“Op-art” — short for “optical illusion” — first became a real trend in western painting in the 1960s, with artists like Josef Albers and Victor Vasarely. Often tricking the eye with tempting but suspect patterns, many of these paintings offered a vision of great, cool precision, of bright candy-colors and flawlessly hygienic brushwork; out of meticulous background grids arose great cubes or spheres that were — in truth — nothing more than the well-constructed fib of a flat canvas.
The late 1960s works of composer György Ligeti are often described as the musical equivalent to these visual essays. And in many ways, works like the composer’s 1969 Organ Study No. 2 (“Coulée”) are brilliant reports on the art of sonic illusion. On the one hand, “Coulée” — French for “flow” and also “casting” — obsessively exploits extremely fast arpeggios and passage-work in an unstoppable moto perpetuo of ever-shifting flurries. But, per its trompe-l’oreille tactics, “Coulée” manages such steadfast consistency in its technique that the ear begins to hear a slowly-evolving continuum, almost lyrical in its arching contours. Breakneck speed emanates an air of gradual, yawning curve; tiny, scurrying patterns lose their definition and sink into a larger sound-mass. In this sense, “Coulée” is the logical organ-child of its harpsichord precedent, 1968’s famous Continuum. In this work and the organ study, Ligeti exploited a fusion of two musical concepts, “dot-pattern music” and “grid-system music” — the former a music of surface perceptions, the latter its imperceptible architectural basis. The result of this fusion, in both pieces, is a music at once static and supremely mobile, a sonic contradiction between cognition and concept.
So, thanks to Ligeti’s “Coulée,” we’ve got our musical counterpart to “Op-art” all wrapped up. But of course, that’s not the whole picture, primarily because once one gets past the technical sympathies between a Vasarely and a Ligeti, one begins to perceive a disturbing rift. A painting like Vasarely’s Ziko is a resplendent objective paradise, psychedelic in color and antiseptic in effect — it works perfectly; but Ligeti’s “Coulée” carries mud on its shoes. It plays too hard, so to speak, pushing the organ to its limits of articulation and air-power, and the performer to her limits of stamina. Like Continuum, Ligeti’s “Coulée” carries a certain peril and anxiety with its illusionary strategies. One is reminded not of M.C. Escher’s witty retinal paradoxes, but of Franz Kafka’s horrible execution-machine from the story “In the Penal Colony,” — a device which obsessively, punctiliously tattoos its victims with their own sentences until they perish. In Ligeti, as in Kafka, the machine breaks down amidst its hysterical but ultimately inanimate rite. But perhaps “Coulée” is redeemed through its implied endlessness, a much more merciful vision than Kafka’s, or Ligeti’s own in Continuum; as one commentator put it, the organ fades away “dispersing into the higher vaults of the cathedral; the rhythmical grid is a transient section of an infinite movement…”