LIGETI: "Martin, who would you say is the greatest living composer?" BRESNICK: "The greatest living composer? Er--other than yourself, of course--" LIGETI: "--yes, of course, other than myself."
Ligeti was fond of such questions; he had a Top Three for the twentieth century, for instance, that went something like
And sure enough, Ligeti had his own answer all ready: the greatest living composer, in his opinion, was Conlon Nancarrow.
BRESNICK: "Conlon Nancarrow?" LIGETI: "Conlon Nancarrow. I really think he is the greatest living composer." BRESNICK [polite, but still dubious]: "Nancarrow? I mean, yes, the player-piano studies are great. They represent quite an achievement--but such a narrow achievement! If I had to choose between Schumann and Chopin, for instance, it would be difficult, but I would still choose Schumann every time. For while Schumann offers a great cello concerto, great symphonies, a body of indispensible songs, Chopin's highest masterpieces are limited almost exclusively to a narrow body of work, his pieces for solo piano--and Nancarrow's body of work is narrower still, limited to player piano!" LIGETI [thoughtfully]: "Hmm. Maybe, maybe he is not the greatest living composer."
(NOTE: Be sure and read the comments below to see how I completely screwed this story up when I first posted it. Christ, I do the same thing at parties, too.)