What I’m Listening To – 5/29/2012

This is the first of a weekly series that will either focus on the music I’m listening to (and what I think about it) or be a guest post from another composer.  I decided to focus on one piece per week instead of a list of pieces (as I do listen to more than one piece a week…).  I also hope that this will engender discussion – tell me what you think of the piece, or if you disagree with the way I see it (or agree, for that matter).

To that end, I’ll also try to pick pieces that have youtube videos, so we can all be on the same page.

So this week, one of the pieces that I listened to was “Fanfares” from the Ligeti Etudes.  This piece was written in 1985, and was part of the first book (of three books).  I was listening to it in particular for a couple of reasons:  a) I’m (slowly) learning to play it, and b) I’m gearing up to write a piano piece, and so I’m picking up some inspiration (I wouldn’t be surprised if next week’s WILT is also a piano piece).  Oh…and I really enjoy listening to the Ligeti Etudes!

(Note on the recording:  I chose this one because it had some helpful explanations of what is happening in the piece.  It does have a few errors, though – there are many recordings to choose from if you want a “perfect” rendition.)

So what makes “Fanfares” (and most of the etudes) tick?  All in all there seems to be a pre-occupation with time and the subversion of our expectations regarding it.  Ligeti approaches that subject differently in many of his etudes.  Here, he supplies a continuously running ostinato that switches from hand-to-hand and octave-to-octave.

Ostinato from "Fanfares"

On top of this ostinato (which is interesting because it has an uneven beat structure – 3+2+3 – which Ligeti requires the pianist to emphasize) is a fanfare-like configuration, which is also generally made out of twos and threes (in terms of eighth notes).  When the piece begins, the ostinato beat pattern and these fanfares tend to line up (although not necessarily with the first beat of the bar – the idea of the bar becomes more and more irrelevant as the piece progresses).  The idea is that you should hear the fanfare as the beginning of a temporal grouping (that is, as a beat 1), and the fact that it lines up with the beats of the ostinato encourages that way of listening.

Things begin to break down at measure 46 (around 0:42 in the recording I linked).  We suddenly lose the dyads and their longer note values, making this section feel much more contrapuntal.  The hands are still accenting beat-groups together at the beginning of this, but a few measures in, the right-hand plays a group of three while the left-hand plays a group of two.  While the accents are re-aligned when the left-hand takes over the “melody,” they quickly fall out of sync again.

When the longer dyads come in, the rhythmic stability returns for a brief while before being subverted by strings of quarter notes (which go against the 3+2+3 rhythm of the ostinato).

At measure 116 (around 1:42 in the recording), the right-hand has a stable rhythm.  Unfortunately for the pianist, this rhythm has seven beats to the ostinato‘s eight.  That means that the beginnings of the patterns will only line up after every 8 repetitions of the right-hand pattern (and what happens at that point in “Fanfares”?  The hands switch so that the right-hand has the ostinato and the left the 7-beat pattern).

This breaks up in measure 137, where both hands have the ostinato for a few bars (around 2:01), but then it’s back to business as usual.  In this section, Ligeti plays with the dynamics of the fanfares, suggesting, perhaps, that whoever is “performing” them in the musical world is moving away from and towards the listener.  There are also some shocking dynamic changes (pppp to ff in m.171) that add drama.

Finally, towards the end of the piece, the “fanfare” lines start to get longer and feel slower (because of longer note values), and finally the ostinato travels all the way from the bottom of the piano to the top, which signals the end of the etude.

Why is it exciting?  Ligeti manages to subvert our metric expectations even though he has a constant eighth-note figure running throughout the piece.  I enjoy listening to all the etudes, but this one is a good introduction because it is the easiest to grasp (aurally) in terms of what’s going on.  I also like the way that the piece ends un-synced.  There is a tendency for me (as a composer) to want to finish a composition with a burst of “togetherness” (or something like that).  Here, Ligeti’s ending creates fascinating polyrhythms which, combined with the rise of the ostinato from the bottom to the top of the piano give the piece a very satisfying ending (although I must admit to being a little puzzled at the last note in the left-hand, which seems to be left hanging – it’s like the piece has been an explosion of perpetual-motion energy that finally gives way to physics in the end, and comes to a full stop).

So that’s the first installment of What I’m Listening To!  If you think there is something I should be listening to, leave me a comment and maybe it will show up here one week!  I’m still getting a feel for how these posts should run – more analysis/less analysis vs. more of my feelings about the piece/less feelings?  I’ll experiment – let me know what you think.


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