Lukas Ligeti is always listening to music.
Even when the stereo is shut off, there’s a steady stream of sound running through his head. “The basic element of my sonic imagination is always my own voice,” he says. “It’s like I’m singing to myself.”
This constant state of mental invention keeps Ligeti, a composer and percussionist currently living in New York, on his creative toes, because “with 24 hours of soundtrack going on, you’ve got to listen to a lot of different things.”
Though yes, he is the son of Gyorgy, it wasn’t until he graduated from high school that Ligeti really even considered studying music seriously. As a child growing up in Vienna, Austria, practicing and reading music turned him off, but when he entered adulthood, he reexamined where devoting himself to sonic exploration might lead.
It certainly wasn’t going to put him back on a piano bench running scales and practicing etudes. “I enjoy studying other people’s music just to find out things about it, but to devote myself to playing other people’s music in a really serious way, to really being an interpreter, I don’t think I have the character for that. I’m too much on my own planet.”
For Ligeti, the most natural way to make music is to improvise. He wasn’t comfortable playing the solitary composer alone in his studio even if the scores were his own, so he reopened the idea of learning to play an instrument and began studying percussion—both to deepen his understanding of rhythm, but also, he admits with shy smile, because he naively thought it wouldn’t be too difficult for a late starter like him to get away with in performance.
Still, he stuck with it. After earning a masters degree from the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and serving as a visiting composer at Stanford University in the mid-’90s, Ligeti moved to New York. In the creation of his own sound, he drew particular inspiration from the experimental and improvised music of downtown New York—artists such as John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Bill Frisell, and David Moss, as well as city’s numerous jazz clubs. America felt like home.
“I feel a sense of purpose here,” Ligeti explains. “I was interested in things that the scene in Austria, Germany, those places, were not really interested in very much. There’s an aesthetic of contemporary music—kind of a post-Darmstadt hyper-complexity aesthetic—that I really have very little use for personally. And I felt much closer to the tradition of American maverick individualists and the pioneer spirit of discovery, of exploration, and also of combining popular music and non-popular music. All of these things attracted me.”
Another sound that attracted him, unlikely as it might seem on the surface, was the music of Africa. His grandmother’s African art collection first drew his attention to the continent, which became a place “where I could invest my fantasies.” Much as composers had looked to Indonesian gamelan to extend their palette, Ligeti reached towards Africa and established a number of deep musical relationships with people in several nations. “I thought it would be interesting to investigate certain types of African music in that way. Not trying to make African music, but trying to use African music as an influence, along with Western music, of course.” Today, the outcome of that exploration is perhaps most directly heard when he performs with Burkina Electric, a band formed in the West African country of Burkina Faso and which now performs all over the world.
Ligeti continues to draw from a wide variety of sonic influences as he crafts his compositions. And though one might try to separate the music he creates with fellow improvisers from the work he writes for classical ensembles, he is more likely to make a distinction between the musical idea and the outward packaging.
“I can actually take one idea and place it into a pop context or into an orchestral context, and that’s just the clothes, but the emperor is the same,” Ligeti says. “I think if you listen carefully, you will see that my concerns in many of these different contexts are actually the same.”
All perhaps just snippets of one long tune running in his head.