REVIEW: Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes at the British Museum

100 metronomes in the Round Reading Room
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2018. All Rights Reserved


Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes
British Museum, 28 April 2018. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

The sound of 100 metronomes ticking brings to mind the Zen directive, the elusive Sound of One Hand Clapping. Ligeti's Poème Symponique, experienced in the British Museum's magnificently renovated Round Reading Room, as part of the museum's Europe and the World music festival, was one of the most unusual concerts attended, but also one of the most enchanting, which indicates how much attitudes have changed in the intervening period.

Ligeti's proposition calls for 100 identical pyramid-shaped metronomes, fully wound up, each set to run at different speeds, to begin ticking simultaneously, gradually running down until only one is left to finally become silent.

Written in 1962, this is the last of three pieces conceived when Györgi Ligeti underwent a two-year flirtation with the Fluxus art movement, a time when he also wrote one of his most significant and profound, works, Volumina for Organ (1962). Premiered in Holland in 1962, Poème Symphonique was so controversial at the time that in 1963 Dutch Television cancelled a broadcast of its performance, substituting a football match instead!

Ligeti's relationship with Fluxus was ambiguous right from the early days, as charted so insightfully by Eric Drott in his 2004 paper, Ligeti in Fluxus. He became very clear where he stood, with an observation on audience reactions to this piece, equally pertinent today, stating that "Radicalism and petit-bourgeoius attitudes are not so far from one another; both wear the blinkers of the narrow-minded." Although his first Fluxus piece, Three Bagatelles for David Tudor was dedicated to John Cage's musical partner, and Poème Symphonique flirted with the principle of indeterminacy, his sharp mind had little time for Cage nor the liberal culture of the Happening. "They believe that life is art and art is life … but my artistic credo is that art - every art - is not life. It is something artificial. And for me all the happenings are too dilettante.” "I had come from a communist dictatorship in Hungary. For me there was no unity between art and life."

The score for Poème Symphonique's first incarnation, a series of complex, obsessively detailed instructions with a satirical, humorous edge, which so infuriated audiences with its protracted set-up processes, was published in the New York-based Fluxus magazine, ccVTRE, in 1964. Ligeti revisited the symphony and radically streamlined the process of its realisation in a second version dated 1982, and published in the 1990s. Ligeti indicated that "Poème Symphonique … demands patient, unhurried listening and a willingness to let oneself become accustomed to the process of gradual transformation of rhythmic patterns." Drott confirms that these are "Musical considerations that were tucked away in the earlier version of the score." It is this later version that was performed (by persons unattributed) in the Reading Room.

The final stages of preparation, the winding-up of the metronomes, was concluded as the audience entered the performance area, an arc in the Reading Room's circular floor plan. In his introduction, Freddie Matthews, Head of Adult Programming, explained that the piece would take roughly 15-20 minutes to reach its natural conclusion. With the 100 identical metronomes placed on three two-tiered, grey-painted platform blocks, two rows on the lower tier, and a single row on the upper tier, the three black-clad women facilitators deftly set the metronomes in motion. Those with the sliding weight low on the pendulum moved quickly, those with the weight higher up nodded slowly, and within a short space of time there was a sense of the patter of intense rainfall pervading the space. The sound was enhanced by the natural echo in the room, possibly assisted by resonators specified in the score. The image was that of massed, miniature windscreen wipers, clicking away, each doing their own thing, until their individual, clockwork mechanisms were exhausted. Red spotlights directed at the instruments caught their serried fascias, adding an extra touch of minimalist atmospherics to the sculptural setting.

The insistent clatter was maintained even when only fifty percent of the metronomes remained in motion, and then, hardly perceptible, it was suddenly down to the final three … then two. Finally, the persistent ticking of the last standing metronome subsided, its pendulum slowly, silently easing to a standstill.

"The audience should remain absolutely silent until the last metronome has stopped ticking."

It was quite magical.

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