The renowned conductor and music publisher Serge Koussevitsky once declared, "Musicians are always the best ambassadors." And though György Ligeti (1923–2006) didn't travel the world as an official musical ambassador like Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington, the Hungarian-born composer was, among his generation of the postwar avant-garde, a singular emissary. Unlike many of his confreres (think Boulez, Stockhausen, et al.), Ligeti publicly explored his interests in other, often relatively remote musics: Fluxus actions, minimalism (he wrote a "Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley" for two pianos), Central African Pygmy chants, quarter-tone tuning, the daring rhythmic explorations of Conlon Nancarrow, and fractals. As a result, Ligeti's music continued to grow during the 1990s—long after his public breakthrough, the appearance in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001 (without his knowledge or consent) of the gloriously buzzing and brooding orchestral morass that is Atmosphères. Ligeti also wrote 18 piano Études, the last three of which grace The Eleventh Finger (Koch), pianist Jenny Lin's terrific and formidable survey of recent piano music by Elliott Sharp, Stefano Gervasoni, and others. Composed in 1996–97 and 2001, the final Études are by turns glassy, playful, and gnomic; the last one forebodingly mimics a slowly expiring clock.
The Koussevitsky quote, along with Deng Xiaoping's "If you open the window, some flies are bound to get in," ironically captions an absorbing new memoir by Seattle guitarist Dennis Rea, Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan (iUniverse). Rea, whose roots in various Seattle rock, out-jazz, and avant groups date back to the 1980s (he played the howling guitar parts in the local indie film Shredder Orpheus), performed in dank dive bars to a few dozen bewildered Chinese as well as in massive sports arenas and on China Central TV before millions of viewers. The touring musician's struggle multiplied tenfold in the China of the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially playing music that some officials considered dangerous and subversive. Rea vividly tells of crooked record producers, baffled yet paranoid government bureaucrats, and incompetent promoters. One of the few Western eyewitnesses to the bloody Chengdu protest that erupted in tandem with Tiananmen Square, Rea's harrowing descriptions of the ensuing carnage are moving and superb.
Fans of the avant should check out cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm's trio (Thurs July 6, Gallery 1412, 8 pm) with percussionist Michael Zerang and German bassist Torsten Müller. This Chicago-based improviser and composer—Lonberg-Holm was one of Morton Feldman's last students—has collaborated with a willfully eclectic roster of musicians, including Anthony Braxton, God Is My Co-Pilot, Hamid Drake, and Jim O'Rourke. On Lonberg-Holm's new disc, Bridges Freeze Before Roads (Longbox Recordings) his bent, plucked cello strings mew and sigh. Darting through and around other instruments, Lonberg-Holm is at once a masterly soloist and accompanist.