Ligeti, Carter, and Starting Over

I've been reading Richard Steinitz's György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. At one point, Ligeti got tired of the Bartokian idiom he had inherited and had been writing in:

In 1951 I began to experiment with very simple structures of sonorities and rhythms as if to build up a new kind of music starting from nothing. My approach was frankly Cartesian, in that I regarded all the music I knew and loved as being, for my purpose, irrelevant and even invalid. I set myself such problems as: what can I do with a single note? What can I do with specific rhythmic interrelationships which could serve as the basic elements in a formation of rhythms and intervals?

These experiments produced Musica ricercata and the beginnings of a music like no other in the world.

Elliott Carter had a similar moment in his life. It goes unmentioned in the Wikipedia bio except to note a change in style. Carter believed he'd come to the end of the mode he was working in, moved to Arizona, and re-thought everything he was doing. The result was String Quartet No. 1 and Carter's mature style.

That willingness to put aside everything you know and start over has made Carter a hero to me. It was a pleasure to find that same daring in Ligeti, though I shouldn't have been surprised.

There's something vital and essential in the willingness to turn your back on everything you've been doing and start over because somewhere, somehow a little itch or tiny voice tells you there's got to be something else to find and do. I don't think I have that kind of courage, though I find it inspiring. I think the Radish King has it, though, and that's why she agonizes so much like this and this.

I'd go so far as to say that that is what artistic courage is. Artistic courage isn't writing gut-wrenching poems about what a crappy childhood you had or how badly your spouse treated you, or how your sister pissed on you. If that's courage, and it isn't always, it isn't artistic courage. Artistic courage is the willingness to take the sledgehammer to the forms and processes you've used and to start over with a little of the dust that's left. Or, perhaps, just the empty table.


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