A Ligeti Example of How to Make a Piano (or a Piano Piece) Stutter

In his Étude 3: Touches bloquées, published in his First Book of piano studies, the Hungarian composer György Ligeti explores a singular piano technique in which some keys are depressed and held by one hand while the fingers of the other hand make some movements stroking these depressed and held keys without producing its correspondent sound notes. It is for this technical reason that the subtitle of the piece is Touches bloquées, which means “blocked keys.” At the beginning of the score, Ligeti writes the word “stuttering” as an expressive or affective marker. This word is not an indication of expressivity to be represented by the interpreter, but a real event by which the composer suggests that the piano itself and the musical discourse should stutter during the piece. The idea of “stuttering” is not simply thought as an external expressive character to be applied to some pre-existent musical materials, but it constructs and assembles the musical and instrumental materials themselves in a new affective and technical way.

It is thus by the idea of the construction of new phonological, grammatical, semantic, and syntactical logics that Gilles Deleuze creates his conception of style. For Deleuze, to have a style in writing is not to obey the norms and rules of a major standard, but to make stutter one’s own language itself by putting its elements in continuous variation. For the French philosopher, what is important in this process is the “creation of syntax that gives birth to a foreign language within a language, a grammar of disequilibrium” (“He Stuttered”). For Deleuze, being a foreigner in one’s own language and making the language stutter in itself are some of the ideas that make a writer or a poet (or a composer) have a style. The act of stuttering thus has an important role in Deleuze’s philosophy.

The main idea of this paper is to build a link between the musical and Deleuzian thought by showing how Ligeti makes stutter his own piano technique of pressing keys as well as his own sound sequence, constructed by the more-or-less irregular alternation between sounding and non-sounding struck keys. To analyse this stutter procedure on the attack, rhythmic, and pitch planes, it a diagram will be built of some fragments of the piece in order to show how the alternation of sound and non-sounding strokes it works to create a new syntactic logic—that is, a new solfege that makes the piano technique and the musical discourse themselves stutter. Consequently, I will investigate how, in Ligeti’s Étude 3, the affect of stuttering reverberates through the musical materials and procedures and how it forms a becoming bloc, or an aberrant nuptial, between the stuttering act and the musical procedures, treatments, and variations understood as singularities of the Ligetian piano style.