An Interview with Lukas Ligeti
Composer, percussionist, improviser, and UC Irvine professor Lukas Ligeti spoke with me from his home in Bushwick, New York, for nearly two hours coming off the heels of an evening showcasing his works at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. As the only son of György Ligeti, one of the most innovative and influential composers in the last half of the 20th century, Lukas continues to forge his own path as a world-class musician while navigating the commanding legacy of his father. We discussed how growing up a refugee impacted his musical outlook, cultural appropriation, and Darmstadt.
VAN: I’d imagine you must have grown up in a quite musical household.
Lukas Ligeti: Not really, actually…my father would always sit in his room and work on his compositions. It’s not like I was there with him while he composed. And my mother is not a musician. She loves music, but she’s not a musician at all—she’s a psychoanalyst—and in fact, she considers herself tone deaf. So, it wasn’t the kind of a picturesque household where we would play chamber music together as a family or anything like that—that’s what I would consider a “musical household.” But I would sit at my father’s piano and improvise as a little kid. And my father would always encourage me when I played, saying he thought I had a knack for music. But he wasn’t the kind of person who would force me to take piano. Nonetheless, I eventually started taking lessons around the age of nine, but quickly found out it wasn’t for me. I gave up when I saw it was expected of me to practice and learn to read music, which I thought was utterly impossible—something I still believe, but that’s another matter for another day. Then, I didn’t have any formal training in music until after I graduated from high school.
But weren’t you coming in contact with all sorts of new music and composers as a kid, just by the mere fact that your father was György Ligeti? There’s, for example, this wonderful picture of you from 1982, as a 16-year-old, sitting with your mother, your father, and American composers Conlon Nancarrow and Michael Daugherty.
Well, sure, I went to my father’s concerts, so I didn’t think that new music was anything out of the ordinary. As a little kid I thought probably every grown person was a composer! And yes, I met Conlon Nancarrow—he was around visiting—but it’s not like we spent time making music together. And later, when I began studying music seriously at university, I never took lessons with my father. But of course we still talked a lot and that was quite interesting for me as a burgeoning musician myself. In a certain way though, it also made my own development as a composer more difficult because people were always thinking about me as somehow associated with my father. I think a lot of people would see my name and expect my music to sound like my father’s music. When I was younger, I very deliberately avoided sounding like him. And it’s only in more recent years that the tangible influence from my father’s music has crept into my own music as I’m getting less and less afraid to face all that history, head on.
When chatting with your father, did you ever butt heads on musical issues, especially when you were getting into more improvisatory styles of music?
My father was an interested person who liked to talk substance. He wasn’t into small talk. He wasn’t into asking whether I could do this or that—he said do whatever you want. If we talked about jazz drumming, we would talk about the structure of the music. He was always into the intellectual questions. He wasn’t someone who would just shoot the breeze. He would always, for example, when guests came to the house, start asking all these difficult questions. Of course we had differences, but what two people don’t have differences? Talking to my father was interesting and productive, but also often a nerve-wracking experience. But I would say, in the end, that he was much more of a close friend than a traditional father.
So he supported you and your musical goals?
I will tell you one interesting story that I think sums it up: Back in 1988 I wrote a piece for marimba—and to this day it’s my most performed piece—it’s called “Pattern Transformation.” I showed it to my father and he really liked it. Not too long after that, my father was asked by Josef Häusler, the manager of Pierre Boulez, to recommend a young composer for a commission for Les Percussions de Strasbourg, which back then, was the classical percussion new music ensemble, making this perhaps the most prestigious commission for percussion that one could receive as a composer. My father, who when asked for a recommendation, always considered it very seriously, thought, “Who do I know who would write a good piece for percussion ensemble?” He decided that, among his students—and I think he had just retired around that time, so his ex-students—there wasn’t anybody who was particularly interested, or specialized, or had shown him anything of particular interest for percussion ensemble. However, I had written this piece called “Pattern Transformation” that he really liked. So he decided out of all the young composers he was aware of, the best composer to recommend for the Les Percussions de Strasbourg commission was I, his son. And so he recommended me. Josef Häusler answered shortly after saying that his recommendation sounded a bit like nepotism and so wasn’t a good idea. Let me tell you, when my father got this answer, he was absolutely furious, and as a result, did two things. One: He never spoke to Josef Häusler again. Two: He never recommended me for anything ever again. After that experience, he thought, that by recommending me, he would hurt me more than help.
And so would you say, in the end, looking back, that being the son of György Ligeti more benefited or detracted from your composition career?
As you can imagine, a lot of people think, being the son of György Ligeti has opened a lot of doors for me—that he gave me all the help and support that I could possibly have had. But the actual truth is, no doors were opened for me. I never have really had any true mentors, because mentors like to “discover” people. My name was already a known name, despite being my name! So, I think that it made things very difficult for me in that regard.
You obviously feel some sort of responsibility to preserve your father’s legacy. In a 2009 New York Times article, you mentioned that you were bothered that certain people were appropriating your father’s music for their own agendas. Could you explain what you meant by this?
Europe, and mostly Germany, was the base of my father’s operations. As you know, in that part of the world, the kind of Darmstadt-based—what in America is sometimes called “high modernism” (I call it complexity aesthetic or extended technique aesthetic)—has become extremely dominant in new music in the last 30 years, so dominant that sometimes it exists to the exclusion of anything else. And I think that my father as a composer who was recognized as a new music pioneer is often categorized as belonging to this tradition, and yet, look how much of my father’s music is being played in Darmstadt. None! While my father is grouped in with the Darmstadt community, these people don’t actually understand and thus can’t really warm up to my father’s music. My father’s music is much too open-minded. What happens in Darmstadt is very conservative if you see what is going on in Darmstadt today—the aesthetic is unchanged from 30 years ago.
When did you start getting interested in African folk music?
I listened to a lot of music as a child. But from about eight to 18, about 10 years, I didn’t listen to much music at all. Then I started listening to music again while doing my homework. I started hearing pop music when I was 16 or 17 and that very quickly turned into an interest in all kinds of music. I became interested in African music around this time. My exposure to African music started in a quite serious way when I was so underdeveloped as a musician. It’s not like I’m a classical musician who is interested in African music. African music is at the foundation of my musicianship.
What in particular initially attracted you to African folk music? Was it the sounds themselves or the cultural, ritual aspects around music making?
It was actually neither of those. It was the structure of the music. My first substantive contact with African music was with a written essay by the Austrian musicologist Gerhard Kubik about the traditional court music of Buganda in Uganda, where they have an unbelievably different way of dealing with both the question of beat and rhythm, and perception and cognition—and thus the interplay of musicians in an ensemble—than anything that you would see in Western music. In this music, two players sit across from each other playing the same xylophone and interlocking. Each performer plays a melody that has a constant pulse. The first person starts with the melody and the second person plays a similar melody but interlocking in-between the first at a really fast speed. Each player hears the other person as being syncopated. It’s like you’re looking at a sculpture from two different sides. This music completely changed my way of thinking about music in the world. Here was this notion that two people playing music together, playing in total coordination, playing at the same speed, listening to each other, can have a different idea of where the beat is located—a relative perception of the beat. There are certain things that are a little like this that happen in gamelan music, but not in such an extreme way.
Do you engage with the line of critique among some ethnomusicologists that as a white European you are appropriating African culture and therefore extending colonialism by profiting from a less dominant culture?
I think that the work of ethnomusicologists has been extremely fundamental to my work and I am very influenced and indebted to them. But I frankly also think that this debate, as fashionable as it may be, is ultimately academic—it has very little to do with the reality on the ground of how musicians live and work, whether that is in Africa or industrialized countries of the world. I think this idea of cultural purity is ultimately a racist idea. Every culture and every artist appropriates from each other and artists from Africa are constantly appropriating from Europe and American culture, which in a way, is being forced down their throats. So in certain cases they may have no choice but to appropriate.
I ultimately think that people should be able to define their identity any way they want, and the idea that, if you are from Congo, you have to have a Congolese identity, and you have to write Congolese sounding music, is really a racist idea and I find it frankly shocking that so much of this is in the supposedly progressive academia. So many of these arguments ultimately aim to categorize people as a certain thing ethnically and take away one’s own liberty or agency to define one’s place in culture as an artist. And I think we all need to have the right to do that.
[Editor’s Note: After the interview was published, Lukas Ligeti requested that we included this further paragraph to complete his answer. Updated 8/19/2016.]
I have been working with musicians in various regions of Africa for over 20 years now. We collaborate as equals. I don’t go there as a representative of some more “dominant” culture; I come as an individual. I work with people who are open-minded and willing to engage in a dialogue. This direction of work has given rise to what I call “experimental intercultural collaboration”—we put our minds together, experiment, and try to do something new to all of us, but informed by our collective knowledge and creativity. Obviously, it’s necessary to make an effort to understand one another, and in order to accomplish that, it’s necessary to be curious—ask, and listen, and engage as equals, and to do so over a long period of time. I’m suspicious of intercultural projects that take a week and are then done. I’ve been working with some of the same musicians in West Africa for 22 years, so to me this is not really an issue of appropriation, but of friendship and collaboration.
How has your own personal history informed your cultural outlook?
In my particular case, my family history and my personal history have conspired to make me not so much a member of one particular culture, but a kind of Austrian-Hungarian-American-African hybrid. As you know, I come from a refugee background. My parents escaped from Hungary in 1956 and thus I was born without a nationality—under the Geneva Conventions refugee status. Nowadays I have both Austrian and American citizenship. Growing up, I went to an American international school in Vienna and spent a significant amount of time in California as well. At my school in Vienna I grew up alongside kids from America and the rest of the world, so I mainly moved within expat circles—with UN diplomats and people like that. So I grew up basically from day one in a place where my national or cultural identity was not clearly defined but rather I found myself in this space in-between, and I think that predestined me to be an inter-cultural worker.
Have you engaged in these conversations about cultural appropriations with the musicians you work with in Africa?
When I go to Africa and work with musicians, very few to none of them will have these ideas of cultural privilege—that as a person coming from one place, you are entitled to do one thing and not another—that culture is an entitlement owned by a certain group of people, passed on through heritage. And I often work with traditional musicians who are very much steeped in their traditions, yet these are not their issues. First and foremost, they make music. And, at the end of the day, they have very little time for these kinds of postcolonial academic exercises.
It seems that the origin of the thought, at least from what I understand from the ethnomusicology community, is to help equalize power structures that have been historically unbalanced between the Western world and the non-Western world.
I think this line of thinking among ethnomusicologists actually reinforces power structures more than equalizing them. I’m all for equalizing. I think there should be a level playing field. I think people should treat each other fairly. But the period we’re living in now, we’re not having a lot of luck with equality. If anything, we’re going further away from being fair and peaceful. It’s actually a disastrous moment in history that we’re living in…with Trump and all the terror attacks…it’s a terrible moment.
And so with all this going on in the world, why then did you choose to engage with Bauhaus—a German 1920s art school—in your recent show “Influences/Confluences: Bauhaus As Seen By Composer Lukas Ligeti” at National Sawdust?
If you think about the time of the Bauhaus, it was the time of the Weimar Republic. It was the time of going towards World War II. It was an extremely dire period of history when things had already been dark and things were just getting darker. In many ways I think we are in such a period too. I don’t know what waits down the road for us in a couple years from now. Are we going to find ourselves in a third world war? Maybe in a certain way the attention to Bauhaus is timely because it is an art that, all other properties notwithstanding, was the product of a darkening time. While it was an incredibly rich time and place culturally—the 1920s in Germany—one could see how the world was changing for the worst. Hungary was becoming fascist. Austria was going through incredible unrest with the relationship between the socialists and the right wing crumbling. It was a time of preparation, gearing up for another catastrophe to come. I think the difference now is that we have had, in the Western world, an unprecedentedly long period of peace and prosperity. The theaters of war have been mostly elsewhere, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. If Trump becomes President, all bets are off. ¶