Friday, October 18, 2013

György Ligeti, Poeme Symphonique For 100 Metronomes, 1962


György Ligeti, Poeme Symphonique For 100 Metronomes, 1962

 The Hungarian composer György Ligeti composed Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes in 1962, during his brief acquaintance with the Fluxus movement. The piece requires ten “performers,” and most of their efforts take place without the audience present. Each of the hundred metronomes is set up on the performance platform, and they are all then wound to their maximum extent and set to different speeds. Once they are all fully wound they are all started as simultaneously as possible. The performers then leave. The audience is then admitted, and take their places while the metronomes are all ticking. As the metronomes wind down one after another and stop, periodicity becomes noticeable in the sound, and individual metronomes can be more clearly made out. The piece typically ends with just one metronome ticking alone for a few beats.

This is an unusual work by Ligeti, simply featuring 100 metronomes ticking until they wind down. It was performed at the Music at Plush festival with the metronomes in the place they appear in this film, but with audience members starting them off, and then watching, bewildered, as they wound down.

We then ran the performance twice more the next day, once for filming wides and once for close-ups. The two runs were then edited together (differences in the light between the two were a pain). The footage from the concert was nice to have but not really usable for making a film like this.

The score calls for a long silence and then up to an hour of ticking. We decided to shorten this considerably. The metronomes are supposed to be fully wound but we had to limit that to 13 turns on average (more for faster tempos and fewer for slower tempos). A team of festival volunteers, cooks, and musicians then set them off, on cue, as quickly as possible for escaping.

Poème symphonique is a 1962 composition by György Ligeti for 100 metronomes. It was written during his brief acquaintance with the Fluxus movement.

The piece requires ten "performers", each responsible for ten of the hundred metronomes. The metronomes are set up on the performance platform, and they are all then wound to their maximum extent and set to different speeds. Once they are all fully wound there is a silence of two to six minutes, at the discretion of the conductor, then at the conductor's signal they are all started as simultaneously as possible. The performers then leave the stage. As the metronomes wind down one after another and stop, periodicity becomes noticeable in the sound, and individual metronomes can be more clearly distinguished. The piece typically ends with just one metronome ticking alone for a few beats, followed by silence, and then the performers return to the stage (Ligeti 1962).

The controversy over the first performance was sufficient to cause Dutch Television to cancel a planned broadcast recorded two days earlier at an official reception at Hilversum's City Hall on 13 September 1963 (Ligeti 1997, 7, 11; Morrison 2012). "Instead, they showed a soccer game" (Ligeti 1997, 12). Ligeti regarded this work as a critique of the contemporary musical situation, continuing:
but a special sort of critique, since the critique itself results from musical means. … The "verbal score" is only one aspect of this critique, and it is admittedly rather ironic. The other aspect is, however, the work itself. … What bothers me nowadays are above all ideologies (all ideologies, in that they are stubborn and intolerant towards others), and Poème Symphonique is directed above all against them. So I am in some measure proud that I could express criticism without any text, with music alone. It is no accident that Poème Symphonique was rejected as much by the petit-bourgeois (see the cancellation of the TV broadcast in Holland) as by the seeming radicals.... Radicalism and petit-bourgeois attitudes are not so far from one another; both wear the blinkers of the narrow-minded. (Ligeti, cited in Nordwall 1971, 7–8)

The Poème symphonique was the last of Ligeti's event-scores, and marks the end of his brief relationship with Fluxus (Drott 2004, 222).
The piece has been recorded several times, but performed only occasionally due to the obvious difficulty of procuring such a large quantity of machines.

Video from an ARTE (France) broadcast of Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes.
Translation of the french narration:
Poème symphonique was composed by György Ligeti in 1962. We are presenting this work this evening. The concert, which we went to record in Rome, was presented by an orchestra of 100 performers. This rebroadcast is a television premiere. At the end of the concert, we will offer a brief explanation, but first listen and watch. The concert begins in one minute.
[the piece is performed]

Since its world premiere in the Netherlands in 1963, Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes has been very rarely performed in public. The complicated scenographic staging, the detailed preparation by hand, the need for around ten technicians to activate more or less simultaneously the 100 metronomes, makes the demand for performances limited. Thirty-two years after the premiere, the sculptor and installation artist Gilles Lacombe heard a recording of the work. Impressed, he decided to invent a machine able to perform the piece automatically. After six months, he set up this ingenious device. Ever since, Poème symphonique can be performed accurately, at any time, and in public. Please understand that at its world premiere in 1963, the concert was filmed by Dutch television. On that night, after the final tick-tock of the metronome, there was a heavy silence, followed by booing, screaming, and threats. The concert was never broadcast. (translation from ionarts)


for 100 metronomes - score

"Poeme Symphonique" (for 100 metronomes) requires, as its primary condition for performance, 100 metronomes.
Their acquisition may be accomplished in several ways. For example, they may be borrowed from one or more music instrument firms. (When the pertinent special shops are not to be found on the spot, it is recommended that inquiry be made to this end at so-called music dealers). For the purpose of attaining the desired result (i.e., the permission to borrow), some comments may be useful with regard to the value of the advertising to the firm, gained through its readiness to loan. In this connection one may offer to print the name(s) of the firm(s) on the concert poster, in the programme book or on a placard to be placed on the stage, or one or another combination of the listed possibilities. If necessary, the announcement may take the form of verbal communication, either by itself or as a means of following up the printed announcement.


Another way to bring about the acquisition of the metronomes is the insert advertisements in the newspapers. In this case all private persons will be invited to be so generous as to make temporarily available the metronomes in their possession for use in the performance. In cities which have their own music schools*, this request can be made directly to the teaching staff or the student body, with the assistance of the customary media of communication. In the two last-named instances it is recommended that the owners of the required instruments be asked to put some means of identification on them, to prevent their being misplaced or mixed up. This can be achieved, for example, through the obligatory affixing of the owner's name by means of a suitable strip of paper**.


Should it happen that a Maecenas makes it possible to borrow the metronomes for the purpose of performance, his name- after consultation with the person in question- shall be made public.*** The composition is provided with a passe-partout dedication: on each occasion the work is dedicated to the person (or persons) who have helped to bring about the performance through the contribution of instruments, by any means whatsoever, whether it be executive council of a city, one or more of the music schools****, one or more businesses, one or more private persons. If a patron can be found who will remove once for all the financial hindrances to the performability of the work by buying the necessary metronomes and guaranteeing the transportation costs which arise from time to time, "Poeme Symphonique" will be dedicated from then on to him alone.


In particular, the following instructions for performance are to be carried out:
1) It is preferred that pyramid-shaped metronomes be employed.
2) The work is performed by 10 players under the leadership of a conductor. Each player operates 10 metronomes.
3) The metronomes must be brought onto the stage with a completely run-down clockwork (that is, in an unwound condition). It is expedient that they be placed on suitable resonators. Loudspeakers, distributed throughout the concert hall, can serve to raise the dynamic level. It is recommended that each of the 10 groups of 10 metronomes be arranged about a microphone which is connected to an appropriated loudspeaker*****. 

The distance between the metronome-group and the microphonem as well as the regulation level of the allocated loudspeaker******, are to be differently set in order to achieve the proper effects of closeness and distance.
4) At a sign from the conductor the players wind up the metronomes. Following this, the speeds of the pendulums are set: within each group they must be different for each instrument.


"Poeme Symphonique" may be performed in two versions:

1) All metronomes are wound equally tightly. In this version the chosen metronome numbers (oscillation speeds) wholly determine the time it will take for the several metronomes to run down: those which swing faster will run down faster, the others more slowly.

2) The several metronomes of a group are wound unequally: the first of the 10 metronomes the tightest, the second a little less, the tenth, the least tightly. Care must be taken, however, that the winding and the regulation of the speeds of the several metronomes are carried out completely independently of each other. Thus the metronome in each group which has been most lightly wound must not be the fastest or the slowest in its oscillation.

The conductor arranges with the players beforehand the method and the degree of winding.

The performance may be considered ideal, if
a) in the first version all the metronomes
b) in the second version the first metronome of each group
is(are) completely wound.

The ideal manner of performance is the obligatory one. Non-ideal performances are only permitted if weighty reasons are present which force the occurrence of a deviation from the ideal performance, such as the playing of a shortened version of the work. In this unwelcome case the conductor must set, with the performers, the number of turns for (1) all the metronomes or (2) the first of each group, according to whether the first or second version is being played. The winding-up and the regulation of the oscillation speeds (the setting of the metronome number) must be done ceremoniously and formally. At the conclusion of this preparatory activity comes a motionless silence of 2-6 minutes, the length of which is to be left to the discretion of the conductor. At a sign from the conductor*******, all the metronomes are set in motion by the players. To carry out this action as quickly as possible, it is recommended that several fingers of each hand be used at the same time. With a sufficient amount of practise, the performers will find that they can set 4 to 6 instruments in motion simultaneously. As soon as the metronomes have been started in this fashion, the players absent themselves as quietly as possible******** from the stage, led by the conductor, leaving the metronomes to their own devices.

"Poeme Symphonique" is considered as ended when the last metronome has run down. It is up to the conductor to decide when the last metronome has run down. It is up to the conductor to decide the duration of the pause, before he leads the players back on to the stage to receive the thanks due from the public.

(Translated by : Eugene Hartzell)

*resp., colleges of music
**It is recommended that the use of fountain pen or ball-point pen be prescribed.
***See in this connection the paragraph on the music instrument firms.
****resp., colleges of music
*****or group of loudspeakers
******resp., group of loudspeakers
********Suitable footwear is requested. 

Poème Symphonique is a piece written by György Ligeti in 1962. It involves 100 metronomes, 10 performers and 1 conductor.

The original concept for the piece was to create a combination of different musical lines at varying rhythms and tempos, an idea that fascinated Ligeti. Each metronome is set to a different tempo and wound to it's maximum capacity. Then, when the conductor is ready, each performer will set their set of metronomes off simultaneously. Although chaotic at first, patterns and rhythms begin to emerge as metronomes begin to wind down and you become accustomed to the sound. The metronomes are then left to play until they all eventually wind down, leaving one solatairy metronome clicking its way to the very end. Once the last lonely metronome has given it's final tick, the piece ends with 1 or 2 minutes silenece before the performers return to the stage.

Until now, the piece has been played rarely due to the obvious difficulty in procuring such a large number of metronomes. This is no longer the case as we now offer a full set of 100 metronomes to hire exclusively for this composition.

György Ligeti was born in 1923 as the son of Hungarian-Jewish parents. He studied at the Conservatory in Klausenburg with Ferenc Farkas from 1941 to 1943 and from 1945 to 1949 at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Sándor Veress, Pál Járdányi and Lajos Bárdos. Following the abatement of the Hungarian Revolution, he left his native country in December 1956 for both political and artistic reasons. During his time as a freelancer in the West German Radio studio for electronic music in Cologne (1957-58), he undertook an intense study of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Pierre Boulez. In the 1960s, Ligeti was associate professor at the Summer School for Contemporary Music in Darmstadt and guest professor at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm. He received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Programme in Berlin for 1969-70 and was Composer in Residence at the Stanford University in California in 1972 before being appointed as Professor for Composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschule the following year. The composer made a substantial impact on international contemporary music both as a university professor and as an active member of the music scene and became the musical aesthetic benchmark for a whole generation.