The Beautiful Chaos of Lukas Ligeti


Everyone tends to look and feel a bit like an outsider at the Stone, John Zorn’s forbiddingly functional Avenue C performance space, and the composer and percussionist Lukas Ligeti, who curated the venue’s March lineup, is no exception. Born and raised in Austria, Ligeti (pronounced leeguhtee) has spent much of his life in the United States, yet mainly looks toward Africa for inspiration. He plays his drums as if he were dancing; as a composer, he enhances his prodigious technique with cyclonic electronics. And over the next several weeks, you can—and really should—see him performing solo on the electric Marimba Lumina; improvising freely in the NoNet Trio; and beating the traps with his remarkable, tricontinental, Afrotronic ensemble of musicians and dancers, Burkina Electric.

I sometimes describe 1997’s Lukas Ligeti & Beta Foly as “Captain Beefheart Goes to Africa”: A hot, dense blend of multiple African traditional sources, crazed electronic drums, constantly shifting polyrhythms, and way-outside electric guitar (courtesy of Henry Kaiser), Ligeti’s delightful and startling debut was sparked by a Goethe Institute–funded field trip to the Côte d’Ivoire and blends the deepest of roots music with a frenzy of samples and electronic percussion. The collaborative magic of Beta Foly, which means “The Music of Us All” in Malinké, was later transferred to Burkina Electric, which Ligeti formed in 2004 with his former girlfriend, the Burkina Faso singer Maï Lingani. The Brooklyn-Ouagadougou-Düsseldorf ensemble also includes longtime collaborator Kurt Dahlke—a/k/a Pyrolator—of the great German experimental pop group Der Plan.

Ligeti started playing drums after leaving high school, just about the same time his father, the Transylvania-born experimental composer Györgi Ligeti, was integrating African polymetric concepts into his first book of piano études (1985) and magnificent Piano Concerto (1985-88). Lukas readily acknowledges the synchronicity of concerns, adding, “What’s influenced me most from my father was the way he tried to make the most of his talents, worked very hard, was really self-critical, and tried to be as original a composer as he could.” Listening to the younger Ligeti’s composed music can feel like walking down a crowded African street: His music is both polymetric (with plenty of the overlapping time signatures that characterize many African traditions) and polytemporal, with different parts moving at radically different tempos, like pedestrians with diverse places to go, things to do. “Basically,” he says, “I’m interested in creating consonances and dissonances of rhythm.”

His most recent album, last fall’s Afrikan Machinery, consists of seven pieces for solo electronic percussion performed on the Marimba Lumina, a mallet instrument invented by synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla. “One of the reasons I play electronic percussion,” Ligeti says, “is that I didn’t want to dispense with the movement, as people often do when they play laptops sedately.” Nothing about this music could be characterized as laid-back, as he proved during his solo opening set for Juana Molina at (Le) Poisson Rouge earlier this month, where he deployed countless filtered and looped samples with graceful yet visually counterintuitive panache. (On May 1, he’ll premiere a Marimba Lumina concerto he’s writing for the American Composers Orchestra.)

You can find a good indication of the scope of Ligeti’s global outreach in his liner notes for “Moving Houses,” a Kronos Quartet commission that the string group Ethel performs on his 2004 album, Mystery System: “Also present are Gypsy fiddling from the Szék region of present-day Romania, Hardanger fiddling from Norway, sabar drumming from Senegal, the music of Miles Davis’s early electric period, and, embedded into the contrapuntal structure, the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ ” As a composer, he manipulates both the beauty and chaos that occurs when lots of different musics come together; as a performer, he wants to see and hear what happens when players from different cultural backgrounds share a stage. For a listener, the result can feel like being strapped to a spinning shortwave-radio dial.

Drumming at the Stone a few weeks ago with Finnish-American guitarist Raoul Björkenheim (with whom he has been playing and recording since 2003), Ligeti was a restless field of ideas and motion, picking up and dropping national and international styles as frequently as he exchanged dozens of sticks and other implements of percussion. “The worst thing is stagnation,” he explains. As the old musical hierarchies and business models collapse, we are all indie-rock outsiders now, more or less and for better or worse. “I’m kind of stuck in no-man’s land,” he admits. “I’ve always felt a little like an outsider, and I continue to do so. It’s encouraging to me that the borders have collapsed, and, in a way, I feel at ease with it.”

Lukas Ligeti performs at the Stone with Kaleidoscope Point on March 27, and with the NoNet Trio on March 31. Pyrolators play a solo electronics set at the Stone on March 27. Burkina Electric open for Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra at (Le) Poisson Rouge on April 19