Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Three's company, fifteen's a crowd

I previously promised to post something about Ligeti, so here goes. Ligeti coined the term 'micropolyphony' to describe how he created his soundmass compositions. Soundmasses had been used by Varèse and Penderecki, though constructed in very different ways. The general conception is of sound as a physical object that can interact with other soundmass objects (Varèse regarded them as atoms, which repell and penetrate each other). Ligeti used traditional forms of polyphony, such as stretto and mirror canons, but his goal was not a layering of intelligible and independent voices, but a murmuring of a whole crowd of voices (from 16 to 50) that creates a web of sound, the soundmass. Isaac Watras points out that Bach also used polyphony to this effect at times:
Being clever, but not for the sake of being clever, all of Bach's imitation and fancy counterpoint has purpose. The voice crossings, close ranges, and similar lines may have been the qualities that the early Baroque composers hoped to discourage. And this is not the clarity of voices that is generally associated with Bach. Much of the detail seems to have been written more for the performer than the listener. Nevertheless, it is a complex sound that achieves large scale events. And these events are well controlled because of Bach's clever technique.

David Huron has presented research on the perceptual salience of Bach's counterpoint, though he restricts himself to Bach's pedagogical/exploratory works -- The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Art of the Fugue, and The Musical Offering -- and some of his organ works. Watras points out that Bach's writing for choir and orchestra is perceptually messier, though the technique is still controlled. This is probably due to the larger musical forces that Bach is dealing with, as well as the concerns of text painting.

So Ligeti is not necessarily revolutionary in his approach to polyphony, though he is much more deliberate in his blurring of voices. Maybe instead of his Lux Aeterna and Atmospheres, Kubrick could have used Bach's B minor Mass in 2001 ... maybe not.

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