And they have not lost that grip after all these years. Quite the contrary. Not least because it is governed by the discrepancy between word and deed. When a composer wants to write for voices, he faces the problem that voices cannot sing unless they articulate words.
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And they have not lost that grip after all these years. Quite the contrary. Not least because it is governed by the discrepancy between word and deed. When a composer wants to write for voices, he faces the problem that voices cannot sing unless they articulate words. Words are borrowed from a text to which the composer has to subordinate himself.
If he wants music to speak for itself, he obviously can resort to speechless instruments. But when he cannot refrain from writing for voices — after all, voices are the primeval instruments — and when he wants those voices to speak for themselves at that, he inexorably has to neutralise the text some way or a another. There are lots of possibilities. The early polyphonists used to reduce the text to a mere filler.
When it turned out to be too short in relation to the melody, it was adapted by singing several notes on one and the same vowel.
Also the tempo of speech was not always respected: it often was thoroughly slowed down cantus firmus. To the effect that language was robbed of its meaning and reduced to pure sound. He wants to write for voices without having to subordinate himself to a pre-existing text. By his own account, he attempts to create a text in an imaginary language.
But elsewhere Ligeti goes even further: he lets the syllables fall apart in separate vowels or consonants. In these cases, a linguistic logic is transformed into a purely musical one: the need to exploit all the possibilities of the voice. It remains to be seen, then, whether Ligeti is really out at creating an - although imaginary - language. Since not only does he reduce language to what is music in it - its sonorous body - he also spares himself the detour through language by introducing plain non-verbal elements: pure auditory expressions.
The fact that these are noted down with letters, like words, nearly conceals the fact that we have crossed the boundaries of language. All the more so, since we are not dealing here with more or less standardised insertions in a text, but with a extended range of non-verbal expressions.
Since, even when it is words that are whispered, these only become a whisper when they are no longer understandable and hence are transformed in a purely auditory phenomenon. The last ties with languages are, finally, severed when Ligeti introduces real sounds, such as the explosion of a paper bag. He rather dismantles language as such and finally disposes of it altogether. In his endeavour to free music from the fetters of language, Ligeti seems to want to get rid of music itself.
For all the above-mentioned sounds are no longer sung on the tones of a melody and are no longer embedded in a harmonic accompaniment nor woven into a polyphonic fabric. At first sight, it seems impossible to tell those sounds from natural sounds as they can be heard in the real world. It would be deceiving, though, to understand this metamorphosis, in the vein of Rousseau, as a return to a supposed primeval state when language was hardly discernable from music.
Or, to state it in ontogenetical rather than phylogenetical terms: as a regression of language and music to the source whence they originated in individual life: the primeval scream, weeping.
For all that sounds is not music. And just like visual reality, also auditory reality can by conjured up. But, as is immediately apparent from these examples: not every auditory imitation is music.
To become music, it must fit the pattern of fixed tones and the concomitant tonality, and submit to the regularity of metre, which transforms the sequence of impulses into rhythm. If it cannot put up with such transformation, it remains what it has always been: pure auditory imitation, just like the recording of a bird or the dialogue of the actors, the auditory counterparts of the visual imitation of a bird on a painting or a character on the scene. We thereby do not leave the realm of art.
Ordinary auditory imitation can conjure up not only existing reality, such as dialogue and the sounds of nature, but also the most divergent imaginary worlds. Because the point is precisely that the very characteristics that elevate ordinary auditory mimesis to music are borrowed from what is sound in language!
When speaking, we use tones with a fixed pitch pertaining to a scale in a specific mode. And because of their diverging duration and weight, the syllables of the words generate rhythm and metre.
Auditory expressions, on the other hand, have no fixed pitch: they freely glide through musical space. And - apart form laughing and panting - they are not rhythmically articulated: that applies only to words. Only when subordinated to language is the gliding of sound replaced with a movement between fixed pitches and only through joining syllables to words is generated articulation and hence rhythm and metre.
That is how auditory mimesis usurps the magic that binds the ear to speech. Music even enhances that magic by replacing the gliding between fixed pitches with sustained pitch and metre with regular measure. And that transformation not only concerns auditory expressions, but speech itself: when music stages speaking beings, they are transformed into the divine beings Rousseau imagined in primeval times.
Even though, in fact, these are nothing more than the imaginary beings that saw the light of day through music. But music also borrows elsewhere. And that is all the more easy when repetition is predictable, as with the articulation of words, but foremost with marching, trashing or rowing. Whence measure.
Which, once adopted through music, also facilitates the coordination of singing. As it happens, the very characteristics that transform ordinary auditory mimesis into music have been corroded during the twentieth century. In the tradition of Stravinsky, the elimination of language in music is far less dramatic. Or to call a spade a spade: the unease in music. Nobody will doubt that in Aventures Ligeti conjures up an entire world through sound. Even though we still are moving within the confines of art, by giving up sustained pitch and metre it seems as if we have left the realm of music.
No doubt, theatre is more than mere auditory mimesis: the actors are moving in the visual dimension as well. What is more: in passages like the great solo for the baritone in measures , the gestures of the body have become movements of the voice, to the extent that we cannot possibly conceive how they could be adequately performed by an actor.
Here, auditory mimesis has swallowed visual mimesis. Which also manifests itself in the fact that Ligeti relegates the task of performing to actors on the scene, whereas the singers are hidden behind the scene. It should be granted, however, that they thereby seem not so much to be elevated to the level of music. Rather do they seem to cling with their fingers on the fringe of the rock while threatening to fall in the abyss. And their anchoring in music is further enhanced by the fact that they seldom stand on their own: thus, the laughter in measure 7 seems to burst out of the long sustained tone played by the instruments.
Such a thing can never be heard in the real world. But it is a magnificent evocation of the — in our case repressed — tension that is building up before being released in the laugh. And the certain impression that we are still dealing with music is, finally, only enhanced through the intervention of instruments. They are the real anchors that prevent Aventures from drifting away to the waters of pure auditory mimesis.
Only sporadically do they walk more adventurous paths — as in the impressive passage in measure 98 where the players have to rub their instruments with paper or their fingernails. Such reversal is all the more strange since instruments are after all designed to idealise the human voice — that is why their whole make-up is focused at producing articulated sounds on a fixed pitch.
While their forebears relapse in a pre-musical world of natural sound, their descendants continue testifying to what has been lost — they are the rock on which the suicidal voices are trying to cling. Thus, the rather conservative instruments are the counterparts to the through their regression revolutionary voices.
What first catches the eye is that the flag does not cover the cargo: not all the expressions in Aventures fit in the scale. Where, for example, shall we place that masterly outburst of the baritone in measure ? It is the caricature of a wildly gesticulating patriarch — we cannot help to be reminded of the meanwhile famous chimps that are trying to demonstrate their dominance. But there are none. And the second shortcoming lays bare a third one: the scale is eminently incomplete. And — in view of the magnificent bloom of love in classical music — that is surely rather meagre.
Behind the all-encompassing order suggested by the serial procedure goes hidden the complete opposite of it: sheer arbitrariness.
Or rather: a remarkable one-sidedness. It is as if one would let a pure tonal melody pass for of a twelve-tone series. Obviously, Ligeti did not submit to a serial logic. Rather was he led by its complete opposite: mimetic logic. He is out at evoking a specific world, and in that world there is no room for the whole array of expressions, let alone for a succession totally determined by a serial principle. It would immediately become apparent that it cannot become complete as long as we restrict ourselves to pure auditory expressions.
Already broader is the spectrum of verbal expressions: lovers address each other with short, gently whispered phrases, and they love to echo each other. But only in singing is fully unfolded the whole array of loving feelings — as the old Darwinist philosophers of art, who regarded the calls of rutting animals as the primeval song, already knew. In the song, the verbal expression of love is not only elevated and brought to full bloom through extending echoing with singing together, it is also enriched because only music knows to convey all the tenderness and passion that real lovers express through facial expressions, gestures and postures.
Further, in contrast with love, which is rather inaudible by nature, aggression and dominance are rather noisy affairs, which hence would tend to be over-represented in a scale of pure auditory expressions.
But also here it applies that anger and rage do not so much express themselves in yelling, stamping, kicking and throwing, as in the way of speaking. For the mystery is precisely that those sustained tones are conjuring up the imposing posture of an impressive appearance: such a posture is not precisely audible in the real world! It is, on the contrary, rather its motionless silence that petrifies us.
This is music at its best: it is able to conjure up not only movement, but also motionless standstill through — non-moving — sound. Thus, the spectrum of emotion cannot become complete unless it comes to encompass also verbal, but foremost musical expressions. We miss the battle cry, the alarm, the crying for help, the yelling in panic, the burst of anger and above all the primeval scream: weeping. And on a second axis would figure the whole array of emotions. Only on such a chessboard of combined parameters could be properly played a genuine serial game.
It uncovers the deeper resistance that lies at the roots of the unease in music, that in its turns lies at the roots of the unease in language. No opera, hence, with a linear story divided in separate numbers, but a sequence of various combinations of emotions determined by a serial logic. We spare the reader the trouble to further analyse this structure. For we stumble here on another discrepancy between intention and deed.
To understand this, we have to look through the trees of the structural to see the wood of what is conjured up through it — no differently than Ligeti, who used to point out that serial music sounds otherwise than it was thought out.
Aventures, for 3 voices & 7 instruments