Sonic Truth

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

Seven colored cables -- yellow, blue, lavender, and gray -- extend like tentacles from a black wooden box that sits atop a table in the Sound Arts Workshop, a music studio in a large, dusty Miami Springs warehouse. The seven musicians of Furacan Caribe, each tethered to a cable, sit on folding chairs in a circle spread out around the studio. The ensemble has been assembled here to make music for an immigrant city. For the next two weeks, a composer born in Austria will work with a bass player from Haiti, a violinist from Cuba, a steel-pan player from Trinidad, two percussionists from Puerto Rico, and a poet born in Miami.

At the head of the circle, attached to a lavender cable, visiting composer Lukas Ligeti swivels on a low stool. His wiry arms seem to multiply in midair as his drumsticks fly. The 34-year-old Austrian, who now lives in New York, maneuvers between the acoustic drum set in front of him and an electronic set of pads, known as a Drum Kat, on a small table to his left. His feet pump electric pedals on the floor.

Ligeti is in Miami to compose an experimental piece that will premiere this Saturday, April 15, at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. But "composition" does not begin to describe the project under way. The composer has come to build a "machine" that will manufacture a new Miami sound. Inside the black wooden box, sophisticated electronic gear is sending synthetic sounds across the colored cables into the musicians' headphones. The musicians respond to what they hear in the headphones with music from their own traditions.

Caribbean cyborg (from top): Richard LaGuerre, Adrian Castro, Mike Kernahan (right), a Macintosh Powerbook 180, Lukas Ligeti, Marty Galagarza, and David Font (left)
Steve Satterwhite
Caribbean cyborg (from top): Richard LaGuerre, Adrian Castro, Mike Kernahan (right), a Macintosh Powerbook 180, Lukas Ligeti, Marty Galagarza, and David Font (left)
Composer Gustavo Matamoros (top) and museum curator Steve Stuempfle dreamed up an unusual commission
Steve Satterwhite
Composer Gustavo Matamoros (top) and museum curator Steve Stuempfle dreamed up an unusual commission
Furacan Caribe experiments during a preview performance at Words and Music in Coral Gables
Steve Satterwhite
Furacan Caribe experiments during a preview performance at Words and Music in Coral Gables
"Kiskadee, kiskadee," sings Mike Kernahan's steel pan
Steve Satterwhite
"Kiskadee, kiskadee," sings Mike Kernahan's steel pan

In November 1999 Ligeti visited Miami for the first time, seeking for his ensemble talented musicians who are eager to experiment. When he returned to the Sound Arts Workshop for a three-week residency in March 2000, he spent the first week meeting individually with the artists to learn about their communities and to record their instruments. He altered the recorded sounds electronically, creating loops that can be delivered to the musicians at different tempos and pitch. Called "click tracks," these computer-generated messages can take the form of spoken words, simple melodies, even the clang of a cowbell. In commercial recording studios, the use of click tracks is commonplace; a monotonous recorded click serves as a metronome to keep the studio musicians in steady time. But Ligeti does something different. Several years ago he became the first composer to incorporate click tracks into concert music. By programming a computer to send each musician a unique set of signals, he created what he calls a "phantom conductor," which allows musical groups to play rhythms otherwise too complicated to perform.

Around the circle the members of Furacan Caribe listen to their headphones. The poet hears a Haitian warrior chant. The bass player hears harmonies on a steel pan. The pan player hears the jagged rise and fall of human speech -- in different languages. The phantom conductor sends each musician a different tempo. Then it sends each musician the same tempo but staggers the delivery so everyone plays to a different beat. Over the din in their headphones, the musicians hear one another playing compas, calypso, Latin jazz, classical, free jazz, funk. They listen and try to play together, even when the click tracks and their traditions pull them apart.

At the end of a yellow cable, Richard LaGuerre sways precariously on a stool, his head bobbing to a rhythm only he can hear. His headphone is tangled in the skinny dreadlocks that trail across his shoulders. The Haitian exile laughs when the headphone slips off, then thrusts it back into place and coaxes a heartbreaking solo from his five-string electric bass.

Nearby Mike Kernahan towers over two shiny steel pans. Frozen for a moment, transfixed by what he hears, the Trinidadian immigrant offers a shy smile. Then he bursts into a rapid string of shifting harmonies, flicking his wrists constantly to change the angle of his mallets. His massive hands disappear into the deep depressions that set the pans' pitch.

Attached to a blue cable, Alfredo Triff slices through the harmonies of Kernahan's steel pan with the buzz of his electric violin. With the bone-colored instrument tucked between his shoulder and his stubble-flecked chin, the Cuban exile, philosopher, and New Times art critic draws his bow straight down. When the pan player pauses, Triff pauses too, momentarily overpowered by the percussionists to his left, who threaten to drown out even the click tracks.

Sitting heavily on a folding chair, 52-year-old Marty Galagarza pounds two precious congas built in the 1940s, just before he was born. The Puerto Rican's hands follow the same open-and-closed patterns beat into the drum skins by their original Cuban owners, drummer Marcelino Valdes and legendary band leader Arsenio Rodriguez. Hooked to a gray cable, David Font slaps a two-headed, bell-fringed batá. Font's mother also is Puerto Rican; his father is Cuban. His blue eyes shimmer like oceans, reflecting the deeper blue of his shirt. As his hands hit the drum heads, sacred Afro-Cuban beads flash yellow and green.

Completing the circle Adrian Castro recites a poem, gesticulating to the rhythm of his words. The Miami-born son of a Cuban father and Dominican mother, Castro wears the pillbox cap of an Afro-Cuban priest, or babalao. Just 32 years old, he serves as a spiritual guide to Font. His copper-color eyes light up as he smiles at his friend. The batá drummer beams back.

A bizarre cyborg that melds musician and machine, Furacan Caribe plugs Miami's immigrant past into an electronic musical future. Furacan means hurricane in the language of the Caribs, one of the ethnic groups that lived in the Caribbean islands before Columbus landed. Within a decade of the Europeans' arrival, the Caribs and other indigenous people were decimated by forced labor and disease. Then the horror of the slave trade began, transporting Africans and African culture to the Americas. Centuries later, when slavery came to an end, indentured laborers from India, China, and the Middle East added to the linguistic and cultural mix. Since the islands gained independence in the last century, political turmoil and hard economic times have sent the multicultural citizens in droves to the closest city in the United States. And from that whirl of Caribbean history, still spinning furiously in the streets of Miami, Furacan Caribe emerges as a fantastic, seven-headphoned beast.


Furacan Caribe represents the State of Florida in a nationwide project called Continental Harmony: A Musical Celebration of the New Millennium. Launched by the American Composers Forum with $2.4 million in funding from major corporations and the National Endowment for the Arts, Continental Harmony links composers with communities across the nation, and commissions a new work in every U.S. state and territory to mark the millennium year.

In January 1999 the American Composers Forum selected 58 arts organizations to participate in Continental Harmony. In July of last year, each of the organizations selected a composer, from a total of 900 applications, to work with its community. Most of the states proposed traditional commissions for projects, such as the score for a dance drama in honor of outstanding Georgia women and a symphony in tribute to Utah's natural beauty. In the Sunshine State, however, a partnership between the South Florida Composers Alliance and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida won with an unusual proposition: Museum folklorist Steve Stuempfle and Alliance director Gustavo Matamoros crafted a commission that would be not a search for a finished composition but an invitation to a multicultural collaboration.

As a museum curator, Stuempfle documents the ways in which popular music helps build bridges between Miami's fragmented ethnic communities. In 1997, for example, he curated "Caribbean Percussion Traditions in Miami," an exhibition and series of related concerts and lectures addressing the common island threads in Miami's musical heritage. Stuempfle himself lived in Trinidad from 1989 through 1990, studying the relationships between politics, society, and steel-pan orchestras. "You get a better sense of community life in a place like that," he explains. "In a city like Miami, we only have a few symphony orchestras. Here's a whole country that's smaller than Miami-Dade County, with only a million and a half people, and there are over 100 steel orchestras with as many as 100 members each."

Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, experimental composer and sound artist Matamoros came here 21 years ago to study music at the University of Miami and stayed on. These days he designs "sound installations" for art galleries, public spaces, and radio shows. In 1989 Matamoros founded Miami's annual showcase for experimental music, the Subtropics New Music Festival. In conjunction with the South Florida Composers Alliance, he established the Sound Arts Workshop two years ago.

Together the folklorist and the composer dreamed of an avant-garde electronic experiment ignited by ancient Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Florida's Continental Harmony project description called for a composer who would not only write music but who would do so in collaboration with "an ensemble of local musicians of multiple backgrounds, including Haitian, Bahamian, Afro-Cuban, and Latin jazz musicians." Stuempfle and Matamoros would help the composer recruit musicians with such a broad range of specialties, that the winner would need to be both open to what they call "traditional idioms" and adept at "new musical concepts."

"The idea of 'the masterpiece' created all these mythological creatures," Matamoros notes, "the omnipotent composer and the conductor, who is supposed to make the musicians play the way the composer commands. We want to get away from the idea of a composer as someone primarily concerned with little black dots marching around five black lines on a piece of paper. A composer should be involved in making sound."

With such an unusual set of qualifications, Stuempfle and Matamoros worried they might not find the ideal composer. Their hearts sank when they received only ten applications for the Miami commission. But when they saw Lukas Ligeti's material, says Stuempfle, recalling a meeting of the selection committee, "we knew immediately that he was the one we wanted." The committee was particularly impressed by a series of cultural-exchange projects with traditional musicians that has taken Ligeti across Africa over the past six years, from Egypt to Zimbabwe to the Ivory Coast. "Lukas has all this experience with community collaborations in Africa," Stuempfle elaborates. "And Africa has been such an important influence on Caribbean traditions in Miami."

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."

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."


The "dangerous" mixture of Europe and Africa that Ligeti promotes today is what created Caribbean culture centuries ago. Violently wrenched out of context by the slave trade, the myriad religions, languages, and musical traditions of Africa took on new meanings in the New World. "I'm surprised," Ligeti said at the end of his first week of work with the Miami musicians, "by how much certain African traditions have been preserved from Africa to Cuba and Africa to Haiti, though sometimes what's been preserved is a strange mixture." Throughout the first week, Ligeti learned from his ensemble how these African traditions have traveled even farther, from the Caribbean to Miami.

Ligeti's initial meeting was with Adrian Castro, the poet and babalao. "Adrian's a very good poet," he says, "especially for this project, because he switches back and forth between languages and reflects on the cultural mix of Miami." At that initial meeting, the composer aimed a shotgun microphone at the poet's chest, recording Castro as he read from his poem When She Carried a Calabash. Later he would feed the verses into his sound machine and loop them into a click track. Tapping time on his knee, Castro read aloud to the rhythm of rumba. The poem surveys the languages and landmarks of Miami's diverse black communities, trailing a mythical African woman as she walks through Little Havana, Overtown, and Little Haiti: "She collected some of our objects of sound/In the end/Laced them side by side/Ensnaring them."

As Ligeti recorded the words, he wondered aloud how to unite them with the music. "I'm interested in the rhythms of languages naturally spoken," he said, "not language forced into music, but music forced into the rhythm of language." He sat down at his drum set to explain. "You could read a line from the poem," he suggested to Castro. "Then I could play the rhythm of the next line on the drum, so that the drum will become part of the poem."

Several hours later, long after the nine-to-fivers who work in the warehouse offices had left for the day, Ligeti met with Mike Kernahan to explore the language of the steel pan. "The sound is unique," Kernahan commented, drawing spirals with his mallets across the chrome-plated instruments, "but some people say the pan sounds like a kiskadee."

The most common bird in Trinidad, the kiskadee got its name from the sweet song that islanders hear as the French phrase "Qu'est-ce-que-dit?" ("What are you saying?") Indeed the steel pans did sang out "kiskadee, kiskadee." Kernahan made the instruments himself at his pan yard down in Cutler Ridge, off Quail Roost Road. A renowned builder, he takes orders for pans from across the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. A set like his can cost up to $800.

Balancing a tape recorder on his lap, Ligeti began to record as Kernahan played individual notes. Later, when the composer synthesized these notes, he would be able to generate the sound of an entire steel-pan orchestra. "Play each note just once," he asked, and Kernahan played slowly, hand over hand, from bottom to top, from right to left, all 32 notes in four full scales.

"Play a melody," Ligeti requested, and Kernahan complied.

"Play something as far away from Europe as you can," said Ligeti. But Kernahan looked perplexed. The steel pan, after all, developed not in the African bush but amid the industrial waste of World War II. Ingenious workers in the Trinidadian shipyards that sent petroleum north for the Allied war effort cut the first pans from the bottoms of oil barrels.

Growing up in the same postwar period as the pan, the 52-year-old Kernahan lived in a "respectable" family that kept its son far from the older, African-influenced music they believed to be low class. "I could hear the Shangó drums when I lay in my bed at night," he recalls, referring to the Trinidadian worship of Shangó, the Yoruban god of thunder. "But my parents didn't let me go there, man. We listened to classical music on the radio at home."

When Ligeti sprang from his chair to suggest the pair improvise a duet on the steel pan and the balafon, a xylophonelike instrument he brought with him from the Ivory Coast, the pan maker looked nervous. In Trinidad, he said, ensembles rehearse months for a single ten-minute performance during the national competition at Carnival. Ligeti, however, was already running his mallets along the balafon's soft wooden slats. Haltingly Kernahan answered with the pan. He listened and furrowed his brow, then grew bolder as he struck the chrome-plated curves. Ligeti's mallets skipped across the balafon like pebbles across a brook. The pan sang like a bird shaking drops of water from its wings.

Late the following night, hunched over a low table in the studio, Ligeti and bass player Richard LaGuerre shared a meal of stewed fish and plantains while the musician told the story of his flight from Port-au-Prince four years ago. LaGuerre played bass in the influential rasin, or roots band, Boukan Ginen, whose name is Kreyol for "Fire in Africa." In the early 1990s, the rasin bands actively supported populist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his political party, Lavalas. Roots groups and Lavalas alike appealed to the masses by drawing heavily from the symbols and songs of the neo-African religion vodou.

A bloody coup ousted Aristide shortly after his election in 1991. Restored to power by a U.S. intervention in 1994, Aristide and Lavalas failed to fulfill their campaign promise of social change, and rasin groups took the government to task in their music. LaGuerre recalls the day a corrupt official offered Boukan Ginen $30,000 to remove the word magouyé, which means a person who says one thing and does another, from the recording of one of their songs. "We can't do that," LaGuerre explained to the official. "We already play the song in concert. People already know what we say." When Boukan Ginen refused to cooperate, LaGuerre and his bandmates were taken to a police station and interrogated. He left the country soon after. "I came to Miami for the Rasin Festival in 1996," he said, "and I never went back."

Far from the turmoil of his homeland, LaGuerre sat with an acoustic guitar, playing a traditional warrior chant to a rhythm called nago. "Saint Jacques," he sang, appealing to the vodou god of war, "deliver me from my hypocritical friends."

The composer asked LaGuerre to demonstrate the rhythm on the drum, and the bass player rolled out a rough-hewn vodou instrument and slid it between his knees. Microphone in hand, Ligeti tried to persuade the roots musician to hit just one note at a time, but LaGuerre insisted on playing complicated patterns. "I just feel things," he protested. "Vodou is very big, I'm telling you."

Finally Ligeti set down the microphone and repeated the basic nago rhythm on his own drum set. "That's it!" LaGuerre exclaimed, jumping from his seat. Sitting back down he played the second of the three nago rhythm parts. "Now play this."

Ligeti raised his stick high and pounded the tom in imitation. Then he added the lead drum pattern, pumping the foot pedals and threading his drumsticks through the air to play each of the three nago parts at the same time.

"You're too much!" LaGuerre exclaimed, standing up and spreading his arms wide. "What you're doing, that's the right thing you do."


By the end of the first week, Ligeti had met and recorded each of the six musicians. Now it is late on a Friday night and the group is meeting at the Sound Arts Workshop to hear the "objects of sound" the composer has gathered. Tethered to the colored cables, they listen as Castro's poem is fed into the headphones. Ligeti asks the musicians to find what he calls "the inherent rhythms in the poet's speech." As they follow the cadence of the verse, the steel pan, bass, violin, and drums rise and fall together. The composer is pleased. "They play these speech rhythms surprisingly well," he reports. "No other group has ever done it as quickly."

Working with these Caribbean musicians, he adds, "makes it possible to combine a lot of background knowledge that musicians in [classical] ensembles don't have. I can learn a lot from them, and I can expect them to play back their interpretation of what I've learned with the authority of authenticity."

In the two weeks that follow, tradition often clashes with technology as the musicians struggle with Ligeti's unusual creative process. The composer, however, is accustomed to chaos in the click track's wake. "In the beginning nothing will work," he admits. "Sometimes two or three days before the performance people can't understand how something coherent will come out of all this. Then close to the end, it will fall together like a jigsaw puzzle. Or maybe it won't," he says. "That's why I'm an experimental musician, because I like to see what works and what doesn't." Flowing from the electronics in the black wooden box, across the long tentacles of Caribbean history, the music of Furacan Caribe will be as unpredictable as the social maelstrom of modern-day Miami.

Furacan Caribe will perform as part of the Subtropics New Music Festival at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach, at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 15. Call 305-981-0600 for more information.

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