Imagine taking a full-scale cathedral organ, the kind with three million pipes and a basement full of machinery, turning all the blowers right up to ‘hearing damage’ mode, and then leaning on all the keys and pedals at once. That’s the opening chord of Volumina.
You feel as though, in settling down to write this piece, Ligeti carefully collected together lots of textbooks on classical harmony, sacred music, organ writing and so forth - and then chucked them out the bloody window. Volumina is an exploration of the sound limits of the organ, making it sound like the most adventurous of synthesizers before such things were even invented. Ligeti conjures extraordinary, hallucinogenic soundscapes from the instrument. Eerie floating, throbbing textures of wind moaning through industrial piping give way to furious explosive rages that sound as though a serious bar brawl has actually broken out inside the organ. In between these are frankly disturbing collections of noises that sound as though they were made by no Earthly instrument, ranging from banging on the pipes to blowing across them to what sounds like the hoarse, dying bubbles of someone choking to death on a kazoo, while someone twiddles the tuning knob on a radio.
One reviewer wrote “Volumina is a piece whose notes (every key on the organ, in fact) are sustained throughout its entire fifteen-minute length. What makes this piece so unique, however, is the way in which these static notes are manipulated in order to demonstrate the instrument’s full range of sonic capabilities. The work is not about melody; in fact, most casual listeners would consider it to be somewhat if not entirely unlistenable. Rather, Volumina was composed to explore the complete spectrum of sound that can be expressed by simple, unchanging notes without any reference to melody whatsoever.”
You might be more familiar with Ligeti’s work than you think. If you’ve ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and started thinking, “Dude. This music is pretty fucked up right here,” that’d be Ligeti. Volumina is about as avant-garde as you can get without going right beyond music and breaching the Geneva Conventions. The mere performance of this piece has actually destroyed two organs, and caused a complete electrical failure in the Royal Festival Hall.
It is one of those things which, a bit like perforating your cheeks with a stapler, is really nice when it stops. But after a few listens it does grow on you. At times you just want to laugh out loud and shake Ligeti by the hand for being such an outrageous fucking nutcase. I can see him sitting there, scoring a particularly horrific anti-tonal sonic assault, chuckling to himself and scribbling in the margin, “That’ll shit them right up.”
After listening to this have a good long lie down in a darkened room with a cocktail of anti-psychotics.