György Ligeti


Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Atmosphères has been heard by its largest audiences through the excerpts of the work used by movie director/producer Stanley Kubrick in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (along with Ligeti's Lux Aeterna).

Composed in 1961 for large orchestra without percussion, Atmosphères makes an indelible first impression with a subdued five-octave chromatic chord utilizing every note in this massive span and employing each instrument of the orchestra in its realization. As section after section drops away, flutes, clarinets, and horns are left sounding a bright, piercing tone cluster. Prismatic voices from high strings sounding in quickly pulsing clusters lead a remarkable array of timbral effects. Cadences with the same contours moving at differing tempi, heaving brass players breathing volubly through their horns, and sheets of slithering instrumental voices in highest registers are among other arresting devices employed here by Ligeti.

The work scarcely hints at forward movement. Rather, the listener hears an all but motionless series of sound evolutions unfolding at various moments. It is, if not a revelation of music in all of its aspects, a study in orchestral timbre, all the more effective, all the more spectacular because of its being employed with such a sizeable number of instruments. It successfully demonstrates the contemporary colors available to the symphony orchestra without reliance upon peripheral electronics. Scarcely any doubt can exist over what attracted Kubrick: it was the perfect realization in sound of his visual exploration of outer space.

Although first responses to the work were muted, especially from those of the avant-garde, Atmosphères prevailed with the public who desired contemporary music to which they could feel some attraction. Indeed, this work can be regarded as clearing a pathway for minimalist composers of a later period who likewise explored (and sometimes exploited) timbral effects which gradually evolve throughout works composed for orchestra or large ensemble.