Interview: Lukas Ligeti Returns to New York

Lukas Ligeti represents a true change of musical pace. An Austrian born composer and percussionist, Legeti embodies an adventurous approach to music. Everything about the music comes from a place of personal discovery. He often performs on an invented electronic percussion instrument called a marimba lumina, which serves double duty as both a midi-controller and percussion instrument. By playing the percussion on the marimba, he calls upon prerecorded samples from his many journeys to Africa (and beyond) as well as prerecorded compositions of his own.

[Photo by Chris Woltmann]

Ever the experimenter, most recently Ligeti spent time in Uruguay making field recording of soccer games for an upcoming project. As he puts it later in our conversation, his music strives to get “really far away from conventions. We find a new beauty by pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone.”

After spending three months in Europe and India, Ligeti returns home to New York to perform with his jazz quintet at the Stone on May 31st and with a septet known as the Notebook at the Gershwin Hotel on June 14th.

Hidden Track: To begin, I’d love to ask you something will probably sound extremely vague and random, but what is your philosophy on life? I ask because you seem to have a very interesting way of living whereby you make the world into one of your biggest influences and apply just about anything that crosses you path into the music from culture to technology to education.

Lukas Ligeti: That’s a hard question to answer! I don’t think I have a philosophy, but I’m inquisitive and try to be honest, and of course I try to enjoy life…we only live once! As a musician and a thinker, I hope to be original; I want to contribute something personal and hopefully radically new. I’ve never understood why people tend to segregate things into categories; for me it’s a natural thing to enrich myself with things I like. I do also think, a lot, about things I don’t like, but hopefully you don’t find obvious references to that in my music.

HT: Your compositional style is described as post-minimalism at times. How would you describe that to somebody who may enjoy your style, but not necessarily have the musical background to understand exactly what that means?

LL: I actually don’t know what “post-minimalist” means. Minimal music, I suppose, is music that has at its core a very simple rhythmic or melodic idea, repeats this idea, and changes it incrementally. Or maybe that’s not even the case. Again, categories. My music sometimes works like that, but it’s an oversimplification as my music is much more complicated. My music is playful, so in a way I’m not “minimalist” at all – staying minimal implies deliberately renouncing possibilities, and I don’t.

HT: As a very global musician, it would be interesting to hear how you go about developing a following in so many countries. For most musicians, it’s hard enough becoming known in one country or even one city, let alone the entire world.

LL: I travel many places, but I’m not sure that means I have a following there. Opportunities are very random. I like traveling and getting to know places and cultures, so I naturally gravitate towards work that requires me to travel. I also like to stay at home, though. As far as developing a following, I’m clueless. I just hope people like my music – but if they don’t, tant pis!

HT: Along those lines, Africa seems to have become your home away from home. How do you approach getting involved in the music scenes of the various African countries you frequently visit?

LL: Often, my first stay in a country will be through an organization such as the Goethe Institute or a local NGO, and they will introduce me to musicians. The first time in was in Africa, it was through the Goethe and I went to the Ivory Coast. 150 musicians came to participate in my workshop, and of course I couldn’t work with that many, so I played them some of my weirdest and most inaccessible music. The next day, 15 people came – but these 15 became friends for life.

HT: What can old and new fans expect at your upcoming New York City shows with the quintet?

LL: I’m actually doing shows with 2 different groups. One is at the Stone and is more jazz-oriented with a new band, whereas the concert at the Gershwin Hotel will be a group, Notebook, that has already played a couple of times and features some of my pieces combining composition and improvisation to about equal degrees. This latter group is not exactly a quintet; it’ll be a septet this time but is somewhat flexible. Both groups try to develop and investigate some new vocabulary, things that are really far away from conventions. We find a new beauty by pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone.

HT: Finally, what’s currently making the rounds on your iPod? Is there Anything you like that might take people by surprise these days?

LL: I don’t use an iPod, but I listen to CDs, soundcloud, youtube, etc. I would like to tell you about a composer from Austria, now living in Montreal; his name is Vergil Sharkya and he makes some of the most interesting electronic music around. People should listen to him.

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