Xenakis and Ligeti, the conception of a composition

A fellow doctoral student, at the UOW, commented that the majority of Xenakis’s music is not beautiful, whereas Ligeti’s music is always beautiful.

I asked him to expand. He said he was not convinced that Xenakis had an ‘ear’. He did not believe that Xenakis conceived his works in the form of music.

There is truth to that. Here’s a small excerpt from an article published when Xenakis’ passed away (from here):

He was a musician, but above all he was a theorist and pure researcher who used mathematical thought as a basis for of his compositions. Because of this, his way of working more closely resembles that of a philosopher of science than that of an artist, whose instinctive creations are sometimes controlled only by aesthetical aims.

I’ve become a non-believer in sonification … where one attempts to give sonic expression to non-sonic things. So it is with some confusion that I observe that one could perhaps call Xenakis a ‘sonifier of the universe’. To put this discussion into context, below is Xenakis’ Kraanerg composed in 1968.

Ligeti, however, confirmed himself that he would ‘hear’ a piece of music in his mind’s ear. What I find interesting is that he would hear the piece of music in its entirety. In other words, he conceptualised his work in the broader time scale of composition.

… the initial impulses that set the act of composition going tend to be naive in character. I imagine the music in the form in which it will later be heard, and hear the piece from beginning to end in my inner ear…

Structural features, worked out during the process of composition, transform the music from its raw state into a musically consistent and linked network. Composition consists principally of injecting a system of links into naive musical ideas.

Ligeti. “Ligeti in conversation”, 1971, p.124

So it might be true to express that Xenakis’ compositions did not arise from his mind’s ear, whereas Ligeti’s did. What is intriguing is whether or not this fact coincides with the perception that Ligeti’s music is beautiful (at least in a “classical” way). Here’s Ligeti’s Lontano:

I see Xenakis’ compositions as being conceived as ‘orders’ or ‘patterns’ (for want of a better term) formulated from observations of the real world, expressed mathematically. In this sense, whereas Ligeti conceived his work in his mind’s ear, Xenakis conceived his work one step removed, in abstract structures, which were then sonified.

One significant point of difference between these two approaches is that Xenakis would have been able to access ‘sounds’ which are beyond the imagination of the ear. But, I guess, at the risk of also being beyond the access of the ear. I feel this accurately portrays Xenakis’ music. Many of his works seem to tread a very fine line between beauty and noise. Almost like going in and out of consciousness.

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