The Parker Quartet and Ligeti: What’s Happening to Me?

I sat there on the edge of my seat, mesmerized, transfixed, spellbound.  Pick your adjective.  This is supposed to be Ligeti, I wondered?  Might it be Bartok?  Did Ligeti slip by me and I’m listening to Bartok.  I don’t know Ligeti at all; I don’t know Bartok well.  It’s somewhat dissonant, or at least warped.  It must be Bartok.  If so, my appreciation for Bartok just went up, way up.  This is modern classical music.  But I like it.  I like it a lot.  What’s happening to me?

The Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong, Ying Xue, Kee-Hyun Kim, and Jessica Bodner) take their seats at the October 13, 2017 concert at St. John's College at Annapolis. Photo by Debra McCoy Rogers.

The Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong, Ying Xue, Kee-Hyun Kim, and Jessica Bodner) take their seats at the October 13, 2017 concert at St. John's College at Annapolis. Photo by Debra McCoy Rogers.

This is what I was experiencing as I listened to the second selection of the evening’s program, performed by the Parker Quartet in what has become its annual visit to St. John’s College in Annapolis.  St. John’s holds a weekly Formal Lecture Series during the academic year, open to the public and free.  Typically, these Friday night affairs are enlightening lectures on history, philosophy, or metaphysics with optional group discussions afterwards; on a few occasions each year, they offer a concert as part of the series.  I first heard the Parker Quartet there two years ago and wrote a blog report about it.  I was quite taken with this quartet then and was glad to have the opportunity to hear them again this past Friday night.  They played three quartets with their customary technical mastery and engaging showmanship, providing both visual and aural pleasure, in a program that included Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat major (1790), Gyorgy Sandor Ligeti’s Quartet No. 1 “Metamorphoses nocturnes” (1953-1954), and Bela Bartok’s Quartet No. 6 (1939).  My only complaint was that, for me, the Ligeti quartet was the highlight of the evening, and I wish it had been played last.  The Bartok piece was good, but it had to filter through my Ligeti high. 

Ligeti, Quartet No. 1, first movement by the Parker Quartet, downloaded from YouTube:; here they are in a recording session for the CD (Naxos: Ligeti Quartets, Nos. 1-2) that won the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. 

Ligeti’s music is different, so not Mozart or Beethoven, and yet somehow familiarly strange. I’ve since found out that I’ve heard his music in movie soundtracks such as “2001: a Space Odyssey”. In a Guardian article by Tom Service on the music of Ligeti (in list below), I learned that his music was influenced by his life; he had family members who died in Hiter’s concentration camps and he escaped Hungary in 1956 as Russian tanks were rolling in.  Service says“Ligeti's idea was to make texture as much of a driving force in musical architecture as pitch or rhythm, developing what he called a "micro-polyphony" of incredibly dense pile-ups of musical lines so that you're more aware of an ever-changing amorphous cloud of sound than the movement of individual instruments or voices.”  It’s understandable I guess that he sought to give his music freedom, given his life.  Ligeti is also known for an opera titled, Le Grand Macabre.  Halloween might be a good time to investigate Ligeti, since his music often has an other-worldliness quality.

Ligeti's Kyrie, an example of his choral work, which is part of the soundtrack for "2001: A Space Odyssey"; downloaded from YouTube:  Suggest playing when trick or treaters come to the door. 

Enjoying modern classical music isn’t supposed to happen to me.  I have to take into account that this was live music which always sounds better, but still, I am a just a music lover, not a musician and certainly not a composer or musicologist.  I don’t have the background to understand modern music or the vocabulary to talk about such concerts with precision and accuracy.  I can only talk about my reactions as a fan.  I have not been a fan of modern classical music, especially atonal, dissonant classical music or avant-garde forms that might be considered “Advanced Music”.  I’m supposed to be disinterested, bored, or dislike modern classical music just like I am by “Advanced Calculus”, or just about any other advanced topic that I haven’t studied.  Right?

Sometimes it sure seems that way.  Yes, I know that I’m painting all modern classical music with the same brush, and much is accessible and enjoyable – or so I’m told.  At least it has lots of terms: modern classical, contemporary classical, minimalism, post-minimalism, serialism, neo-romanticism, and alt-classical.  If you want to check out the assertion for yourself that much modern classical music is approachable and likeable, I recommend the informed authors and informative articles listed below:

1.     Service on the music of Ligeti

2.     Midgette overview of contemporary classical music

3.     Muehlhauser overview of modern classical music

If you read them and listen to some of the selections discussed, you will realize a seriously limiting problem with modern music – time, or at least our feeling there is not enough of it.  So maybe, just turn on the familiar that you’ve heard your whole life.  Don’t risk what I am experiencing, a fear that Ligeti could be a gateway drug to Bartok, Ives, and even Schoenberg, for God’s sake!

Maybe I’m changing.  Maybe I’ve just taken the time to listen.  But whatever it is that’s happening to me, I feel sure it’s fueling my excitement about my oft expressed preference for new opera.  You will hear more about this.

The Fan Experience: Folks in the Baltimore/DC area can catch the Parker Quartet appearing on October 28 at the Smith Theater, Horowitz Performing Arts Center (Howard County Community College) in Columbia, MD; other performances can be found in the link provided.  Sponsored by the Candlelight Concert Society, the program will feature works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.  Go hear them.  I predict you will not regret it, but it is risky.