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Clouds and Cuckoos

Photo by Betty Freeman

FINALLY, THERE IS CLOCKS AND Clouds. I have entertained a private passion for György Ligeti's 14-minute gathering of moonbeams and distant thunderclaps ever since Esa-Pekka Salonen performed it with the Philharmonic in 1993. It was scheduled for inclusion in Salonen's complete Ligeti survey on Sony; the release is assigned a number in the discography in Paul Griffiths' splendid biography. It never happened; a new recording from other sources, out this month on Teldec, is the first ever. The new disc includes the Violin Concerto, which was also on that Salonen concert (along with Debussy, a memorable matchup). The performances are led by Reinbert de Leeuw with his Amsterdam-based Schoenberg Ensemble; Frank Peter Zimmermann is the phenomenal soloist in the Violin Concerto.

"Better than any other living composer," I wrote in 1993, "Ligeti defines the full panorama of contemporary musical possibilities. At 69 [now 79] his catalog is not large, but his modest legacy embraces the thinking of a man completely in command of the grammar of music and its expressive scope . . . Clocks and Clouds is a work of high delight. Its basic plan sounds simple in the telling: instrumental music of meticulous, metronomic exactitude (i.e., clocks) gradually melting into a nebulous, cloudlike flow, with a superimposed line for a small women's chorus that reverses the flow. Little side-trips along the way form a constant web of surprise . . ." The title stems from an essay by Karl Popper on the philosophy of science, but Ligeti's setting transforms scientific images into poetic. The women's text is notated in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and serves more to define rhythm than melody.

This is a small piece, compared to the 27-minute Violin Concerto, but the two share an important facet of Ligeti's particular genius, his joy in opening his musical language to all kinds of intrusions beyond the limits of the European systems on which he was raised. In the Violin Concerto there are manic outbursts from, of all strange devices, an ensemble of ocarinas and slide whistles, instruments hooting and chortling in outer-space harmonies that have nothing to do with do-re-mi. The women's chorus in Clocks and Clouds accomplishes the same, slipping and sliding into a kind of cloud-cuckoo land. Listening to this can be unsettling to ears nurtured on C major; on a tape I snuck when the work was done at the Hollywood Bowl in, I think, 1998, a yahoo in a nearby box can be heard booing his head off. Sad, how some people simply resist the process of delight.

I suppose it's even possible to resist the delight in the final music on this Ligeti disc, Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel, a set of seven tiny songs for mezzo-soprano (Katalin Károlyi) and percussion based on poems by Sándor Weöres — some of them gibberish, some folksy, some word games — but I cannot. Wonderful, serious fun, mingled with that infectious wisdom that seems built into this cherishable composer. Clocks and Clouds dates from 1973; the Sippal, etc., songs are from 2000. A sense of humor and delight can endure over 27 years only if buttressed by a sense of infinite intelligence, and that Ligeti surely possesses.

THERE IS MORE LIGETI, AND MORE wise humor, on a recent disc in Deutsche Grammophon's "Echo 20/21" series of reissues and remasterings of major landmarks from the company's ongoing service to new music. From 1962 come the two sets of play-pieces, Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, in which wisdom and sheer hilarity play off side by side. The language here, too, often lapses into gibberish, as three vocal soloists have at one another in conversations that rise to high expressive levels without once revealing what they're about. "The characters," writes Paul Griffiths, "sing, play games, charm each other, fight, and hope for some response . . . They are a little like children. They are a little like us." Pierre Boulez conducts the performance; if, as some have, you doubt his ability to manage genuine humor, even wit, you don't know this disc. The disc also includes Ligeti's works for organ, performed by Gerd Zacher. If, like some (myself included), you find the idea of humorous organ music an oxymoron, this is the disc to set you straight.

This Deutsche Grammophon series, by the way, is one of the few remaining evidences that someone in the record industry still cares about preserving the world's musical heritage. The catalog lists 30 items so far, including the Berio Sequenze I wrote about last week, Messiaen's Saint François, three discs of Boulez and such inexplicable items as André Previn's Streetcar Named Desire. Berio's Coro, a recent issue, is one more disc I would describe as indispensable.

The work was completed in 1977, written for the Cologne Radio Chorus and Orchestra, who perform it here under Berio's direction. The name means, simply, "chorus"; it belongs among the generically named works — Opera, Sinfonia, etc. — that form pillars in Berio's catalog. Forty chorus members sit among the same number of orchestra members, creating a sound far more homogeneous than the usual orchestra-down-front, chorus-upstage arrangement. A Pablo Neruda poem forms the backbone of the hourlong work: "The pallid day appears . . . come and see the blood in the streets." Texts twined around Neruda's lines are mostly drawn from primitive sources: Peruvian, Polynesian, African, Native American, Hebrew. Berio's music reflects various native chanting techniques; the pileup of information and emotion is astonishing at times. Now and then you become aware of a German chorus struggling with other languages —"a-VAKE LAHV in dis POY" — but Berio apparently clings to his original cast. He's entitled.

On EMI there is the pulsing, throbbing, exhilarating music of Osvaldo Golijov: Last Rounds for nine strings, which was played here last year by the Philharmonic in an expansion for string orchestra; Lullaby and Doina, heard at a Green Umbrella; Yiddishbuk, at Ojai; and The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for klezmer clarinet and strings, which the Kronos plays all over the place. It's all irresistible stuff; the intensity is overwhelming as this composer of many backgrounds locates a vector of his Latino and Yiddish heritage (with maybe a shot of vodka to help the fire along). We've heard excellent performances around here, but there is something almost superhuman in the energy these guys — the St. Lawrence String Quartet, with the Ying Quartet and clarinetist Todd Palmer — bring to their work that adds this one more disc to the "essential" pile. Besides, you have to buy discs like these, to tell the folks at EMI — and Sony, and RCA, and whoever else is left — that there is still a market for important recordings, and to tell the Opera Babes to crawl back into the woodwork.