A few months back, I read an interview with Spanish doomsters Orthodox. It really wasn't that interesting, just your usual generic Q&A, until they got to the section on their influences. There, very unexpectedly, György Ligeti's named popped up. The band claimed that their select segment of doom n' drone, including all fellow sustained tone <3ers, Orthodox got me thinking. Got me thinking about a lot of things, actually. And, you know, I have to say that they’re right. I do hear a lot of “Requiem” in not only the experimental drone metal hybrids that have been making hipster lists for the past couple years, but in the twitchy, nervous outsider black metal movement that has been trying to amp up the disjointed creepiness factor.
Collected here for you to study are two of Ligeti’s more well known pieces, “Atmosphères” and “Requiem.” Ambient enthusiasts will be interested in “Atmosphères,” because, as is written in everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia, Wikipedia:
Out of the four elements of music, melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre, the piece
almost completely abandons the first three, concentrating on the texture of the sound, a technique known as sound mass. It opens with what must be one of the largest cluster chords ever written - every note in the chromatic scale over a range of five octaves is played at once. Out of the fifty-six string players ushering in the first chord, not one plays the same note. The piece seems to grow out of this initial massive, but very quiet, chord, with the textures always changing.
Ligeti coined the term "micropolyphony" for the compositional technique used in Atmosphères, Apparitions and his other works of the time. He explained micropolyphony as follows: "The complex polyphony of the individual parts is embodied in a harmonic-musical flow, in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another; one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape."
But, in my mind, “Requiem” is his masterwork. I’ll let AMG’s Jeremy Grimshaw take the stage here:
Ligeti's Requiem, which he began composing in 1963 and finished two years later,
in many ways bears the edgy, modernist characteristics general to his most prominent works. At the same time, as the title suggests, it also positions itself in relation to musical tradition, as if applying the composer's pioneering sonorities to the service of "expression," in a more visceral and subjective manner than modernism usually admits. Perhaps the most striking feature of the work, which is scored for two choirs, orchestra, and two soloists (soprano and mezzo-soprano) is its vibrant, quivering surface. The individual parts comprising his chromatic clusters are often too close to each other to be individually discerned, but their motion adds a distinctive, acoustical glimmer. Melody, then, is generally subsumed by the work's texture, but contributes crucially to its character. This technique also becomes a variant in and of itself, as the pace of the work and the character of the various liturgical sections or texts are often established by the register and relative opacity of the contrapuntal clusters. One startling effect, perhaps inspired by the creepy bass intonations of Varèse's Nocturnal from a few years before, is the use of two low men's voices in near unison, their pitches offset enough to create a hauntingly beating effect. Likewise, when one of the high female solo voices breaks through the thick chromatic pall of the orchestra and chorus, the lucidity of her line is cast in brighter relief. These contrasts, coupled with extremes of dynamics and articulation, reach their apex in the carefully disjointed Dies Irae. Thus, despite Ligeti's unique and complex musical language, the ultimate result of his work is not entirely different in principle from the large-scale requiems of previous centuries, which projected grandeur, intensity, and intimacy through the careful deployment of their vocal and instrumental forces.
Basically: free up some room on your Halloween mixes. Divorced from Kubrick’s 2001, “Requiem” sounds even more menacing; a shadow world where something sinister lurks behind every note. It’s an absolute psychological mindfuck, so it’s not surprising that it gained favor with some metalheads, whether, as Orthodox so keenly points out, they knew it or not.