The work of composer/improvisor/percussionist Lukas Ligeti may appear confusing to some observers, but the disparate activities that populate LigetiŐs oeuvre have an intriguing way of complementing each other. Is he a composer or an improvisor? Does he belong to the canon of classical music, or is he part of a lineage of American experimentalists? Is he a new-music composer, an avant-garde jazz drummer, or perhaps even an African pop musician? In a way, he is all of the above, often at the same time. But whatever area of music he works in, many of his basic interests, many of the questions he asks, remain essentially the same. And one of these interests is: what will happen to a musical idea if it is introduced into different stylistic areas, treated by musicians of different backgrounds?
Case in point: Pattern Time documents an intense period of interaction by an ensemble hand-picked by Ligeti for the occasion of the 1999 Wiener Musik-Galerie Festival in Vienna. A highly polymetric new composition by Ligeti was to be performed by Icebreaker, an amplified chamber orchestra from London, and festival organizer Ingrid Karl invited Lukas to assemble a group of his own to perform as well, to showcase his improvisational side. For the occasion Ligeti chose artists from around the globe, and across many musical traditions, with one unifying characteristic: an interest in polymetric improvisation.
The simultaneity of different rhythms, meters, or indeed tempos, is one of LukasŐ main compositional and improvisational interests. He explains: ŇFor 1000 years now, it has been normal in Western music to use several pitches at the same time. Several melodic lines heard simultaneously result in counterpoint, harmonies, consonances, dissonancesÉ things that are at the very heart of music as we know it. Why not try to do the same with rhythm?Ó
Of course, Ligeti isnŐt the first to employ polyrhythms. In the West,
can be traced back many centuries. It is ubiquitous in numerous styles of music, particularly in jazz, and obviously in that main ancestor of jazz, African music.
ŇThe first African music I heard, curiously, was a field recording of traditional court music of Buganda, in Uganda – a highly complex, polymetric music played on xylophones,Ó says Ligeti. In this music, members of an ensemble play interlocking melodies at such a high rate of speed that they need to hear the music from different vantage points in order to remain in coordination. In other words, they do not have a unified concept of the downbeat, but each feels the downbeat at a different time – and this notion of a ŇrelativeÓ beat keeps the group in a state of fragile equilibrium.
Fascinated by this concept, Ligeti began developing a way to play the drums polymetrically, with the limbs interlocking in ways similar to the musicians of Buganda, leading him to conceive rhythmic patterns of extraordinary length and complexity – lasting hundreds of beats until they repeat. This feat is not accomplished by counting bars or moving the limbs at a breakneck combination of different speeds; rather, it is a flowing choreography in which the shape of the motion determines the meter. The listener can hear the downbeat anywhere within the rhythm, each time hearing the pattern in a completely new way.
It is probably fair to say that Lukas LigetiŐs development of such a multifaceted approach to composing and to improvising was somewhat predestined. The son of Hungarian composer Gyšrgy Ligeti, he was born and grew up in Austria, a country that borders Hungary but has a distinctly different cultural tradition. There, he attended an American school, coming into contact with people from all over the world. It was only at the age of 18 that he started playing music; he studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, but was soon exposed to African music, which became a significant influence. After completing his studies in Vienna, he moved to the U.S. He has lived in New York City since 1998, but travels frequently to Africa, where he has done a wide variety of intercultural collaborations.
In assembling the group for this recording, Ligeti attempted to find other musicians with similarly unique and highly Evolved ways of playing polymetric patterns. Drawing on the vocabularies of contemporary classical music, Sardinian bagpipe music, West African griot music, and American avant-garde jazz, the ensemble represents a mosaic of texture and musical dialect. Taken in succession, these distinct musical vocabularies can be quite complementary; but to experience them juxtaposed is perhaps a daunting prospect—one Ligeti was more than prepared to facilitate. Naturally, an interest in African music represented an important commonality among these musicians; with three of them, pianist Beno”t Delbecq, Ligeti, and obviously balafonist Aly Ke•ta, the African influence is fundamental. American jazz is also a distinct unifying element in these musiciansŐ vocabularies, making Pattern Time not only an innovative contribution to ensemble improvisation, but perhaps also to African jazz.
Afro-Jazz has become something of a genre over the past few decades, and to jazz musicians in the rest of the world, it can be a problematic one. Distribution patterns of jazz recordings on the African market have created an often one-sided reception of jazz on that continent. Funky smooth-jazz and jazz-rock fusion records are widely available, whereas bebop and free jazz are not. The influence of Weather Report is somewhat ubiquitous in African jazz music. In this context, the contribution of Michael Manring is particularly noteworthy: while not African, he is a student of Weather ReportŐs famous electric bassist, Jaco Pastorius. Manring incorporated what he learned from Jaco as the basic ingredient for a new, individual style, and it is no coincidence that Jaco regarded him as one of his strongest disciples.
Pattern Time applies African music to a more experimental structural and sonic context than usual Afro-Jazz outings, and may, indeed, indicate a new direction for African-influenced jazz. This is also attributable to the unique musical language of Parisian pianist Beno”t Delbecq, whose intuitive melding of musical traditions transcends the multiplicity of vocabularies he has incorporated into his work. His work demonstrates superb technique and lyrical musicality, while often reveling in the subversive cognitive disturbance produced when a piano is prepared with wooden sticks. The music of Central AfricaŐs BaŐaka Pygmies informs his playing, but sometimes his piano preparations give his instrument a sound reminiscent of a balafon – the West African traditional marimba – and indeed, the combination of DelbecqŐs prepared piano and Aly Ke•taŐs balafon makes for part of the unique appeal of this recording.
Aly Ke•ta, born in C™te dŐIvoire of a Malian griot family, was playing at a traditional festivity in the Ivorian city of Abidjan when he was spotted, at the age of 18, by German-Liberian pianist George Makinto. Makinto introduced Ke•ta to modern jazz, which helped him find new ways to share his tradition with other musicians. Ligeti and Ke•ta met several years later, in 1994, when Ligeti arrived in Abidjan on his first trip to Africa; Ke•ta was by that time one of the most sought-after musicians in that city. They subsequently worked together in Beta Foly (ŇLukas Ligeti & Beta FolyÓ, Intuition Records, Germany, 1997), an experimental, intercultural collaboration between African and European musicians whose name means ŇThe Music of Us AllÓ in MalinkŽ. Living today in Berlin, Aly continues performing worldwide, increasingly as a solo musician.
Saxophonist Gianni Gebbia brings a completely different, yet also highly polymetric, set of influences into this session. He hails from Sicily, though he spends much time in Japan and in California, where he and Lukas met in 1997. They have collaborated often over the years, particularly on the CD ŇThe Williamsburg SonatasÓ (Wallace Records, Italy, 2005). Gebbia has developed an approach to the saxophone that references both the British free improvisation tradition pioneered by Evan Parker and the rhythmic-polyphonic complexity of Sardinian launedda music, becoming in the process a master of circular breathing.
California-based electric bass virtuoso Michael Manring is mainly known for his lyrical work with Michael Hedges and other artists who recorded on the Windham Hill label, though his solo concerts have completely redefined the conventions of his instrument. Ligeti and Manring first met in San Francisco in 1996 while collaborating with improvising guitarist Henry Kaiser, and immediately felt that their approaches to rhythm and interplay were uniquely compatible.
The interaction between Lukas LigetiŐs drumset, Aly Ke•taŐs balafon, and Beno”t DelbecqŐs piano is profound. This trio forms something of a central rhythmic and textural nucleus for the ensemble, which emphasizes polyphony and interactive dialogue over clearly-defined idiomatic roles. The bass is often a melodic voice, and the saxophone is as closely woven into the polyrhythmic fabric as the balafon or drumset, giving cues and fulfilling a conductorŐs role, not unlike a drummer would usually do. LigetiŐs drum style sits perfectly between the foundational role as timekeeper and the contrapuntal voice-leading of a melodic instrument.
Improvised music succeeds when the performers reach the common multiples of their respective contributions. The result of Lukas LigetiŐs cross-genre experiment is a music that enables all performers to engage a wide musical spectrum in a context that is distinguished by the consistent integrity of the collectiveŐs creative momentum.
— James Ilgenfritz III