In his 1966 essay, On Clocks and Clouds, the Austrian-born philosopher Karl Popper considers a world poised between two opposing processes. “Clocks” are neatly ordered systems that can be measured and solved through reduction. “Clouds” are “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.”
The essay’s title took on poetic significance for the Hungarian-Austrian composer, György Ligeti (1923-2006), inspiring the 1973 tone poem, Clocks and Clouds. Ligeti wrote,
I liked Popper’s title and it awakened in me musical associations of a kind of form in which rhythmically and harmonically precise shapes gradually change into diffuse sound textures and vice-versa, whereby then, the musical happening consists primarily of processes of the dissolution of the ‘clocks’ to ‘clouds’ and the condensation and materialization of ‘clouds’ to ‘clocks’.
Ligeti drew associations between Clocks and Clouds and Salvador Dalí’s iconic 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory (pictured above). As with the painting’s melting clocks, the music takes us into a magical, hypnotic dreamscape where time becomes illusory. Solids melt into liquids and transform back again amid a gradually shifting kaleidoscope of sonic color. Listening to this music, I am reminded of the colorful soundscapes of John Adams’ 1979 Common Tones in Simple Time and other minimalist works. Ligeti also seems to anticipate the ambient sounds of New Age electronica, as well as the remote, nature-inspired vistas of John Luther Adams.
Clocks and Clouds is scored for a 12-voice women’s choir and a chamber orchestra which includes five flutes and five clarinets. Brief rhythmic cells emerge from the choir’s non-semantic “text,” notated in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Complex polyrhythms dissolve into pure sound. Focused harmony blurs into the microtonal spaces between intervals. The conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, compares the piece’s hazy, hallucinatory choral lines with the mystical “sirens” of the final movement of Debussy’s Nocturnes.
Flutes and clarinets emerge in the opening bars as swirling specters. As they spring to life and multiply, an inexorable process seems to take shape. Amid quietly rising tension, these haunting, mysterious, and unsettling voices pull us into their cosmic drama:
- Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds, Reinbert de Leeuw, Asko Ensemble, Schönberg Ensemble, Capella Amsterdam prestomusic.com