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György Ligeti and the Rhetoric of Autonomy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 July 2004


Composers’ self-representations – in articles, programme notes, and interviews – have exerted a significant influence on twentieth-century music scholarship, shaping not only the reception of particular outputs but also wider historiographical conceptions of the recent past. This article traces one particular mode of discourse through the published statements of György Ligeti – a ‘rhetoric of autonomy’, which tends to disavow allegiances to ‘schools’ or institutions and underplay stylistic or aesthetic commonalities with the work of other composers. This type of rhetoric, together with the image it promotes of an artistic culture created out of the polarized activities of individuals, colludes naturally with the now familiar pluralist paradigm of late-twentieth-century culture, a paradigm that much postmodern theory, despite its putative deconstruction of the ‘ideology of the unique self’ (Jameson), has left largely unchallenged. Except that, for an artist such as Ligeti, the rhetoric of autonomy may no longer accomplish its objective purpose. Within a cultural sphere increasingly subsumed by the commercial, the image of the radically autonomous creator, once powerfully symbolic of a refusal of the mass market, becomes inescapably caught up in its mechanisms as an explicitly promotional tool.

© 2004 Cambridge University Press

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Earlier versions of this paper were read at the Second Biennial Conference on Twentieth-Century Music (Goldsmiths College London, 29 June 2001), and at research seminars at the University of Surrey (5 February 2002) and the University of Durham (19 March 2003).