Watch What Happens When 100 Metronomes Perform György Ligeti’s Controversial Poème Symphonique

A loose asso­ci­a­tion of mid-20th cen­tu­ry artists includ­ing at times John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Joseph Bueys, the Fluxus group pro­duced a lot of strange per­for­ma­tive work and anti-art stunts influ­enced by sim­i­lar provo­ca­tions from ear­li­er Dada artists. The movement’s “patron saint,” Martha Schwen­den­er writes at The New York Times, was Mar­cel Duchamp, whose “idea of art (or life) as a game in which the artist recon­fig­ures the rules is cen­tral to Fluxus.” Also cen­tral was Duchamp’s con­cept of the “ready-made”—everyday objects turned into objets d’art by means part rit­u­al and part prank.

We can think of the piece above in both reg­is­ters. Györ­gy Ligeti’s Poème sym­phonique, a com­po­si­tion involv­ing 100 metronomes and ten oper­a­tors, fit right in with Fluxus dur­ing Ligeti’s brief asso­ci­a­tion with them.

Writ­ten in 1962—and yes, it has a writ­ten score—Ligeti’s piece “owes much of its suc­cess to its pre­sen­ta­tion as a ridicu­lous spec­ta­cle,” writes com­pos­er Jason Char­ney, who has made a dig­i­tal recre­ation. Ligeti pro­vides spe­cif­ic instruc­tions for the per­for­mance.

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.

These are fol­lowed almost to the let­ter in the video at the top of the page, with the added bonus of hold­ing the per­for­mance in a Goth­ic church. What does it sound like? A cacoph­o­nous rack­et. A water­fall of type­writ­ers. And yet, believe it or not, some­thing inter­est­ing does hap­pen after a while; you become attuned to its inter­nal log­ic. Pat­terns emerge and dis­ap­pear in the rever­ber­a­tion from the church walls: A wave of robot applause, then sooth­ing white noise, then a move­ment or two of a fac­to­ry sym­pho­ny.…

“The score,” notes Matt Jol­ly, who shot the video, “calls for a long silence and then up to an hour of tick­ing. We decid­ed to short­en this con­sid­er­ably. The metronomes are sup­posed be ful­ly wound but we had to lim­it that to 13 turns on aver­age.” The inge­nu­ity of Ligeti’s piece far sur­pass­es that of any mere prank, as does the logis­ti­cal and mate­r­i­al demand. The com­pos­er ful­ly acknowl­edged this, pro­vid­ing specifics as to how per­form­ers might go about secur­ing their “instru­ments,” hard to come by in such large quan­ti­ty even in 1962. (Mechan­i­cal metronomes are now all but obso­lete.) Char­ney quotes from Ligeti’s help­ful sug­ges­tions, which include enlist­ing the ser­vices of an “exec­u­tive coun­cil of a city, one or more of the music schools, one or more busi­ness­es, one or more pri­vate per­sons….”

I doubt he meant any of this seri­ous­ly. Dutch Tele­vi­sion can­celed a planned 1963 broad­cast of Poème sym­phonique from an ear­ly per­for­mance in the Nether­lands. The event includ­ed speech­es by local politi­cians and an audi­ence who had no idea what to expect. As you might imag­ine, they did not react favor­ably. Like the ear­li­er anti-art Ligeti’s idea draws from, he explic­it­ly framed the com­po­si­tion as “a spe­cial sort of cri­tique,” whose score is “admit­ted­ly rather iron­ic” and in which he rants vague­ly against “all ide­olo­gies” and “rad­i­cal­ism and petit-bour­geois atti­tudes” alike. How seri­ous­ly he means this is also anyone’s guess. And yet, prank or art, peo­ple con­tin­ue to per­form the piece, as in the even short­er ren­di­tion above, which goes even fur­ther in remov­ing the human ele­ment by design­ing a machine to start all the metronomes simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Rad­i­cal Musi­cal Com­po­si­tions of Mar­cel Duchamp (1912–1915)

Hear the Exper­i­men­tal Music of the Dada Move­ment: Avant-Garde Sounds from a Cen­tu­ry Ago

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Jerry Dingus says:

    Open­cul­ture NEVER dis­ap­points.

    Is it just me or do they all look like nuns waiv­ing rulers?

  • Earl Egdall says:

    This is so sooth­ing I might like to lis­ten to it before bed­time. It’s like white noise or heavy rain falling on a tin roof.

  • Carl Kruse says:

    If prank at first, it verges on art now.

    Carl Kruse

  • Adrian Marsh says:

    I’m quite sure that there are only nine­ty nine metronomes in the church ‘play­ing’ as one clear­ly has­n’t been start­ed off, if you watch the video care­ful­ly in the back­ground shots of oth­ers ‘tick­ing’. It is strange­ly hyp­not­ic watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to them.


    Algunos deben estar rién­dose mucho inclu­so des­de sus tum­bas. ¡Ahhh.… el nego­cio del arte y sus mer­cachi­fles…!
    Eru­di­tos sesu­dos des­granan con­cep­toides y tamañas patrañas so pertenecer a las supues­tas van­guardias…
    Icon­o­clas­tas que inten­tan hac­er­nos bro­mas y diver­tirse con la igno­ran­cia con­cep­tu­al sobre el arte que inten­tan hac­erse pasar por “avan­za­dos del cam­bio y lo que ven­drá”…

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