Is 100 metronomes music? Aesthetics and semantics of a Ligeti experiment.

György Ligeti

György Ligeti is famous for his musical experimentation, marked atonality, and pursuit of “static” music. He is also credited with the highly original symphonic poem of the 100 Metronomes. For those who have never listened to it, I have included the original video:

YouTube player

At this point, I would like to ask some questions concerning the philosophy of music. The first concerns the result: is it a symphonic poem? A fundamental point must be made clear to give an adequate answer. A symphonic poem is a strongly thematic work. It should not be counted among the examples of absolute music, as the composer has chosen a poetic or narrative reference to be evoked, expanded, and ultimately described by his music. The critical element is precisely the extra-musical theme. Unlike absolute music, which contains almost no “narrative” information, a symphonic poem arises and develops from another work. It germinates from someone else’s work and becomes a homage to the artist and his work.

What can you say about monostrumentalLigeti’s symphonic poem? To the best of my knowledge, it is not inspired by any poetic work (then again, what should it be?), so we could say that the composer used a kind of license to call “100 Metronyms” a symphonic poem. On the contrary, any objection regarding the ensemble (this is certainly not a regular orchestra) should be rejected, as metronomes, although not musical instruments, could be likened to percussive objects. Therefore, although obtorto collo, we can say that the orchestra is with 100 equal “instruments.”

The initial question arises again: is this properly music? A metronome produces a feeble metallic sound (its job is to be heard while playing), and it is not a leap to say that it is timbrically less gifted than a timpani. In any case, it produces a sound, and therefore, the result of a succession of beats is ipso facto a musical sequence, even if it is homorhythmic and always consists of the same note. So, it seems to me that it is superfluous to spend further words to support the cause of musicality. Ligeti’s symphonic poem is music. Simple, monotonous, annoying, feel free to add whatever adjective you like, but still music.

We come now to semantics. There is no accompanying text, neither poetic nor prosastic, but this does not detract from the fact that careful analysis of the dynamics of the composition can reveal its implied meaning. Each metronome has a different reserve (i.e., lifetime) and speed. Once the gimmick has been started, all the metronomes begin to beat together. The duration (i.e., the number of non-pause beats) of each “instrument” is quasi-random, and so is its rhythmic tempo (in musical language, we might say that there are minims, semiquavers, quavers, semiquavers, etc.). Ligeti intends to symbolize a multitude with definite characteristics:

  • The multitude is initially homogenized (all instruments are identical and have the same possibilities)
  • Each specimen, however, has naturally distinctive traits (power reserve and time)
  • At the beginning of the performance, the multitude manifests itself by recreating a collective homologation. That is, it merges into a timbrically monotonous whole (i.e., the life of an alienated collectivity represented only by a swirling hubbub with neither form nor even intelligible content)
  • Every metronome is subject to “personal” obsolescence. The charges will run out at different times, transforming the buzzing hubbub into an increasingly silent ensemble of chimes. Finally, every metronome will be “dead,” leaving only silence, also homologated but still louder than any ideology.

The semantics of the work are thus crystal clear and, like a true symphonic poem, express several extra-musical philosophical concepts. From this point of view, nothing can be alleged to discredit Ligeti. Just as Strauss set Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” to music without being able to evoke individual scenes with great precision, Ligeti stages a performance that leaves it up to the listener to let his or her mind wander among all the implications that arise from the above general considerations.

The last point that remains to be examined concerns aesthetics. Can it be said that this symphonic poem is beautiful? This is an arduous problem that certainly cannot be exhausted in a few lapidary statements. I am not a music critic, so I avoid “dangerous” lucubration. However, I firmly believe that the problem can be traced back to an underlying question: beyond semantics, is absolute music pleasing to the ear? Can enjoyment be derived from it?

The 100 metronomes beat with different tempos; this creates a phase shift between the beats, resulting in what can be likened to a quasi-stochastic process (in fact, it is perfectly deterministic since we are aware of every piece of information necessary to predict precisely what the future will be), characterized by behavior very similar to that of noise. The listener will soon have the unpleasant sensation of a tormenting din, similar to that which can be heard in crowded clubs by diverting attention from our interlocutors. Such a feeling certainly cannot be a source of enjoyment, and without much ado, I would even go so far as to say that it is decisively unpleasant and aesthetically ugly.

But referring to the Schoenberg school, if art is to express objective truth (which cannot always be beautiful), it must take full responsibility for being ugly whenever necessary. Ligeti’s goal is not to cheer nor to paint rural landscapes (as in Beethoven’s pastoral symphony) but rather to musically express a reality that is inevitable, unpleasant, and, even more seriously, politically manipulated to promote homogenization. The sound result can only be “bad.” It has to be! Any different attempt would be doomed to failure concerning its semantics.

Thus, we can conclude by saying that the symphonic poem of the 100 metronomes is an alternative form of such a musical genre (it carries the semantic content in itself instead of referring to a different text), is a musical composition (despite making minimal use of notes, timbres, and rhythm) and is rightly ugly, as it is perfectly consistent with the content represented. Of course, the above possesses a strong character of subjectivity, so I can only invite readers to listen, re-listen, and finally come to their judgment.

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