SYZYGY's Ligeti Was Black Comedy

Ligeti himself.
Ligeti himself.

Wails, bellows, purrs, barks, hisses, laughter, gurgles, screeches, yelps, retching, squeals, gurgles, screams, grunts and groans. No words. Just clusters of prickly, spindly instrumental spattering, and the human voice reduced to animalistic expression. If John Cage had aimed his sights at prepared vocal chords instead of pianos, this is what it might have sounded like--throats set to life by gunpowder, bristling with an endless tuft of ignition fuses.

SMU's New Music Ensemble, SYZYGY, welcomes you to the theatre of the absurd. The centerpiece of which is twentieth-century composer György Ligeti's mini-opera duology: Aventures & Nouvelle Aventures.

Ligeti's art is a frightening thing. Like a near-death experience or some Lovecraftian horror, his music is unequivocally disorientating. It has this woozy, boiling effect, felt in the gut as much as the head. It either grips you uncomfortably tight, or leaves you reeling like you're slipping off the face of the planet. If there's a musical equivalent to untamed wilderness, this is it. (Clearly, it's also the sort of music that makes writers resort to purple language and curlicue verbosity). It might be unfair to characterize Ligeti's work solely by its sensational aspects, but to downplay this feature would also be to miss the point. Without question, Ligeti was out to innovate as much as he was out to set teeth on edge. And in this respect, he was in an especially searing vein with Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures.

It's not everyday you hear a music director preface a concert with "don't be scared." Yet, before a modest crowd of academics, eager avant garde fans, and students-seeking-extra-credit, these were the exact words uttered in SMU Meadows' Caruth Auditorium last night. In what amounted to a parent readying a child for a painful, or confusing experience, the audience was officially prepped to receive an evening of strange, abstracted music.

For Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures, Ligeti quite literally drafted his own language. Writing within the framework of an imagined dialect (the composer's way of sidestepping the strictures of formalized language in opera), Ligeti built a musical tower of babble, as alien (and alienating) as any opera before or since. In his own words: "[The] idea was to create a music from human sounds--that is, "poems" of pure phonetic material, without regard to meaning (only with emotional content)."


Written for three voices, flute, french horn, cello, bass, percussion, piano and harpsichord, these two works include everything from the sound of ripping paper and thunderous percussive slams, to stroking the innards of keyboard instruments to reach desired timbres. On recording, the effect is decidedly hellish, if at times grotesquely funny, evoking a mood of schizophrenic mania--a legion of human and instrumental threads battling for the attention of the listener. However, the result on this night was noticeably altered.

SYZYGY added their own interpretive flair to Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures. Ligeti's overtly dramatic and humorously absurd compositions were made even more so in lieu of added theatrical stylization. Each of the three singers' stage entrances and exits were marked by goofy facial expressions, and the interactions between vocalists and the instrumentalists throughout were taken to campy extremes. What resulted was an altogether more comedic delivery.

Ultimately, SYZYGY's rendition was black comedy, a vitriolic satire on operatic conventions: Ligeti's nonsensical language came off as a biting parody of the continued use of foreign librettos (or "this is what opera sounds like to many present-day concertgoers"), while the singers' ornate theatricality seemed to highlight how antiquated the tastelessly bombastic drama of traditional opera performance must seem to contemporary audiences. It was an unexpected, but keenly modern portrayal. Certainly, part of this can be chalked up to intentional interpretative efforts, and some, I imagine, to not-so-intentional efforts. Case in point, even in instances in which the performers reached for sincerity, the effect was often silly, gauche.

Constantly wavering between humorous flare-ups and scarifying schisms, SYZYGY's Thursday night concert left the audience a spectrum of reactions, ranging from shameless laughter to silent discomfort. Some gasped and jumped, some smiled, some scowled. True to form, it appeared that teeth were set on edge. On the whole, SYZYGY cast Ligeti's Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures in a different lighting; even so, it's a shade I believe György Ligeti would have been throughly tickled by--even proud of.

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