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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A titan of contemporary classical music has died. Composer Gyorgy Ligeti has passed away in Vienna after a long illness. He was 83-years-old.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

(Soundbite of trumpets sounding)

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Gyorgy Ligeti was a composer of international stature who spoke at least six languages. But he said the way he approached sound and rhythm came from Hungarian, his mother tongue.

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ULABY: As a child, it took Gyorgy Ligeti 20 minutes to walk to school from his home in Romanian Transylvania. Ligeti told the BBC as he walked, he would imagine concerts in his head.

Mr. GYORGY LIGETI (Composer): And from this kind of listening to inner fantasy, I very gradually developed a kind of possibility to - not only to imagine music, but to compose it.

ULABY: Ligeti's father wanted him to become a scientist, not a musician, so Ligeti was 14 before he learned how to properly compose the music he imagined.

Mr. LIGETI: Then I just went in a shop, bought music paper and a pencil and a rubber and began to write a piece.

ULABY: Ligeti began to study the folk music around him. But the composer's life was tragically interrupted in 1943. As a Jew at age 20, Ligeti was sent into forced labor. His father and younger brother were murdered in concentration camps during World War II. After the war, Ligeti settled in Budapest and did his best to follow the rise of modernist music and integrate it with what he knew. Some of his early works, like this one, were suppressed by the Stalinist government.

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ULABY: In 1956, thousands of tanks rolled across the border to crush the Hungarian revolution. Ligeti fled to Austria. There he became friendly with some key figures in the European avant-garde and soon found critical success of his own.

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Mr. PAUL GRIFFITHS (Music Critic): Micropoliphany.

ULABY: Music critic Paul Griffiths says this word describes Ligeti's music from this period. Compared to a Bach fugue, which has perhaps four melodies in interplay, Griffiths says Ligeti's has 40.

Mr. GRIFFITHS: What you hear is a kind of tango or a cloud. You can't hear all that's going on.

ULABY: This piece, Atmosphere, reached a huge number of people thanks to the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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ULABY: Ligeti was initially unhappy with director Stanley Kubrick's use of his music. But the two reconciled and Kubrick used Ligeti compositions in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Some of Ligeti's pieces seemed formless, others mechanically precise.

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ULABY: Ligeti himself said he borrowed from science, from philosophy, from folk music, but he knew his compositions were finished when they felt as natural as language.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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