‘Godzilla’: The music of Gyorgy Ligeti and the movies


“Godzilla,” currently rampaging through cinemas around the world, is the latest movie to resurrect Japan’s most fearsome monster creation. The recent Hollywood blockbuster, directed by Gareth Edwards, is also the latest in a distinguished line of movies to revive the music of the late, great composer György Ligeti.

Considered one of the most important and radical composers of the last 100 years, Ligeti stretched the boundaries of tonality, form and music theory. His diverse body of work made him difficult to classify, but his abstract and often eerie compositions found a large fan base, which included Hollywood directors.

In “Godzilla,” the Kyrie section from Ligeti’s unearthly “Requiem” serves as the sonic backdrop for what is arguably the movie’s most visually arresting scene -- the high-altitude military jump over a ravaged San Francisco. A naval team, including Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), descends on the city to retrieve a nuclear weapon stolen by a radiation-hungry monster known only as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).


The piece, which Ligeti debuted in 1965, also serves as the soundtrack for the movie’s teaser trailer, which features shots from the HALO (high altitude, low opening) drop.

Ligeti’s “Requiem,” with its proliferation of voices arranged in fugue-like chanting, is the composer’s most famous piece thanks in no small part to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Kubrick first invokes the piece in the movie’s “Dawn of Man” sequence when the prehistoric simians first encounter the mysterious monolith. (The music recurs in subsequent appearances of the unexplained structure.)

“2001” features a couple of other Ligeti pieces, including his “Lux Aeterna” and “Atmospheres.” The composer apparently wasn’t pleased with Kubrick’s appropriation of his music and ended up suing the director. (They eventually settled out of court.) Kubrick would go on to use Ligeti’s music in “The Shining” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Ligeti, who was born in Romania but was of Hungarian descent, saw his music widely performed in his lifetime. One of his biggest fans was conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who regularly programmed Ligeti’s music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (The orchestra first performed the “Requiem” in 1998.)

The composer died in 2006 at age 83 in Vienna. The photo gallery above provides a survey of Ligeti’s music that has been used in the movies, including features by Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann.