Explore the Score is a Web site hosted under the auspices of the Ruhr Piano Festival in Germany with the National-Bank as the lead financial sponsor. The objective is to use interactive Web design as a primary vehicle for cultivating the appreciation of major works of music, particularly in the domain of modernism. The Web site has been designed primarily for German visitors, but English versions of the content seem to be catching up with the German originals at an acceptable pace.
This morning Rebecca Schmid used the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times to announce the latest addition to Explore the Score in English, an in-depth examination of two solo piano compositions by György Ligeti. These are the first piece from his Musica ricercata collection and the thirteenth of his piano études, entitled “L’escalier du Diable” (the Devil’s staircase). Other compositions currently on the site are the twelve Notations compositions for piano by Pierre Boulez, Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Petrushka,” and George Benjamin’s Piano Figures collection of ten pieces. The Ligeti site is in four sections:
- Inside the score
- Performing Ligeti
- Education projects
- About this website
I was particularly pleased to see that the entry points for the two compositions were both accompanied by reproductions of the opening measures of the pieces in Ligeti’s own hand. Each also included a brief text description that would provide the listener with some initial expectations. While I have written about recordings of Ligeti’s études, I have, to the best of my modest ability, worked my way through all of Musica ricercata; so I felt that the first piece in this collection would provide me with the best orientation to the ideas behind this Web site.
The Web design for each composition is structured around an interactive score. This is basically a system-by-system display of the score that follows a video of the performance. In this case the performance is by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who may well be one of the best informed musicians when it comes to interpreting Ligeti’s music. (I suspect that one of the reasons why the English site lags behind the German is that the videos of Aimard discussing his work in English were filmed after the German versions had been recorded and uploaded to the site.) There are controls for moving forwards and backwards to a specific system and for cuing a specific measure within that system. There is also a page-by-page view of the entire score from which one can navigate to a specific system. The intention behind this page, however, is to play the score from beginning to end; and the listening experienced is enhanced by a video of Aimard’s performance.
I was slightly miffed about having to wait for this video to be loaded in its entirety, having become to used to getting my video streamed through YouTube. However, after listening to the performance, I clicked on the “About the music” button, which was a streamed video of Aimard explaining the music as he played through it measure-by-measure. I then appreciated why the performance video was not streamed. Unlike YouTube, the interface for the video player does not allow the user to adjust for bandwidth. Thus, through my DSL interface, I had to contend with an unpleasant number of interrupting screen-freezes, which certainly did no favors to the flow of Aimard’s otherwise valuable descriptive language. On the other hand the streaming player, like YouTube, does advance loading and displays how much has been loaded; so it is easy enough to wait (again) for much of the content to be loaded before starting the player.
There are also annotations for two sets of comments. A red capital “M” enclosed in a circle provides a link to a Masterclass video. It is used to annotate a specific measure. Clicking it cues the Masterclass video to where Aimard is explaining that measure to a student. There is also a pull-down menu listing all of the measures discussed in the entire Masterclass video.
The other annotations are in blue, either a rectangle enclosing an area of the score or a lower-case “i” enclosed in a circle. These are “Ligeti’s comments,” which may be turned on or off when the score is displayed. (Unfortunately, they are displayed only in the system view; and there is no pull-down menu. So one cannot browse the score-page view to look for them.) Strictly speaking, these are Aimard’s transcriptions of Ligeti’s comments; but, given Aimard’s experiences in working with Ligeti, we have no reason to doubt their authenticity.
All this makes for an impressively useful collection of information, all of which can definitely contribute to the listening experience. What is missing, however, are any observations about Ligeti’s rhetorical stance. For my personal tastes, Aimard comes across as just too serious for music that Ligeti clearly intended to be playful. Malaysian pianist Mei Yi Foo definitely had the right idea when she included Musica ricercata on an album entitled Musical Toys. As far as I am concerned, Ligeti expects the pianist not only to play the music but also to play with his underlying idea of making more and more out of fewer and fewer notes. The first piece in the set in the reductio ad absurdum of this idea, meaning that all he had to work with were octave registers and rhythm. The process by which he shows just how much he can do is hysterically funny and gets progressively funnier as the tempo gets more frantic.
Consequently, as one who took great pleasure in following from the keyboard (to the best of my ability) how Ligeti played his games, I was a bit put off by Aimard being so straight-faced about it all. This was evident at the outset when Aimard made a passing reference to Ligeti’s composition for 100 metronomes without seeming to recognize that the composer was playing a monstrous joke on those who believed that subjective time was only valid when it could be gauged according to clock-time. Ligeti’s metronome composition was particularly good at undermining “common knowledge;” and that same spirit of undermining convention is the life-force behind Musica ricercata. If the listener does not get the joke, the listening experience is little more than a waste of time.