Reconstructing Ligeti's "Poème Symphonique" for 100 metronomes
This post is adapted from the paper presentation I gave at the György Ligeti and the Future of Maverick Modernity conference in Maccagno, Italy in July 2014.
Gÿorgy Ligeti’s 1962 composition for 100 metronomes, Poème Symphonique, owes much of its success to its presentation as a ridiculous spectacle. But no piece in Ligeti’s catalogue better distills the composer’s fascination with chaos, order, and broken systems. The piece, notated as a short text score, lasts as long as it takes one hundred mechanical metronomes, all set in motion at the same time, to unwind and stop ticking. Thus, the shape and energy of the piece, if not the duration, is always the same: a tendency towards sparser texture and eventually silence as the metronomes unwind.
However, with the obsolescence of the mechanical metronome, gathering enough instruments for a performance proves difficult. Even in 1962 when the "instruments" were certainly more common, Ligeti devoted a large portion of the score to informing the presenter about how one hundred metronomes may be acquired – also going so far as specifying that each performance be dedicated to those who contributed their personal instruments or helped procure them:
“On each [performance] the work is dedicated to the person (or persons) who have helped to bring about the performance through the contribution of instruments, by any means whatsoever, whether it be executive council of a city, one or more of the music schools, one or more businesses, one or more private persons.”
This project, a reconstruction programmed in Max/MSP, attempted to model Ligeti’s famous piece. Though it certainly loses the absurd theatricality of the intended realization, it is simple to recreate the piece in real time and experience a simulation of the world that fascinated Ligeti throughout his musical career. Because Poème Symphonique is dependent on the eventual release of mechanical tension in its “instruments,” a main goal of the digital model was to imitate the behavior of mechanical metronomes as closely as possible.
Ligeti specifies a few conditions that gave a good place to start in programming the reconstruction.
“The work is performed by 10 players under the leadership of a conductor . . . Each player operates 10 metronomes . . . The metronomes must be brought onto the stage with a completely run-down clockwork . . . the players wind up the metronomes . . . at a sign from the conductor, all the metronomes are set in motion by the players.”
Perfect: Max functions best as a modular programming environment, so each “player” of ten metronomes was treated as a replicable unit, controlled by a main “conductor” module. Here is a general schematic of the architecture of the program:
The most variable element then is the tempo of each metronome. Ligeti specifies two slightly different modes of performance in his score, each presenting unique programming challenges, discussed below. In both performance modes, each metronome is assigned a tempo randomly selected from the thirty-nine standard metronome markings available, ranging from 40 to 208 beats per minute. Many mechanical metronomes have grooves in the length of the pendulum’s arm that preclude tempi in between these markings, and so this limitation was implemented.
Fortunately, more refined mechanical metronomes do not decelerate as their wound spring loses tension. Therefore, there was no need to account for this variable in imitating a mechanical metronome: the piece could be simulated by assigning a set number of impulses to each metronome – “higher tension” is simulated as a greater number of impulses. When each metronome reaches the specified number of impulses, it shuts itself off. Credit goes to Dan Tramte for this particular idea – he made his own reconstruction in Max which he was gracious enough to send to me.
There are two possible ways of winding the metronomes specified in the score. The first was pretty simple:
"All metronomes are wound equally tightly. In this version the chosen metronome numbers (oscillation speeds) wholly determine the time it will take for the several metronomes to run down: those which swing faster will run down faster, the others more slowly."
Equal tension was simulated by assigning the same number of impulses to each metronome, regardless of tempo. A module randomly selects a length for the piece (between 1 and 5 minutes in the original implementation). The smallest number of impulses possible is 40 (the slowest possible tempo setting multiplied by number of minutes), so the given “minutes” value is multiplied by 20 (since one cycle of a metronome has two impulses) and distributed to every metronome. Therefore, the metronomes set at faster tempi run down more quickly than those at a slower tempo since they all have to complete the same number of impulses.
The second performance option Ligeti specifies is a bit more complicated:
"The several metronomes of a group are wound unequally: the first of the 10 metronomes the tightest, the second a little less, the tenth, the least tightly. Care must be taken, however, that the winding and the regulation of the speeds of the several metronomes are carried out completely independently of each other. Thus the metronome in each group which has been most lightly wound must not be the fastest or the slowest in its oscillation."
In this case, both tempo and tension, or number of impulses, are variable.
When this mode is selected, the maximum number of impulses is randomly chosen from a table (from between 40 and 100 clicks) and sorted in descending order. If these sorted numbers were distributed to the metronomes in the same way as the first mode, the last metronomes playing in each group would still be the ones with the slowest tempo.
Therefore, the sorted list of tension values rotates 5 positions to the right, so the median value leads. The sorted list of tempi for each group of 10 metronomes rotates 3 positions to the right. This ensures that the relationships of the longest-lasting metronomes – that is, those with the most tension – are neither the fastest nor slowest of each group.
Delaying and Clacking
There is a performance limitation in the original piece – the players cannot start all ten of their metronomes at once. Ligeti anticipated this and offered a bit of advice:
"To [start the metronomes] quickly as possible, it is recommended that several fingers of each hand be used at the same time. With a sufficient amount of practice, the performers will find that they can set 4 to 6 instruments in motion simultaneously."
When the piece is initiated, 4, 5, or 6 metronomes are started, and after a delay from 2-4 seconds, the rest of the group begins:
Each metronome impulse triggers a pulse, output through a resonant filter and summed with a burst of filtered noise for color.
The center frequency of this filter varies from one metronome to another, accounting for the different-sounding brands of metronomes that one would have to acquire for an actual performance! These synthesized impulses could certainly be substituted for samples of mechanical metronomes – and indeed, when trying to model physical metronomes in other ways, why exclude their sound? I wanted something a little closer to what we might hear in a digital metronome, as a sort of bridge between the physical and mechanical worlds. But the sound is not so important as the texture, and could easily be replaced with playback of sound files.
This project is simply an exercise in trying to capture the variable elements specified in the score so that one may recreate the piece dynamically with ease. Of course, the patch's output (in terms of the timing of the metronomes) is still a bit too polished to completely represent the chaotic conditions present in a performance with mechanical metronomes. What if the players, despite operating under the first mode, do not quite wind all the instruments equally? What if one player is quite slow in starting all the metronomes, or one of the arms on a donated instrument is a bit rusty and slows down quickly?
A primary assumption – and certainly a contributing factor to the piece’s traditional realization – is the imperfection of mechanical and human systems. A digital reconstruction by design cannot account for these sorts of microscopic but nonetheless significant variations.
Yet its concept is more relevant than ever to a current generation of sound artists. The limitations of technology and the flaws in their systems guide the whole concept of Poème Symphonique, as for the work of many sound artists working today. Artists like Jeff Carey, Tristan Perich, and Toshimaru Nakamura deliberately use digital artifacts, extremely limited digital sound, or noise created by signal chains to craft music. I often wonder how the ever-playful Ligeti would experiment in this vein if he had spent time experimenting with digital technology.