From 1941 to 1943, Ligeti began his study of composition under Ferenc Farkas. He resumed his studies after the war, eventually graduating from the Budapest Academy of Music in 1949. He then began research into folk music throughout Romania, producing many innovative choral pieces. Because of the political situation, he could not promote his more advanced works, like the Musica ricercata I--XI for piano (1951--1953) in which each piece is generated from progressively more notes; in other words, the most minimal to the most maximal of means. Piece No. II, Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale (sad, rigid, and ceremonial), was chosen by Stanley Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Like this composition, the movie contrasts outward formality and habitual behavior with an inner, secret world of tortured emotions. The obsessive alternation of the two notes a half-step apart (with register displacement) creates an almost unbearable tension.
Ligeti was finally free to explore his own compositional voice after he made contact with more avant-garde European composers in Vienna in the mid-'50s. Until the 1960s, Ligeti's compositions reflected the prevailing language of serialism. Then in 1961, Ligeti's Atmosphéres for orchestra received a very controversial reception with its large washes of huge tone clusters and timbres creating an expressive, even neo-romantic kind of sound painting, the very antithesis of the serialists' obsession with specific intervals. In Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), this piece accompanies the spectacular visuals of the trip to the outermost dimensions that give birth to the Star Child with shimmering clusters, high glissandi, and waves of string harmonics at varying speeds, as if on a celestial highway.
Ligeti's Requiem (1963--1965) employs deeply resonant rhythmic dronings, clusters, expressions of devastation, and the shocking Dies Irae with its frenzied turmoil, Tibetan horn-like sounds, and wild, shrieking vocal and instrumental mellisma. This piece is quoted throughout 2001, and often segues with Lux Aeterna (1966) for 16 solo voices that is the sound signature for the black monolith first encountered in the age of Homo Erectus as the film opens. This mysterious religious work varies between a surface of multi-timbral clusters made from polyphonically accumulations, and short, whispering consonances. The second texture segues seamlessly with Ligeti's Aventures (1962) at various points in this same film. This work employs an artificial language extended by vocal-like instrumental inflections. Ligeti's Lontano (Distance) for orchestra (1967), also quoted in 2001, re-creates the "dream-worlds of childhood," and utilizes horizontal and vertical distancing effects.
Excerpts from various Ligeti works are quoted in Kubrick's version of Stephen King's horror classic The Shining (1980), employed in moments of high tension. The sequel to Kubrick's 2001, entitled 2010: The Year We Make Contact, reiterates the signature texture of Lux Aeterna.
Other films using Ligeti's music, originally written for the concert stage, are Michael Mann's crime thriller Heat (1995) with an excerpt from Ligeti's Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1966), and Christine Dory's 27-minute short Bruno n'a pas d'agent (1999).