On Ligeti's Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures

I've never associated György Ligeti's music with instantly recognizable, direct human emotion or musical development intertwined with emotional development. If emotion must be spoken of then I'd rather characterize the Ligeti I've listened to as music that estranges from conventional modes of feeling.

His Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures (1962–1966) are therefore an exception in that they are very recognizable to all humans, regardless of how well versed they are in the avant-garde music of the latter 20th century. At first the work makes you laugh but amid this laughter a sense of absurdist alienation is soon felt. It turns out there's something very terrifying about this work that the singers' comically exaggerated movements and expressions can't cover up.

I saw a performance at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic on 18.11.2015. The music was played by the Melos Sinfonia new music ensemble accompanied by three singers. All performers were British. 

Ligeti subtitled this work as a 14-scene play and therefore the music seems very incidental. It is often drowned out by the singers' whooping and yelping and chattering and there are also long silences. This applies to the two pianos, the French horn, the flute, the cello, the clarinet and the bass. 

The percussionist's role differs from these and is much more important. He frequently silences the singers by swinging a sledgehammer, popping plastic and tearing paper. To take a psychoanalytical point of view, he's the super ego, a punishing, oedipal Daddy, who pronounces a deafening imperative each time the performers' emotions threaten to get out of hand. This has a great effect on the listeners as well, who emphasize with the singers.

After the initial ridiculousness of the performance, pity and a certain aversion begin to dominate. These feelings arise from perceiving the performers as something other than human, less than human, actually, because, despite not being able to speak, they have all the trappings of civilized individuals; they are standing straight in suits and dresses on a stage in a concert hall. The effect is fundamentally different from a traditional operatic or lied performance where the performer suppresses her self and, by conveying the abstract or universal feelings of the music/text, elevates herself to a decidedly higher level than the audience.

The performers in Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures are simultaneously pre- and post-language. They are humans turned monkeys, consciousnesses stripped of (almost) everything that is received through conditioning, education, training and self-development. All they retain is a comical, childlike tendency to repeat gestures and facial expressions normally associated with middle class adult humans, and a bourgeois sort of hostility towards each other. This is where the oedipal percussionist is again relevant: when he isn't silencing the performers with his imperative crashes, the performers emulate these sounds to silence each other.

This repetition of adult gestures in combination with the singers' various absurd vocalizations makes one wonder about the type of consciousness being portrayed in the piece. In the performance I saw and in most clips on the internet the singers accented feelings of confusion in their performance. It is as if the characters remember that there's something they've forgotten, a past life of sorts, and they see it around them and in themselves, yet do not know what any of it means. They wonder at the concert venue, at the spectators and at themselves. Why are they dressed so well? Why are their voices so well trained and able to produce such varied and beautiful sounds? What does it all mean? The answer is language. Everything around and about them is the direct or indirect product of linguistic actions and, ironically, language is the one thing they cannot know about. There's nobody to tell them. Speaking during concerts is strongly discouraged.

Witnessing these innocents discover themselves is unsettling, but watching them discover each other is even more disturbing. Ligeti's libretto has apparently captured the principles of animal communication very well and judging by the consistency and uniformity with which different performers are able to convincingly reproduce it, this form of communication must not be very deep under the surface of our refined conversations and learned gestures. After establishing a modicum of control over themselves, the performers set about trying to control each other. Control in this case means silencing the other and this is done via aggressive noises, barks and yelps. The performers form temporary alliances that dissolve within seconds. The soprano screams at the mezzo-soprano and the mezzo-soprano screams at the baritone, who looks to his side and, not finding anybody there, is taken aback and immediately ridiculed by the others until the percussionist terrifies everybody by puncturing a balloon and the dynamic, again, alters. A harmony of all three voices is established only momentarily, when the singers pick up megaphones and wail through them.

It is a soberingly human performance to watch. There is a constant feeling of control being lost. Without any arbitrary signs or laws of harmony to make anything mean anything or develop in a meaningful way the performance is trapped on an abstract level. The performers, unable to become rational subjects, can only communicate by passing bare emotion onto each other. It is like watching people sneezing at each other. Or slapping each other with fish.

And this is how I would characterize the latter 20th century avant-garde more generally as well. It is music that has forgotten how to be music and has begun again in spite of itself, with its classical/romantic structures of feeling intact but estranged and intensified by the lack of structures of control. Classical harmony and regular rhythm, for instance, are long gone. This either leads to the invention of new super-suppressing super-structures like Steve Reich's and Terry Riley's minimalisms, Stockhausen's electronics and krautrock's motorik beats or Alfred Schnittke's terrifying, uncontrollable melancholy and Birtwhistle's cacophony of perceptions or a sort of zen acceptance and fascination with new possibilities of sound, like Brian Eno's and Harold Budd's ambient stillness, Pauline Oliveros' echo-chamber experiments in Deep Listening or Saariaho's evolving textures. Not to speak of various anti-modern romantics, anti-postmodern moderns and anti-post-postmodern postmoderns.

To conclude, this was a very strange and a very rewarding thing to experience.

And to misparaphrase a paraphrase (Niin&Näin, 3/15) of Jean-Luc Nancy's À l'écoute (2002), wherever your ears are, that's where you are. Hearing creates the illusion of being at the center of things. Other senses require movement, interaction, the traversing of physical (touch) or mental (sight) distances. Hearing just happens; it is a state of being engulfed by the world and being reduced to the minimum of what constitutes you, of having your mental but not your physical boundaries defined. As I understood Nancy, the subject is a physical space where sounds resonate.

In silence we would not be.

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