When the titular piece was passed out to my choir a few weeks ago, one of the basses groaned, “Why?”. This reaction, usually reserved by the suckling pig about to be squashed by a washing machine, is normal. This piece is an incredibly difficult sing. However – and this may be a challenge for your credulity – in becoming more familiar with the piece it also became more apparent that it’s constructed in such a way to be as approachable as possible. I have an idealistic goal in mind that by writing this blog post that maybe a singer or director encountering this piece for the first time might be able to use some of what we learned about rehearsing it and apply it to their own experience. It’s a really awesome piece of music that deserves to be performed more often.
Ligeti’s choral music came to some fame thanks to its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It’s rarely performed due to the extreme technical challenge for the musicians and possibly conservative tastes.
Many of Ligeti’s works utilize a musical device that came to be known as “micropolyphony” which is a fifty dollar word for music comprised of a series of canons that create wild sonorities of undulating cluster chords. The intended effect becomes more effective the more you divide your ensemble into discrete parts. The thicker counterpoint creates an aural illusion where you know there’s polyphony happening but it’s too dense to pick out individual voices. Your ear struggles to pick it out of what the composer called a “densely woven cobweb” and then you suddenly remark – “Aha! I have no idea what’s going on!”.
It could go without saying, if I wasn’t just about to say it, that it’s almost impossible to sing.
The challenge of a successful reading of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna is the same as any other piece of music, doing the right notes at the right time. But these notes aren’t born from tuneful tetrachords. Ligeti writes thorny tone rows that create sheer and brutal dissonances when micropolyphony is applied. Furthermore, the choir is divided into 16 sections (SSSSAAAATTTTBBBB) so there’s less chance of being helped out by the singer sitting next to you.
Take this entrance for the tenors, divided into four parts, as an example of why this piece is a struggle:
Leaving the rhythm aside for now, the first three notes (F sharp, E natural, D sharp) are not too challenging to find as they are essentially a small tonal cell. It’s also all stepwise. But we soon have hairy sonorities consisting of adjacent pitches that can’t be rationalized tonally. The second measure in the above example has a simultaneous sonority of D natural, D sharp, E natural, and F sharp. While there are ways to have those pitches elide in a tonal context, that’s not what’s happening here at all.
To prevent a choir from becoming lost in a jungle of ambiguous pitch (I also suddenly hear those bagpipes calling), it can be helpful to bring a map. One of our tenors put together the page below which strips away the music down to the canon that it’s based off of (Thanks Bob!).
Basically, if the “game” of the piece is that various sections of the choir sing the canon at different speeds, you can just distill it down to the canon to make it easier to know what’s going on. A great way to practice is to be able to play the canon on the piano and sing one beat ahead or behind.
With the rhythm and divisi stripped away the piece is instantly more approachable. This type of analysis also makes it apparent that, though it’s an incredible challenge, it’s a very well written piece. Ligeti easily could have made different voice leading choices that would have exacerbated the difficulty – but he didn’t. The canons are mostly stepwise. When there is a leap, it’s a descending one – which is slightly less tiring vocally than an ascending one. The interval of a leap is always either a perfect fifth, perfect fourth, minor third, or a major third which are relatively easy intervals to find.
Finally, it really is a beautiful piece of music – just not for the reasons you might be used to. There isn’t really any melodic content to speak of which I definitely understand is a huge turn off for people. But I would challenge people to try and change their mindset when approaching music like this. I think that dismissing this piece because of it’s lack of melodic content is as unfair as doing the same for a sunset. The beauty in music like this is about how it teases your ear with the aural illusion created by ludicrously dense counterpoint. When your brain is faced with the dichotomy of knowing that there are voices singing, but can’t reconcile that with the aural cues it’s processing, it’s a moment where your perception of reality is being challenged. And that’s an exciting thing – if you can be open to the possibility!