Sitting in Bing Theater in the heart of Los Angeles, I found myself experiencing a unique insight into Hungarian culture at The Vision of Moholy-Nagy and Contemporary Music. The performance was timed to coincide with the Moholy-Nagy exhibition Future Present at LACMA. In all fairness, there was a dose of German culture mixed in too, since the ideals of the Bauhaus school (of which the Hungarian painter and photographer Moholy-Nagy was a prominent figure) were a resonating theme throughout the evening. The performers came from all over: Hungary, yes, but also Los Angeles and New York. True to the Bauhaus movement, different approaches to music, technology, and art were combined, necessitating the concert to be a multi-disciplinary event – even the walk to the theater involved passing some pretty spectacular sculptures and architecture.
The concert began with the fearless Gőz–Kurtág–Lukács Trio, who performed various selections of electro-acoustic works on cimbalom, trombone/bass trumpet/seashells, and synthesizer/computer, with mesmerizing visualizations by Szabolcs Kerestes. Partly through-composed and partly improvised, these works were a collective microcosm of the Hungarian classical electronic music scene, a creatively vital genre during the repressive decades of state socialism. Their performance transported me to a meditative, almost spiritual state, yet somehow simultaneously rooted me with technical, detailed focus. I was entranced by the immaculate, reverberant textures, ranging from pointillist and chaotic to celestial and broadly gestural. The accompanying visualizations featured rapidly moving lines, shapes, and colors, and were directly responsive to live sound. The exception to this rule was György Ligeti’s graphic score to Artikulation, which was comically incredible to watch on a big screen with surround sound.
Lukas Ligeti, who recently moved to Southern California for a new teaching position at UCI, was the featured composer after intermission. The art of the Bauhaus movement, and of Moholy-Nagy, seems to have a marked influence on Ligeti’s music, which showed impressive breadth, experimentation, and proportional symmetry. He presented three works with varying instrumentation and compositional approaches. The first, Language: PROUN: music (2016), had its west coast premiere by soprano Ariadne Grief and wild Up members Matthew Barbier (trombone), Matthew Cook (vibraphone), Derek Stein (cello), and Andrew Tholl (violin). The piece itself is a reaction to Moholy-Nagy’s exhibition Future Present, and follows the Bauhaus tradition in its unconventional exploration of balance and symmetry (however, this is done on Ligeti’s own terms). While in many cases text is made to fit the cadences of music, Ligeti turns the usual plot on its head by allowing the natural rhythm of freely-flowing speech to entirely dictate the music. Continuing on with the natural progression of this idea, the instrumentalists follow the cadences led by the soprano, which Ariadne Grief accomplished with radiant, playful sincerity.
Next was Thinking Songs (2015), a fiercely virtuosic five-movement work for solo marimba. Few marimbists could have pulled it off like Ji Hye Jung – she not only played it perfectly, but also somehow made it look easy (in fact, she danced through the hardest parts). The technical expertise required for movements such as Four-Part Invention and Dance was matched by a musical expressivity that was stunning to behold. The composition itself took us an incredible musical journey: exploiting timbral possibilities with different mallets in Dance, slow-moving lines in Lamento, technical impossibilities manifested into reality in Four-Part Invention, playful exploration of prepared marimba in Scherzo, and quasi-minimalist shifting accents in Two-Part Invention.
Closing the show were three works for Notebook, an ensemble founded by Ligeti to explore the intersection between composition and improvisation. These pieces featured not one but two electric guitars (Eyal Maoz and Tom McNalley), trombone (Rick Parker), violin (Amma Savery), saxophone (Daniel Blake), synthesizer (Ricardo Gallo), and the composer on drums. The performance was pure fun, with an exploratory energy that reconfirmed the experimental and playful side to Ligeti’s musical personality.