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Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (all = piccolo), 4 oboes, 4 clarinets (4th = E-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 pianos, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 9, 1971, Lawrence Foster conducting
György Ligeti, in a 1978 interview with his Hungarian compatriot, the musicologist Péter Várnai, observed: “I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano  have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s – but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not actually come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic underwater world… I call it micropolyphony… All in all, you cannot hear my music as it appears on paper… The technical process of composition is like letting a crystal form in a supersaturated solution. The crystal is potentially there in the solution but becomes visible only at the moment of crystallization. In much the same way, you could say that there is a state of supersaturated polyphony, with all the ‘crystal culture’ in if but you cannot discern it. My aim was to arrest the process, to fix the supersaturated solution just at the moment before crystallization… ”
Atmosphères was widely known before general familiarity with Ligeti’s name, today among the most honored in the musical world, when it was employed as “space-age music,” to evoke distance, loneliness, foreignness, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Ligeti, it should be noted, strenuously objected to its use there.) Of this score, commissioned in 1961 by the Southwest German Radio, Baden-Baden and first performed at Donaueschingen that year under Hans Rosbaud, the composer observed, well after the conversation quoted above:
“My most basic aim… is the revivification of the sonorous aspect of musical form. Those factors of contemporary composition which do not manifest themselves directly as acoustical experience seem to me of only secondary importance… In Atmosphères I have attempted to supersede the ‘structural’ approach to music which once, in turn, superseded the motivic-thematic approach, and to establish a new textural concept of music [in which] there are no ‘events,’ but only ‘states,’ no contours or forms, but instead an uninhabited, imaginary musical space. Tone color, usually a vehicle of musical form, is liberated from form to become an independent musical entity.
“This so-to-speak ‘informal” music I embodied in a new type of orchestral sound: the sonorous texture is so dense that the individual interwoven instrumental voices are absorbed into the general texture and completely lose their individuality… The ‘interwoven’ treatment of the orchestra is the reason for the omission of all percussion and for the unusual format of the orchestral score which is notated on 87 staves, since the string instruments are written completely divisi, that is, with an individual part for each player….”
Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival for more than a decade.