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Transformation of Coloration and Density in Gyrgy Ligeti's Lontano

Bruce Reiprich
Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 16, No. 2. (Spring - Summer, 1978), pp. 167-180.
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Wed Jul 4 14:41:28 2007





In Gyorgy Ligeti's Lontano for orchestra (1967), extremely dense

canonic counterpoint sustains a sound-mass continuum of fluctuating
coloration and density." The gestation of micro-level events as discrete
elements tends to be obscured within the mass complex to such an extent that attention is directed primarily toward its more global dimen;
sions. So, although micro-level events generate the mass, they do not
function exclusively nor even necessarily as precisely identifiable projections within some sort of pitch/rhythmic scheme, but rather as
withdrawn elements, interrelated to stimulate qualitative and quantitative changes of the totality. Unity here can best be expressed in terms
of the degree to which all perceptual levels are compositionally controlled to foster global transformation.

Lontano can be divided into three lengthy sections (A, A', A 2 ) , each
containing ( a ) multiple pitch canons at the unison followed by ( b )
sustained clusters, and thus represented schematically as shown below :
mm. 1-41 41-56


56-1 12




This paper, now revised, was originally delivered at the Spring 1977 Midwest
Chapter meeting of the American Musicological Society.
I n the case of the second and third canonic sections, the advent of canonic
activity proper does not coincide with the beginning of the section but, following
a sustained sonority, starts in mm. 60 and 122, respectively.



I shall deal here with the canonic sections only, focusing primarily on
the first of the three.
As the major generative element, canonic lines are rhythmically
complex, lack immediate rhythmic similarity to all other lines, mainly
employ motion in seconds but with some thirds and a few larger intervals, and are so restricted in range that segments typically weave
around one pitch (see Ex. 1 ). Such linear definition does not exhibit
foreground traits that potentially might articulate any single line into
immediate relief. While the identity of each line is not obliterated,
such diminishing of identity, combined with the large number of
canonic parts sounding at the same time, force linearity into a mass
conglomerate and endow that linearity with a new perspective: that is,
the grouping of lines of identical pitch into unique and self-contained
layers rather than the projection of single lines. With the unique orchestration of each canon, the flanking of its lines by rests, and with
the differences of bowings, octave and unison doublings, and complexity of part-writing between different canons, various factors of coloration, time, and density also interact with pitch to delineate layers.
Even so, layers are not projected as sharply profiled events. Due to
temporal overlapping, color linkage resulting from general timbre
similarities, and duplication of pitch-order content, as for example
between Canons I V through VIII,2 the lines of each layer do not
become independent from those of preceding and succeeding layers but
rather merge with them to sound like organic continuations (see
Ex. 2, pp. 170-7 1 ) .3
It seems then that the individuality of each canonic layer is never so
pronounced as to upset the predominately homogeneous character of
the mass. Nonetheless, layering provides much more than simple generation of that mass, for owing to the nature of canonic activity, all
2 Though these canons overlap considerably in respect to pitch-order content,
they are nevertheless individualized by a symmetrical process of imbrication. Starting with Canon V, the lines of each canon repeat the last four notes associated with
those of the immediately preceding canon and add two new pitches a second apart.
T h e final canon adds seven pitches.
3 Although canonic activity is the primary generator of the mass in the canonic
sections, not all parts are always engaged in the statement of a canonic line. Some
parts sustain only one pitch or a limited succession of pitches over a long period
of time. This pitch material may be unrelated to simultaneously presented canons
or it may result from the doubling of the entrance of canonic pitches without continuation in canonic movement. In either case, it usually functions to increase
density and is assimilated into the mass transformation without being perceived
as an individually contributing agent (see Ex. 3 ) .


Ex. 2 Lontano mm. 17-20

Ex. 2 ( c o n t . )



coloration changes occur gradually as individual parts successively employ the timbres and pitches associated with new canonic layers. In
addition, the introduction of bowing changes and tremolos is most
often camouflaged by originating at or near the lowest point of a crescendo. Successions of different canonic layers, consequently, impose
regulated changes upon the mass coloration and density that appear to
evolve naturally as very slow textural transformations: almost imperceptibly the mass becomes a new composite of color and pitch.

With perception focused upon a complex field of musical stimuli

rather than upon individualized melodic, rhythmic, and motivic foreground configurations, pitch manipulation to vary density becomes
integral to the structuring of the sound-mass. In Lontano, I have considered the pitch content found within the temporal unit of a beat to
be useful in determining and defining the general constitution of the
mass with its concomitant process of change. Yet taken alone, pitch
content is an inadequate measure of pitch density; one aspect among
others that must also be evaluated is the degree of predominance of
each pitch. By ascertaining the number of times that each pitch appears within a beat, one may in a limited sense compute values of
predominance, henceforth referred to as pitch-count predominance
(see Ex. 3 ) .4
Paralleling the graduated pace of coloration transformation, changes
of mass pitch-class content in the canonic sections of Lontano occur
slowly. In the beginning of the piece, twenty-three beats followed by
six, five, and eight pass before new pitch-classes are admitted. Even
then variation in mass content is extremely subtle for pitch change
usually entails the addition or omission of only one pitch-class, with
or without concurrent changes in the status of octave doublings (see
Ex. 3 for mm. 11-15). Moreover, each pitch enters the texture
through an accumulative process where its number of occurrences is
gradually increased and later retracted in a type of "ebb and flow"
from beat to beat. The mass appears then to subsist on various structural levels. For while pitch-class content of the totality approaches
4 T h e data of pitch-count predominance represents an attempt to identify one
aspect of density. So, the results, like those of all analytical procedures, must be
subject to interpretation in any given circumstance as to their validity, usefulness,
and degree of variability.

Ex. 3 Arabic numerals arranged horizontally under pitches of the staff indicate
those pitches sounded within each beat. The value of the numeral shows the number of occurrences of a pitch, including unison doublings. Numerals in parentheses
identify pitches belonging to non-canonic layers. Solid horizontal lines indicate
changes in mass pitch-class content, dotted lines show changes in octave doublings.
** Pitch-count predominance of F# temporarily lessened while lagging parts
and viola extension emphasize the end of Canon I .



moments of quantitative stasis, content on lower levels, as from beat to

beat, is always in a state of qualitative flux due to the doubling changes.
This type of pitch fluctuation and the slow variations taking place in
mass content are obtained by means of the canons. One result of such
canonic activity is the formation, on a background level, of an asymmetrically spaced succession of stressed pitch-classes generated by the
greater number of occurrences of some pitches and subsidence of
others within a given timespan. With a few exceptions, this succession
of stressed pitch-classes follows the content and order of the canons
underlying the mass, though in the case of Canons IV through V I I I it
does not follow exactly the content of each of these canons but omits
upon repetition the duplications of pitch-order content between them
(i.e., the imbricated segments) .5 Moreover, the duration and degree
of stress given to each canonic pitch is different and some reach their
peak at the same time as others (see Ex. 3 for mm. 11-15) .6
Specifically, quantitative and qualitative changes in mass density
yield oscillations between dense and less dense states on a multitude of
levels. Thus, within a large-scale growth of density that peaks (mm.
3 1/2-32/ 1 ) and then recedes, the omission of Gh in m. 12 and the
gradual accumulation of Eb begun a measure later, combined with
the omission of Bb and the appearance of C# in m. 15, transform the
mass temporarily to a less dense and eventually diatonic-like content
producing a lower level oscillation complementary to the large-scale
density contour (see Ex. 3 ) . Though density change here is a product
of both qualitative and quantitative factors, more subtle variegations
to less dense states within extended periods of quantitative stasis are
initially dependent upon qualitative factors alone. As shown in Ex. 4,
Bh in mm. 19/3-20/3 gradually increases in number of occurrences to
join C# and D# as the pitches most weighted by pitch-count, all other
pitches being more or less equally subdued. In a context where maximal density is in part dependent upon an equality among sounding
See footnote 2.
does not indicate the precise size of the string section. By defining each
non-solo part as usually being performed by at least two players, and by observing
the maximal number of solo parts utilized in each string choir, I have based my
calculations of pitch-count predominance upon a string section of fourteen first
violins, twelve second violins, ten violas, ten cellos, and six basses. Variances in this
scheme may modify specifics of pitch-count predominance but will not alter the
general principle, as outlined above, of stressed pitches following the order of
canonic pitches nor any of the concepts introduced henceforth.
7 This notation indicates measure number/beat.

kleawre 20/1



Ex. 4 Italicized pitches indicate where octave doubling occurs.




components, the weight of Bh, C#, and D# (and the later addition of
G#) has the qualitative effect of triggering another dip to a less dense
area (mm. 19/3-20/4),' especially since these pitch-classes are accentuated further by ( 1 ) their appearance in upper register flutes
within an almost exclusively string texture, ( 2 ) the greater extent to
which all other pitches are subdued in number beginning in m. 19/3,
( 3 ) the change from octave statements of all pitches to only these
pitches plus Ch,9 and ( 4 ) the contrast of the less dense or "consonant"
character of these pitches-when sounded together-to the more dense
total mass. With the arrival of Bb in octaves in m. 21/ 1 coupled with
its increasing number of occurrences thereafter, the process of increasing mass density is resumed. It appears, then, that the sound-mass in
Lontano is distinctively colored by a kind of qualitative/quantitative
density fluctuation that redefines "consonance" and "dissonance" as
regulated by the number of half-steps embodied within a vertical structure and by the predominance of pitches that suppress or highlight the
half-step organization.
Regulation of density at various levels, moreover, is at times a product of cadential punctuations that involve parts of the mass or the mass
as a whole. Beginning in m. 14, the parts of Canons I11 and IV gradually and successively come to a rhythmic halt by m. 18, thereby fusing
their pitches with those sustained by the basses into a cadential cluster
(see Ex. 2 ) . The deletion of clarinets 1, 2, and 3 in mm. 16-17 combined with the simultaneous deletion of the violins, clarinet 4, and horns
1, 2, and 3 in m. 18 (beat 2 ) yield a punctuation within the cadential
cluster while other cadential parts continue to sustain their pitches until
the third beat of m. 19. But due to the stabilization of pitch within the
cadential cluster from mm. 18/ 1-19/2 and pitch-class content within
the mass as a whole from mm. 16/1-20/2, cadential activity here is
primarily a transformational stimulus and one which in two stages
creates a variegation, not in pitch content, but in mass coloration,
rhythm, and density resulting from changes in instrumentation, rhythmic activity, and doubling, respectively. The effect is remarkably subtle.
Cadential structure is disguised by its concurrent appearance with noncadencing canonic lines and by the usually immediate resumption of
canonic motion in the deleted parts.
Quantitative change also comes into play with the deletion of C4 in m. 20Q.
Qince the octave doubling of Ch occurs in only one cello part, its appearance
does not radically affect the predominance of B4, C#, and D#.

Multi-leveled processing of essentially textural aspects is reflected

further in the shaping of sonic space itself. Not only are each of the
three canonic sections characterized by a wedge-shaped design that
expands outward from a more narrow ambitus, but the three sections,
when taken together, produce an even broader wedge-shape that climaxes in m. 140 (see Ex. 5 ) .
The perceptual effect of Lontano is dependent upon elements that,
at times, contribute more to foreground than to background features of
the mass. Crescendi are attached to individual pitches and groups of
pitches within canonic lines resulting in a profusion of non-coincident
dynamic activity. And combined with the range and timbral characteristics of each orchestral participant, these phenomena cause particular
instruments to sporadically pierce through the overall texture, and in
so doing project pitches that can overshadow emphases such as those
illustrated by pitch-count predominance. Given the canonic generation
of the mass, these pitch projections emerge as foreground fragmentations of canonic lines, the same lines that are perceived together as an
evolving musical entity.
Furthermore, cadences into, and initiation of textural expansions
from, single pitch-classes or a small number of predominating pitchclasses are notable as articulative elements of formal design: each
canonic and sustained cluster section is bounded by these means.
Cadences of limited pitch-class content are also of special consequence
to the climactic accumulations of density found in each canonic section:
at or near the point where extremely dense pitch saturation peaks
within a process of expanding textural space and extended dynamic
crescendo, approaches to such cadences subtly transform mass saturation into less dense constructions (see Exx. 5 and 6 ) .
Most significantly, isolated pitch projections and cadences of limited
pitch content give rise to the emergence of focal points contained on
various structural levels and spread over an irregular timespan. Thus,
the temporary appearance of brass as canonic parts in mm. 73-76 is
not solely coloristic. Rather, their combining of a dynamic crescendo
with their doubling of the woodwinds' three-note pitch set (Bb, Ab,
F ) promotes the effect of a more "consonant" sonority being projected
from a larger and denser mass of tones; hence, a type of focus materializes. But this projected sonority is not sufficiently differentiated to supply a clear focal point; instead, it lies in a middleground region and
reinforces the same pitch set which occurs simultaneously and subsequently in the strings. Focus upon this pitch set, linked with its earlier


Ex. 6 Pitch count in mm. 30-33

Differentiation is not made between canonic and non-canonic layers. Starred ( * )
pitches are cadential pitches.

and later occurrences within canonic lines and in the foreground construction of a previous brass cadence (mm. 53-56), gives rise to the
ultimate appearance of the set as a sustained sonority on a distinctly
foreground level (mm. 120-22) and so reflects the gradual emergence
of textural elements as a unifying process over an extreme timespan.
Appearances of focal points are apparently governed by formal considerations within a density transformation plan and by a relationship
in which foreground projections reinforce parts of the background
mass, but not by a pitch/rhythmic scheme of serialized proportions.
Long range progression, then, is engendered by extended contours of
textural space and accumulations of density while at the same time
quantitative and qualitative changes of the mass, whether regulated
by canonic activity, cadential punctuations, or space manipulations,
promote an impression of textural transformation rather than a series
of different and separable events. Ultimately, mass complexity in
Lontano does not entirely consume the contrapuntal movement nor
does the mass ever become totally homogeneous. Instead, interaction
of canonic activity perceived at a number of levels produces a contextual hierarchy within the mass. The structural integrity of the



whole is perceivable in terms of the activity of continuously shifting

concentration between background and foreground: that is, between
a complex totality and locally projected pitches.
As one slowly turns a diamond, varied hues and flashes of light, all
of different strengths, catch the eye; yet at the same time one is always
aware of the overall shape of the gem. And so it is in Lontano. With
the unfolding of the mass, a kaleidoscope of sonic hues is projected
in an ever-varying transformation with structural cohesion determined
by the peculiarities of that transformation. The realization that mass
transformation is able to entail more than a simple compounding of
surface events and a naive assemblage of colors is indispensable for a
true understanding of this work.