Gyorgi Ligeti, John Cage and Toru Takemitsu
Gyorgi Ligeti, John Cage and Toru Takemitsu
Piano is one of the most beautiful musical instruments we have to spill symphony in the air. There have been myriads of great pianists in history whose musical compositions bear testimony to the fact that piano can be used to create perfect melody for any mood, any emotion. This essay aims at elucidating three Piano works by three different composers from different countries of the world. The compositions namely The Devil’s Staircase, Cheap Imitation and Uninterrupted Rest by Gyorgi Ligeti, John Cage and Toru Takemitsu respectively have been chosen here for analysis. All of these three works have been composed after 1950. Very creative and artistic, these compositions are a marvel to experience.
BREIFLY ABOUT THE THREE PIANISTS
As required for this essay, the three composers chosen belonged to different countries. Born in Romania on 28 May 1923, Gyorgi Ligeti was a Hungarian by origin but later became a citizen of Austria (Steinitz, 2003). Born on 5 September 1912, John Cage was one of the most famous American pianists of modern age and is believed to be the most influential American composers (Greene, 2007). Born on 8 October 1930, Toru Takemitsu was a Japanese musician and one of the leading 20th century Japanese composers (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, 1996).
GYORGI LIGETI’S THE DEVIL’S STAIRCASE
Ligeti composed 18 Etudes in three books in 1985- 2001 out of which ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ was the Etude number 13, composed early 1990’s (Steinitz, 2003). The brilliant piece of music on piano compises several difficult passages which needs immense swiftness and skill to play. There are several notes which make the use of entire key board, going up and down throughout the keyboard. It is very rightly called as ‘The Devil’s Staircase’. In the very beginning of a video in which Greg Anderson plays Ligeti’s Etude 13, he asks the viewers to imagine the following: You're in hell, and you want to get out (YouTube.com). And when the music begins, it exactly feels like someone is trying to run away from a steep and twisted staircase with intense feeling of confusion, fear and determination to escape.
The tempo of this music piece is worth applauding. The higher notes have been used very repetitively for swift and appealing tunes. But there is an entire use of the keyboard from low to high notes to show that someone is descending down the staircase. The intensity is very high at places. At certain moments, like after 1 minute and half of the music and after 2 minutes and few seconds, the rapid tunes come to a halt with a bang and restarts again to newer variations in music. What picture does it bring to a listener’s mind: A person who is hurriedly going down the staircase arrives at a point where he looks around and gets perplexed as what to do now? He takes chances and chooses new ways and keeps on descending after each small halt. The music has very effectively justified its title. There are several points where the music seems to jump off the regular pattern and then catch its breath back to continue.
It is an interesting and rapid journey through the entire expanse of key board, with swift and intense tunes which seem comic as well as fearful at times.
JOHN CAGE’S CHEAP IMITATION
Cheap Imitation was composed by John Cage in 1969 for a solo piece in piano which comprises three parts and has an exclusive pattern of a single melodic line, with occasional doublings (Pritchett, 2004). The rhythmic structure of this piece of music is based on Erik Satie's original Socrate (Fetterman, 1996).
In a video starring Rodney Lister playing Cheap Imitation III of John Cage in CFA Concert Hall of Boston University on September 14, 2012 (YouTube.com), the music piece begins on piano with a very slow tunes with gradually get intense at times. The tunes are repetitive largely; the tempo is moderately at pace, neither too slow nor fast. To a layperson, the song might seem off the tunes at times. There are gaps of silence after every few minutes. A variation around 3minute 35 seconds of the video seems really beautiful and capable of taking the music to a higher level but it drops down in the next 6 seconds. There are some variations but the entire music is played on only the vocal line of Socrate with different modes of up and down at times.
In a personal opinion, this musical piece is good but does not evoke any picture in mind, nothing powerful if any at all. The variation introduced in the 9th minute takes the music to a pitch higher than its earlier tunes. But, it is the very plain absurdity of the melody which is its appeal.
TORU TAKEMITSU’S UNINTERRUPTED REST
This piece of piano music was composed in 1952 – 1959 and is inspired by poems of Takiguchi Shuzo. It has the following three parts: (I) “Slowly, sadly, as if to converse with” which was
composed in 1952, (II) “Quietly and with a cruel reverberation” composed in 1959 and
(III) “A song of love” composed in 1959 (Answers.com).
This music too begins with slow tempo and unusual pattern of notes and gradually moves towards a queer and sharp variation and stop for a few seconds. It starts again with the same tempo and pattern of music. In a video of Takemitsu’s Uninterrupted Rest played by Noriko Ogawa (YouTube.com) very well shows how intense the pattern of music gets in this piece of music. Some variations are really harsh and show a forceful emotion of restlessness being conveyed. Quite contrary to its title, the music is about restlessness in a personal opinion. Sharp and inharmonious at times, it very well represents the lack of mental peace and attitude of being stubborn or passionate about doing something which is so far not giving positive results. In a personal opinion, the music is related to deep mental chaos of a person like an aftermath of a shock, failure and fruitless chase.
In a personal opinion, in terms of skill and melody, ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ by Gyorgi Ligeti is the finest piece of compositions among these three. It requires a great deal of skill at playing keyboard with such speed without losing harmony and hitting the right chord every time to produce a coherent pattern of music. The pianist needs to cover the entire expanse of lowest to highest notes through keyboard. Also, there is a great alacrity of changing tunes and interesting variations which together evokes a strong picture in mind. Without any intention to disrespect the other two great compositions, it is a personal judgment that it was ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ only which could produce a picture a mind, a very clear series of pictures or one can say video. The other musical compositions are considered to be legendary but those could not evoke a mental picture or strong emotion in the mind, heart or imagination of the listener. They were
more of a vague compositions for laypersons as a central theme or ‘backbone’ seemed to be missing. There was no strong connection to any emotion though at times, there were impressions of perplexity, tension and yes, absurdity too. Cheap Imitation III was very slow. It’s not that being slow makes any composition less of a beauty. There are several pieces of Piano works by Israeli pianist Alon Goldstein which are slow and magnificently beautiful. But, Cheap Imitation III failed to make any such impact on mind. So did Uninterrupted Rest! Though it evokes images of a person in confusion and restlessness but it’s still vague enough. There are several piano compositions which can make strong images in mind, touches heart and inspires the listeners. But, sadly these works are not the conventionally harmonious ones which induce strong feelings of positive vibes like love, bravery, freedom, wisdom or inspiration. However, it is the freedom of every composer to choose a theme for it but it should be something which makes an impact. That is what music is made for- touching the heart, moving it to smiles or tears, inspiring others or simply, giving the pleasure of beautiful harmonious music. But, it was missing in these compositions. In every respect, The Devil’s Staircase wins the race with its strong images and skilful quotient.
Studying any musical composition is a lesson for a person. Same has been in this case of analysis of The Devil’s Staircase, Cheap Imitation and Uninterrupted Rest. It enables a listener to know about how music can be unconventional yet interesting, subtle yet soothing and with several gaps of silence yet evoking a emotion. But, some the quality or characteristics which make some musical compositions ‘legendary’ is not easy to grasp for everyone but experts. That is why Cheap Imitation and Uninterrupted Rest could not sound very impressive or beautiful. It is not
that The Devil’s Staircase was very beautiful or conventional but it was at least a work which requires great skill, immense control on fingers and a deep knowledge of music. It could take a mind on a journey which is the best thing about it. It is the best among these three and hence worthy of listening to and analysing.
- Fetterman, William. John Cage's Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performances. 1996. New York: Routledge.
- Greene, David Mason. Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers. Reproducing Piano Roll Fnd. p. 1407 (" John Cage is probably the most influential of all American composers to date."). (2007).
- Pritchett. J. “John Cage: Imitations/transformations”. (2004). Retrieved on 11 Apr 2013 http://www.rosewhitemusic.com/cage/texts/CageImitationsTransformations.html
- Steinitz, Richard. 2003. György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. London: Faber and Faber. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- "Takemitsu, Toru", The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Ed. Michael Kennedy, (Oxford, 1996), Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press.
- Uninterrupted Rests I-III. Answers.com. Retrieved on 11 Apr 2013 http://www.answers.com/topic/uninterrupted-rests-i-iii-for-piano
- YouTube.com. “Greg Anderson plays Ligeti Etude 13: The Devil's Staircase”. Retrieved on 11 April 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZTaiDHqs5s
- YouTube.com. “John Cage: Cheap Imitation III”. Retrieved on 11 Apr 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Zhln46fMwk
- YouTube.com. “Takemitsu - Uninterrupted Rest”. Retrieved on 11 Apr 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GB-c75Cau00