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Gyorgy Ligeti; influential composer of wry, startling pieces

As a young composer, Gyorgy Ligeti heard music in his head that he didn't know how to write down.

The music came to him, he liked to say, ``in a hallucination."

In communist Hungary, Mr. Ligeti had no access to the avant-garde music of the West, no way of learning of the techniques developed for composing and preserving it. Furthermore, he wouldn't have dared to try to write down what he imagined; Hungary's government would have suppressed it. ``Totalitarian regimes do not like dissonances," he later wrote.

Mr. Ligeti was able to escape from Hungary during the revolution of 1956, and the works he created in the following years -- especially ``Apparitions" (1960) and ``Atmospheres" (1961), orchestral pieces full of startling sounds -- established him as a leading avant-garde figure in the musical world.

In 1968, director Stanley Kubrick used three Ligeti pieces on the soundtrack of his immensely popular and influential film ``2001: A Space Odyssey." Though this was done without the composer's knowledge or permission, the film created a widespread interest in Mr. Ligeti's music that continued to grow throughout the rest of his life; a Ligeti premiere was always an event. Kubrick returned to Mr. Ligeti's work in his last film, ``Eyes Wide Shut."

Mr. Ligeti died yesterday morning in Vienna after a long illness. He was 83.

Pianist Stephen Drury worked with Mr. Ligeti on his Etudes when the composer was in Boston for a weeklong festival of his work at New England Conservatory in 1993.

``Ligeti had a gift for writing high modernism in an uncompromising fashion that people nevertheless liked to listen to and could absorb," Drury said yesterday. ``Everything in his music was connected to the real world, the physical world, to what we have in front of us, and that is what made his work graspable.

``I remember when we were working on the Fifth Etude, which is all about inflection, atmosphere, and tone, he said, `It should sound like Bill Evans playing Chopin at 5 o'clock in the morning.' "

Mr. Ligeti was born May 28, 1923, into a Hungarian family living in the Transylvanian village Discoszentmarton (it is now in Romania and known as Timavena). He began his studies in Cluj , Romania. In 1943, he was arrested because he was Jewish and sent to a labor camp. His father and brother were killed by the Nazis.

After the end of the war, Mr. Ligeti completed his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest and began his career. His early music, such as the ``Romanian Concerto" that the Boston Symphony Orchestra played last season, was modeled on that of his greatest 20th-century Hungarian predecessors, Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly , and influenced by their interest in folk music. In these early works, we can catch glimpses of the sounds and techniques of some of his later masterpieces.

After he left Hungary around 1956 , Mr. Ligeti lived and worked in Vienna, where he became an Austrian citizen, as well as Berlin, Cologne, and Hamburg, Germany, where from 1973 to 1989 he taught composition at the Musikhochschule. His health was never robust, and his trips to America were infrequent. In 1972, however, he served as composer-in-residence at the Tanglewood Music Center.

Most of Mr. Ligeti's works were almost immediately acknowledged as 20th-century masterpieces, though sometimes the dense activity and rapid, shimmering high-register polyphony of his pieces led to remarks and complaints about ``mosquito music." Among his greatest works is his only opera, ``Le Grand Macabre" (1974-1977), which is based on the theater piece of the same name by Michel de Ghelderode. The absurdist streak found in Mr. Ligeti's opera and in his vocal chamber music (``Aventures" and ``Nouvelles Aventures") also found expression in his ``Poeme Symphonique" for 100 metronomes; they're all works full of ingeniously and expressively rude noises.

Mr. Ligeti left major concertos for violin, piano, and cello and a wide range of chamber music. A project to record his complete works that was begun by Sony Classical a few years ago and continued by Teldec has faltered. Nevertheless the three books of Piano Etudes that he composed in recent years have already entered the repertoire of adventurous pianists. Advanced students now play them as a matter of course, and they have been recorded several times.

His unpredictable music always remained on the cutting edge because he did not repeat himself, but at the same time it was deeply rooted in the music and techniques of the past. His etude ``Autumn in Warsaw" is, among other things, a tribute to Chopin's ``Winter Wind" etude. Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi is fond of letting the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's ``Lohengrin" flow directly into Mr. Ligeti's ``Atmospheres" as a way of making a point about change and continuity.

Mr. Ligeti was also a painstaking, self-critical craftsman who kept returning to his works until he felt he had them right. In 2002, the BSO gave the American premiere of his ``Hamburg Concerto" for horn and chamber orchestra. In an interview with the Globe not long afterward, he said, ``I am not happy with this piece yet. Somehow the movements are too short, and the form is not right, so my next project is to write two more movements."

Mr. Ligeti's Piano Concerto was commissioned for pianist Anthony di Bonaventura of Boston University, who played the world premiere of both the original version and the final version, for which Mr. Ligeti composed two additional movements.

Yesterday di Bonaventura recalled how the concerto would emerge a few pages at a time from his fax machine. ``Ligeti heard things that no one else had heard before; this was the extraordinary thing about him," di Bonaventura said. ``His music was highly organized, but it gave the impression of a near-chaotic assemblage of sounds, and nothing was too wild for him. One thinks of him as operating in a totally different sphere of music, the innovator par excellence, yet it was all solidly based on the music of the past. When we were working on recording the concerto for the Austrian radio, he was always asking for it to be faster and wilder. The music could never be galvanized enough for him."

In his last years, Mr. Ligeti spoke of creating a ``revue" based on ``Alice in Wonderland" and ``Through the Looking Glass," a project ideally suited to the precision of his thinking and the unexpected humor that often bubbled up in his work.

He was as outspoken and individual in conversation as he was in his music; his views were original, complicated, elegant, and anarchical. In an interview with the Globe in 1993, he recalled his response to the first question he was asked in a public forum in America: ``Mr. Ligeti, would you call what we have just heard music?" His brisk reply was ``Next question!"

He hated the notorious production of his opera that Peter Sellars directed at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, and he was still angry about it in an interview with the Globe five years later. ``[Sellars] changed the content and put in something new instead," he said. ``He put something different into the glass instead of the good wine from the bottle. Morally, this is absolutely not allowed, but I had no rights in this situation."

While Mr. Ligeti was the recipient of many prestigious awards and had a very secure sense of his own worth, he was also modest. In 1993 he was embarrassed about the New England Conservatory's publicity for the festival that proclaimed him ``the world's greatest living composer."

``Just call me the second-greatest," he said. ``Then they will ask me who the greatest is, and I will answer, `All my colleagues.' "

Mr. Ligeti leaves his wife, Vera, and his son, Lukas, a New York-based percussionist. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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