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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Devil’s Staircase

Recently been listening a lot again to Gyorgy Ligeti’s Piano Études – wow! I know them for over ten years now but they still evoke the wow response in me every time I hear them. And the funny thing is that I was a latter-day convert to Ligeti. All my contemporary music composer friends used to tell me that he was the man, but I never got it, and I went as far as feeling he was one of those ‘emperor’s new clothes’ figures whose reputation far outstripped his actual achievements. How wrong I was!

And it was the Études that woke me up, I remember hearing them for the first time on the radio while I was driving, and the car nearly left the road……. They’re amazing – so full of invention and if, as I am, you’re interested in all things rhythmic then these are masterclasses in the creative use of advanced rhythmic techniques. Complex polyrhythms infest these pieces yet, unlike a lot of contemporary classical music that uses complex rhythmic material, the pieces are so grounded in pulse you can really perceive the forward motion in the music.

Ligeti achieves extraordinary effects such as using two contrasting rhythms that when played together create the sensation of a third independant rhythm. Listening, you get the feeling that someone has slipped in the studio and started playing a second piano. And the music is sonically beautiful too – a piece like ‘Arc en Ciel’ manages to be both rhythmically complex and beautiful at the same time.

I’d highly recommend you check this music out if you haven’t already. The best exponent of them is Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and his recording of them on Sony Classical takes some beating. He also made a great recording called ‘African Rhythms’ where he juxtaposes Central African Pygmy music (one of the influences on the Études) with the Ligeti pieces – really imaginative.

And speaking of imaginative, have look at this very imaginatively filmed version, and great performance of, ‘L’escalier du Diable’ (the Devil’s Staircase) by Greg Andersen on Youtube –

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