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.
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.