Poème Symphonique and my life passing me by

Here’s an embeddable version of the Ubuweb video file of Poème Symphonique that I have found on YouTube, for your viewing pleasure. So now you can view the video right here, from the comfort of this blog page, should you feel too cozy here to venture out to explore the wonders of Ubuweb:

The machine that kick-starts the metronomes in the video above was created by the sculptor and installation artist Gilles Lacombe, as explained in the video’s French-speaking voiceover. Ligeti’s original performance instructions called for ten musicians in formal attire to ceremoniosly appear and set off the metronomes under a conductor’s orders, in what appeared to be a humorous and absurd, in this context, take on formal classical concert traditions. This was because Ligeti composed the piece partly as his contribution to the irreverent Fluxus movement, to which he had a brief association. However, in following performances Ligeti abandoned the ceremony aspects of the performance and let the metronomes instead speak (or, rather, tick) for themselves.

I have had another look at the sections of my copy of Richard Steinitz’s book on Ligeti (“Gyorgy Ligeti: Music of the Imagination”) that refer to Poème Symphonique (these are pp. 126-129). Because of features such as its Fluxus association, its intentionally inappropriate title and the comically ceremonious aspects of its first performance, Steinitz says that Poème Symphonique may appear to merely be a piece of “subversive anti-art”, but is in fact multifaceted.

Here are some of the points the author makes about the work, and some other points which I found interesting as perhaps relevant to my research  [please forgive the somewhat messy presentation and some repetition, as these are pretty much just notes to myself!]:

  • it’s “an experiment in indeterminate rhythmic counterpoint, furthering Ligeti’s exploration of micropolyphonic textures”
  • it’s Fluxus-ly (yes, I am inventing an adverb!)   entertaining as the public can playfully attempt to guess which metronome will stop first
  • it’s sonically compelling, as one can first hear all the mechanisms ticking together and then listen out for the ticking gradually thinning out
  • it’s visually engaging (a hundred metronomes all moving at the same time and at different speeds, all of similar shape make for a fascinating spectacle)
  • it does have strong elements of provocation (the title, the ceremonious sending up of tradition, the replacing of traditional instruments and musicians with 100 clockwork performers, etc…)
  • it superposes “pulsation grids – a moiré effect familiar in physics – [which] results in a rhythmic evolution […]. At the start, the grids are so numerous that they coalesce, sounding disorderly and blurred. To achieve adequate textural density, he needed large numbers of metronomes. A hundred had been an estimate.”
  • Disorder to order. Unpredictable patterns to uniformity (of one metronome’s regular ticking). Change of patterns over time going from mass to less, irregularity becomes more evident as some metronomes stop and the grid thins out, and then regularity appears as the last metronome is left ticking alone. Ever-mutating rhythms to steady rhythm.
  • The running down of mechanisms takes time (one has to wait for the metronomes’ ticking to die out. Idea of time’s passing…)
  • it “charts successive stages in a polyrhythmic counterpoint that is differently perceived by every listener; for the interpretation of acoustic (and visual) patterns is to a degree subjective”
  • “Originating in his reading of Gyula Krudy’s tale of a house full of clocks” [I have done some research to find out which story this refers to, but I couldn’t find the actual title of it anywhere, though quotes of Ligeti referencing this story of a widow living in a house full of clocks where time appears to stand still abound. I have ordered two books of stories by Krudy, as I am curious, and hope this story is printed in one of thee two books…]

In the small flat I lived in before moving to my current place, we used to have several clocks all constantly ticking away. I owned a few, and so did my ex boyfriend: we each had our own alarm clocks, and then there were the wall clocks, and watches. Their ticking would drive me insane at night, as I sometimes suffer from insomnia, as I would be unable to stop focusing on the rhythms created by the interplaying clock-ticks, and thus to sleep. I was also very depressed, at the time, and, as I restlessly listened, I felt as if my life itself was slowly being extinguished with each tick, as if the prison of impossibility I felt trapped in was being made audible. When I moved to my new house, in my own room, started a new life and a new course, I did not want any clocks, as the house was so very quiet, at night (except for the frequently and horridly loudly feuding semi-human neighbours next door). However, I soon had to arm myself with a couple of alarm clocks, as I need several bells to go off in order to wake up for good in the morning (I use 5! 3 to wake me up, and two more for safety…). The quiet of the room… the ticking of the clocks… the alarms… and finding out about Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique all made me wonder about what a multitude of ringing, ticking alarm clocks would sound like, all together. This was the beginning of my idea…

So, how does Ligeti’s piece relate to mine, apart from being one of its inspirations? What can I gather from it that I could apply to my own work?

I will have to revisit this blog post and Poème Symphonique further down the line, for an appropriate answer, as I know that the connection is there, but words still elude me and I have to reflect further…

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