For and Against Entropy

Thomas May’s blog, Memeteria, is definitely worth a visit (it’s where I found yesterday’s link to a George Walker review). Another post juxtaposes Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes – the piece constitutes a gradual descent into entropy – with a demonstration of what happens when multiple metronomes are on a flexible surface. The result is (to my non-physicist mind, at least) unexpected. Go to May’s post for an explanation; here are the two relevant videos:

I am always uncertain.

Quotes from composer György Kurtág:

pg. 29: I am always fully convinced that it’s good  but then it turns out that it isn’t good after all. [in reference to a composition-in-progress]

pg. 31: It’s beyond me.

pg. 34: I don’t know.

pg. 35: I don’t know. When I am listening to good music, I feel ashamed that I may be moving in the same direction in my own work, but I can’t quite carry it through to the end.

pg. 47: I do not know.

pg. 47: I do what I can.

pg. 66: I am inept.

pg. 66: I am always uncertain.

pg. 75: I have no idea.

-from György Kurtág Three Interviews and Ligeti Hommages, compiled and edited by Bálint András Varga.

I read this book of interviews with Kurtág at the same time I was reading Rochberg’s memoirs. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast in tone. Obviously I am drawing the above fragments out of context, but they convey something of the spirit that comes across in the book. At its most extreme, Kurtág’s modesty can shade into his own brand of pretentiousness. But in general, the humility of the man is very moving.

Varga’s earlier books of interviews with Berio and Lutoslawski flow more smoothly – Kurtág is not an aphorist like Berio, and lacks the elegant discourse of Lutoslawski. Nevertheless, Kurtág’s modest tone does not prevent him from offering striking insights into his own work, into music in general.  I wish I knew Kurtág’s music better, so that the passing references – “in that piece you did this” – would have more meaning. There are a few musical examples in the book, but they seem arbitrarily chosen. The book can also be frustrating with regard to little known names mentioned in the text. A list of personae at the end of the book is somewhat helpful, though the need for some of the entries is questionable – anyone reading this book probably already knows who Schubert is.

In addition to the interviews, the book includes texts by Kurtág about his long-time friend György Ligeti. The first is a speech made on the occasion of Ligeti receiving the Siemens Prize; the second is a eulogy, offered at a memorial service. Both of these consist of isolated memories, bits of biography, fragments strung together – not unlike the string of short forms that make up many Kurtåg pieces. His admiration for his colleague and, again, his humility before Ligeti’s genius is touching.

Alex Ross has a clip of Kurtág and his wife Marta playing Bach here.