It’s the birthday of composer György Ligeti

György Ligeti was a classical composer, born in Romania, who lived in Hungary as a young adult, before fleeing Stalinist oppression to Austria. Stanley Kubrick used his music in 2001, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut (one of the things pointed up again and again by the people interviewed for Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures was how much Kubrick changed the way music was used in film).

Ligeti’s work is well-known by his colleagues and classical contemporaries, but it was Kubrick who introduced his work to a wider audience. Ligeti died in 2006, but how fortunate that he was still alive to be interviewed for Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures because some of his comments are invaluable. One, in particular.

Ligeti sits on a couch, reminiscing about Kubrick. Ligeti is an old man, and he does not look well. His skin is chalky white, his lips are almost blue, and there are black circles around his eyes. His accent is thick, and he has a passionate emphatic way of speaking that makes you listen very closely. This is an artist.

He was interviewed about all of the pieces he composed that Kubrick used, but it was the brief comment he made about his “Musica Ricercata” – used so unforgettably throughour Eyes Wide Shut – that stays with me. The clanging piano notes of the song are used so artfully, so perfectly, in Eyes Wide Shut that when I first saw it I couldn’t quite locate what was so frightening: it all seemed frightening, but it was the music that tipped it over the edge.

“Musica Ricercata” is almost unbearable to listen to. It’s so tense you ache for something to relieve it, even if whatever it is is violent. The music is not a call to violence, those sharply struck piano notes are violence itself. The notes of the piece happen one by one, there is no “arrangement” or blending of left-hand with right-hand – there is NO cooperation. There is also an echo: what is happening at the top-end of the piano is echoed by the same notes far down at the bottom end. And it’s awful: the top and bottom create a trap: you can’t escape ABOVE and you can’t escape below: the notes are locked gates.

Additionally, the notes seem to be in a cluster, which may sound like a contradiction, due to the echo effect. But within the “tune,” there is not a wide range. The notes of the tune stay in one section of the piano, going up one scale, down two, up two, down one … It is a strange and jagged repetitive sound, creating unbearable tension, but resolution never comes. The piano notes just keep clanging, one by one, a little bit up, a little bit down. The workings of the piece are perhaps mysterious but undeniable.

Watching the movie, I wanted the music to stop. Sometimes it does. But it always returns. And when I would hear that clanging piano note, the dread would rise up. “Oh, no, not THAT again.”

This is how Kubrick used music in film. He obviously felt a kinship with Ligeti’s music.

Here is one of the sequences in Eyes Wide Shut:

The comment from Ligeti that so stopped me in my tracks was one of those moments where someone reveals something, almost in a throwaway line, and the moment is gone before you can fully understand it …

But, to be honest, I want an entire documentary now about György Ligeti, based on this one quote.

Musica Ricertata (a much longer piece than the section used repetitively in Eyes Wide Shut) was written in the early 1950s.

Ligeti, sitting on the couch, an old man, says to the interviewer:

I was in Stalinist terroristic Hungary where this kind of music was not allowed. And I just wrote it for myself. Stanley Kubrick understood the dramatics of this moment and this is what he did in the film and for me, when I composed it in the year 1950, it was desperate. It was a knife in Stalin’s heart.

Listen to the piece again now. Listen to it thinking of his words.

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