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Title: Micropolyphony  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Atmosphères, Texture (music), György Ligeti, Polyphony, Ștefan Niculescu
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Micropolyphony is a kind of polyphonic musical texture developed by György Ligeti and then imitated by some other twentieth-century composers, which consists of many lines of dense canons moving at different tempos or rhythms, thus resulting in tone clusters vertically. According to David Cope, "micropolyphony resembles cluster chords, but differs in its use of moving rather than static lines"; it is "a simultaneity of different lines, rhythms, and timbres" (Cope 1997, 101).

Differences between micropolyphonic texture and conventional polyphonic texture can be explained by Ligeti’s own description:

Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina's or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!). (Ligeti, quoted in Bernard 1994, 238).

The earliest example of micropolyphony in Ligeti's work occurs in the second movement (mm 25–37) of his orchestral composition Apparitions (Steinitz 2003, 103). His next work, Atmosphères for orchestra, the first movement of his later Requiem, for soprano, mezzo-soprano, mixed choir, and orchestra, the unaccompanied choral work Lux aeterna, and Lontano for orchestra, also use the technique. Micropolyphony is easier with larger ensembles or polyphonic instruments such as the piano (Cope 1997, 101), though the Poème symphonique for a hundred metronomes creates "micropolyphony of unparallelled complexity" (Griffiths 2001). Many of Ligeti's piano pieces are examples of micropolyphony applied to complex "minimalist" Steve Reich and Pygmy music derived rhythmic schemes.


  • Bernard, Jonathan W. (1994). "Voice Leading as a Spatial Function in the Music of Ligeti". Music Analysis 13, nos. 2/3 (July–October): 227–53.
  • Griffiths, Paul (2001). "Ligeti, György (Sándor)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, vol. 14 ("Kufferath" to "Litton"). London: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 0333608003; ISBN 1561592390.
  • Steinitz, Richard (2003). György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-17631-3; Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-551-8.
  • Várnai, Péter (2003). "Beszélgetések Ligeti Györgyyel", translated by Gabor J. Schabert. In Ligeti in Conversation with Péter Várnai, Josef Häusler, Claude Samuel, and Himself, pp. 13-82. Eulenberg Music Series. London: Eulenberg Books. ISBN 0903873680.

Further reading

  • Drott, Eric (2011). "Lines, Masses, Micropolyphony: Ligeti's Kyrie and the 'Crisis of the Figure'". Perspectives of New Music 49, no. 1 (Winter):4–46.

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