Gyorgy Sandor Ligeti, twentieth century man, May 28 1923 to June 12, 2006.
I'm listening to his vocal works now. I've only heard his music live a couple of times -- two performances of the American premiere of Le Grand Macabre and the complete piano etudes at Cal last fall -- and both times left me with an elation I rarely feel.
I can't even remember how or where I first heard of, or read about Ligeti, but I started collecting all the CDs in the series put out by Sony (then picked up by Teldec). The first one I bought had the Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes, which was too zany an idea to be resisted. I expected it to sound sharp and angular but instead it was like a buzzing, humming cloud that gently died away. Can you ask more from a composer than sounds you didn't expect and had never heard before?
I hestitated about the title for this entry, fearing it would seem flip or disrespectful. But the program book for Le Grand Macabre (which I can't find at the moment) quoted him saying that after the Holocaust, it was only possible to write comically for the stage. This is as good an answer as any to the question about how one can write poetry after Auschwitz. One thing I really loved about Le Grand Macabre is that he avoids the separation into life = good; death = bad that a lesser artist would have chosen. The life we're shown is often filled with squabbles, vulgarity, and cruelty. Death is a strange visitor who may or may not be who we think he is. So I meant to salute his antic spirit.
I read that Ligeti had hoped to compose an opera based on the Alice books but poor health prevented him. What a loss. Somewhere in the spirit world there should be a ghostly opera house performing such great lost works as Ligeti's Alice or Gershwin's Dybbuk. Perhaps we'll all end up in the audience.