About this Piece
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 5 flutes (1st = alto flute; 3rd, 4th, 5th = piccolo), 3 oboes, 5 clarinets (5th = bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 2 trumpets, percussion (glockenspiel, vibraphone), celesta, 2 harps, 4 violas, 6 cellos, 4 basses, and women’s chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 18, 1993, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting
The title of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds refers to an essay by the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Raimund Popper, “On Clocks and Clouds.” Popper’s essay describes two different kinds of processes that occur in nature, one that can be measured exactly (“clocks”) and the other, made up of indefinite occurrences that can only be described in a statistical approximation (“clouds”). According to Ligeti: “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’.”
These transformations are not clearly delineated occurrences of “now clocks” and “now clouds.” Instead, through minutely shifting rhythmic patterns, Ligeti presents the listener with a malleable texture whereby the homogeneous character of the musical material allows for little distinction between a clearly defined, periodic ticking rhythm and the blurred dissolution into clouds. Ligeti also noted in a 1978 interview, “I should like to refer to the soft, limp watches of Dali’s painting (The Persistence of Memory, 1931), which had associative value in the composition of this piece...” Those famous watches, suggestive of being in time and simultaneously not, are themselves ironically subjected to the ravages of time as their metal casings turn to “hollow” bodies devoured by ants. In other words, as with much of Ligeti’s music, we are suspended in a persistence of dream-like, multi-layered metaphors of aural illusion.
The composer also creates “clocks” and “clouds” harmonically, moving from harmonies based on standard tuning to those based on non-traditional intervals, thereby creating harmonies that are now clouded, now discrete. Because of their capacity to realize these subtle shifts, five flutes form the backbone of Clocks and Clouds’ harmonic skeleton. The five clarinets and twelve-voiced women’s chorus nearly match the flutes flexibility in realizing the harmonies as well as combining with them in high-pitched tone color (along with harmonics in the cellos and double basses) in “fluid” textures.
In contrast, the other instruments, especially the two harps, four bassoons, two trumpets, and strings produce precise rhythmic patterns. The “text” is non- semantic, with the chorus intoning syllables derived from the international phonetic alphabet.
Steve Lacoste is the Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.