BD:  Precisely!  Back to this booklet, you express the idea that your piano music was born form a certain lack, or certain insufficiencies…

GL:  I started to study the piano way too late, after puberty.

BD:  You suggest a back and forth momentum in your way you compose:  a swing between the sensation of the keyboard itself and the notes and sketches. Then the proper writing phase of composing begins. Is this related to an improvisational practice?

GL:  Naturally it has a relation to improvisation. Although I am not an improviser, not in jazz nor in “classical occidental” music!  When I was a student in Budapest, I improvised a lot, but it had nothing to do with jazz.  Anyway, jazz was forbidden in Hungary, first by Hitler, then by Stalin, as it represented the decadent American style.  I used to improvise in a style that was influenced by Bartók.

Today, when I compose – I’m talking about my piano works here, for when I write for other instruments, I don’t use this method, which is specific to my own relation to the keyboard – I don’t really improvise.  I start from a few ideas, a few imaginings, and proceeding from their acoustical resonances I inevitably modify them. That’s what I explain in the booklet:

I lay my ten fingers on the keyboard and imagine music. My fingers copy this mental image as I press the keys, but this copy is very inexact: a feedback emerges between ideas and tactile/motor execution. This feedback loop repeats itself many times, enriched by provisional sketches:  a mill wheel turns between my inner ear, my fingers and the marks on the paper.  The result sounds completely different from my intial conceptions:  the anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard have transformed my imaginary constructs.

I need to feel my fingers on the keyboard, the resistance of the keys. I create and feel phrases, forms that are melodic and rhythmic at the same time.

For certain pieces what interested me at first was not so much the music itself, but the procedure that would allow the number of voices in polyphony to augment – as for a certain number of musicians playing different types of xylophones, for instance.  Again, from the booklet:

The polyphonic collaboration of several musicians on the xylophone – in Uganda, in Central African Republic,  Malawi and other places – as well as the playing of a single performer on lamellophone (mbira, likembe or sanza) in Zimbabwe, the Cameroon, and many other regions, led me to search for similar technical possibilities on the piano keys.

First comes a primary figure, very simple.  Then, with another musician, it becomes more dense, with slight offsets of the two forms on a regular pulsation basis. I imagined that it was similar to a continuous current that bifurcates, and decomposes itself in several other currents.  When listening to those marvelous recordings, I was fascinated by a music that didn’t have an initial melody, but in developing would create subterranean melodies:  hidden, interior, always ambiguous.  They appear, disappear, return.

I tried to apply this to the piano, for instance in Study no. 10, “Der Zauberlehring.” I play with two fingers, two repeated notes, F an G – it’s totally organized but there are variations : it may be twice an F, twice a G, but with the hands superimposition F GG F G FF G, there is an integration of a certain irregularity. From this system, I add more keys – only white ones. Is this improvisation?  I don’t think so.

BD:  Still, there is the seeking for the creation of physical sensations.

GL:  Yes, I believe I have this in common with jazz musicians, this need to feel the resistance of the keys under the pulp of fingers, a certain sensual enjoyment…

BD:  I started to work on polyrhythms. I wasn’t yet introduced to the music of the Aka pygmies, but I knew your music well, especially your music for harpsichord and Momentum/Selbstportrait.  In 1987 I prepared the piano study “Fanfares.”  To investigate the accentuation procedures, I prepared all the C, F and G# strings with bits of erasers (where the ostinato accents are), the goal being, by doing this, to be able to hear a timbre resulting of this asymmetrical figure, this aksak figure from the balkans..

GL:  One cannot speak about aksak as far as African music is concerned, given the aksak from the Balkans is a little different: you don’t hear the elementary pulse.  The real aksak is in popular music from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, where there are no rational relationships. In African music, one can always reduce to a pulse, to equal geometrical proportions.  The results are sometimes similar, but the essence of the thinking is different.

BD:  I thought the term “aksak” could be applied to any wobbly rhythm, since that’s what it means in Turkish.  Anyway, the music I do today is definitely determined by methods of work I crafted and adjusted after discovering your music.

GL:  I also discovered African music quite late.  In 1985, when I wrote the Etudes,  I already had a good knowledge of those traditions. But, in 1982, for the Horn Trio, I used the same kind of ostinato:  Even then I knew all this in a non-perfect way, through the folkloric or commercial musics from Brazil, Cuba or Puerto Rico.   Samba, especially, I liked a lot, without knowing Africa at all.  Nevertheless one could find in this piece all the elements I was going to develop further.

Even before, in 1968, I wrote “Continuum,” which works on the idea of great speed and abstracting an elementary pulse.  The varied rhythmic figures are fast and short, and inside them, hidden rhythms and melodies appear by chance.  I discovered this intuitively:  it was not at all based on a precise knowledge of African or Latin American music.

BD:  Do you know Evan Parker’s music?  He does extremely virtuoso work on the soprano saxophone based on circular breathing.  He has been working for more than 30 years on a global idea of slow and mysterious momentums, with fast multiphonical issues that give birth to the very “interior melodies” you mention…

GL:  Is his research inspired by an interest in African musics ?

BD:  I don’t have the answer to your question, but his field of experimentation seems to be close to what you just defined.

GL:  I will be very interested to listen to his music.  One can find this kind of phenomenon in gamelan music, or in pygmy music.

BD:  What place do you grant to jazz in 20th century’s history ?

GL:  A major place.  Maybe the principal one!  The music from the “Sonata form” tradition, the big symphonic enterprises: all of this belongs to the German tradition, which was the strongest tradition in the 19th century. But even then, Paris was a cultural capital. Of course, Debussy had undertaken a decisive revolution in the beginning of the 20th century.

But jazz arrived (and, before it, ragtime, Scott Joplin) and imposed a combination  of influences – it is not African, nor Irish nor French, not even American – it’s everything all together, the first musical expression to be multicultural.

Shortly after there is a popular dimension in jazz, notably with Armstrong.  I find this very interesting because it is spontaneously creative, distant to today’s commercial phenomenons that are designing popular culture. At the turn of the 30’s, jazz was a unique and spontaneous explosion, the most beautiful stylistic expression of the century.

I don’t know if it is still possible that an art of this importance can continue to develop because marketing now instantly grabs new musical forms from the street.  This said, musicians like Miles Davis or John Coltrane invented magnificent musics. Though not always –  was Coltrane already dead when Miles Davis recorded with synthesizers?  I don’t fancy much this period of his.  Like a lot of people I love Kind of Blue and Filles de Kilimanjaro.

BD:  In the closing chapter of his Theory of Harmony, Arnold Schoenberg speculates on the directions to come in music and declares that one of the major evolution axis will likely consist in having voices moving in a more and more independent autonomous way.  In the history of jazz, a musician like Ornette Coleman has put this intuition into practice for more than 30 years with his harmolodic idea – in that the tangle of the melodies are creating the harmony, always fleeting and spontaneous…

GL:  These are phenomenons one finds in Pygmy chants.  Each moment is random but the whole that results from it has nothing to do with random. This voice independence is not new, it has existed in France in the 14th century, in Guillaume de Machaut’s music. This tradition has been killed by the homophonic thinking that had its apotheosis during the 19th century.  Maybe Coleman connects with this tradition in his own way?

Free jazz,  which Coleman is associated with, has cut itself from the idea of regular pulsation. I don’t say it’s bad: I wrote numerous pieces without pulsation and the current I belonged to together with Pierre Boulez was even anti-pulsation!  But jazz first was of a music of march, then of dance, that slowly opened up to polyrhythmics – in my opinion, due to the influence of Latin American traditions.  Free jazz then dissolved the pulsation by superimposing independent melodic lines that have independent rhythm structures.  Is it still jazz?  It speaks a jazz language but the pulsation that was specific to jazz has disappeared.  That said, it doesn’t stop it being magnificent music, but it’s not what I prefer the most.

BD:  Nevertheless you often speak metaphorically about your music, using the image of a body that has an organic way to develop.

GL:  Just like free jazz, indeed.

BD: That’s what I wanted to hear from you!  I play a lot of improvised musics that have no thematics, I had the good fortune to play with great fathers of this “improvised music” scene, like Evan Parker, and I really have the sensation of a living organism that humanly evolves in the relation to sound.

It is often that the contemporary music world, notably Boulez, refuses to take in consideration all those practices when he speaks about jazz –  he continues to talk about the image of an oversimple music that’s tightened to 4/4,  chord changes in loops…

GL:  Boulez is a great musician but he doesn’t like jazz, one knows that.

BD:  Boulez is a bit different: it’s like he’s ignoring a whole artistic vein. More generally, free jazz continues to be denied, or at least be considered as the garbage can of jazz.

GL:  A very beautiful garbage can!  What interests me in music, whatever it is, is its elegance, and a certain humility. It’s rare, but one can find this in any kind of music.