György Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata” in Eyes Wide Shut

I watched Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures last night. When he was a teenager, he was already becoming an accomplished photographer, with a dark room set up in his parents’ house. In 1945, when FDR died, he took the following photo, by chance, of a news vendor surrounded by the headlines:

An amazing photo, in composition and style. Even more incredible was Kubrick’s decision to try to sell it. He knew he had something. He got an offer from the Daily News, but – what balls – decided to keep shopping it around, until finally Look magazine bought it, and it ran in the June issue. It was a big deal. That was a national magazine. Soon afterwards, he became a staff photographer for Look, and he was on his way.

Jack Nicholson is interviewed, of course, and my favorite quote from him was: “Everyone knew that Kubrick was The Man … and in my opinion that still under-rates him.”

But there was one moment from one of the people interviewed that covered me in goosebumps. It dovetails with my Stalin obsession and sent images reverberating through my mind. I actually said out loud to myself, “Wow.” at this moment in the documentary.

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 main points of the people interviewed was how much Kubrick changed the way music was used in film – think of 2001, and how a familiar classical piece was used not as background but as an essential thematic element – it is impossible to separate the music from the scenes). 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 this documentary, because some of his comments are invaluable. One, in particular.

Ligeti sits on a couch, reminiscing about Kubrick. He is an old man, and frankly 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 his pieces used by Kubrick, but it was the brief comment he made about his “Musica Ricercata” in Eyes Wide Shut that derailed me. The clanging piano notes of that song are used to such a creepy degree in Eyes Wide Shut that when I first saw it I didn’t know what was so frightening: it all seemed frightening: the sense that he was being followed, the shadows, the music. It was the music that tipped it over the edge. It is an unbearable sound, so tense that you ache for something to relieve it, even if it is violent. The notes of the piece happen one by one, there is no “arrangement” of left-hand, right-hand, at least not traditionally. There is an echo, with what is happening at the top-end of the piano being echoed by the same notes far down at the bottom end. Awful. Awful as in scary. The overall effect is of a single man sitting at a piano, banging out the notes using only one finger. Additionally, the notes seem to be in a cluster. There is not a wide range. They stay in one section of the piano, going up one note, down two notes, up two, down one … a strange and jagged repetitive sound that ultimately causes you to beg for release, for some kind of resolution. But it never comes. The piano notes just keep clanging, one by one, a little bit up, a little bit down, and the workings of the piece are perhaps mysterious (who knows why certain notes put together in certain ways can create universal responses in an audience), but undeniable. I wanted the music to stop. Sometimes it does. But it always returns. And when I would hear that first clanging piano note, the Pavlovian dread would rise up again. “Oh, no, not THAT music again.” This is how Kubrick used music in film, and he obviously felt a kinship with Ligeti’s music, using it as often as he did.

Here is the terrifying Musica Ricertata:

So what was the quote from Ligeti that so stopped me in my tracks? It was one of those moments where someone reveals something, almost in a throwaway way, 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 50s.

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

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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6 Responses to György Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata” in Eyes Wide Shut

  1. Bruce Reid says:

    If you know French, there’s a Ligeti documentary available on Ubuweb. I think direct links toss comments into the filter, so just go to ubu dot com and search for the composer. I have no familiarity with the language, and so can only offer that the film is nicely photographed, if possibly (unfair to judge with my bare, sketchy comprehension) a little arty. Ligeti is marvelously expressive even with the language barrier, and if you brush up on his biography it’s clear what events he’s discussing most of the time. The music, of course, needs no translation.

    Ligeti orchestrated portions of Musica Ricercata (the second movement not among them) as Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet. It’s worth a listen for how much more playful and sprightly the music is in its new configuration.

  2. sheila says:

    Bruce – fantastic!! I’m so excited – you are awesome for this information. I was so chilled by how he said “a knife in Stalin’s heart” – and he had a huge smile on his face. It gave me, briefly, a sense of what it was like. Thrilling.

    My French is minimal, I can read it – but speaking it and understanding it on the fly is not in my repertoire. But I will most definitely check out that documentary. I can’t wait.

  3. Doina Manea says:

    Hello Sheila,
    I’m lurking around your blog for quite some time, but I haven’t the guts to write a comment, under the premise that I have nothing important to say, only to absorb. I was wrong, I confess. I should have, at least, thanked you for the wealth of knowledge you so kindly share with your readers, for opening my eyes on various books and movies. You have no idea how much I’ve learned just by reading your blog! I bought books based on your list and reviews. And I still haven’t read quite everything posted in here.

    So I say today: thank you. Someone told me one day why don’t I start my own blog, but I said no, if I launch myself into such a cyber-adventure, it should have Sheila-quality!

    Anyway, I wish to thank Bruce, too. I went to that ubu page, and watched the documentary about Ligeti (I understand French). Marvelous, indeed.
    My best wishes to you both,

  4. sheila says:

    Doina – thank you, thank you! It’s always nice when people come out of lurking and make comments – it is such a contribution to me! So thank you for everything you said.

    I haven’t watched the Ligeti doc yet – my week is insanely busy (although perhaps you would never know it from the insane amounts that I write here) – so perhaps this weekend I will watch it. VERY much looking forward!

  5. Richard says:

    Hi Sheila, nice blog, thanks for it! I was googling around to find out about Ligeti – I just rewatched “Eyes Wide Shut”. I took another look at this film after listening to a radio interview with a man named Jay Weidner who has created a documentary entitled “Kubrick’s Odyssey”. He stated that much was edited out of this film (not by Kubrick himself as he died prior to the film’s release) and that it makes a lot more sense if you know about the missing parts. I think he is right. There is a lot more to Kubrick’s work than just entertainment, and I think he had a lot of insight into the power structures of the world.

  6. Pingback: Music for our times | tunisiantimes

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