I came to Ligeti the same way a lot of people did - through Kubrick’s 2001, where the weightless spectres of “Lux Aeterna”, “Adventures”, and “Atmospheres” perfectly served the drift into the unknown. Later on, Kubrick stamped a stark Ligeti piano theme into Eyes Wide Shut. This nagging motif was taken from a larger compositional sequence (“Musica Ricercata”) of solo piano pieces that used one only note, two notes, then three, on up to a polyphony of eleven.
Ligeti encompassed many ideas. He could go from a neo-romantic chamber vignette to recording a hundred metronomes in motion. He could sacrifice linearity for pure sonic texture, or perhaps blend the two in an alien contrail. The overall thrust was to discover something new, to turn the usual (or unusual, as in his “mechanical” works for barrel organ, or the clustered vocal clouds) to private advantage. There are also moments of virtuoso musicality, like “Desordre” and other piano etudes. I can’t say I enjoy everything I’ve heard - there are baffling extremes - but one can appreciate the eclectic artistry.
One of my favorite Ligeti pieces is his first string quartet “Metamorphoses noctures”, a mobile of jagged timbres and miniature shocks composed in 1953-4. The creepy glisses, pizzicato thumps, and tense crescendos all highlight the visceral possibilities of the format, while the spatial awareness hints at his more overtly “visual” works. The second string quartet, written in 1968, shares some of the same characteristics.
My reason for scribbling the above is that Mr. Ligeti just passed away after 83 years of life. Some will give his music the usual post-mortem re-evaluation, but it was already mysterious and transient enough to me.