FW Exclusive: Composer Lukas Ligeti Talks About Breaking Down Walls in Classical Music


Meet LUKAS LIGETI. He’s a New York-based composer and percussionist who the WALL STREET JOURNAL recently profiled for a piece on the sons of famous classical composers.

Their thesis: this next generation of talent blends a classical sound with Gen X-friendly pop and African rhythms creating a hybrid version of music that might make a genre that many finding alienating suddenly relevant to a wider, younger audience — like when a popular indie rock band decides to play with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Or maybe classical music appreciation will simply die off with the olds. Ok, not really, but that’s the concept we pitched to Ligeti. His response to our crazy talk after the jump.

“If the fine arts are dying off, it probably doesn’t have much to do with the Baby Boomers, but more with stylistic developments and ideologies within the art world. Art is something created by humans, and like humans themselves, art has an innate will to survive.

“Classical concert music in Western Civilization (which admittedly was never a “mass” musical phenomenon to begin with) was for several centuries based on a principle called tonality — having a central pitch in a piece, and then harmonic progressions revolving around that pitch or temporarily leading away from it, whilst never losing touch with that pitch center.

“During the 19th century tonality began to be obscured through the use of an ever widening harmonic palette. Ultimately, in the early 20th century, it was totally dissolved. In the process, a language was deconstructed, and a sense of communication — and thus a possibility to engage people — was lost.

“That’s a natural historic progression. So much has changed. Technology, computers, and new musical styles impact us daily. There are just so many more people around now. To me, it’s not a time to keep dwelling on a language that has already died. Let it rest in peace, and, without negating its influence, let’s construct a new language. If we can find some that serve the purpose of communication, not just solipsistic ‘l’art pour l’art’, people will become engaged.

“That’s exactly what’s happening these days. In part, that’s thanks to the boundaries between classical, pop, jazz, whatever else, which were so important to composers and to critics just a few years ago, being increasingly broken down. I’m a strange case because contrary to what most people would believe given my name, I didn’t have a childhood steeped in music. I started playing music after graduating from high school, but then, I started listening to any kind of music I could get my hands on. These boundaries between genres — in fact, even the concept of genre — is irrelevant.

“As a late bloomer, I feel very close to the aesthetic of many people now in their 20s or early 30s, who have a post-boundary approach. These divisions are not relevant anymore. I think that is, if anything, a guarantee for the survival of the fine arts.”