In my review of Wormed I mentioned that I thought there were a lot of connections between Ligeti and metal. Someone asked for an elaboration in the comments, so that’s what this post will be. First, I’ll say that I think given time and effort this connection could be made with much better examples and could be argued quite persuasively. Instead, this is a blog, so I’m just going with what pops into my head.
Second, I am definitely not claiming that I think Ligeti’s works have had a direct impact on metal music. Rather, I think there are lots of avant-garde art music composers out there that are held in high esteem by some fringe metal bands. These composers are without a doubt influenced by Ligeti. Then these fringe metal groups take elements they like and incorporate them into their music. Then these influences trickle down into more mainstream metal. So I’m definitely not claiming the influence is direct, but there are certainly techniques that were essentially invented by Ligeti that have now played a large role in some genres of metal.
When people think of Ligeti, they usually think of his middle period (or middle to late period). Ligeti’s work is usually broken down into three distinctive eras. The middle period is usually characterized by two main features. One is a “meccanico style” (see Steinitz’s book or the interview with Peter Varnai). Ligeti was influenced in his childhood by writings of the Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy. Some of these stories featured incessant ticking of multiple clocks or mechanical devices winding down. The meccanico style is characterized by extremely technical rigid playing.
The meccanico technique often amounts to layering of extremely technical passages without worrying about how tonal the overall sound is. In fact, it is probably preferable to have a non-tonal result. To me, the piece that most characterizes this idea is the fourth movement of his Chamber Concerto:
The other key technique associated to Ligeti is called micropolyphony. I already talked about it and gave an example in metal of it in the linked post. To give it a different description, Jane Clendinning (a music theorist who analyzes Ligeti) describes this technique using the following language. There is the “microstructure” which is what is going on note-to-note and takes into account things like how often notes are sounded. Then there is the “audible surface” which is, well, what you hear if you just pay attention to the surface of what is going on.
Micropolyphony can essentially be summarized as having a highly volatile and active microstructure (so there are lots of things going on note-to-note and lots of notes happening all the time), but having a fairly tame audible surface. A good analogy is with quantum mechanics. When we see a table, we see a nice smooth surface, but if we think about it we know that at a micro-level there are tons of particles jumping all over the place all the time. The overall texture that is perceived is not the reality of what is really going on. The canonical example is:
In all art, a common theme is to make contrast. Classically this was achieved through various means such as establishing a key signature with some common chord progression and then moving to some tension away from the key. Then you resolve the tension by coming back. Ligeti had a similar idea, but instead he had a process of making things muddier and blurrier and then resolving this by clearing them up.
On to the metal part of this post. If we work backwards, then I think there is no doubt that Ligeti would have absolutely loved being able use distortion in his compositions. Think about how great modern musicians have it to be able to blur their sound and then clear it up. Listen to the following and think about how similar it is to the meccanico style and how they use a process of blurring their sound through distortion and then clearing it up. Behold… The Arctopus consists of such talented musicians that I wouldn’t be surprised if Ligeti was an actual immediate influence:
Compare the beginning of what you just heard with this Ligeti piece. They are almost literally the same, but inverted (Behold… the Arctopus makes a pattern that goes up, but Ligeti’s pattern goes down):
As far as micropolyphony goes, I think the entire premise of black metal is that you create an incredibly volatile microstructure with the drums and tremolos and other techniques, but the overall audible surface is just some overall texture that is quite constant and non-volatile. Seriously, insert literally any black metal band to your liking here and listen for this effect. Just for completeness I’ll put one in:
One of Ligeti’s main things was to make someone play lots of notes so fast that it created an effect of something rather than listening to the notes as some sort of melody. To me, this is one of the whole points of technical metal, and in particular technical death metal. Despite being instrumentally totally different, just compare the overall concepts of these two pieces from the point of view of rapid technical playing to create an effect:
Overall, I think a much better case can be made with much better examples, but here is a starting point for how techniques from Ligeti have made their way to the metal scene. For the record, Ligeti wrote a piano etude called “metal” so it is essentially impossible to google for this because all you get is that piece.