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In the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet control, György Ligeti fled Budapest, where his exposure to the Western avant-garde had been limited. Suddenly he was at the epicenter of the new-music scene presided over in West Germany by Stockhausen and colleagues. It’s easy to imagine the exhilarating sense of discovery that must have intoxicated Ligeti as he found himself free to pursue wherever his imagination led – including, eventually, in directions disapproved of by some of his avant-garde peers.
Berio’s and Cage’s experiments both with the voice and with making the ritualized performative context part of their composition process captivated Ligeti. As in Sequenza V, the musical scores – the sounds specified – for Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures are only one layer of a larger scenario that also involves an absurdist theatricality of gestures and interactions. Ligeti even invents a nonsense language based on vowel sounds for his “text” as the singers enact an incoherent drama among themselves, a mini-opera (or anti-opera) of the absurd. Instead of playing a triangle of distinct characters, they are possessed by arbitrary mixtures of five general emotional positions (which Ligeti describes as ranging from aggressive desire to terror). Their abrupt, jittery, indecisive leaps from one to another are articulated in a kaleidoscopic vocabulary of sustained pitches, whispers, erotic grunts, shrieks, giggles, and so on, shattered by eerie silences. The effect at times is of listening to animal vocalizations at the zoo and trying to decipher what is being communicated.
Ligeti breaks off the Aventures (composed in 1962 and premiered in 1964) unexpectedly. The Nouvelles Aventures (written over the next few years and premiered in 1966) presents itself as “the sequel” but involves a subtle evolution of the scenario. Whereas the earlier “mimodrama” (Ligeti’s term), for or all its outrageous humor, evokes an existential, alienated sensibility, the two-part Nouvelles Aventures ironically introduces stylized historical references and more episodically defined subsections: a haunting fragment of a chorale, for example, and even a “grand hysterical scene” for the soprano to pose as a mad bel canto heroine. The framework provided by the instrumental accompaniment – which includes furniture and popped paper bags in Aventures – provides an even more wildly intrusive and absurd aura in the sequel, marked by violent climaxes such as the smashing of plates. With these shards of sound and drama, Ligeti leaves us to piece together a response that in turn becomes part of his artistic adventure.
Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater.