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Music: The strange loops of Ligeti

Craven Lovelace
NOTES
Free Press Music Columnist
Craven Lovelace
Staff Photo |

Last night, Craven had the delightful experience of revisiting an old friend. The location was his living room. And the old friend was Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

There was plenty of surprise in the process — surprise that a 45-year-old film could still look so darned modern; surprise that the ideas about evolution and what constitutes being human explored in the film are still so relevant; and surprise that the music, which set Craven’s spine tingling during the viewing, was not the stentorian, signature chords from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a piece of music now probably better known as the theme from “2001”). Rather, it was the weird, throbbing choral numbers, which musically accompanied each appearance of the famed monolith in the film.

These ominous, other-worldly tracks are the creations of György Ligeti, a Transylvanian classical composer who passed away eight years ago.



In 1968, Ligeti had no idea Kubrick was using his music in “2001.” In fact, he sued the filmmaker for copyright violations after the film’s release that year. (Ligeti later settled out of court, and Kubrick would go on to use his music again — this time, with permission — in “The Shining” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”) But if ever there was a composer who belonged in “2001,” it was Ligeti. Because, apropos of a film in which a sentient computer acts more like a person than the human astronauts it plots to kill, Ligeti was probably the only classical composer whose works were frequently inspired by the writings of an artificial-intelligence scientist whose métier was the question of what constitutes consciousness.

It was about a decade after “2001” that Ligeti discovered the writing of Douglas R. Hofstadter. In 1979, he read Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” which its publisher calls “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines.” Hofstadter, a computer scientist then on the faculty of Indiana University, sought to explain how mind can emerge from matter, and had already begun to attract serious attention for his theory that consciousness arises in perceptual systems capable of self-reference. Hofstadter’s subsequent books have elaborated on his notion that this thing each of us calls “I” is a “strange loop,” or a pattern of information formed by a system capable of perceiving and symbolically indexing itself. Ultimately, Hofstadter’s goal is nothing less than establishing a material foundation for the soul.



Ligeti (whose earlier compositions were already preoccupied with the subjects of pattern and counterpoint) was very taken with Hofstadter’s theories, and his later works, like “Automne a Varsovie,” are directly influenced by his reading of the computer scientist.

Kubrick, Ligeti and Hofstadter are all fascinating men, with amazing bodies of work. There can be no doubt that all three put themselves to the fullest possible use, which, in the words of the HAL 9000 computer that remains the most vivid character in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.


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