Present Music, Lukas Ligeti, Burkina Electric
Lukas Ligeti grew up in Vienna, the epicenter of Western musical tradition. His father was György Ligeti (1923-2006), one of the most important post-war avant-gardists to come out of the circle of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
The younger Ligeti turned out to be a percussionist and composer. That comes as no surprise, but his principal source of inspiration might be. That would be African music of all sorts.
Ligeti is here for Present Music’s Saturday-night concert, and he’s not alone. The other five members of Burkina Electric, an Afro-Electronica band that is unique in the world, are with him. It comprises singer Maï Lingani, guitarist/singer Wende K. Blass, electronicist Kurt “Pyrolator” Dahlke and dancers/vocalists Zoko Zoko and Idrissa Kafando. The Africans are from Burkina Faso, in central West Africa.
Ligeti, an Austrian who is ethnic Jewish-Hungarian, and Dahlke, who is German, met Lingani and Blass in Sierra Leone in 1994.
He was able to act on his interest when, much to his surprise, the Goethe-Institut offered to fund a research trip to Sierra Leone. He sought a collaborator, and the institute suggested Pyrolator.
“We’re still going strong,” Ligeti said. “Ivory Coast was a life-changing experience. Somehow, a band formed.”
That band was Beta Foly. From that larger group, the two Europeans, Lingani and Blass formed Burkina Electric. The dancers are relatively recent additions.
They have played concerts in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and in Europe and New York, where Ligeti has lived since 1998. They have also played in plenty of dance clubs. Burkina Electric is a different kind of dance band, but it’s a dance band first. Kevin Stalheim, Present Music’s artistic director, dearly hopes that his audience will get up and move when Burkina Electric turns on.
Ligeti has spent a great deal of time since 1994 traveling all over Africa and studying the vast array of music there. He’s been known to put on solo shows in village beer halls. But Africa is not the only aspect of his musical life.
He studied composition with Erich Urbanner and jazz drums with Fritz Ozmec at the Vienna Music Academy and holds a diploma in composition and certificate in jazz drums (1993). He also holds a Master of Arts degree from the Vienna Music Academy (thesis on “World Music and Improvised Music,” 1997), and took part in workshops led by John Zorn, George Crumb and David Moss, and in the Darmstadt Ferienkurse.
From 1994 until 1996, he was a visiting composer at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University.
Present Music will play his 14-minute string quartet, Moving Houses, which reflects that other aspect of his background. He wrote it for the Kronos Quartet in 1995-96 and revised it extensively in 2003.
“It’s basically one melody, like a cantus firmus, that keeps coming back in different environments,” he said. “In California, I saw houses being moved around on enormous trailers. The melody is like a house that keeps showing up in different landscapes.”
The string quartet abounds with florid melody, which is a major interest for Ligeti.
“A lot of contemporary music focuses on timbre and gets away from melody,” he said. “I try to bring new melodic possibilities into contemporary music. But I don’t want to imitate Romantic melodic sensibility.”
Given his lineage, you’d expect that Ligeti would have taken to music early. Not so. He took a couple of piano lessons at age 9, hated it, and that was that.
“My father was not one to force me to practice,” he said. “The truth is, I thought at the time that reading music was impossible, and I still kind of think that. In a way, the story of my musicianship has been the story of dealing with my ineptitude.”
Of course, he had to get out the staff paper for the string quartet, but it was slow going. I got the impression that’s he’d just as soon not deal with those five lines and four spaces.
So, he developed a drumming style based on a Ugandan practice of physical movement of the limbs rather than counting. Burkina Electric works things out collectively and writes down nothing. When he’s not playing drums, Ligeti plays the marimba lumina, a programmable MIDI controller struck with mallets, or processes sound through a computer.
“I was not going to be a musician,” Ligeti said. “Then, when I was 18, I had to admit that a soundtrack was always playing in my head. I decided that I had to do something about it.”
This Present Music program will begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, at Turner Hall, 1032 N. 4th St. Tickets are $9.99-$29.99 ($5 for students) at the Present Music website, or call 414-271-0711. The program also includes the premiere of a new work by Caroline Mallonee.