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Cover page of 'Are you dead, like us?’ The Liminal Status of the Undead in the Music of Ligeti

'Are you dead, like us?’ The Liminal Status of the Undead in the Music of Ligeti


Ligeti's oeuvre contains two great representations of death: the Requiem and Le Grand Macabre. But these are no ordinary essays on mortality. Their musical substance and themes are often allied to the grotesque as a trope, in which the ugly and deformed appear as characters and their actions in the opera, or musical techniques pushed beyond acceptable limits in the Requiem and other works. In taking the title of our conference at face value, I wish to show how the grotesque in such readings is but a mask for a peculiar relationship with death found throughout Ligeti's work: a sign of the undead, that life substance which persists beyond life, in defiance of social and symbolic norms. In this paper I will identify how, in the opera and in instrumental works, Ligeti adopts narrative and musical positions that could be called grotesque, with reference to Julie Brown and Esti Sheinberg's application of the grotesque to music by Bartók and Shostakovich. But I will further show how these grotesque elements—as a negation of the proper, of narrative laws and musical conventions—were already implicit within those conventions, retroactively inscribed as their vulgar support. As such, the grotesque in Ligeti embodies the threshold between a symbolic life and death: one made literal in the plot of Le Grand Macabre but existing metaphorically in Continuum, the Chamber Concerto, and the Études for piano.