Review: Lukas Ligeti at the Steve Allen Theater

Review: Lukas Ligeti at the Steve Allen Theater
ADDED VISUAL: Light projections play across Lukas Ligeti at the ResBox performance. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)
On my way to the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood Thursday night for a rare local appearance by Lukas Ligeti, I stopped by Amoeba Music to pick up his new solo CD, "Afrikan Machinery." It was temporarily out of stock. A good sign, I thought. This is remarkable music, and its popularity must mean a brilliant young composer is catching on.

Ligeti is a delirious percussionist as well. He plays something called a Marimba Lumina. It was invented by Donald Buchla, a brilliant synthesizer builder who lost out (to the regret of many major composers) to Robert Moog in the popular market. The marimba is hooked up to a computer, which Ligeti supplies with African sound sources. When his mallets fly, complex rhythms intertwine into post-Minimalist hyper-complexity. Africa is revealed as a continent of fabulous, if musically mad, intoxication.

Unfortunately, the good sign at Amoeba was a less good sign down the road at the Steve Allen Theater, where ResBox, an ambitious series of improvised music, is held the third Thursday of every month. Big-box new music (the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella, the Monday Evening Concerts, Jacaranda, presentations at REDCAT) attracts, these days, impressive crowds from many walks of life. But the improvised music scene in town flies so low under the radar, we should be thankful it hasn't crashed.

Only a handful were on hand at the mildly funky, well-equipped, wonderfully accessible (free and easy parking!) Steve Allen, part of the Center for Inquiry, across the street from Barnsdall Park. I suspect I was the only one in the theater who didn't know everyone else. Tickets were but $10 (barely more than the price of parking downtown). Hard-to-find CDs (including "Afrikan Machinery") were on sale at refreshingly low prices. Bring your own booze. And spread the word.

Ligeti's set was preceded by a local violin and saxophone duo (Jeff Gauthier and Becca Mhalek) and electro-acoustic improvisers from Baltimore and Berlin (Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann, respectively). VJ Fader sat at a laptop and projected decorative designs on the stage. All had something of interest to offer. But the real news was Ligeti.

That he is a stranger to Los Angeles is, itself, strange. He is the son of the late composer György Ligeti, who has long been a draw downtown (Gustavo Dudamel will conduct "Atmospheres" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic next week) to say nothing for Hollywood (bits of "Atmospheres" found their way into "2001: A Space Odyssey"). Lukas spent part of his youth in Palo Alto when his father taught at Stanford, and he later studied at Stanford as well as in Vienna. He now lives in New York but spends much of his time in West Africa. He's formed a rock band in Burkina Faso, called Burkina Electric. He is also the composer of transfixing ensemble pieces for the Kronos Quartet, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and others.

Forget his famous dad. Modest and affable onstage, Ligeti represents, under a Clark Kent exterior, a new generation of musical Superman -- a globally minded, technologically adept, technically sophisticated composer who also happens to be a virtuoso performer and accomplished improviser with a populist bent.

On Thursday, Ligeti began by casually tapping his electronic marimba with a mallet and set off a rhythmic figure with the timbre of a finger-piano. Another tap generated a catchy little whistled tune. But before long, his mallets were a blur, creating layers of rhythms that produced a wall of mesmerizing sound, while the whistling went the route of merry dementia.

Each succeeding piece had its own soundscape, and in each a different route of thickening and thinning textures was taken. African sound sources came in and out of prominence. Regular Minimalist grooves collided with irregular ones. Ligeti's Africa is an ever-changing mosaic of impressions. There wasn't a dull second.

The evening's other performers were from different traditions. Mhalek, the saxophonist, had her nocturnally noir jazzy side, but she also punched out notes and shrieked, while Gauthier, an excellent if understated violinist, connected to electronic sources and kept his cool in the background.

Jones and Neumann turned knobs and knocked around inside a piano. Sine waves and electronic whirring met various noises, while VJ Fader illuminated the stage with swirls. The machines spoke in their language, and we eavesdropped.