Plugged into African music

By Lawrence A. Johnson

It’s a rare experience to encounter the music of Ligeti in South Florida but one will have that chance Saturday night when the composer comes to Miami to perform his music.
No, not that Ligeti. Gyorgy Ligeti, the Transylvanian-born modernist whose extraordinary, densely concentrated music gave us one of the most original voices of the last century, died in 2006.
His son, composer Lukas Ligeti, is continuing the family tradition of creating envelope-pushing sonic art with a distinctive fusion of electronica and African music. Ligeti will perform his plugged-in creations at the Harold Golen Gallery in Miami’s Wynwood district 8 p. m. Saturday.
Lukas Ligeti’s style is a wind-blasting mix of classical, electronica, and indie rock, with a pronounced influence of African polyrhythms. “I feel a part of that [classical] tradition,” says Ligeti, speaking from his apartment in New York less than 24 hours after returning from Ghana. “But I’m trying to do something new. There are completely different ways of thinking about music in Africa. I thought, if I use these ways of thinking with my own musical background—European and American—that might lead to some interesting results.”

Afrikan Machinery (Tzadik), certainly qualifies. The opening track, Balafon Dance System is a wild ride with its cacophony of crashing rhythms and shifting tonality. The insistent sampled sound of the balafon, the West African xylophone, serves as the album’s instrumental leitmotiv. In Entering: Perceiving Masks; Exiting: Perceiving Faces irregular electronic metres build up to a spectacular array of multilayed textures and counterpoint inspired by African pop and Ligeti’s memories of nights spent playing drums in open-air African bars. The massive, pulsing mechanistic wall of sound in Chimaeric Procession is a not-too-distant cousin of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, contrasted with the reggaeton and easy-going California feel (written in Palo Alto) of Great Circle’s Tune I. There’s even something like Walter/Wendy Carlos’s Switched-on Bach in the stately opening bass line of Great Circle’s Tune II.

Since 2005 Ligeti has performed on the Marimba Lumina, a MIDI-controlled electronic instrument built by synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla. who worked closely with the famous Bob Moog. “It’s a very sophisticated and strange instrument,” explains Ligeti. “I‘ve got four color-coded mallets. The instrument can differentiate which of the mallets is hitting it, so I can program it differently depending on that. The software is very complex and allows a lot of possibilities.”
The Marimba Lumina has a built in synthesizer, yet Ligeti—like Bartok, Vaughan Williams and other composers of the last century—obtains most of his source material from his own field recordings, stored on his laptop computer. “I’ve traveled a lot in Africa and other places, and I just record things,” he says. “Environmental sounds, traditional instruments, voices, whatever.”
Most electronic composers’ public performances consist of them sitting on stage manipulating an Apple laptop, which is about as visually stimulating as watching me type this sentence. “I don’t really enjoy performing on the laptop very much,” says Ligeti. “I’m not a typewriter-keyboard player. Also I don’t enjoy people playing laptops because you can’t really see what they’re doing.” Reflecting his drumming background, Ligeti prefers performing on the Marimba Lumina, avoding the usual electronic visual ennui. “The Marimba Lumina is more interesting to watch. And for me as a drummer, playing a percussion instrument makes a lot more sense technically.”
Growing up in Vienna, Ligeti had no desire to follow in his father’s acclaimed footsteps. “My father was a really great composer. And I thought, he’s already good enough. I don’t need to do the same thing.” However, at 18, when he finished the equivalent of high school in Vienna, Ligeti realized his future course was inevitable. “I was always hearing music in my head,” he says. Ligeti decided on drums as his instrument because he had nothing invested since he never paid much attention to percussion previously. “I figured if I fuck up, it’s not going to be a problem.”
In hindsight, Ligeti said he wished he knew what he was getting into. “Not only are the drums a very difficult and physically demanding instrument to play,” he says, “but you have to schlep them around all the time. And you can’t practice at home because of the neighbors. Had I known more, I wouldn’t have chosen it.”
Growing up in Austria, Ligeti studied composition and became immersed in all genres; jazz, classical, rock and world music. His fascination with African music was sparked by Gerhard Kubik, his professor in Vienna and one of the world’s leading experts on African music. After initial exposure, Ligeti began to immerse himself in African music and theory. “In my search for my own voice as a composer, that was the first and the most important ingredient.” Gyorgy Ligeti’s late works also show some of African elements, most famously in his piano work, African Rhythms. “We swapped a lot of tapes,” says Lukas.
While Ligeti the younger is pursuing a very different musical path, there are similarities in their musics: sonic density, a prominent, often mechanistic pulse, and an unorthodox approach to tuning. “I’m interested in breaking free from tempered tuning,” he says. “Using just intonation and microtonalities. I don’t really use any system, I just use my electronics to tune stuff. I do it by ear and I try to find new–sounding melodies and harmonies.”
In his early forties—Ligeti said he stopped counting birthdays after he turned 35—his success is growing, with commissions from the Kronos Quartet, the Bang On a Can Festival, and Ensemble Modern. He has collaborated with such musicians as John Zorn and Gary Lucas, and performs in Burkina Electric, an electronica band based in Burkina Faso.
While Ligeti has great respect for the Western classical tradition, growing up in Vienna in the household of one of the century’s most innovative musical minds, the avant garde “seemed quite normal.” It also makes him listen more critically to contemporary classical music, particularly that being produced in Europe.“I had a harder time with composed music because in many cases I can see the emperor is wearing no clothes,” says Ligeti. “My colleagues often become fascinated by complexity and issues like that, which for me are already old hat.
“For me it’s all conservative. The tonal post-Romantic music and Darmstadt and serial music are all conservative to me. It’s music my father and my grandfather’s generation would have been more concerned with.
“I’m more interested in world music and electronica and indie rock than most classic
al music being composed today. I love using the sounds of traditional African instruments because there’s a lot of noise and buzzing that gets incorporated. You go from village to village and find completely different tuning systems, different instruments and different styles of playing.”
Lukas Ligeti performs music from his new CD, Afrikan Machinery, 8 p.m. Saturday at the Harold Golen Gallery, 2921 NW 6th Ave. in Miami. 434-284-2965;
[Photo by Chris Woltmann]

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Sun Sep 21, 2008
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