It begins with silence, followed by near-inaudible rumblings and a sense that something – an atmosphere – might be growing in intensity. These words could accurately describe György Ligeti’s pivotal orchestral work Apparitions (1959), but equally they apply to the premiere of his most provocative yet rarely revisited conceptual piece, The Future of Music – a Collective Composition. ‘The Future of Music’ was the title of a ten-minute lecture that Ligeti had been asked to give in 1961 at a European forum in the village of Altbach, Austria. He felt unable to predict the future. He agreed on the understanding that, as he had nothing to say, he would literally say nothing. For ten minutes, then, he stood silently on the rostrum, and when his audience shuffled with impatience, he wrote instructions on the blackboard: ‘Don’t let yourself be manipulated!’… ‘Crescendo’… ‘Più forte’. A vociferous crowd duly responded.

The Alpbach lecture is a minor scandal in the life of arguably the greatest, and certainly one of the most imaginative, composers to emerge during the second half of the 20th century, but it’s revealing on a number of levels. First, it shows Ligeti’s leanings towards the maverick thinking of John Cage: his non-event clearly harks back to Cage’s 4’33” of silence, his ‘Lectures on Nothing’ at Darmstadt, and the Cage-inspired Fluxus events that artist Nam June Paik had performed in Cologne where Ligeti was based at the time. It’s a striking example of the way in which Ligeti absorbed current techniques – here letting sounds ‘be themselves’– and used them to his own artistic ends. (He would go on to pay homage to Cage in his Trois bagatelles for David Tudor in which the pianist briefly plays only one note – one more than Tudor had performed in the premiere of 4’33” nearly a decade earlier.) But perhaps more significantly, Ligeti’s descent into silence highlights his reluctance to set out, or indeed stand for, any particular musical or ideological trend.

Though associated over the years with some of the key movements in European and American music, ranging from ethnomusicology, to avant-garde minimal, electronic and spectral music, Ligeti would always follow his own path. His is a unique voice, capable of combining pathos with humour, a sense of the mysterious and the grotesque. Indeed it’s Ligeti’s humour that comes through in his first avant-garde works in the late 1950s and early ’60s: you can hear it in the speech-like patterns of his Stockhausen-influenced electronic piece Artikulation (imagine, if you will, the Clangers with flatulence) and see it in his mechanical Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes in which a frenzy of metronomes tick themselves to exhaustion, helplessly waving as one by one they fall silent. Even in silence, it seems, Ligeti could find a simultaneous sense of the absurd and the profound, key to both his later large-scale vocal works – in particular, his apocalyptic opera Le grand macabre – and his smaller extremist pieces, such as Aventures.

That Ligeti never lost sight of a fundamentally human quality – in all its grotesque and beautiful forms – is perhaps one reason why his music resonates so strongly with audiences, then as now. Ligeti’s are among the key works of post-1950s avant-garde music to have found a regular place in new music festivals and concert repertoire around the world. Noticeably, too, they continue to attract young listeners. Part of his popularity is due to film: when Stanley Kubrick set the haunting soundscapes of Ligeti’s Requiem (1965), Atmosphères (1961) and Lux aeterna (1966) to his 1967 space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, he exposed Ligeti’s mysterious sound masses to a worldwide audience. (Though happy with the outcome, Ligeti had no knowledge of the film until its release, only receiving due payment for his work after threatening to sue.) Kubrick would bring Ligeti to the big screen twice more, turning to the luminous tones of Lontano (1967) in The Shining and the three-note Ricercata No. 2 (1952) in Eyes Wide Shut. But Ligeti would also be well represented on disc: towards the end of his life, he set out to record his complete works in the Ligeti Edition, begun with Sony and continued, following artistic differences, on Warner’s Teldec label.

Rewind to Apparitions with 2001: A Space Odyssey still in mind and you begin to hear why this lesser-known orchestral work was pivotal to the formation of Ligeti’s style. It’s here that we first find those characteristics that would define the influential ‘Ligeti Sound’: deep, ominous clusters in the bass; extremes in range and dynamics; otherworldly string effects that range from percussive snaps (using the back of the bow) to high harmonics that thread their way across the score’s stratosphere. There are passages in its second section, too, where Ligeti assigns individual instruments with their own motifs, building a dense wall of sound out of a mass of movement – a technique he referred to as ‘micropolyphony’. This technique would add to the sense of vast undiscovered space in his most famous orchestral masterpiece Atmosphères, but such atmospheric music was, as Ligeti once put it, ‘in the air at the time’ – not least in the work of Iannis Xenakis which he had yet to hear.

But there are also darker psychological reasons for Ligeti’s affinity with polyphony. Ligeti himself related the strands at work in Apparitions to his severe arachnophobia, and specifically to a childhood dream in which, as he once recalled, ‘the whole room was filled with a dense confused tangle of fine filaments… I was caught up in this immense web with both living things and objects of various kinds – huge moths and a variety of beetles – which tried to get to the flickering flame of the candle in the room.’ Indeed, arachnophobia would weave its webs across the darkest corners of Ligeti’s later work – think of Le grande macabre, in which the astrologer, Astradamors, is threatened with eating a huge hairy spider. It’s in these dark corners, lit up by Ligeti’s luminous textures and his synaesthetic sense of colour, that we might begin to identify his lifelong fear of death and his resolve to laugh in the face of mortality.

Confrontational yet articulate, Ligeti’s voice distils and yet distances the pain and suffering of his traumatic past. He was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in Transylvania in 1923, shortly after it fell under Romanian rule, but was initially unaffected by the Second World War, taking up the piano before studying music at the conservatory in Cluj. In 1944, after the Hungarian fascists had gained power and sided with the Nazis, he was sent to work in a Jewish forced labour unit, first at an agrarian centre in Szeged, and then to the borders, where he carried heavy explosives to the front line. Those he left in Szeged, he later learned, were shot dead by the SS. Fearing for his own survival, Ligeti attempted to flee his unit and hide in a wood, but was picked up by Russian forces. He was set free, journeying for two weeks to Transylvania on foot, only to discover that his parents had not been so lucky. Strangers had moved into their house. His mother, father and younger brother, he would later discover, had been taken to the concentration camps. Only his mother, a nurse, survived.

One can only imagine the huge impact that the trauma of these years must have made on Ligeti’s outlook; in interview later in life, he said he would never forgive those who were directly responsible for the deaths in his family, and spoke of the wounds that would never heal. His experience of fear directly informed the Requiem – a work that alludes to the apocalyptic paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch. In the Kyrie, voices overlap in a haunting seamless flow, hovering menacingly in swarms of sound that fan out above brooding basses and brass. They frantically cry out in the darkness of the Dies Irae, which according to Ligeti, contains ‘all my own fear… my own life experiences, a lot of terrifying childhood fantasies’. Yet there is no sense here of autobiographical narrative. Indeed, if trauma is expressed in Ligeti’s works, it is so from a distance; sounds are overwrought, sometimes to the point of ridicule, rather than striking any self-expressive note of revenge or sadness.

Ligeti’s experiences under the Nazi regime, however, do explain why he would never adhere to any particular ideology – political or artistic. After the war he studied at the Liszt Conservatory in Budapest where, under Soviet rule, modernist tendencies were outlawed and composers were expected to write – like Kodály, or Bartók, whom he greatly admired – in an accessible folk-based style. For the public he wrote his Concert Românesc, yet in private he explored more challenging sounds, methodically stripping music back to its basics in the minimalist Musica Ricercata (1951-3), a work that in sentiment mirrors the emptiness of life under Stalinist rule. Ligeti’s contact with new music from the West was minimal. Famously, he risked his life to hear a rare radio broadcast of Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte and Gesang der Junglinge during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, sitting by the radio in an upstairs room while bullets ricocheted around him. He soon fled for Austria with his later wife, Vera, evading capture by invading Soviet troops by stowing away on a mail train. Once free, Ligeti made contact with Stockhausen who gave him access to West German Radio’s electronic studio in Cologne.

Ligeti would never return home. Would it be misleading to draw parallels between his nomadic existence and his musical style, in which sounds seem to travel through space without any obvious sense of direction? Certainly, Ligeti’s travels as a teacher between academic institutions in Europe, the US and Scandinavia opened his ears to new musical influences, ranging from the microtonal approach of Harry Partch (in Ligeti’s 1972 Double Concerto) to the minimalist repetitions of Terry Riley (in Clocks and Clouds, 1973) and the clockwork pianola works of Conlon Nancarrow. After settling in Hamburg as a professor of the Conservatory in 1973, he would not only assert his Hungarian identity by looking back to the scales and rhythms of Central European folk music, but would widen the scope of his ethnomusicology to embrace African and Caribbean music (touched on in the Piano Concerto of 1988). Ligeti had, and always would remain open to the infinite possibilities of an ever-expanding musical universe. He would never predict its future.

Nick Shave