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Galactic Choral Music

Teodor Currentzis conducts Ligeti’s »Lux Aeterna«.

The charismatic conductor Teodor Currentzis makes his first guest appearance in the Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall on 29 May – and presents a work that made film history together with his renowned opera chorus MusicAeterna from Perm.

Mission: Outer Space

In 1966 people all over the world were gripped by the fascination for space travel: Neil Armstrong flew into space for the first time and managed to dock with a satellite high above in the Earth’s orbit. Down on the ground, Stanley Kubrick began shooting his new science fiction film »2001: A Space Odyssey«, and the composer György Ligeti wrote a revolutionary choral work in Vienna that was to become the soundtrack for the new discoveries: »Lux Aeterna«.

2001: Odyssee im Weltraum (Filmausschnitt aus dem Jahr 1968)
2001: Odyssee im Weltraum (Filmausschnitt aus dem Jahr 1968)

»Lux Aeterna« is an a capella piece set for 16 voices. Instead of the usual parameters such as rhythm, harmony and melody, Ligeti concentrated on the sound itself and composed a work where the individual parts seem to float in space.

The music was the perfect accompaniment to the impressions of a vast and weightless galaxy that Kubrick wanted to convey in »2001: A Space Odyssey«.  Just as the director was exploring the infinite realm of outer space, Ligeti was investigating the unlimited possibilities of sound. The upshot was that Kubrick decided to use »Lux Aeterna« and two other pieces by Ligeti in his film soundtrack.

Sound Clusters Instead of Melodies

The individual notes are very close together in »Lux Aeterna«: they form so-called clusters. A technique hitherto only used occasionally by composers to produce dissonance was now turned by Ligeti into his trademark: he composed blocks and planes of sound whose density and interweaving are subject to constant change.

György Ligeti
György Ligeti © Co Broerse

He took this principle to extremes for the first time in his 1961 score »Atmosphères«, where the orchestra is split into dozens of independent parts that are played in staggered sequence rather than simultaneously, thus weaving an incredibly dense carpet of sound. For »Lux Aeterna«, he transferred this principle to choral music.

György Ligeti

György Ligeti is regarded as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. He was born in Rumania in 1923, and later lived in Hungary. In 1956 he fled the national uprising in that country and settled in Vienna. The years 1957-58 found him working in Cologne, where he met leading lights of the avant-garde movement like Karlheinz Stockhausen, who influenced his subsequent music.

MusicAeterna aus Perm
MusicAeterna aus Perm

From 1973 to 1989 he was professor of composition at the Hamburg University of Music & Drama. Ligeti died in Vienna in 2006. In addition to »2001: A Space Odyssey«, Ligeti’s music can be heard in other Stanley Kubrick films, such as »The Shining« and »Eyes Wide Shut«, and also features in the soundtracks of more recent movies, e.g. Martin Scorsese’s »Shutter Island« (2010).