Although they may not realise it, millions of people have become familiar with the music of György Ligeti, the Austrian-Hungarian composer who died on Monday, aged 83. When Stanley Kubrick used extracts from three of Ligeti’s works – Atmosphères, Lux aeterna and Requiem – in the soundtrack to his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he delivered Ligeti a worldwide audience.

In retrospect, this celebrity looks almost ironic. Throughout his composing career Ligeti made numerous changes of direction but, wherever his highly intelligent and quirky nature took him, he never compromised his search for individuality of utterance in order to court easy popularity.

György Ligeti was born on May 28 1923 in Diciosanmartin (Transylvania, Romania). His family moved to Cluj and he began studying composition at the conservatory there, but his education was interrupted by the second world war, when he was forced into labour service in the Hungarian army and lost his father and brother in the Nazi concentration camps.

After the war the communist regime in Hungary imposed repression of a different kind and Ligeti resolved to move to the west. His escape in 1956, concealed on a train with his wife, took him from a country where political censorship had prevented him from publishing anything much more than folk songs into the ferment of western Europe’s avant garde.

He soon found his own voice. Apparitions (1958) and Atmosphères (1961) won critical acclaim for their new sounds: iridescent clouds of musical colour and texture in which harmony, melody and rhythm seem to dissolve. The term “micropolyphony” was coined to describe their processes, but more important than the label was the fact that Ligeti was setting out on his own path, rejecting the dominant 12-tone serialism of the day. Having escaped two forms of political dictatorship, Ligeti was not going to allow any kind of musical system to be imposed on him.

A string of major works followed – the Requiem (1963-5), the Cello Concerto (1966) and Melodien (1971) – and further experimentation. He described his Horn Trio and Piano Concerto of the 1980s as a new style of “vegetative and proliferating” pieces. The principles of African drumming inform some later works, such as the Etudes pour piano.

An admirer of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and a lover of the books of Lewis Carroll, Ligeti wanted to try “crazy, stupid things”, such as writing a work that consists of one sound and then silence. His only full-scale opera, Le Grand Macabre – one of the few operas in the past 30 years to be staged successfully around the world – is a black comedy that treats sex and death like characters in a comic strip. The brilliantly allusive score opens with a prelude for 12 car horns, and never looks back.

Ligeti said that “anyone who has been through horrifying experiences is not likely to create terrifying works of art, in all seriousness”. For him, that meant creating his own musical worlds that set him apart from his contemporaries.

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