Poème Symphonique (1962)

It’s a persistent criticism of digital music that it’s too rhythmically precise. The infallible MIDI clock keeps all our machines in perfect synch, and while this, to paraphrase Laurie Spiegel, does free us up to do more important things, it might also be a kind of trap, a comfortable cage. Such worries actually predate the digital era - Live’s ubiquitous metronome was preceded by the clockwork kind which, when it first appeared on the scene in the early 19th century, touched off blazing rows about its deadening effect on musical art, its enslavement of performers and audiences alike to a rigid mechanical beat.

This year at Loop, you’re invited to take part in a musical performance for metronomes written in 1962 by the composer György Ligeti, in which the supposed authority of these little clockwork tyrants is completely subverted by having 100 of the things play all at the same time in different tempi. The Hungarian composer’s attitude to authority, musical or otherwise, was skeptical in the extreme. Born in 1923, he suffered at the hands of Hungarian and German fascists during World War 2, and escaped a brutal Soviet crackdown by fleeing to Austria in 1956, where he quickly encountered a different sort of tyranny; the musical variety. Modernist dogma forbade the use of repetition and steady pulse as authoritarian and fascist. Ironically, by the time Ligeti arrived on the scene, this taboo had itself become an unbreakable rule. Ligeti’s playful piece sends up the prevailing seriousness and inflexible strictures of late modernism. But it’s much more than a joke or a gesture. Poème Symphonique is a prime example of the composer’s famous ‘micropolyphony,’ where untold tiny phrases and motifs gather together into a great cloud of sound, and a fascinating exploration of rhythm, as the metronomes wind down, and a multitude of polyrhythms emerge.

If you’d like to take part in one of two daily performances of Poème Symphonique at Loop, sign up at the Marketplace, or just come along and listen, every day at 8.30pm.

For another look at the legacy of modernist music, visit the Acoustic Room for Graphic and Text Scores: Music on and off the grid, with Maya Shenfeld.