Present Music, Burkina Electric
Burkina Electric, the Afro-Electronica-Pop band that blew the doors off Turner Hall Saturday night, and the Western classical tradition have Lukas Ligeti in common. They also have Present Music in comm0n, as Burkina Electric filled the second half of PM’s program.
Ligeti, son of the late, great composer György Ligeti, grew up in Vienna and lives in New York. He is the very accomplished drummer of Burkina Electric and one of its two “electronicists”; the other is Kurt “Pyrolator” Dahlke, of Dusseldorf. The other four members — red-hot lead singer Maï Lingani, red-hot guitarist Wendé K. Blass, and red-h0t dancers Hugues Zoko and Idrissa Kafando — are from Burkina Faso, in central West Africa.
The spirit of the music and the show is bright and welcoming. The sound of it is relates to African High Life but with the remarkable addition of Dahlke’s unpredictable and usually subtle electronics and Ligeti’s hybrid drumming. Ligeti has spent a great deal of time in Africa and knows many drumming styles. Jazz is big in his background, and he also knows how to rock. When he moves away from his marimba-like MIDI controller and gets behind the trapset, remarkable things happen as he interacts alertly with the rest of the band while driving the dance beat.
I love Blass’ guitar playing. He moves freely from rhythm to dropping in commentary on Lingani’s vocals or playing lines in harmony with her. It all seemed so casual and easy, but everything was so right and precise.
Lingani’s voice is a marvel: deep and chesty, yet focused as a laser beam. It cuts through everything. She is also the ideal front person, electrifying in her stage persona and capable of bringing her band mates and the audience to new heights.
The program opened with Ligeti’s string quartet, Moving Houses, played with great panache by violinists Shu Zhan and Eric Segnitz, violist Brek Renzelman and cellist Nicholas Photinos. They found an overarching momentum in an engaging piece that takes a very modest kernel of melody through all sorts of crazy territory.
Ligeti also contributed a pair of solos for marimba lumina, custom-made sound controller. The second was fairly conventional and vibraphone-like. The first was a magical whirl of sampled and synthesized sound that made the composer-performer seem like a mallet-wielding wizard.
Ten players came out and killed in Facades and Rubric, vintage and quintessential Philip Glass from 1981. Back then, Glass was finding sonic universes in such grains of sand as the difference between 3/4 and 6/8 (Facades) and all the symmetrical ways you can divide up a duple beat in 2/4 (Rubric). These simple things still fascinate.
Present Music, with artistic director Kevin Stalheim conducting, also premiered Reaction for string quartet, bass, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, piano and percussion, by bright young Caroline Mallonee.
Intermittent outbursts from charged silence set the piece on edge at the start. This is nervous, jumpy music. As it grows more and more dense with event, its tricky irregularity leads to a lurching, feinting sort of momentum. Listening to it is like driving a car with a misfiring engine — well, it would be, if driving a car like that were fun.
A decorous little ragtime melody gives us a breather in the middle of the piece, before the return of the jitters. But just when you think you know where’s she’s going, Mallonee slows everything way down. It’s as if she put those outbursts into super-slow motion, as they do with explosions in special-effects movies. Reaction ends with a long series of such effects.
I’m not certain that Mallonee literally slowed and quieted those explosions that came loud and fast at the start. But I suspect she might have. And I hope she did, because, conceptually speaking, that would be awesome.
Read my interview with Lukas Ligeti here.