Lukas Ligeti’s Marimba Lives Between Many Melodies

By Lilly Ball

In one of the most interesting concerts that UCI’S Winifred Smith Hall has ever hosted, Lukas Ligeti’s “Between Many World’s” amazed audience members with strange melodies and sounds, ending with Ligeti himself leaving the hall whilst whistling into a microphone. The concert, which took place last Friday, consisted of three separate performances, featuring different artists performing Ligeti’s wonderfully obscure compositions.

“I’m a very playful person; I like my music to trigger all kinds of emotions and give something to listeners that sticks in their memory. At the same time, my music is serious art – it’s not intended as entertainment, but should hopefully give you food for thought.” Ligeti said.

Utilizing several instruments that are not traditionally played together, such as the vibraphone, violin, saxophone and synthesizer; Ligeti designs some form of melody amongst the cacophony. The first performance of the night, titled “language: PROUN: music, for soprano and 4 instruments” featured a singer conducting an accompaniment as she sang in a strange rhythm, mimicking spoken word. As my first introduction to Ligeti’s work, “language” was quite shocking, unlike anything I had ever prior witnessed or heard, but the comprehensive program notes gave me some context to the performance. I found myself returning to the program throughout the night, in order to gain some knowledge as to how each piece was created, and understand the creative processes behind them, which were all quite interesting.

“I make experimental music – in other words, I try new approaches and possibilities. These days, it often seems as if experimental music has become a genre – certain things are allowed, or frowned upon. But then, how is it experimental? So I disregard these ideological limitations…I believe 99.9% of all possible music has not yet been created – and if we don’t create it, we only have our own lack of imagination to blame.” Ligeti said.

The next piece, arguably the crowd favorite of the night,  starred award-winning marimba player, Ji Hye Jung. “THINKING SONGS, for marimba solo (2015)” comprised of five, overwhelmingly complex songs that forced Jung to utilize her full body. Jung switched between several mallets throughout the performance, carefully hitting each marimba bar with a precision that left the audience breathless. The five movements of the piece each boasted their own distinct sound, and could have easily amazed as standalones, yet when played as a whole, “THINKING SONGS” is astonishing.

The final act featured Ligeti and his ensemble, Notebook, which he created in 2009 to combine “composition and improvisation in usual ways.” In four songs, the members of Notebook managed to cause the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up, as I, and the rest of the audience, were transported to some strange, almost hallucinogenic state, through peculiar sounds and melodies. During the song “Uncommon Notion,” each musician listened to individual sounds on their phones, unconnected to one another, playing upon the concept of “inherent looseness.”

Ligeti joined the UCI music faculty in 2015, but “Between Many Worlds” is his debut performance on campus. Born in Austria, Ligeti has worked on and performed music in Africa, and was previously composer-in-residence at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. Much of his work features African-influenced melodies, creating a wholly unique sound.

“I do, however, feel far removed from Africa here and would like to help create a stronger presence for African music, and non-Western music in general, on campus. Being exposed to a diversity of cultures and worldviews is crucial for thinking human beings at any stage of their development, and I think lots more could be done at UCI as far as that’s concerned,” he said.

Ligeti is known for his skills on the Marimba Lumina (the equivalent of an electronic keyboard for marimbas) which he has performed with in solo concerts on four continents. He continues to actively contribute to the music world through his work in intercultural collaboration, and alien-esque compositions, adding a certain element of experimentalism to the UCI community as an assistant professor.

“We have a unique music PhD program at UCI: ICIT – Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology. I’m very happy to be part of this program, because I’m interested in both composition and improvisation and see huge potential in using technology for music – but I don’t want to fully adopt one method of creating music at the expense of others,” Ligeti said.