In the spring of 2010, Lukas Ligeti, a Brooklyn-based composer who plays a peculiar keyboard percussion instrument called a marimba lumina, traveled to the small nation of Lesotho in southern Africa on a mission to investigate an even odder musical device, the lesiba. Ligeti, a forty-five-year-old citizen of Austria, had been approached by an official in the Austrian consulate in South Africa about collaborating with Mpho Molikeng, a dreadlocked musician from Lesotho. Molikeng, who performs on many of the vernacular instruments of his homeland, harbors a particular fondness for the lesiba. Ligeti was intrigued. He mentioned the opportunity to a South African acquaintance who sponsors music education as a mechanism for social progress. The impresario responded with a suggestion. Might Ligeti be interested in writing a concerto for the lesiba?
The lesiba is a curiosity: the only string instrument still in use that is controlled by the mouth. Traditionally played by herd boys in southern Africa to call their cattle, a lesiba is constructed from a bamboo rod about a yard long, with a guinea-fowl quill tied to one end to serve as a mouthpiece. A string extends from the quill to the far end of the bamboo. When someone who knows what he is doing blows through the quill, the string vibrates and emits a sound.
The notion of composing in a format that emerged in eighteenth-century Europe and bestowing the starring role on an instrument originally intended for bovine ears in southern Africa didn’t flummox Ligeti. Creating bridges between Western and African music is what he does. But he wasn’t ready to commit. He knew nothing about the music of Lesotho. He was uncertain if the lesiba could carry the weight of a concerto, or if the musicians in Lesotho would be open to the experimentation that might answer that question.
Most of all, he was leery about parachuting a traditional African instrument into foreign territory without preparation. “I want to know what I’m dealing with and do it justice in some way,” he said. “I don’t want to kidnap it.” His connection to African music operates on a deeper level than find-and-replace. Ligeti is fascinated by the polymetric construction that underlies many African musical genres, in which musicians play in different rhythms simultaneously, with no one performer asserting dominance. He has employed that principle to animate much of his music, including “Pattern Time,” released last spring, a recording of improvised polymetric sessions. He has also composed works that have been performed by leading contemporary music ensembles, including the Kronos Quartet, the Ensemble Modern, and the London Sinfonietta. In some pieces, each musician is playing to a completely different rhythm; the only way the music can be performed is if each wears a set of headphones and listens to a metronome click for direction.
A different kind of group dynamic animates his work with Burkina Electric, a band he founded in 2004. Burkina Electric melds the popular music of the West African country of Burkina Faso with German electronica. Other musicians have recorded African songs and remixed them using drum machines and synthesizers. “With Burkina Electric, we try to do something more organic,” Ligeti says. “We write original songs in which electronics come in at a very, very early stage of the process. It’s a kind of mix where you can’t separate the electronics from the tradition anymore. I think that’s the point and that’s the interest of Burkina Electric.”
In fusion recordings of popular music, especially following the success of Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African musicians on “Grace-land” in 1986, the merging of two unrelated beasts can create a centaur-like beauty. But Ligeti’s work blurs the species barriers. To his thinking, the lesiba is no more the property of the cowherd in Lesotho than Mozart belongs to the Viennese. “I don’t think that because I’m from Austria I’m entitled to Mozart any more than an African,” he says. “A person from Congo could be an expert on Mozart and know a hundred times more than I do about Mozart and therefore has more of an ownership than I do.” He says one criterion guides him: “I always think, ‘Is this something that leads me to ideas of my own?’”
If taking in outside influences without being taken over by them is central to Ligeti’s thinking, his personal background offers a partial explanation. He is a composer who operates within a powerful family force field. As devotees of contemporary music will have guessed already, Lukas is the son of Gyorgy Ligeti, who died in 2006 and was arguably the greatest composer of classical music of the late twentieth century. By ancestry a Hungarian Jew, Gyorgy Ligeti lived until the Second World War in Romania and afterward moved to Budapest. In the wake of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, he and his wife, a psychiatrist, immigrated to Vienna. Lukas was born and raised in the Austrian capital yet he was always somewhat removed. Having loved living in northern California for a year as a small child, while his father was a visiting professor at Stanford University, he convinced his parents to send him to the American International School in Vienna. “I was more of an American kid than an Austrian one,” he says. “I grew up as an expat from an unknown place. I’m not Austrian by ancestry and I went to American schools. I’m a misfit.” He is completely bilingual in English and German, with a faintly eccentric inflection in each. “I have a slight Hungarian accent in every language I speak, which is very odd, because I don’t actually speak Hungarian,” he says. “I learned to speak from my parents, who taught me German, not Hungarian, but with a Hungarian accent.”
Lukas pursued mathematics and science as a child, and felt no pull to follow in the family line. (The tradition goes way back. Gyorgy’s great-uncle was the celebrated violinist Leopold Auer.) “I had a couple of piano lessons when I was nine,” he says. “I suddenly understood that people wanted me to practice and read music. Both of those things seemed impossible to me. I stopped.” Because the elder Ligeti was a very critical man with implacably high musical standards, entering his territory required courage. “He was really mistrusting,” says the Viennese composer HK Gruber, who knew both father and son very well. “He was mistrusting of the conductors and of the productions. The better the conditions were, the more he was unsatisfied. His hopes and ambitions were borderless. And the youngster could really feel it each day when he had contact with his father.” Only when he was graduating from high school did Lukas, a rebellious youth, address the question of his career more seriously. “I thought, ‘I was always hearing sounds in my head,’” he explains. “I felt I had more of a talent for art than for science. As a scientist, you have to work with the existing universe. As an artist, you can to some extent control your own universe.” The fact that his father was a famous composer both deterred and reassured him: “In a certain way, I was intimidated to compose, because my father was so good, but on the other hand I thought, if my father can do it, I can too.”
He says that he took up percussion because he knew so little about rhythm; also, the competition would be less fierce than on violin or piano. He passed the entrance exams for the Vienna Academy of Music, where he would receive instruction from percussionists of the Vienna Philharmonic. One of the most revered orchestras in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic is also the most tradition-bound. Ligeti was frustrated repeatedly. For instance, because the snare drum was originally used in military marching bands, where the drummer would hang it from his shoulders onto his chest, the Philharmonic would not countenance a percussionist placing it on a stand. “I was questioning all the time,” he recalls. “Why does the snare drum have to be suspended on a decaying wooden chair? Why do your hands have to be held in different positions over a snare drum in a traditional grip? Why not put the snare on the horizontal and play it like a timpani? Their answer was simply, ‘Because that’s not the way it’s done.’ I said, ‘Could I try it the other way?’ They said no. We started getting more and more in each other’s hair.” Then he discovered that in the university basement, a jazz percussion program was being offered. “I wasn’t suited for a symphony orchestra,” he says. “I wasn’t that interested in learning and playing difficult music that I didn’t like. I started being a drum-set player, improvising.”
Ligeti’s awakening to the possibilities of music coincided with his exposure to African music. Some of it was in the air: his father, in a fallow period, was exploring the interlocking melodies of the Banda-Linda people of Central Africa (as well as the polyrhythmic player-piano scores of the American expatriate Conlon Nancarrow); eventually, he would arrive at the brilliant piano études of 1985. Lukas’s African epiphany came a little later. In the mid-1980s, he says, a recording played at an ethnomusicology lecture of the court music of Buganda (an ancient kingdom within the boundaries of modern Uganda) “totally changed my view of music.” Buganda court music was originally performed on an African harp by a singer whose two hands plucked the same rhythm but started on different beats; when transposed to an African xylophone (as this music is typically played today), three musicians divide up the keys to produce an interlocking melody. “People playing within the same ensemble could disagree about who was playing on the beatthat was eye-opening to me,” Ligeti says. “There’s nothing like that in Western music. I thought maybe I could do something with that. That was the first push to finding my own voice.”
But there was something resolutely idiosyncratic about the lesiba. Did it have the traditions or capabilities to warrant being transplanted out of its traditional context? When he arrived last May in Johannesburg, which is where Molikeng lives, Ligeti inquired about the predictability and range of the instrument.
“But now you are hitting three pitches,” he said at one point, as Molikeng gamely blew through the quill mouthpiece. “Is it possible to hit one pitch? It sounds a little like a stopped French horn. What if you were playing with a piano and you wanted it to reliably hit the same pitch every time?”
“This is a challenge,” Molikeng replied. “Even in a band set-up I play percussively. You are never in the precise key. But you can play percussively and play a melody.”
“Is it possible?” Ligeti pressed.
“It is possible but it is challenging,” Molikeng said. He was not very persuasive. As would become clear over the next week, he did not like to say no to Ligeti, for fear that negative responses would jeopardize the advancement prospects of his beloved instrument.
Monikeng showed Ligeti videos on his cell phone of other, more experienced lesiba players in Lesotho. One produced a sound that was reminiscent of the wah-wah on a muted trumpet.
“It’s like whales playing the blues,” Ligeti said appreciatively.
A couple of days later, Ligeti and Molikeng drove south to Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, where Molikeng had arranged collaborations with two older lesiba players and lined up a concert date for the ensemble in a private school. They rehearsed at the home of Monikeng’s mother, who prepared traditional lunches for the musicians, such as a dense steamed bread, chopped greens and boiled chicken intestines. While the Africans dipped the sliced bread into the wet food to eat, Ligeti asked for a plate.
“I’m not an adoptive person,” he said. “I observe how other people do it and then I do it my own way.”
Ligeti made digital recordings of the lesiba; then, on his laptop computer, he selected samples that he could transform electronically and play back in accompaniment with the live musicians. Sometimes his electronics sounded like a high cosmic blur; at other times, a percussive stutter with a rough-edged, static-burred figure punctuated the cloud.
It made the other musicians nervous that Ligeti was recording them. They wanted assurances that he would not release their music commercially.
“I am recording for two reasons,” Ligeti said. “One is to help me remember. The other is, if we play together, the musicians with lesiba and my electronics, I can put it into my computer so we can hear how it sounds playing together.”
“Not for a recording?” Molikeng asked.
“I don’t know,” Ligeti said. “A recording is a recording. I don’t know. If I did, I would let them know. But that’s not my intention.”
“That’s what they are concerned about,” Monikeng said.
“That’s a risk if you’re a musician,” Ligeti said.
“Maybe they have been burned,” Molikeng said. “I feel their pain.”
“I think the main thing for you to explain is that I am here for more knowledge,” Ligeti said. “I don’t normally make commercial music. My purpose is to know things that exist in order to make something new.”
“People from Europe have come here and promised them things, and then they did not materialize,” Molikeng said.
“I’m not promising anything,” Ligeti said. “My expectation is always that things will not happen. Then if they don’t, I am not disappointed.”
Indeed, it was becoming apparent that there would be no Ligeti lesiba concerto.
Ligeti visited Africa for the first time in 1994, when the Goethe Institute invited him to travel to the Ivory Coast to work with African musicians. “I said that although I was very influenced by African music, I don’t know that I can play African music or that African musicians can play my music, so what I would like is to do something new,” he recalls. “I was just getting interested in electronic music, but I didn’t know that much. I asked, ‘Could I bring someone along?’” He was introduced to Düsseldorf-based Kurt Dahlke, who, as it turned out, had worked on some of Ligeti’s favorite German pop music of the Eighties. They have collaborated ever since.
Arriving in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, Ligeti found that the Goethe Institute had enlisted 150 musicians to work with him. “I couldn’t do anything with 150 people, so I played them my most inaccessible music to scare them away,” he says. “Fifteen people came the next day, and those people became lifelong friends.” He returned to the Ivory Coast two years later to continue the collaboration. He challenged the musicians’ usual ways of doing things: for instance, performing with two virtuosos of the African xylophone known as a balafon, he distorted electronic samples he had recorded of their balafon tracks and gradually had his electronic accompaniment converge in the same tuning with their live performance. In 1996, they formed a group, Beta Folyit means “the music of us all” in the Malinke languageand toured European festivals for the next four years, until political turmoil in the Ivory Coast and the financial burdens of supporting an experimental group of fourteen members ended the run. But while he was working with Beta Foly, Ligeti met Mai Lingani, a powerful singer from Burkina Faso with a charismatic stage presence. She sang with Beta Foly on its last tour, and after the group collapsed, she continued to collaborate with Ligeti, in a working relationship that became a romanceand then, once it was no longer a romance, continued as a working relationship and close friendship.
In 2004, an NGO in Vienna approached Ligeti about performing in Burkina Faso. So began Burkina Electric, a dance band composed of Ligeti, Dahlke, and Lingani, plus a guitarist and two background singer-dancers from Burkina Faso. Burkina Electric toured Austria in 2004, and instead of ending there, as Ligeti had expected, the band was sent by the Austrian Development Corporation to Burkina Faso two years later, and has continued to perform in Europe and the United States since then.
Although Ligeti often performs on a drum set, he regards electronic manipulation of sound as integral to much of his music. Since 2005, he has happily embraced the marimba lumina, a kind of MIDI synthesizer, which allows him to hit a keyboard with mallets and generate sounds that have been programmed into the device. (Magnetic coils in the mallet and the keyboard come together to form a magnetic field that triggers the sound.) “I don’t want to be a laptop performer who stays behind a keyboard and could be reading his email and then presses a button and big things happen,” he says. “I wanted to preserve the kinetic motion while using electronics.”
Compared to some of his thornier contemporary music, the dance music Ligeti composes with Burkina Electric is loose and airy. It breathes. And performing with the band, Ligeti seems loose as well. He is the geeky-looking white guy in a colorful African shirt, smiling contentedly and bopping his mallets, as his African colleagues gyrate and dance. (Dahlke, the electronics expert, is a dour Germanic presence who sits and fiddles with his laptop.) “Being in Africa for so many years, Lukas as a white guylittle by little, you get used to the rhythm and how it goes,” Lingani says. “But still, you have your own way of understanding rhythm, because the way you grew up is different from the way I grew up as an African. We have a rhythm in Burkina Faso that is 6/8 but we don’t know how it is called. But we have to tell Lukas it’s 6/8. It doesn’t come naturally to him. It’s about communication.” Straddling two continents with Burkina Electric, Ligeti feels at homeor as much at home as he ever feels.
Embracing contradictions is what seems to make him comfortable. He is someone who is committed to free improvisation in music, yet he is very controlling in his day-to-day life. Also, for someone so acutely attuned to timing as a percussionist and composer, he is almost pathologically late: he is late to appointments, late in finishing commissions, late to answer emails. “I think most people are too subservient to time,” he says, when asked about it. “There are so many things to be done in a day, there are always two or three hours more than you can do. But I’m the most reliable person you’ll meet. I think reliability is important and punctuality is overconsidered.”
Some of his tardiness is a function of his loquacity. He likes to talk. “If you meet Lukas, you can be sure a day is gone, and maybe the second day,” Gruber, the composer, jokes. Ligeti is interested in many subjects, and has strongly held opinions about most of them. What comes up again and again is an adherence to individual liberty and an angry abhorrence of government control, even when state authority crops up in relatively benign forms, such as speed bumps on roadways. That is not surprising in the son of two people who were persecuted first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. Perhaps his attraction to polymetric music is philosophical. Musicians playing together, each to a particular pulse, with no governing time signatureit’s not just a musical system, but his view of what the world should be.
Arthur Lubow is the author of The Reporter Who Would Be King, a biography of Richard Harding Davis, as well as numerous articles and essays that have appeared in The New Yorker, Smithsonian Magazine, W, and elsewhere.