It’s rare enough to catch a world premiere. It’s unheard of to catch 18 in one night.
But that’s what you can do on September 24 at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust, where pianist Han Chen will celebrate what would have been György Ligeti’s 100th birthday by playing 18 new works by 18 different composers, each paired with one of the Austro-Hungarian composer’s 18 piano Études as a starting point for their original compositions. Chen calls the project “Infinite Staircase,” an Escherian combination of two of Ligeti’s Études — No. 13: “L’escalier du diable” (“The Devil’s Staircase”) and No. 14: “Columna infinită” (“Infinite Column”). The title is meant to evoke the endless progress of musical invention, whose apex — like the limit as x approaches zero or the nut that Scrat from Ice Age longs to munch — composers will, thankfully, never reach.
But Chen isn’t trying to keep calculus students busy or adolescents entertained, nor is he prescribing a certain direction that music should take — a useless tendency of taste-makers and theorists from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Richard Wagner to Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt. Just look at the names of some of the new pieces: Machine #1 (Nick Bentz); Fragmentation of Memory (Gity Razaz); pag-aaral: galing na ibon (“Study of a Nightingale”) (Sugar Vendil); Campanology (Fjóla Evans); it is within you that the ghosts acquire voices (Nina Young). The variety is dizzying, and oh-so-enticing. What will this music sound like? Based on these titles, I predict: tastefully wacky.
You know Ligeti’s music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where his Atmosphères haunts the viewer as astronaut Dave Bowman enters the Star Gate. Even Scorsese forwent Tony Bennett and Bobby Darren for Ligeti’s Lontano, in the opening sequence of Shutter Island. If you want to convey a sense of alienation, infinitude, and floating in the cosmos, Ligeti is your guy.
His piano music is obscure to lay listeners but foundational to the repertoire, and surprisingly satisfying to listen to. Ligeti’s three collections of Études are his most substantial work for the instrument. An “étude,” which literally means “study,” was originally a piece written for a pianist to work out a technical problem, like producing a more mellifluous tone or playing smoother scales. But Ligeti’s Études follow in a lineage of compositions by Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, who turned these mere exercises into vehicles for crowd-pleasing feats of virtuosity and expression. Chen, in addition to playing the new pieces, will play all 18 Études, out of order and scattered amongst the new pieces. But don’t be scared; the concert will only last approximately an hour.
When Ligeti (1923–2006) started composing his Études, in 1985, he was “firmly established as Europe’s most visible and respected member of the postwar avant-garde,” in the words of musicologist Tim Rutherford-Johnson. But his triumph didn’t come easy. Ligeti, who was Jewish, had endured decades of political upheaval in his native Hungary: conscripted by the Nazis into a forced labor gang; family members killed by the Nazis; Soviet invasion. These horrors solidified his musical outlook; he would never assert the primacy of one style over another. This is reflected in the Études through both their breadth of influence and their complexity — they contain references to the Javanese gamelan, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, and jazz (well, maybe Ravel’s jazz). And although they’re mind-bendingly complicated, this complexity was, for Ligeti (consciously or not), a fuck-you to the simplicity of fascist scapegoating, Soviet brutality, and mob mentality.
The Études are also influenced by Chaos Theory (think: Butterfly Effect), which Ligeti had encountered in Benoit Mandelbrot’s 1982 book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature. Floored, he imbued the Études with feelings of fragmentation and wrote some of the most extreme dynamics ever seen in a written score, ranging from, basically, the sound of silence — pppppppp in Étude No. 9 — to that of a black hole (which is actually very loud) — ffffffff in Étude No. 13. In addition to the multiple p notations for playing softly, or piano, and f for playing forte, or loudly, the pianist also encounters instructions to play “prestissimo, staccatissimo, leggierissimo” (the fastest, the most detached, the nimblest), “always hard and metallic!” and “very rhythmically and springy (with swing) so that the polyrhythmic diversity comes to the fore,” among other exhortations.
Chen, who is 31, tells the Voice that the pieces were both a “milestone” and a “personal defiance” for him. He remembers encountering Ligeti’s music for the first time at the Parsons Music store, in Hong Kong, in 2007. “I randomly picked up Ligeti’s Piano Études Book 3, which I had never heard of as a middle schooler, and liked the fact that there are no real barlines in the music.” For a classical pianist, having no barlines (no “measures”) is intimidating; this makes it hard to see where phrases start and stop. “I purchased the score, learned Étude No. 15, ‘White on White,’ as my first Ligeti Étude, and was happy that I played something different from what all my classmates performed for the technical exam.”
During the Covid-19 lockdown, in 2021, he proposed recording all the Études to his label, Naxos. “My teenage self kicked in,” he says. “I remember how happy I was when I got the email confirming this project, just like when I found the score on the shelf at the music store.” The album, which is stellar, came out in May. On it, you can hear how Chen cares for this music by relishing every dissonance (especially those in “White on White”), controlling the chaos of Études such as “Infinite Column,” and communicating holistic interpretations that guide, rather than instruct, the listener.
Composers have always itched to respond to the music of other composers, from Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations to Liszt’s devilishly challenging opera transcriptions for piano to Max Richter’s addicting recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. But now I’m noticing that some composers (Sylvie Courvoisier and Ben Verdery among them) are burying the recognizable parts of the former composition (the “theme,” say) and crafting the bulk of their response around the atmosphere or the “vibe” of the composition. For Chen, “the goal is not to give them assignments but rather a trigger for something.” The composers, most of whom are his friends, could “choose to study the Étude, go against the Étude, or just sit with the Étude when they compose.” Ligeti would have been proud of Chen’s emphasis on subjectivity.
In 1961, in the little village of Alpbach, in Austria, Ligeti was asked to conclude a course he was teaching with a lecture on the future of music. His response was to stand before the audience and keep silent for 10 minutes. As the crowd of duped students roared into an outrageous clamor, Ligeti started writing musical instructions on the chalkboard in a sarcastic attempt to control the sound. He later included this one-off, irreproducible uproar in his catalog of works: The Future of Music — a Collective Composition. He couldn’t predict the future, so he refused even to try. When I asked Chen how the new pieces would sound — prepared piano? minimalist? rock ‘n’ roll? — he gave a similar nonanswer: “All of the above!” Really?
It’s actually better that he didn’t elaborate. Just as Ligeti kept that audience guessing about what the music of the future would sound like, Chen isn’t showing his cards. Exactly one hundred years before Ligeti’s Alpbach lecture, Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer, published a famous essay, “The Music of the Future,” in which he laid out how he thought opera should sound. Chen, like Ligeti, does not have this authoritarian mindset. Instead, he is giving the business end of the sword to any and all prophecies about what music will sound like when we aren’t here to hear it. Luckily, we’re here to hear Han. ❖
Ben Gambuzza is a writer, pianist, book editor, and researcher living in Brooklyn. He is also the host of The Best Is Noise, a live classical music show on Radio Free Brooklyn. You can find his recital album, Baroque Jewels, Romantic Revivals, on Bandcamp and elsewhere.