Musicworks Magazine, Toronto, issue 60, with additional CD | Petr Dorůžka | interview | October 1994 | English “In the summer of 1983 Tibor Szemző called me on the phone. I was in Vermont, hiding from the unbearable hotness of New York. Tibor told me he would like to make a new orchestration of my Octet for his ensemble. I thought, ‘Well, his country is poor and six or seven thousand miles away, so I will never hear the mishmash…’ I gave him the score. A year later I was in Vermont again. When lwentto pick up my mail, Ifound a pack of tapes. ‘Look,’ I said to my wife, ‘here is a cassette with Octet from that crazy guy from Hungary. Let’s hear it.’ We listened to the tape and I burst into tears. It was excellent: so well played; the new instrumentation was brilliant and perfectly performed by all the members of the band. It was a great present to me. Immediately, I wrote a letter to Tibor: Tibor, I have to tell you, your band plays my pieces as well as my ensemble, and sometimes even better.” With these courteous words, Steve Reich opened a public discussion he held in Budapest on March 24 in 1985. He had been invited by the Hungarotron record company to supervise Szemző’s Group 180 while they recorded Reich’s Octet. At that time, the ensemble was just passing its zenith. It began in 1979 as an enthusiastic collaboration of young players. During the ’80s “180” gradually dissolved, mainly because the performers’ varied backgrounds made it too difficult to maintain fulltime professional performing status. During this period, the individuals of “180” not only performed, they also represented a strong voice of new cultural consciousness, reaching wide audiences in a society suffering from decades of communist domination. When Steve Reich talked, 1500 people were packed into the Budapest University club. Tibor recalls the first time he approached Reich, “Because he was very busy, we met at the gas station, in the rain. Later, when he listened to my tape, I don’t know if he was literally crying, but there is no doubt that he changed his attitude after hearing it. He gave us permission to play his pieces for free, no rental for scores, and he was quite serious that in some aspects we were performing his pieces better than his own ensemble. Maybe in some ways this was true – because we loved the music. This kept us very much together and warmed us up. But the initial meeting in the rain is my strongest memory.” Tibor began his career as a flautist playing with his trio. During the “180” era he was also doing performances of his own or in collaboration with Hungarian visual and performance artists; in this field he was one of the most successful and most creative artists in the former Eastern Bloc. This was not only due to his talent, but was also caused by the climate in Hungarian society, which at that time was much more liberal and open than other Communist territories. Szemző’s European identity is maybe different from that of other European composers. He took every opportunity to draw inspiration from the New World –minimal music and conceptual and performance art being the most obvious sources – yet, unlike other Europeans, he was never tempted to become an American composer. He was lucky enough to find sufficient artistic freedom in his home country, so he didn’t have to escape from ‘bad habits masquerading as tradition as did Edgard Varèse. Political repression and isolation were far less apparent in Hungary than in neighbouring countries such as Czechoslovakia, where practically the whole generation of artists was driven underground or into exile, as was Petr Kotik. Today, things look quite different, and when we were finishing this interview, Tibor told me: “Now I feel very strange in my own country – like it is not my country anymore. Sometimes I feel like an immigrant in my own country, as if I am a stranger in my home. It wouldn’t be very different to be an immigrant anywhere else.” Is this nostalgia for the days of divided Europe, for the times when artists were struggling in their simple and explicit ways with repressive authority, and didn’t have to deal with the tricky pitfalls of free choice and commercialism? I could trace this kind of “missing enemy syndrome” behind Tibor’s words very often: “One of my favourite countries is Cuba, although I haven’t been there since 1990. This choice doesn’t have any political meaning. I like countries where people live on the level of their needs. In Hungary, we’ve grown up in hope, and now we’ve lost it. In the past, you realized that everything is wrong because of the Communism. That was a very easy approach. We trusted in a better future – if one day Communism would be over. And that moment came. But the current relations between people, the behaviour of people, the so-called ‘progress to nothing’ is depressing.” The logical conclusion may be that Communism brings out the worst in some people, and the best in others. Some became secret-police informers, while others evolved into heroes, anti-establishment rebels, or sophisticated devotees of avantgarde art. Westerners usually found it very surprising to see that teenagers from the deepest corners of the Eastern Bloc were well informed about American underground, non-hit-parade rock, or avant-garde music. Tibor explains: “Through Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and Voice of America, we heard rock music very early, and we found out that this was something completely against the official ideology.” Contrary to the American image of these propaganda stations, Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America appeared here to be positive and honest cultural services. For countries captured by the loathsome ideology of Communism, Stalin’s Gulags, and party discipline, everything coming from America was seen as a message of democracy and liberty. The whole spectrum of Western cultural phenomena – American film, jazz, literature and lifestyle – was seen as a homogenous message of human civilization. There was no contradiction evident between the extremes – the humility of John Coltrane on the one hand and the vulgarity of Coca-Cola on the other. Both were forbidden fruit – and the US-financed radio stations were their rare outlets. Recently, this difference between the favourable (local) and the hypercritical (US) image of Voice of America became quite apparent: when the VOA Prague office started an English-language service for the English-speaking community in Prague, they carefully selected a new name, Radio Metropolis, so the English-speaking listeners wouldn’t be offended by the VOA trademark. Meanwhile, for the Czechs, VOA is still very friendly, and evokes nostalgia for divided Europe. In 1991, when Tibor came to Prague with the master tape for his CD, actually his first CD, which was later manufactured in the Czech pressing plant, the first session of this interview took place. The latest discussions took place in spring, 1994, when he came to Prague to perform his Wittgenstein Fragments and conduct his Skullbase Fracture. I. The early years Petr Dorůžka: How did you start to learn music? Tibor Szemző: My parents put me in the Kodály method school, which is very famous in Hungary. I have been learning and practising music since I was six [in 1960-61]. PD: Was that an elementary school? TSz: Yes, but at the same time a musical school. Every day we had singing, later music history, theory, and instrument practice. Everybody had to learn an instrument, so I played the violin, which I hated. Of course, at a certain age I turned to rock music. PD: To the Beatles? TSz: viagrasildenafil-online.com At the beginning, yes. And then I listened to The Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, and the blues. My mother bought me a guitar when I was ten or eleven and I started to play all those things on guitar. I also started to listen to jazz – real jazz, like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane – but that was a little later. PD: All the children at school were talented? TSz: There was an entering examination where you had to sing. Also, in each class they took at least one absolutely untalented student. PD: Was that done on purpose? TSz: Yes, just to see how, and to what limits, an untalented child could be educated in music. This is very interesting because we had two children in our class who really couldn’t sing “in tune”. Maybe they were accepted because their parents were communist officials. The education was based on relative solfege, that is, do-re-mi. Sometimes Kodály came, and often famous musicians – Pablo Casals or Yehudi Menu hin – came when they were in Hungary. PD: Why do the children at this age hate violin? TSz: It is very difficult to produce a proper sound on a violin. Even to play one single pitch you have to go through years of studying, unless you are Yehudi Menuhin or a gypsy prima. Later, when I got to know different styles in music, it turned out that style is not the most important thing to me in music. I see only easy and hard music. When I turned to jazz and improvised music I started to play flute and I realized I had to study. PD: What kind of improvised music did you play? TSz: After I listened to Mingus and Coltrane, I said, “Let’s have a small ensemble.” I put together my own trio – flute, viola, double bass, later a quartet with oboe – and we played improvised music. We also played some Bartok, Purcell fantasies, the Bach chorales. I felt my instrumental skills were my limitation, so I studied at the Conservatory and the Academy of music. My father was very old and I had to learn some skills so I could take a job. After elementary school they put me into a technical school to be a mechanic. I had been interested in machines since I was a child. I took everything apart. And that was very useful, because immediately I found out what I will never do in my life. I left it after two years. I was very lucky to learn that when I was fifteen years old. PD: What did you do to make money? TSz: From the beginning I played music. I never worked in an ordinary job, except when I taught part time in my twenties. II. Music and the Iron Curtain TSz: During my studies at the Academy, I started Group 180. We were deeply influenced by so-called minimal music and for five or six years I was devoted to it. PD: How can you be influenced by something that is happening in the other hemisphere when your country is culturally isolated by the Iron Curtain? TSz: Only the information not coming through official channels was important to us. All the sensitive people tried to look behind things and get information that was very hard to get. At that time Frederic Rzewski came to Hungary. His visit was very important. As a world-famous contemporary composer and musician coming to Budapest, he also assigned more legitimacy to what we were doing. In the field of so-called serious music, we were very lucky. In Hungary, we didn’t have Penderecki and Lutoslawski. Our official cultural policy, when I was young, was based on Kodály and Bartók. There was no living new-music tradition, only limited information from outside a kind of vacuum. In this situation, The New Music Studio was started in the early 1970s. It brought together some very talented young composers. They reflected the Darmstadt movement, and even more, these people won scholarships to Paris, to Darmstadt and elsewhere. Also, there was no break, as in Czechoslovakia after 1968, when the Russian tanks came. The period of opening, from the early ’60s until today, has a continuity in Hungary. I can’t say everything was very easy because the secret police sometimes came to our concerts, but the music was relatively free. And the music we played was something completely against the official ideology. At the same time some of the pieces showed a very strong political consciousness. So when we played Frederic Rzewskis Coming Together in the late ’70s, we had a crowd of hundreds and hundreds. You remember the Planum Festival in Budapest in 1984? That was the high point of Group „180”. PD: I remember you made a sound installation for a performance in a swimming pool. At that time this kind of culture was forbidden fruit for the people in the Eastern bloc. TSz: Performance art was another important influence on me. Continually during these years I have done sound installations or I have co-operated with performance artists. In the swimming pool, my friend János Szirtes did a performance. Two performers were singing into plastic tubes under the water. The tubes extended to me like octopus legs. I picked up the sounds and produced music from the sounds they made. I myself swam as an introduction. It was very risky, as every real performance is risky. It does not reproduce something. It is a very direct thing. It happens or doesn’t happen. It is successful or not, and the success is different from a concert success. On the other hand, some people know the answer before the question is formulated, and this is something I am against. PD: How were you satisfied on the creative level with this evening? TSz: Musically it wasn’t serious. After a very orthodox minimalist past it helped me doing performance pieces, but it was not successful because on the musical level it didn’t lead anywhere. But I see those things from a little more distance now. A few years ago I moved to the countryside, to a small village, and I stopped doing these things. I re-orchestrated my chamber compositions. One of my latest pieces, Wittgenstein Fragments, originally came out as a lullaby for my son. It was not composed, it just happened. PD: In the Planum days in the mid-’80s, did you have access to some of the money the socialist government spent on the arts? Wasn’t this also part of your success? TSz: Never. We were advancing like partisans all the time, except that we got some equipment from Soros at the end. PD: In Prague, we called this a “gray zone”. Certain things were not permitted, nor were they forbidden. You could get away with one thing and then get harassed because of something else, which seemed far less daring, On rare occasions you could also obtain benefits which would be impossible today. There was a rumour that Frederic Rzewski’s plane ticket to Budapest was paid by the Communist party committee. TSz: Actually, that was the Communist Youth organisation. Before the Planum Festival, Peter Forgács, who was making preparations with me, went to this committee, without being a member of the organisation, because the cultural policy in Hungary was to buy the opposition with support, not by pressing. He went there and he said, “Let’s do this festival,” and they said, “Okay.” And they lent us the whole building, and the swimming pool where the performance took place. There was no fee, only some pocket money, as I remember, but they paid Frederic’s ticket indeed. It wasn’t a kind of festival that is planned a whole year in advance. III. The Private Hungary Tibor’s first CD Ain’t Nothing But A Little Bit of Music for Moving Pictures had its origins back in the early ’80s, when his friend Péter Forgács started collecting black-and-white private home movies. PD: If the movies were private, I suppose the people were not willing to give them away. TSz: Péter collected them through advertisements and other ways, finding families. This was the hobby of relatively rich people. The era of people filming their families started in the 1920s. During the next fifty years, the whole world changed. If somebody simply filmed his child, from birth, you would see the whole of European history unfold behind it – especially the typical middle-European history. That’s why Péter titled these films Private Hungary. From the beginning we were emotionally related to the films. Some of them – for example, the one with the blind man – are very strange stories. I don’t know how he lost his sight. In the films, he behaved like a person who can see; he was dancing. Now I feel these people are almost my family. These films don’t have anything to do with movies. It was never meant for public performance. We’ve done a European tour with Péter, doing performances together. We used parts of the films, and later on when he collected some hundreds of hours of film he got the idea to make stories from the material of one filmmaker. PD: Does that mean, you used the material in the original sense, or did you shift it to another level? TSz: He used it in a very respectful way, but not in viagra over the counter the strict documentary sense. He edited it very sensitively, he slowed down some things, made some pictures bigger, he zoomed in on some details, but sometimes he even kept the faults of the amateur filmmakers or the defects of the time-worn film material. All were originally silent movies, without sound. Peter came to me around ’86-87 and said, “Look, here’s the material: father and three sons.” I tried to make some music. I watched the films for hours and hours, and then I said. “Okay,” and went to the recording studio and did the music without watching the films. Of course, some of these early recordings were useless for the films. The music in this case is not film music: the music is just a way of handling time the time of the viewer. Without the music you cannot watch the films for more than fifteen minutes. Also, I was hesitating whether to release the recordings or not. I call them soundscapes. They are not compositions in the sense that my chamber pieces are; almost nothing happens. That’s why I used the title Ain’t Nothing But A Little Bit of Music for Moving Pictures. PD: If I understand correctly, the film follows a certain development, while the music is static. TSz: Yes, and after I finished the music, Péter adjusted the duration of the film. Some of the recordings were made with acoustic instruments, some of them were made by my Phantom Band. The
Phantom Band [Tibor’s studio devices and prerecorded sound sources – P. D.] is more flexible. The Phantoms cialis not working first time are more disciplined characters than people. There are more than fifty pieces. This CD is a selection from approximately seven hours of music. PD: Adding music to silent movies was an idea other people played with also. Did you hear their work? TSz: No, not at all. I didn’t know anybody doing music for the silent movies. My music was also very much connected with the instrument I created from a film camera, the 8mm-phone. PD: What changes did you make to the camera? TSz: Just some pick-ups, very simple changes. Speed changes. The pick-ups reproduce the noise of the mechanism, which can be modulated, reverbed, delayed, and from the camera noise music can be composed. Another important thing: there really is no borderline between the film and the music. lf you sit down and watch it sometimes you do not even follow the story, you just experience different things moving on the screen. These private filmmakers, they were crazy guys. I already mentioned one example – a man filming in a technically perfect manner his blind friend with wonderful wife and two children, and his own daughter. He filmed them very intensively between ’52 and ’55. And later, in the ’60s, when his fat daughter was dancing in the bar, he went down to the bar and filmed her. That’s all he filmed – the wife of his blind friend and his own daughter. Nothing else. Either-or. This was finally the title of the film. There is always a story behind it. We became emotionally involved because Péter did interviews with otc viagra the filmmakers and we learned many details about their lives. It could be your own personal story. PD: You mentioned the typical middle European history that can be seen behind the films. Can you be more specific? TSz: The filmmakers just film their families. Behind, you always see war, communism, very strange things that are happening daily. People smiling into the camera when they were being deported to concentration camps. In the 60s, you see the ‘twist’ and ‘rock-n-roll’ dancing, also gypsies, aristocrats. The whole central European history in the background. And then you understand the very deep determination of those people. Maybe you yourself would feel the same way if you saw a film taking place in front of a building in Prague, and it reminded you of yourself and your past. Some of the pictures are so absurd that no director in the whole world could direct them, because these films are directed by life itself. Sometimes the shooting period is fifty years. When you do private movies, you film your relatives, and not the history. The story is always indirect – not like in the usual movie. It reaches the audience in a rambling, indirect way, like in poetry. The mid-European subject, in the past decades somewhat hidden from the rest of the world, was recently explained by Árpád Göncz, the president of Hungary, in the first monthly issue of the Mid-European Journal, published in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava: I feel my home is in the mid-European area… Here I can understand everything, with the exception of the languages. But that does not mean I could define this mid-European distinction. I can only instinctively identify it. Maybe its roots dwell in our transitional condition, in the fact that everything here is the same as in the West, only less developed, on a smaller scale. I know that we often feel like savages at a garden party. Here West meets East, and they haven’t yet had time yet to neutralize each other. Here every country looks both East and West at the same time … and only here we know what the dying of a nation means… For about a thousand years we have had Europe as our home – but only partially.’ Petr Doruzka writes about current developments in music from his home in Prague. His article on lva Bittova appeared in Musicworks 56; his article on Petr Kotik appeared in Musicworks 50. RÉSUMÉ FRANÇAIS Tibor Szemző, né en 1955 a Budapest, s’est développé musicalement dans une culture sous influence du régime communiste en Hongrie, du mouvement anticommuniste clandestin et de la musique des compositeurs et artistes américains à travers plusieurs styles et buy viagra online traditions. II a participé à l’improvisation, à l’art minimale, à l’interpretation artistique et aussi à la musique de films. II a eu Ia chance d’avoir suffisamment de Iiberté artistique dans son propre pays. La repression politique et I’isolement étaient bien moms evident en Hongrie qu’aux pays voisins comme Ia Tchecoslovaquie où presque toute une génération d’artistes se trouve chassée à Ia clandestinité ou à I’exil. SONOGRAPHY Water-Wonder No 1 1983. (Group “180”) Hungarotron LP Water-Wonder No 2 1985. Leo Records LP Snapshot from the Island 1987. Leo Records LP Private Exits 1989. HPS Records LP Meteo (soundtrack) 1990. Hunnia Film, LP Ain’t Nothing But a Litle Bit of Music For Moving Pictures 1992. TomK Records/BBS Foundation. CD The Conscience: Narrative Chamber Pieces 1993 Leo Records/BBS Foundation CD LR 195 The Last Hungarian PVC 1994. Flutterbasis Commentaries: Tibor Szemző’s commentary on his Narrative chamber pieces These are very important for me. In “The Skullbase Fracture” you see a small chamber ensemble with reeds, string quartet, two pianos, horn, and electric bass playing a very strictly notated score. No incidental pitches or time values, an absolutely structured composition written according to a system of rules. A very conceptual piece. And very gradually this secco, absolutely controlled music metamorphoses into its opposite: a restaurant music, sweet melody played by a gypsy quintet. The gypsy quintet slowly fades in, while the chamber ensemble fades out. To make this process very slow for the listener, I had to add visual and verbal elements which keep the audience busy while the change is happening. For this, I used a very absurd text, a conversation between a person talking from the TV set on prerecorded video and the same person in reality. I tried to put together experiences from very different fields, while the piece itself was indifferent. It wasn’t a pleasure to listen to it. It was very strange to be present at the performance. Then I worked on recording this piece, and two others, “The Sex Appeal of Death,” and “Optimistic Lecture,” all three of which are now released on the CD The Conscience. Tibor Szemző’s commentary on his composition Water Wonder This was a new experience with space, in the early ’80s, close to the soundscape situation. When I used tape delay for the first time, a long time ago, I realized that I could devise a specific canon to work in space, where the first part and the repetition came from opposite sides. The result has a vibrating effect. It makes a very special vibration in the space that I have never heard before. Water Wonder is a canon for flute and two Revox tape recorders using one reel to reel tape. It was my first work in this direction. Later I completed a short instrumental piece for twenty-one instruments called Train Trip. This is another example of a space canon. I tried to create a similar effect without any delay, and it worked. Tibor Szemzö’s commentary on Ain’t Nothing But A Little Bit of Music For Moving Pictures For the first section of three pieces I just
put musicians together, recorded something with them on an 8-channel multi-track recorder and sometimes I didn’t play them all the tracks already recorded, I just instructed them, and I gave them the tonality and the tempo and I told them what to play. Sometimes you hear musicians together that do not hear each other. They have been in the studio at separate times, having just the tempo and my instructions. The second section is my own improvised piece, where I tried the modified movie camera, the 8mm-phone. A small version of Snapshot from the Island, my solo electronic flute piece, was recorded in Graz, Austria. The third section was composed and precisely notated before the musicians came. The fourth was composed for my Phantom Band and also some soloists from the old Klezmer bands, without, again, knowing each other. The next section is done with sound devices, multitracked.