It’s a cliché to say that an artist draws his power from his contradictions, but the lives of the great composers provide easy grist for the mill. Ives, living an outwardly respectable life as an Ivy League-educated New York insurance executive, turned from Jekyll to Hyde in his off hours, writing a rude and shocking type of music that the world is still trying to absorb. Schönberg, the conservative progressive, thought himself forced by fate to push Romantic music, which everyone loved, into the woolly world of Modernism, which almost everyone hated. Beethoven, music’s great idealist, wrote music that sang majestically of universal brotherhood, while enduring a personal life of crushing loneliness. The list goes on.

At first glimpse, György Ligeti appears to reflect this familiar pattern. As Richard Steinitz writes in his new biography (which arrives in America just before the end of the Hungarian composer’s eightieth-birthday year): “Ligeti is a dreamer who is a meticulous technician, a creator of mechanisms who believes in intuition, an insatiable explorer who is mercilessly self-critical, a hater of ideologies, a profound intellectual who is sensitive, witty, self-deprecating and devoid of pomposity.” He is also a man who has lived through harrowing times, so much so that one is tempted to hear the combination of horror and humor in his music–never more manifest than in his magnum opus, the opera Le Grand Macabre, in which the worlds of Bosch and Breughel lie down as lion and lamb–as we do the bitter ironies of Shostakovich, another tortured genius from the Eastern bloc.

But Steinitz–a British composer, academic and new-music impresario–knows better, and after sampling Ligeti’s music, played with astonishing expertise by some of Europe’s leading performers in a series of discs on the Warner Classics label, so do we. There may be a handful of composers still living who can match Ligeti’s achievement (Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter most quickly come to mind), but none of them are more deserving of the honor of a complete edition of recordings–which Warner, picking up the baton from Sony Classics, has recently finished. (The fifth and final volume of the Warner set is scheduled to be released in spring 2004.) In the midst of a dislocated life in a misbegotten century, Ligeti has created a body of music that, with a few exceptions, maintains an underlying serenity of purpose even while it indulges a taste for the ghoulish and the macabre. As a victim of Soviet domination, the young Ligeti was not free to choose the direction in which his music could go, but the sheer scope of his vision was apparent even from the beginning–a vision that would expand to embrace the influences of Boulezian serialism, Cageian chance techniques, American minimalism and the crazy, serried rhythmic schemes of the player-piano composer Conlon Nancarrow. Much of Steinitz’s book is made up of analysis, but unlike so many composer studies, the descriptive sections are so well written and metaphorically articulate that an intelligent reader will know what to take and what to leave behind. He devotes some forty pages to analyzing the workings of Ligeti’s three books of piano études–which makes sense, as these richly varied, virtuosic and delectable works have become some of his most popular and accessible pieces.

You won’t find much detail about Ligeti’s life in Steinitz’s book, which, he says, “was not intended to be” a biography, but which became one as the writer warmed to his subject. The founder and former artistic director of Britain’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (long a renowned showcase for the most intrepid of modern composers), Steinitz first met Ligeti in 1973, and his book, Music of the Imagination, is an official biography in all but name: Ligeti not only welcomed Steinitz into his Hamburg home for three days of interviews but checked the book’s first draft, making corrections the writer duly incorporated into his text. So it’s no surprise that Steinitz, by his own admission, has touched on Ligeti’s personal life only insofar as it will illuminate the composer’s music, the topics including “his relationship with his mother, his continued distress concerning the murder of his father and brother [by the Nazis], the circumstances of his three marriages to only two people, his generous advocacy of little known composers, personal warmth and professional scepticism.” Andrew Clark, in a review of the book’s European edition, describes Ligeti (whom he once interviewed himself) as “a restless, obsessive, almost childlike figure who shields himself within an emotional/psychological world of his own making, for the fulfillment of his extraordinary creative talent.” This, too, is a twentieth-century cliché, and I would hesitate to apply it to a Jew who successfully survived the Holocaust and a Hungarian who escaped the Russian onslaught against his country in 1956 by hiding under mail sacks and dodging border guards.

But there is certainly much more to the man. An incident in the composer’s second home in the Vienna Woods in 1996 might indicate a self-destructive streak: As Steinitz delicately puts it, Ligeti’s “careless inattention to his naked-flame tea-heater” not only burned the first floor of the house but almost consumed the score of Le Grand Macabre, which he had spent several months revising in anticipation of an upcoming Salzburg Festival production. His personal life after his divorce from his second wife, Vera (they remain close friends), is dispatched in a paragraph, and there are no photographs of Vera or of their son Lukas, who has become an esteemed avant-garde musician (and public figure) in his own right; Ligeti’s years of deprivation in postwar Hungary are relayed with affecting simplicity, yet it is somehow unbelievable to read that even after a decade of living in the West as a famous composer he could not afford to own a piano until a patron gave him one in the late 1960s. He still lives in Hamburg, retired from teaching and free to pursue his prestigious commissions. But there must be more to Ligeti than a disheveled old man with a taste for crazy sweaters.

So we look for patterns. One that manifests itself early is a resistance to authority, an artist’s escape into dreams, which he can use as fuel. Taunted by a sadistic aunt, he elaborates an arachnophobic nightmare from childhood (he is prevented from reaching his bed by a dense, rotten web of insects and human detritus that knots and unwinds with “the hopelessness of passing time”) that influences the structure of Apparitions (1958), the groundbreaking orchestral work that would make his reputation in the West. An uncle in his Hungarian hometown works in a printing press, the mechanistic inevitability of its sounds providing a spark much later for the Poème symphonique (1962), a kind of “happening” scored for one hundred metronomes. While the work’s hilariously pompous title doffs its hat to the neodada Fluxus movement fashionable at the time, in performance the effect of the blank-faced metronomes winding down to their ticking deaths, one by one, is just as frightful as it is funny–a prime example of the double reality that is the essence of Ligeti’s work.

Having survived the Nazis and escaped from the grip of the Communists, Ligeti greedily learns the resources of “The New Music” from new friends like Stockhausen and Boulez, but soon grows restive with their authoritarian theology of serialist composition. In Apparitions Ligeti deploys for the first time his technique of “micro-polyphony,” in which multiple strands of imitative counterpoint are layered upon each other in a dense, undulating fabric; one year later he reinvents himself in Atmosphères, a work that eschews the twelve-tone technique for the pleasures of sculpting sound, its large-scale rhythms built exclusively on washes of tone color that move about the orchestra in great sheets and blocks. A work of both precision and sensuality, it brings him international success. In his Requiem (1963-65) he exhumes the ghosts of his painful past in shattering music at once forbiddingly complex (the choral parts are among the most difficult ever composed) and emotionally hysterical; an early recording catches the ear of Stanley Kubrick, who without permission or payment uses music from both the Requiem and the Lux aeterna (a dreamy, haunting, one-movement choral work that Ligeti composed while struggling with postoperative morphine addiction) in the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The composer gets fleeced (MGM, after a six-year legal tussle, pays him a mere $3,500) but comes to respect the adventurous and brilliant Kubrick, who goes on to pay Ligeti handsomely for the use of his music in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Steinitz relates this famous tale with a tactful mixture of probity and zest; he also goes into considerable depth to relate the much more important story of how the half-complete “Ligeti Edition” got bumped from Sony Classics to Warner Classics’ Teldec label. (The composer, not always a charmer in the recording sessions with the absurdly overworked Philharmonia Orchestra, refused to approve the release of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recordings of the Requiem and other major works, effectively shutting down the Sony project after eight impressive volumes, all still available–and beautifully done.)

As we listen to the fruits of the Teldec CDs, a theme that Ligeti struck in a lecture soon after the premiere of the Requiem provides a necessary context in which to hear his later work. With the decline of classical forms, tonal schemes and rhythmic continuity, listeners can easily lose their bearings; according to the composer, the structures of contemporary works have become more like architecture than music, made of “single rooms, vast empty buildings, winding subterranean labyrinths, isolated homes spaced out in a landscape.” One hates to use the word “accessibility” (a pointless term from the marketing culture that has taken over classical music in the past decade), but it does define the issue: How much does an audience have a right to expect from a composer? Volume II of the set, a collection of orchestral works played by the Berlin Philharmonic under the young British conductor Jonathan Nott, is a crucible in which to test the theory–and since the notoriously critical Ligeti approved the recordings himself, we can regard them as definitive. Atmosphères, a unique creation, remains deliciously indestructible, while the “landscape” of San Francisco Polyphony (1973-4), an audaciously contrapuntal tribute to the charisma and literate hedonism of one of his favorite cities, is constantly energized by sexy, jagged melodies reminiscent of Berg and pulsing rhythms inflected with some of the minimalist spirit that Ligeti had recently enjoyed in the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley–and the wondrous Philharmonic is up to the task. But Apparitions, for all its novelty, sounds today like a parody of early electronic music, its mechanistic processes devoid of passion or wit, and the diaphanous Lontano (1967), for all its moody originality, has always seemed overrated to my ear. But an effective reading of the sparky Romanian Concerto, one of many fine, conservatively styled works from the 1950s that Ligeti has republished, is more than compensation, and Nott, the orchestra and the singers of London Voices give a hieratic dignity to the scarifying sounds of the Requiem that Kubrick once so deftly purloined.

Ligeti, like all composers, had to either confront or deny the new challenges posed by the collapse of serialist doctrine and the arrival of Postmodernism and Neo-Romanticism on the international scene in the 1970s and ’80s. But unlike Stravinsky, whose tacking to the twelve-tone breeze in the 1950s was set off by a fear of being left behind, the transformations in Ligeti’s recent style sound like a product of a generous spirit and an ever-expanding mind. The Chamber Concerto (1969-70) uses texture and color as its points of departure, but its pithy and economical multimovement form points toward later works like the Piano and Violin Concertos, energized by new passions for the rhythms of African and Caribbean folk music and, at times, an openhearted lyricism that looks back to Brahms. (The Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, heard in the Sony series, is a supreme example of the latter tendency.) All of them are performed with radiant precision by the Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and his Schönberg and Asko Ensembles. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, an extraordinary virtuoso of intense but serene commitment, is the soloist in the Piano Concerto, while Frank Peter Zimmerman, a young buck of a fiddler with ferocity to spare, gives the Violin Concerto–Ligeti’s most heroically Romantic concerto–the kind of workout that ought to make it a repertory piece.

Still, Warner’s Ligeti/Reich: African Rhythms disc–an unofficial pendant to the rest of the set–is the best introduction to Ligeti’s sound and sense for a newcomer steeped in world music, techno or alternative rock. Designed by the dedicated Aimard as a high-class concept album, it positions the richly polyphonic communal songs of the Aka Pygmies–sung and played by an ensemble that Aimard brought from the Congo Basin to Berlin–so that they alternate with several of the Ligeti études, and two Steve Reich classics (Clapping Music and Music for Pieces of Wood). The result is a celebration of pulse, so seamlessly arranged that the village music, and the Western art music that its kind inspired, abide together without condescension or discomfort.

Ligeti has long championed the work of American mavericks like Reich, Riley and Nancarrow (Ligeti convinced the MacArthur Foundation to give the aging renegade, long exiled in Mexico, one of their famously lucrative “genius” grants), but listening to their works next to his gives one pause. As a bona fide European master, Ligeti can, with princely detachment, take what he likes from any available menu and use it to extend a personal interpretation of a musical tradition going back a thousand years, while even the most interesting American composers, operating in a far younger country suspicious of high art, seem driven to prove themselves by pursuing their own, iconoclastic visions. (A two-piano piece of Ligeti’s from 1976–Self-Portrait With Reich and Riley, With Chopin in the Background–puts the whole thing in a nutshell.) American composers and culturati have spent the past two decades heatedly discussing the viability of minimalism, the relevance of world music on classical composition and the relationship of the composer to his audience–while Ligeti, above it all, has simply acted.

At the close of his biography, Steinitz informs us that Ligeti hopes, despite poor health, to compose an opera based on Alice in Wonderland, a book that might perfectly match the composer’s volatile yet elegant sense of absurdity. One can only wish him the best–since he may be the last of his kind.