Lukas Ligeti with drumsticks

A Man Transformed: Lukas Ligeti in California

To be transformed is to have undergone a thorough and dramatic change, Lukas Ligeti, now an assistant professor at UC Irvine, is a man who has undergone a series of dramatic changes throughout his life, moving from Austria to New York City, living intermittently in California in the mid-90’s, teaching in Ghana, and spending significant time in other African countries, mainly Burkina Faso and South Africa, before finally arriving in sunny California. Underneath these dramatic changes there has been a consistent pulse to Ligeti’s life, a percussionist and composer with an ear for rhythm and timbre, who, while crossing genres nearly as frequently as he has crossed borders, brings his own unique voice to every musical situation, whether performing as a drummer with John Zorn, DJ Spooky, and Wadada Leo Smith or composing for the London Sinfonietta, MDR Symphony Orchestra in Germany, and the Grammy Award-winning ensemble Eighth Blackbird, who will perform the US premiere of Incandescence on February 2nd with the Amadinda Percussion Group from Hungary at the University of Chicago.

Despite the strong undercurrent of rhythmic mastery that permeates his professional musical life, Ligeti says he first started studying the drums because he felt he knew too little about rhythm. He quickly found that as a performer, he was asked to play along with the bands, stating, “Little did i know that, as a drummer, one is mostly asked to play rhythms that are no more complex than those of other instruments – just to play them more accurately and precisely.” It was sitting in the back of the ensemble, listening to all the other instruments that shaped Ligeti’s compositional voice, “…there’s no doubt that playing an instrument that lacks melody and harmony made me pay more attention to rhythm, and to orchestration.”

This exploration of rhythm would come to define Ligeti’s first breakout piece, Pattern Transformation. Written in 1988, influenced by the traditional court music of Buganda, in Uganda, the work is Ligeti’s personal, creative response to the rhythmic interplay of therhythmic interplay of the Ugandan traditional xylophone, the amadinda.

While the piece has had well over 1000 performances since its premiere, Ligeti was unsure it would ever even have a first performance, “I didn’t think anyone would be able to play it until I found out there was a percussion group in Hungary that had named itself after the amadinda and studied the special method of interplay that exists in this kind of music.” His relationship with Amadinda has been long-lasting, with Ligeti writing a major percussion quartet for the ensemble in 2002 and has continued to this current project.

Incandescence is both an outgrowth of Ligeti’s longstanding relationship with Amadinda and the development of a new relationship with eighth blackbird, an ensemble that Ligeti has always wanted to work with. This new work is an exploration of the relationship between the performers as well. Forming interlocking duos, not dissimilar from the interlocking rhythms of his music, the piece is “…for 5 couples dancing at the same time.” He elaborates, “…in writing for Amadinda and Eighth Blackbird, I found myself with an ensemble of 5 percussionists and 5 non-percussionists. each Amadinda ensemble member teams up with one Eighth Blackbird member to form a duo; a 5th duet fulfills a sort of conducting function.” What unites a percussion quartet from Hungary, named after a Ugandan style of drumming, with Eighth Blackbird, a US-based pierrot ensemble, inspired by an instrumentation from an early 20th-century Austrian masterpiece? Ligeti sums it up best, “their extreme musicianship and their dedication to new music.”

In a life full of dramatic change, spent crossing borders, Ligeti finds himself always pushing ahead, braving the unknown, “there is a moment when, sitting in front of blank music paper, I feel daunted and think I will never be able to write this piece! Little by little, things begin to move along.” The curious listener will want to travel along with Ligeti, wherever his ear and his travels take him. On February 2nd, you can hear the US premiere of Incandescence at the Logan Center, University of Chicago, in Chicago, IL. For tickets, click here.