As a boy in Romania, György Ligeti had been enchanted with the story about a widow who lives in a house full of clocks. “Nobody comes, maybe for a hundred years,” he said. “Nothing happens. So there is a combination of movement, which is machine-like, and absolutely nothing … a timelessness … no beginning and no end.”
When he became a composer, Ligeti set out to capture this feeling with Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes. At a conductor’s signal, each of 10 players winds up 10 metronomes; after an interval, the conductor gives a second signal, at which the players set the metronomes running, each at a unique tempo, and the performers leave the stage.
As soon as some of the metronomes have run down, changing rhythmic patterns emerge, depending on the density of the ticking, until, at the end, there is only one, slowly ticking metronome left, whose rhythm is then regular. The homogeneous disorder of the beginning is called ‘maximal entropy’ in the jargon of information theory (and in thermodynamics). The irregular grid structures gradually emerge, and the entropy is reduced since previously unpredictable ordered patterns grow out of the opening uniformity. When only a single metronome is left ticking in a completely predictable manner, then the entropy is maximal again — or so the theory goes.
All this went right over the heads of the Holland audience for whom the piece debuted in 1963. “The last tick of the last metronome was followed by an oppressive silence,” Ligeti remembered. “Then there were menacing cries of protest,” and a planned television performance was canceled. Undaunted, Ligeti later altered the performance so that the metronomes were already running when the audience entered the concert hall, “so that the piece truly runs like a machine: metronomes and audience are confronted with each other without any human mediation.” “Radicalism and petit-bourgeois attitudes are not so far from one another,” he wrote. “Both wear the blinkers of the narrow-minded.”