[A program essay I wrote – on a typewriter, during lunch hours at Mariedi Anders Artists Management, or perhaps when I was supposed to be working for her – about György Ligeti's Aventures/Nouvelles aventures when they were performed by the Berkeley Stage in California sometime between 1980 and 1984. I wrote a lot of program notes in those years, but this was my favorite; and I tripped over this old, hard-copy document, and thought it would be nice to put it into the computer....]
“I was asked for a work that would use the resources of an opera house, and so began a kind of opera with the title ‘Kylwiria.’ ‘Kylwiria’ was an imaginary land of my childhood, a sort of daydream, my private mythology. The first ideas of ‘Kylwiria’ were like Aventures: no clear progression of action and a concept-less, purely emotional text. It became clear in studying the sketches for ‘Kylwiria’ that the world of Aventures was closed, and could not be re-entered; that for a full-length work, performance as a scaffolding for emotions, characters and situations was unpardonable.” – György Ligeti
Though Aventures seems analogous to much of the avant-garde music theater of its time, its source is closer to that ‘concept-less’ universe wherein we find our dreams and flights of imagination. Unlike Berio, Ligeti used new techniques without resorting to traditional structures; and unlike Cage or Bussotti, he exploded the dull event/pause/event pattern of guided improvisation. In a remarkable burst of imagination, Ligeti managed in his first dramatic venture to surpass determinism, structure and tedium in one bound.
Some productions have staged Aventures in ways contrary to the published ‘libretto’; the most famous created an excuse for focused action by trapping four people in a room that they apparently could not leave. Such concepts actually sanitize and misrepresent the work, reducing it to a ‘post-cultural’ tragic gesture in the style of Beckett. Aventures is instead situated in a new universe, where fragments of emotion, gesture and sound coalesce into a vivid experiment in chaos. The point is precisely that there is no point to be expressed in the work, but only the work itself. It is experiential, present, real; it drags us laughing and screaming into a place where joy, dread, ecstasy and hysteria are interchangeable playing pieces, rather than traps for dramatic ideas. A production of the work according to its ‘libretto’ (actually an extremely complex scenario) should be an Artaudian experience of dramatic passions, in theory if not in style.
Aventures should not be mistaken for a collage; the material has no intrinsic meaning, and is not juxtaposed for purposes of comparison. Instead, the purpose of rapid change here is the constant catapulting of the hearer into a series of moments so intense and differentiated that he has no time to recover and withdraw from them. The constant illusion of meaning has the effect of intensifying the frustration, and resultant humor, of non-comprehension; the result resembles an impassioned movie in an unknown language that has been cut and spliced indiscriminately until the story has vanished, and only its intensely colored moments remain.
The sound materials include a vast range of phonemes and unusual instrument usages, intersecting with free variations on chromatic and pseudo-serial pitch collections. Simultaneities are generally in the close clusters dear to Ligeti; melodic and contrapuntal sections focus on the ‘impure octaves’ (Pousseur’s phrase) that are used to create such tension in modern music from Webern to the present. Constant use of the largest possible intervals without harmonic stability keeps the splintered pitch sets in an intense sensual focus.
Ligeti’s 1960 article ‘Metamorphoses of Musical Form’ is a carefully considered study of avant-garde problems of the time; in attacking the ‘party line’ and severely criticizing serialism, he managed an intelligent defense of the composer’s freedom. One result of those ideas was this release of humorous imagination under pressure, from precise sound and predetermined structures into passionate gesture and chaotic form. The only works by the composer that are at all comparable to Aventures and its twin Nouvelles aventures – the Cello Concerto and the operatic Le grand macabre – are comparatively traditional in structure and subdued in expression. In fact, no other work by the composer gets near to the intense chaos of this work; Ligeti’s other achievements are chiefly related to the movement inward, with music as meditation and the filling of sound space. To many audience members, Ligeti may be known as the composer of music for much of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining; but it should be noted that Aventures would be not only inappropriate as movie music, but would probably tear any given movie to shreds.
Critics are frequently baffled by the apparent contradiction of this humorous, chaotic work that is no mere joke, and is in fact highly regarded by contemporary musicians. Several analysts (notably Jürgen Beuerle) have created complex schematics of action for this work, apparently to discover either a subtle dramatic connection (as in Berio) or a substructure of mathematical planning (as in Stockhausen).
Actually, the only point made by such schematics is that there is no reason for such analysis; there is truly no subplot, no secret structure, at work here. There are no hidden meanings – only a wonderful fabric of visible gesture.