Celebratio Mathematica

Thomas Milton Liggett

Thomas Liggett, baritone

by Robert F. Brown

In 1965, stat­ist­i­cian Thomas Fer­guson foun­ded “the mad­rig­al group” made up of sev­er­al of his UCLA Math­em­at­ics De­part­ment col­leagues, some of their spouses and a few non-math­em­at­ic­al friends, about a dozen people in all. The pur­pose of the group was to ex­plore by singing the huge lit­er­at­ure of un­ac­com­pan­ied part songs, sec­u­lar mad­rig­als and their ec­cle­si­ast­ic­al cous­ins the motets, writ­ten dur­ing the six­teenth and sev­en­teenth cen­tur­ies by that age’s most tal­en­ted com­posers. With gradu­al changes of per­son­nel, but with the same makeup, the group con­tin­ued its meet­ings, twice monthly dur­ing the aca­dem­ic year, un­til it was ended by the coronavir­us pan­dem­ic in 2020.

The group did not per­form, it ex­is­ted only for the en­ter­tain­ment of its mem­bers. The singing of mad­rig­als and motets does not re­quire a beau­ti­ful voice nor ex­tens­ive train­ing be­cause the people for whom they were writ­ten had neither. But it is not easy: the lead­er sounds the key note on a pitch pipe and the sing­ers must nav­ig­ate the of­ten in­tric­ate coun­ter­point with no sup­port ex­cept the com­pany of the mem­bers of their sec­tion: usu­ally sop­rano, alto, ten­or or bass.

Tom and his sop­rano wife Chris joined the mad­rig­al group in 1982. The tra­di­tion of the group had been for mem­bers to take turns host­ing the meet­ings, but while the Lig­gett chil­dren were young, it met at the Lig­getts’, so they would not need babysit­ting, while the mem­bers of the group took turns bring­ing the all-im­port­ant snacks for the tra­di­tion­al meet­ing break. In re­cent years, the Lig­getts hos­ted the group’s Christ­mas party, a potluck din­ner to ac­com­pany the singing of tra­di­tion­al car­ols, in four-part har­mony of course, and oth­er Christ­mas mu­sic.

Tom sang with the ac­cur­acy and at­ten­tion to de­tail that people who knew Tom would ex­pect from him. His pleas­ant bari­tone voice, in the middle of the male vo­cal range, blen­ded seam­lessly with those of the oth­er two or three men that con­sti­tuted the group’s “bass sec­tion”. Dur­ing a peri­od in which the group found that the Span­ish vo­cal tra­di­tion, though lim­ited, was well suited to its present makeup, Tom, who was bi­lin­gual, helped us pro­nounce the texts cor­rectly.

The math­em­at­ic­al world will surely miss Tom greatly, and so also will the tiny corner of the mu­sic­al world oc­cu­pied by “the mad­rig­al group”.

Robert F. Brown is an al­geb­ra­ic to­po­lo­gist (re­tired) at the UCLA De­part­ment of Math­em­at­ics and a ten­or in the mad­rig­al group.