Michael Daugherty Talks about György Ligeti
MD: Hi, I’m Michael Daugherty, and I’m a composer and professor of composition at the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the United States, and my relationship with György Ligeti was that I studied with him in his composition seminar in Hamburg, Germany from 1984 to 1986.
KN: So, set the stage: How did you guys meet? What was that like?
MD: I was interested in studying with Ligeti because I was at the point in my career when I was in my late twenties where I grew up playing rock and jazz music. I also composed avant-garde music. I wanted to find a way to combine those things, but the composers with whom I was studying in America—who were all very good—none of them were really interested in doing that at the time. Composers either wrote modern music, or they wrote pop music. There really was no integration of those at that particular time. But Ligeti was somebody who was interested in that, because I would read articles where he would say this. At the time, when I was going to school at Yale in the 80’s, early 80’s, I was also the assistant to the jazz arranger Gil Evans in New York City. Gil Evans is very famous. He did all these important recordings with Miles Davis and was the arranger. I read an article of György Ligeti that he was interested in the music of Miles Davis but especially in the arrangements of Gil Evans. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of interesting.’ Now, if you can imagine, in 1982, this is the time before there was any email or anything like that. I wanted to study with Ligeti, so I decided I would just fly to Hamburg and try to meet him. So during the Christmas break, I flew to Germany—and again, I was a student with almost no money at all—I flew to Germany, I went to the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik, went to the office of the president, and said, ‘I’d like to meet György Ligeti.’ He said, ‘Ok, where are you from?’ I said, ‘I’m from the United States.’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll call him.’ So he called him, and Ligeti said, ‘Send him over.’ So, first of all, the odds of him even being in town—you know, it was very risky for me to just go over the. So I went to his apartment, and just the fact that he would even meet me—here he was, one of the most famous composer alive in the day—that he would even take the time—most composers would have said, ‘I’m busy,’ or, ‘What are you talking about?’ But he said, ‘Sure, why don’t you send him over.’ So, I went over to his apartment, and he talked to me for a while, and then he said, ‘Why don’t you go over and play something on the piano?’ So I played. He said, ‘Can you play some jazz?’ I played jazz. ‘Oh, this is very interesting!’ And then he asked me, he said, ‘Who do you work with?’ I said, ‘Gil Evans.’ ‘You work with Gil Evans! Oh, this is interesting. Yes.’ And he asked me, ‘What do you think of the music of Milton Babbitt?’ Now, Milton Babbitt was a composer at the time known for writing very austere, 12-tone, atonal music. ‘What do you think of Milton Babbitt?’ I said, ‘I’m not very fond of his music.’ He said, ‘Then you can study with me!” That’s a pretty good story.
KN: What did he mean? Why did he say that?
MD: Well, I think, because, at the time, he was tired of so-called avant-garde or academic music. He was tired of music that was in the typical—he would call it the ‘Darmstadt’ tradition, Darmstadt being the music that came out of the early 1960’s, which he was part of. But music like Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, this sort of music which he was part of, but he was very tired of this music and felt it was dead.
KN: Paint me a visual, like I’ve never seen a picture. What did this guy look like?
MD: Well, see, I am six-foot eight, I am probably the tallest composer in the world, I’m told. György Ligeti was probably about five-foot eight. His hair was completely white at the time. He dressed kind of cool, like, he wore blue jeans and nice sweaters and very nice shoes, but he dressed cool. He dressed like a guy who was in his thirties. Not a guy who was like, I think he was around sixty years old at the time I was working with him. So, he dressed kind of cool. He had sunglasses. That was interesting—when you met him in his apartment, he dressed like a very cool hipster kind of guy. When I did my audition at the Hamburg Hochschule, he was dressed in a gray suit with a tie. He looked like he was an old man. It was very weird. So, he’d go through these personas, where he would kind of morph between being a very old professor—he would only do that in certain academic environments—but really, he was kind of a very cool kind of guy, you know. He was a very cool guy who would dress that way.
KN: What was your first impression of him?
MD: My first impression of György Ligeti, when I met him in Hamburg, was that he was a guy who was really open to anything. He asked me questions about jazz, about rock music, about electronic music. Also, in 1979, I was very fortunate to spend a year at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM computer music center in Paris, which was the cutting edge of electronic music. So he [Ligeti] was very interested in avant-garde electronics. At the same time, he was very interested in music from the street. So, I never met somebody who was also so curious, and he—it’s funny, instead of telling me either how great he was or how important he was (which was how Stockhausen would be), he would ask questions. So, one of the things I learned from him was that a really good way to interact with students is to ask questions.
KN: What was your impression of his music?
MD: The thing I found fascinating about Ligeti’s music is that it was very modern and original, but at the same time, people who didn’t really know that much about music also liked his music. You didn’t need to be an expert on contemporary music in order to understand—I’ll say that sentence again. You didn’t need to be an expert on new music to enjoy his music. And he also had a great sense of timing. His pieces were always constructed in a sort of way that you never got bored. I should say that when I was a student at Yale, in the early 1980’s, I conducted the Kammerkonzert. It’s a piece for thirteen instruments, so I conducted a work of Ligeti, and got to know his music quite well.
KN: You were just looking at your phone for a photo of both you guys together?
MD: Yeah, I was just looking for a photo. When I was studying with György Ligeti in Hamburg, I decided it would be really interesting to go with him to experience concerts of his music. In 1982, György’s favorite composer was an avant-garde composer who lived in Mexico, an expatriate, American expatriate named Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote music for player pianos. And so I traveled to Graz, Austria, to the ISCM World Music Days in 1982, where they featured the music of Conlon Nancarrow, and György Ligeti introduced him to audiences in Europe. And it was the first time they’d even met. So, I was actually with them, and there’s a picture of me which I prize, which shows György Ligeti, his son, his wife, and Conlon Nancarrow and myself, and we’re at Graz, and it’s just after Ligeti had introduced Nancarrow at a concert. Then we went out to a dinner, and I happened to be there when they met for the first time. So, it was really interesting to have the opportunity. So, the picture, actually, if you go to Wikipedia and type in Michael Daugherty, you can actually see that photo. I’m just going to show you this photo so you’ll know. There’s György—you can see him on the left there. So there’s György Ligeti, pointing at Conlon Nancarrow, and I’m sitting next to Conlon Nancarrow. I’m the guy on the far right. That’s me. I look a lot younger then. And I had much more hair then.
KN: What’s the feeling in this photo?
MD: Well, what I think is interesting is that—how can I say this?—it’s interesting that György Ligeti was interested in outsiders, or people who were outside of the traditional power circles of avant-garde music. And Conlon Nancarrow was definitely an outside person. He wrote very precise music for player piano that was rhythmically very complex, and that’s something that György Liget was interested in doing. Actually, here’s a good story. (Sorry, Alan, for all this information—you’ll have to edit it out). But this is a really good story. One of the things I remember is, when György Liget introduced Conlon Nancarrow, he acknowledged his debt to him in inspiring or taking ideas form Nancarrow’s music and using that in his own music. Ligeti would always acknowledge other composers, how they influenced him. Now, in many cases composers of his stature would never admit that another composer had influenced their music. So he was very generous, in that he would acknowledge others for what they did to give him ideas in his music. He was very interested in composers like Steve Reich, in Ben Johnston (an American composer who wrote microtonal music), he was very interested in African music, and the music of Conlon Nancarrow.
KN: Where did you guys meet? You as student, him as teacher, there you guys are, where was it that you met in the middle?
MD: Well, one of the challenges of being a student of György Ligeti—first of all, here’s how the lesson went. He would meet you once or twice a month at his apartment. It would start at two o’clock in the afternoon and go on till eight PM. He would serve a light dinner around six PM, and the Germans, for their dinner, they eat cold food. So, like, cheese, bread, and tea and so forth. So it was easy to do. So, there’d be about eight students. Everyone was older—there were no young composers. I would say the average age there was probably twenty-eight years old or so. I was the only American. There was a Canadian, and the rest were German Composers. He would speak in German and English. What I remember is that when anyone would show their music to György Ligeti in a lesson or in a seminar, he would say, ‘It’s not original. You need to start over again.’ And he did it to every person who brought in a piece. I remember, Alan, here’s a very good story for you. I remember once, during one of the seminars György Ligeti taught at his apartment in Hamburg that a composer brought an opera he had written, called ‘Faust.’ The score was huge, like 400 pages long. He’d spent ten years on the opera. So Ligeti takes the opera, he thumbs through it for about ten minutes, closes it and says, ‘It’s not original. You need to start over.’ So, his biggest thing was originality. Now, he was kind of like a Zen master. He never really told you how to be original. There was no recipe. After I was in Germany for two years and had the opportunity to go to seminars and hang out with Ligeti—after two years I finally said, ‘I think I’m ready to go back to America and compose.’ He goes, ‘Then you are ready.’ So, that’s kind of like a Zen master. There were some people who hung on for years, you know. But I found the most interesting thing to do was to go to concerts of his music. I remember I went to Stuttgart, Germany. Pierre Boulez was conducting an entire concert of Ligeti’s music. Now, during the rehearsal, it turned out that the bass clarinet part for the Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments, there was an error in the transposition of some of the measures. So Ligeti turned to me and said, ‘Could you take this part and copy it out, and transpose the bass clarinet correctly?’ So I was terrified, because here’s Pierre Boulez conducting, he gives me a score, and I had to go out into another room and copy like 20 measure of the bass clarinet part. But I remember afterwards taking a walk with Pierre Boulez and György Ligety myself. Now both those guys were very short guys, and I’m an extremely tall guy. I remember when I came to the rehearsal at Stuttgard, that Ligeti said, ‘So how did you get into the rehearsal? Did you pretend you were a musician and carry in a cello case, or something like that?’ He was a big fan of the Marx Brothers, and from time to time would bring up the Marx Brothers. I noticed that one of the other composers was talking about that earlier.
KN: This is Alan’s question. How did you two spark?
MD: Spark? He would spark—it’s funny, whenever pop music or jazz, he would get very excited. He wanted inside, like, who have I met, who do I know, tell me about Gil Evans, what are some of the things he showed you about arranging, do you know the Henry Mancini orchestration book. [quoting Ligeti] ‘I look at that sometimes, and I use some of the things from it.’ From the Pink Panther, you know. It was also interesting that he was the only composer I’d met, of the composers of his stature in Europe, like Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen—he would talk about these composers a lot, actually—but these were composers his age who wrote extremely difficult, avant-garde music. But, they would not be interested in Michael Jackson. I can guarantee that, knowing them as I did. So, when the Michael Jackson album ‘Thriller’ came out in November of 1982, I remember I purchased a copy of it. I listened to it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really interesting music,’ because it was one of the first albums to use what was called the drum machine, an electronic box, which simulated like a rock drummer sound. So, anyway, I took this album to a lesson. I took the Thriller album to one of the György Ligeti seminars in Hamburg, with the eight composers. And I said, ‘Why don’t we listen to Billy Jean?’ So we played Billy Jean, of Michael Jackson. Of course the other composers were like, ‘Oh, this is trash!’ You know. But he’s like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, this is very interesting. This drum machine, you could write very interesting, rhythmically complex music with the drum machine. No, I think this multi-tracking is a very interesting idea.’ So, here was a guy who was more open than the students were, often. So that always left an impression on me about how open he was to anything.
KN: Well, you sort of weight him with the other big hitters of composition of his time and place. Where does he rank with them?
MD: Well, I would say that György Ligeti is ranked in the pantheon of the great composers of the twentieth century. He’s one of those. And I mentioned those names, you know, like Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, I think of those—and György Ligeti—I think of those being the big four in Europe, as the big names. I remember that when I was living in Europe I became friends with Markus Stockhausen, who was the son of Karlheinz Stockhausen. One time I was hainging out with Markus, and Karlheinz Stockhausen comes over, and he say, ‘You know, my son has a lunch box. And on the lunch box has the three great composers: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Now I wonder, if they make a lunch box of the twentieth-century composers, who do you think would be on that lunch box?’ He said, ‘Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti.’ I’ll never forget that. That was a great story. And a very strange story, by the way.
KN: Think of a piece or two of his that really mean a lot to you, and tell us why.
MD: I’m going to go back to Boulez’s story too. I have a good one. The pieces that mean a lot to me, well, when I first got to Hamburg, Germany, I heard the world premiere of György Ligeti’s trio for horn, piano, and violin, which was a departure for him, because it used some romantic music, which was different from things he’d written. And I remember afterwards he said—there was a group of people—he said, ‘I don’t think Boulez would like this piece.’ He always talked about what other composers would think about what he would write, and he was somebody who would place his music in the context of other composers historically. I think that was very important to him, because originality was very important. So, now I will go to your question about pieces that mean a lot. The piece that probably made the biggest impression on me when I was studying with him was György Ligeti’s opera ‘Le Grande Macabre,’ was being performed in London. So, again, I was a student at the time. I had almost no money. But I was able to get myself over to London, and I had an old high school chum I could stay with. So I went to the rehearsals of Le Grand Macabre. I remember sitting next to György Ligeti. They ran the first act, and they took a break. He stood up and said, ‘The ruined my opera!’ and walked out. I’ll never forget that. But one of the things that is great about this experience is that I subsequently left—I walked out of the auditorium—and on the street corner I met my future wife. She was standing there looking at a map, a very tall woman, and I said, ‘hello, how are you doing?’ And we started talking, and it turned out that György Ligeti was doing a lecture at Cambridge the next day, and she was getting a Master’s degree in English at Cambridge. So I went to Cambridge, and the rest is history. So I will always remember György Ligeti and La Grand Macabre for meeting my future wife, Yopie Prins.
KN: Now, wait, why did he say they ruined it, and did you run after him? Is that sort of what happened?
MD: Well, in a way, you know, it was great to study with György Ligeti. He was a really great guy. But I also was terrified of him, because here he was, this super famous guy, and I would really realize that when I would go to a situation like a rehearsal of La Grand Macabre at the English National Opera in London. And, you know, they’re a very prestigious opera. So, when I would go to rehearsals like that with Ligeti, and he was like a rock star. Everybody called him The Maestro, and all this sort of thing. So I was terrified to be around a guy this famous. But he was a very down-to-earth kind of guy—no B.S. I think the fact that he came from a background growing up in Hungary, and the fact that he kept very modest means when he was younger—he was always appreciative of people and so forth, and also very gracious to young composers. He was somebody who would spend time to talk to young composers. So I’ll just segue into something else here—I think that one of the reasons he taught composition to young composers is that he liked the energy he got from the young composers. He liked asking questions. He wanted to know what was going on. He wanted to know what the new trends were. He was somebody always interested in what’s new, what’s happening. Even when I studied with him—and he was in his early sixties—he was very vigorous, and still very interested in life, and the world. So I will tell you another story. I remember that, as I mentioned, I met my future wife, Yopie Prins, at a rehearsal of La Grand Macabre, his opera when they were doing it in London. So, we dated for about a year, and I really wasn’t sure if I should get married. I was a young guy. So, I remember that she traveled with me to Hamburg, because I was living in London during the second year. And we traveled there, and I introduced her to György Ligeti, and at the time I’d had another girlfriend before I’d me Yopie, who was a French woman who I wasn’t seeing, but still I was troubled about what should I do. Because I was young, you know. So I said, well, I’m not really sure whether I should marry Yopie, or what I should do with the other woman. He said, ‘Just keep both of them.’ I thought that was a great story—keep both of them. György Ligeti was a man who enjoyed contradictions, and lived with them in not only his personal life, but also in his music. There’s a tension of contradiction constantly that’s in play with his music. You have tonal aspects against atonal aspects. You have rhythmically complex areas to very static areas, and I think this is how he was as a person as well. A very complex person who had different personas. You really never knew who the real person was. And he would play almost like a Harpo. I would say that György Ligeti was like the three Marx Brothers. Sometimes he was Harpo, sometimes he was Chico, sometimes he was Groucho. You never really knew which one you were going to get. But between those three personas, you had this very complex, fascinating person.
KN: What do you take away from you time learning from him and being with him? Is there one big thing you take away from all that?
MD: The biggest thing that I take away from my two years of studying with György Ligeti in Hamburg was that to be open to the world—to be open to what’s going on in cinema, in dance, in art, in poetry, what’s going on in the street, what’s going on in nightclubs—that it’s okay to go to the opera and then after that go to a jazz club, and then the next night go hear a rock band play. It’s hard to describe, but in the 1980’s when I knew him, there were great divides in the music world. And a lot of composers were conflicted about ‘What should I do in my personal life, and in my artistic life? If I wrote modern music, then I have to be like a modern music person all the time—like, I can’t go see Star Wars, I can’t hang out at a rock club. I mean, I have to be this very principled, austere kind of person who only profits of avant-garde principles of life.’ And I know it’s hard to imagine today because we’re much more eclectic today, I think, than we were at that time, but György Ligeti was very unusual in that he was open to just about anything. And that’s what I’ve learned. And at the University of Michigan, I think what I’ve given my students, and what György Ligeti gave me, was to be open, to ask questions, and to never judge, but to give composers a lot of freedom to experiment and to find out who they are.
KN: What do you see in your own music that related back to his influence?
MD: One of the things that I experience when I played the Michael Jackson Thriller album for György Ligeti at his composition seminar in 1982 in Hamburg was that while the other student composers scoffed at it, he thought it was very fascinating, the use of multi-tracking: having different tracks which could do different things, and the use of a drum machine to do rhythmically complex music. And while I don’t use a drum machine, I think that the idea of taking multi layers, having multi-layered music where each layer has a very specific thing it does—and these layers don’t necessarily have to relate to each other. You could have one layer, say, that’s jazz music, and one layer that’s rock music, and one layer that’s avant-garde music, each with their own structural way of dealing with things. But the idea of multi-tracking and using layers to build the piece—I think that’s one of the things, just aesthetically, that I took away from those years working with Ligeti. To be open to ideas, to ask questions, and to be open to the world. Unlike other composer of his time, György Ligete was somebody who really encouraged composers to be open to everything in the world around them.
One of the things that separates György Ligeti from the other great European composers of his day like Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio was that György Ligeti was very sophisticated—like those composers—but he also had a great sense of humor and was very playful, which was quite unusual. I know other people have talked about the Marx brothers. But the fact that he was somebody who had a very interesting sense of humor, but also a dark humor, too, at times. So, you know, this complex person, who you never really who he was—as I mentioned, he would morph between being Chico Marx, and then Groucho Marx, and then Harpo Marx. So you’d get the playful side, the sort of dark, cynical side, and the playful side. So they’re all these different aspects of him going on. I think that’s why his music resonates with listeners. There’s a human quality to the music. There’s a great intellectual quality; at the same time, there’s a human quality, almost a fragile quality, which allows the listener to come in to the music, also. I would say that of all the composers who were similar to Ligeti of his time, his ego was one that didn’t get in the way of the music. And I would say that he was a modest person. He had extremely high standards for performance of his music. He could be very critical of others who played his music, but I think deep down he was a modest person who, because of his humble background and beginnings, appreciated things. I remember in the later ‘80s when György Ligeti was awarded the Grawemeyer Award in Louisville, Kentucky, that I went to the award, and some of his former students were there, but he spent a lot of his speech thanking people who had influenced him, and former students, which I thought was very rare. I mean, here was somebody who always acknowledged other people for their influences on him. So, his ego was such that he didn’t have to thank, even though he was an original composer, he thanked those people who had helped him become original. It wasn’t like, ‘I’ve discovered it, it’s mine, I’m the great composer, I’m the genius.’ No, he wasn’t like that, like other composers of his stature were, often. So I think that was very unusual. And he would actually respond to letters. You know, I didn’t write him very much because I didn’t want to bother him, because he was such a busy guy. But occasionally he would write back, and I have a couple letters, which I value. I remember that, when I was a student, I was living outside of Hamburg with a family, actually, in a garage. And I remember that he had to cancel a lesson, so I received this telegram from György Ligeti saying, ‘Lesson cancelled today. György Ligeti.” And I value that telegram today.
KN: You don’t happen to have any of those letters lying around, do you?
MD: Not that I can bring up right now. The favorite word of György Ligeti was ‘very interesting.’ I just remember that whenever somebody would say something, or he’d hear something that he thought was fascinating, he goes, ‘That’s very interesting. I remember it being whether I played something, a jazz voicing of Gil Evans, or whether I played the Michael Jackson Thriller album, or whether I’d talked about something I’d learned at IRCAM in computer music, his response was, ‘very interesting.’ And I think that that kind of sums up who he was. He was the guy who was interested in everything in life, open to ideas, and that’s something that I’ve taken with me and carried on in my work with young students as a composer as well.