Sonic Truth

Experimental composer Lukas Ligeti came to town with a mission: Create a new Miami sound

Lukas Ligeti is the son of György Ligeti, one of the most influential composers of the Twentieth Century and a pioneer in "nonpurist music," which incorporates sounds not traditionally believed to be "musical." The senior Ligeti, an exile from the communist regime that ruled Hungary from 1949 through 1989, fled to Austria in 1956. Since then he has composed landmark experimental works performed by orchestras throughout the world. To the moviegoing masses of the United States, however, he probably is best known for the excerpts from his 1961 work Atmospheres and 1965's Requiem, heard in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Atmospheres Ligeti introduced the dense layers of sound he calls "chromatic clusters," and the rhythmically complex canons he calls "micropolyphony."

Growing up in a household where chromatic clusters and micropolyphony sounded as familiar as nursery rhymes, Lukas Ligeti was exposed to experimental music at a very early age. Awed by his father's artistry, however, he shied away from music and cultivated a frivolous youth while attending American-style international schools in Vienna. "I never learned to play an instrument in my father's house," he recalls. Not until after high school graduation did he take a crash course in piano so he could apply to the Vienna Music Academy. "I realized when I was seventeen," he says, "that I always had a soundtrack in my head. So I thought I might as well be a composer. Besides, I thought if my father could be a composer, then I could, too."

In 1983 Ligeti entered the music academy as "an absolute beginner" in what he believed would be the easiest program, classical drumming. Two years later he switched to the eight-year composition program. After completing his studies in 1993, he composed Groove Magic, a twenty-minute work for eleven musicians that premiered with the London Sinfonietta. His first composition based on click tracks, Groove Magic remains to this date his "flashy, big-guy" orchestral piece. "It's such a crazy thing to do," he laughs, "that I don't think anyone but me has ever done it before or since."

"Kiskadee, kiskadee," sings Mike Kernahan's steel pan
Steve Satterwhite
"Kiskadee, kiskadee," sings Mike Kernahan's steel pan

In February 1994 the Goethe Institute, which promotes German culture abroad, sent Ligeti and another musician to the music conservatory in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, to conduct a two-week workshop on drumming and electronic music. There Ligeti used electronics to establish what he calls a "third plateau," a musical no-man's land where the Africans and the Europeans could create a new language in electro-sonic space. Over the past six years, the two Europeans have returned often to the Ivory Coast to work in what has become a professional ensemble of fourteen musicians called Beta Foly. In Malinké, a language spoken by many ethnic groups in and around the West African nation, the band's name means "the music of all of us." Each Beta Foly composition, says Ligeti, contains elements that would not have been possible without the cultural experience of every member. The click-track songs he composed for Beta Foly go beyond even the European and West African cultures of the band members to introduce elements from East Africa and Asia as well.

Ligeti knows firsthand the pitfalls of superficial attempts at cultural exchange. In March 1995 he traveled with a delegation of Austrian composers to the village of Siachilaba in Zimbabwe, just south of the Zambian border, on a monthlong project with the Tonga, a Bantu-speaking people whose complex arrangements have so bewildered ethnomusicologists that one scholar could provide no more precise description for what he heard than "raucous noise." "They have this funeral music called ngoma bontibe," explains Ligeti, "that groups of ten to twenty men play on eight different sizes of antelope horns. I have no idea how they do the arrangement. I could stand next to somebody and repeat his phrase after him, but I could not find the beat that held the phrases together."

With no translators in the group, Ligeti's music struck the Tonga as equally mysterious. He unpacked his gear in the Siachilaba beer hall just one month after electrification came to the village for the first time. With refrigerators, electric lights, and the radio still a novelty, roughly 200 youngsters crammed into the hall one afternoon to listen to him play an electronic drum. "I set up my stuff and the kids got very intense," he recalls. "When I was done, they didn't know if I was finished or not, so they just kept sitting there, listening." He laughs. "I think they were the best audience I ever had."

Meaningful cultural exchange for Ligeti means recognizing musical differences, then using those differences to create a common language. "I don't believe in roots," he declares. "I have no interest in preservation. People say it's dangerous to mix this European thing with this African thing. For me that's not a problem. What's a problem is for musicians not to have a language to communicate with each other and with their audiences. [Here in Miami] I want to use elements of a vocabulary, taken from everyone, that I can somehow understand and put together in a composition. Yes, I will be taking things out of context. But we will be putting them into a new context so that we can understand each other."

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