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Ligeti's Metronomes

MetronomesThe tributes to György Ligeti around Blogville have been touching, and there has been too much written for anyone to keep up with it all. One note to add from me, and that is about the YouTube video of Ligeti's Poème symphonique for a hundred metronomes, brought to my attention by The Standing Room via Tim Rutherford-Johnson. First, let me point out that this video is from a broadcast on the European Arte network, which is everything that PBS should be and, oh dear, so is not. Second, it may be interesting for anyone who wants to watch that video but who does not understand French to know what the hell is being said. It's a very interesting bit of narration. Here is my translation:

Poème symphonique was composed by György Ligeti in 1962. We are presenting this work this evening. The concert, which we went to record in Rome, was presented by an orchestra of 100 performers. This rebroadcast is a television premiere. At the end of the concert, we will offer a brief explanation, but first listen and watch. The concert begins in one minute.

[the piece is performed]

Since its world premiere in the Netherlands in 1963, Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes has been very rarely performed in public. The complicated scenographic staging, the detailed preparation by hand, the need for around ten technicians to activate more or less simultaneously the 100 metronomes, makes the demand for performances limited. Thirty-two years after the premiere, the sculptor and installation artist Gilles Lacombe heard a recording of the work. Impressed, he decided to invent a machine able to perform the piece automatically. After six months, he set up this ingenious device. Ever since, Poème symphonique can be performed accurately, at any time, and in public. Please understand that at its world premiere in 1963, the concert was filmed by Dutch television. On that night, after the final tick-tock of the metronome, there was a heavy silence, followed by booing, screaming, and threats. The concert was never broadcast.

If you are not familiar with Ligeti's absurd and groundbreaking work for metronome orchestra, you should be.


Garth Trinkl said...

Bad timing, Charles. I don't think that you should rally your troops to kill PBS on a date that they are broadcasting, on WETA-TV, Adam Guettel's "Light in the Piazza" as part of a rare appearance of the "Live from Lincoln Center" series (9 PM). Like that newly found Laotian Rat-Squirrel, quality programming on PBS is not yet really extinct, but only fossilized and extremely hard to find.

Thanks also to you and Jens for the very fine coverage here of the passing of Gyorgy Ligeti.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for bringing this to my attention. Now I have set my Tivo to record it. I am so out of the habit of even bothering to see what PBS has on that I completely missed it.

jfl said...

Light in the Piazza? Isn't that a musical?

per poeme symphonique: Great video, but sloppy performance... intonation problems and the conductor wayward.

Charles T. Downey said...

It is a musical, which does not exactly make Garth's point very well. I am interested to hear it, but obviously I am not thrilled about PBS's direction.

As for the "Poème symphonique" performance, I think the problem is with the instruments. Clearly, we need to hear this work with original instruments, that is, metronomes as they were made in 1963.

jfl said...

...and Sir Roger Norrington could dig out lost... metronome markings, as it were...

Garth Trinkl said...

Charles, I do, in fact, believe that I made my point quite well; thank you.

This is America, and the 'American musical' is a 'fact on the ground', as some would say -- and just as worthy of aesthetic consideration as 'performance art' or 'ballet'. R & H's "Oklahoma" is just as much a part of the American cultural landscape, as is Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land" or Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" [based on Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country."] ("The Light in the Piazza's" composer Adam Guettel is a grandson of "Oklahoma's" Richard Rodgers.)

Personally, I am just as happy that Lincoln Center Theater mounted this musical, as I am that the Washington National Opera is mounting Nick Maw's "Sophie's Choice", or that the Los Angeles Opera mounted Elliott Goldenthal and Julie Taymour's "Grendel". I didn't see high-brow ionarts cover that "operatic" world premiere last week, did I?.

Once you both (or all seven of you) actually listen to Guettel's jazz and folk inflected musical score, I believe that some of you will recognize the work as one path forward for American popular music theater; a path that might conceivably influence future American opera. It wasn't as if I were waxing ecstatic over a PBS rebroadcast ad infinitum of Josh Groban!

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, no offense meant. However, I do think "Piazza" is symptomatic of the problem with PBS. Did they do a telecast of "An American Tragedy" at the Met or "Doctor Atomic" in SF? No, and far fewer people will ever have the chance to see either of those works. "Piazza" will likely tour to many major American cities, multiple times, and make millions of dollars. I just don't think tax money should be spent on supporting Broadway. It's a thriving commercial venture that hardly needs government subsidy. My beef is not that it's an unworthy genre, although it's not something I enjoy, it's true.

By the way, we will have a press roundup on "Grendel" soon, don't worry.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, I did watch "Piazza" when I got home last night (thank you, Tivo). By "jazz inflected musical score," do you mean that he borrows regularly from the work of George Gershwin? I am fairly sure that I heard him referring to (stealing from) Gershwin several times. I'll have some thoughts about it this weekend.

Garth Trinkl said...

Did they do a telecast of "An American Tragedy" at the Met or "Doctor Atomic" in SF?

O.K., Charles, I see what you are getting at. Yes, American operatic world premieres should be televised, in my own idealist view. (But see below.)

Perhaps I've lived in Washington for far too long (30 years) and have actually begun sadly to believe the NEA-generated propaganda that there is no difference between opera, American music theater, and performance art... I will now entrust you and Jens and your roundtable with my lance so that you can go forth and force PBS to broadcast operas, as well as occasional symphonies, ballets, modern dance programs, musicals, tap-dancing specials, and cross-over events from the Parthenon.

I'd also like to encourage you to refute Greg Sandow, who reports that it would be cheaper for PBS to duplicate cassettes or DVDs of new American operas, and to send them for free to anyone (if there is anyone) interested in receiving one, rather than to broadcast opera over the expensive PBS system.

The details are in an 'Metropolitan Opera Guild' Report, reported back in 2001 in the New York Times.

From Greg Sandow's site:

"Why PBS doesn't broadcast opera. A report in Opera News explains the reason -- hardly anybody watches. Why public radio is cutting back on classical music. The bad news -- few people listen, and those who do, don't give money -- is in a New York Times piece that we can't link to. You can search for it, though, on their website: "Public Radio's Private Guru," by Samuel G. Freedman, published 11/11/01. You'll have to pay to read it, unfortunately."

I hope that you are up to this challenging assignment of reforming PBS (rather than dynamiting it), and choose to accept it. Thank you in advance for your efforts.

jfl said...

Well, I am sure Sandow is right -- even if he gets it wrong. First of all, the point is *availability* for potential, not actual viewers. Secondly, the mission of NPR/PBS is *not* to chase the biggest audience/viewership/listenership but to offer high-quality programming that would precisely NOT make commercial sense for for-profit organizations. Thirdly, the argument falls fairly flat as long as PBS doesn't actually send out those Opera DVDs. Hey... they could placate us by doing a five minute ad: "Everyone interested in seeing 'Such-and-Such-an-Opera' contact us: we are recording it and we'll send you a free DVD, S&H our courtesy. Think of us, come membership drive."

Garth Trinkl said...

Charles and Jens, I suddenly remembered that the last time that I actually attended the Lincoln Center Theater was in the early to mid-1980s for Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymour's "The Transposed Heads", based upon a short story set in India by Thomas Mann. I thought it was fantastic, and was probably worthy then of broadcast on PBS.

Yes, perhaps PBS should have been broadcasting more 'experimental music theater works' from the 1980s, as well as the American operas that they did broadcast -- All the Kings Men, Goya, Dangerous Liaisons, Ghosts of Versailles, The Aspern Papers, Nixon in China ... and several others.

You make good points, Jens, and, of course, I'd send PBS $50 or even $100 if I could, in exchange, send to them for free replacement cassette or DVD copies of all of my dust-covered and ghost-streaked versions of these operas that I taped during the hayday of the VCR.

And Charles, four days later I actually have little memory of 'Light on the Piazza', though I do think that there was a good bit more in the musical score than just a bit of Gershwin. (I thought Guettel was considered an avant-garde 'musical' composer, like Sondheim before him. I also brought the work to your attention without having heard it first or known its story, but having only known that it won 5 Tony Awards. Also, my idea of the Broadway musical, especially ones with humane characters, being in financial straits, is perhaps out of date as we move five years beyond 9/11.)

I suppose that PBS will be airing the film version of "Rent" on pledge night before the year is out. Hopefully, Beverly Sills will have hung up her dancing shoes by then.

[My musically very intelligent and tolerant mother enjoyed the Adam Guettel musical; while my more critical father couldn't see its point.]

Anonymous said...

There is a regular public high school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada that performed this piece. They had to rent all the metronomes. They performed it at a traditional 'band competition' in front of all there friends and working class parents. It was amazing, as a high school music teacher, I was speechless.