Cinema’s Alchemist | Tamás Korányi | essay | 2002 | English Pars pro toto… Some Thoughts Inspired by the Film Music of Tibor Szemző Tibor Szemzős music defies classification. We might say that, from a foundation in classical and early music, he has reached the music of minimalism; pop music has had a defining effect on him, while his improvisational ability owes much to the influence of jazz. At the same time his music is performance, or simply modern opera. Finally, Szemző steps onto another imposing stage by composing music to accompany films. And yet there is little point to this list, for it fails to exhaust Szemzős horizons; furthermore, his music never turns into workmanlike commissioned product its sound is always unique, always complementing other art forms. So what compositional effects are there to be found in Szemzős work? If we look for his inspiration amongst minimalist (or repetitive) music, we immediately happen upon Steve Reich and a world which openly originated from Perotinus. Szemző also reminds us of the approach taken by the early creations of Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach, the joint stage production with Robert Wilson, and the music for his films with Godfrey Reggio: Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Anima Mundi) or the early work of John Adams (Harmonium, Harmonielehre). If we find a likeness here, but might even look as far afield as Romanian-born Adriana Hölszky in Germany, whose latest operas have no human performers the music accompanies nothing more than objects on stage. And, first and foremost, John Cage… The influence of his approach, the combination of accident and strict design (in Cages series Imaginary Landscape, for example!), can be felt throughout Szemzős work. Cages imprint can also be seen in Szemzős fascination with philosophy and ideas (whether we think of the performance inspired by the texts of philosopher Béla Hamvas, or, above all, the Tractatus, based on the famous work by Wittgenstein [the latter being one of his joint projects with Péter Forgács]). I also see some resemblance to one or two of Harry Partschs writings (e.g. Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California), and the world of Conlon Nancarrow. This is not to say that Partsch had a direct effect on Szemző; it is not even sure he is aware of his music. It is more that, for me, his attitude to things brings Partsch to mind. For Szemző the potential for music lies everywhere. Partsch makes music out of graffiti, while Szemző, to accompany the Forgács film Örvény (Free Fall), gives sound to the text of Hungarys pre-World War II Jewish Laws in such a way that their effect and ambience are those of a liturgy. For something unique is created in this film. This is how the sequence of a familys home films that we see on the screen is given a historical background, with Forgács hardly having to use any documents to add commentary to the images. Amateur film-maker György Pető was a talented violinist, and when, after the Second World War, the situation in Hungary robbed him of his opportunities in banking, he began to earn his living by playing the violin. Is it possible to display a musical talent on frames of film in the same way, for example, that the musicality of Thomas Bernards text is without dispute? Szemzős music of chanted words fuses with the idyllic pictures to provide the films astonishing power, which lies in the contrast between the images and the words and music. This is one of the reasons why, if we insist of classifying it, we can say that this film has an opera-like effect. This is further demonstrated by the fact that so-called classical film music cannot survive if devoid of the film it accompanies (this is even true of such cinema composers as Nino Rota and Miklós Rózsa, or to take a more modern example, Michael Nyman). In Szemzős case the opposite is true – so much so, there have been examples of the process taking place in reverse, of a film being made to fit his music. According to Cage, the validity of any question about music is open to debate. Which is the more musical: the noise of a truck passing a factory, or that of a truck passing a conservatoire? For Cage, music has no meaning. But if he can ask the question, Which is more musical?, then we must also give an answer to the question of what its intentions are… This issue, however, is not a musical one, as it can equally be raised with regards to oeuvres such as that of Samuel Beckett
or Thomas Bernhard (though the musicality of these writers is hardly in doubt), and is a matter more for philosophy. The influence of the miniatures of Morton Feldman can also be felt here (I have in mind Feldmans attraction to Beckett; among others, his opera Neither), as can be that of the New York School: in addition to those already mentioned, this primarily refers to French-born Christian Wolff, who, especially in his early compositions, was a master of music produced from a minimal range of sounds, and later went on to become a composer of Cages calibre. Another key source for Szemző is pop music, of which he is an active artist and composer. The cooperation between Péter Forgács and Tibor Szemző did not begin with the films they made together: they became acquainted through stage and concert productions. We can date this back to the eighties, the time of Snapshot from the Island. This 1987 record also includes another of Szemzős compositions, Vizi-csoda (Water-Wonder), which Forgács had previously used in a 1984-84 video work, Aranykor (The Golden Age). (This was, in fact, the first occasion that he was to employ Szemzős music.) They later met as part of the 180-as Csoport (Group 180), of which Szemző was a founding member. It was here that Forgács participated in the performance of Frederic Rzewskis composition Coming Together and Attica (as narrator). This two-part Rzewski piece for narrator and band is one of the early classics in the history of minimalist music (1972), and the fact that Group 180 played this in Hungary as early as 1983 was also crucial for Szemzős career. For his aforementioned work Vizi-csoda can be found on the same record, as well as Steve Reichs 1973 composition Music for Pieces of Wood. It was this that formed the basis for a collaboration that would later come to full fruition in Forgács films.
The first film for which Szemző composed music was not, however, one made by Forgács. In 1981 he prepared what he called a structuralist plan for the film Vonatút (Train Journey) by Miklós Erdély (1928-1986). Szemző says in an interview: Tradition film music is illustrative; it is manipulative in a premeditated way. In this sense, I am not a film composer, for I have no such skill. Neither can I compose in any particular prescribed style. I have no affinity for that, and, thank God, neither have I ever been obliged to do it. Szemző has himself shot films The Other Shore, Cuba, etc. Accompanied, naturally, by his own music. Given that such a significant part of his work has been associated with film, what is it that inspires him to write film music? This question is made all the more interesting by the fact that Szemző does not let himself be influenced by films. The Tractatus, for example (the music for which also enjoyed independent success), came into being purely by chance. When he was making a film about Wittgenstein, Péter Forgács asked Szemző to compose some music. The starting point was provided by the minimalist lullaby that Szemző happened to sing to his son at the time. This revived moment of repetitive music was well suited to quotations from Wittgenstein and to the visual world of the film. Konrad Heidkamp is quite right is likening this work to Laurie Andersons O Superman or the British Gavin Byars composition about lost property, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. For Szemző, this rich tapestry is built around a minimalist core. From certain points of view, the same is true of Forgács 2001 film A Bibó Reader, which uses the writings of the eminent Hungarian thinker and social and political scientist István Bibó, and its music. What is certain is that there is one personality at the heart of both films. Further, unlike most episodes of the Private Hungary series, these two films are not mute. For while the text of the Tractatus does not emanate from the screen, it can still be likened to the Bibó film, in which Bibós words primarily relate to the pictures rather than to the music. The story behind Örvény was quite different. Here it is far less significant which pictures accompany the text of the Jewish Laws: it is the dramatic contrast between the laws set to music and the idyllic footage which shocks the viewer. This effect works on different levels. For every detail of the family pictures involves history, but only in an indirect fashion; in retrospect, we know the fate of those portrayed, but when the film was shot they had no idea of their impending doom. And this was true even after the Jewish Laws were introduced. However, when Szemző places these laws in a musical framework, a real musical setting, their fate becomes synchronous with the original images. A simple test can prove this to be true. It is worth watching the film mute: in this way, its concerns are quite different. And if it is the images we discard, and only hear the music, the shocking contrast between the holy-sounding music and the brutally matter-of-fact legal words remains.
There are three ways in which Szemzős so-called film music appears before the public. Either as stand-alone music, with no visual accompaniment, or as accompanied by a film, when we only see the images, or at cinematographic concerts, when a live performance is accompanied by a film projected in the background. My emphasis is on the relationship between the picture and the accompaniment, for the three different modes of performance although the essence of the music is identical in each convey three very different meanings. Exciting variations in the apperception of the music can be effected by the words being linguistically comprehensible or incomprehensible to the audience. This is further proof that Szemzős works of film music, while an integral element of the film, are nevertheless capable of a life of their own they cannot, that is, be classed together with film music in the traditional sense. It is said that good film music is that which is present, but not noticed by the viewer. Well, in this sense Szemzős film compositions are not good, as they are decisively, noticeably present in every moment of the film, and though they are primarily minimalist or monotone in style, they refuse to leave viewers in peace, forcing them continuously to adapt the impression generated by the usually silent excerpts of film footage in accordance with the music. It is also true, of course, that Szemzős film works with few exceptions accompany less than conventional films. Péter Forgácss creations themselves make a departure from traditional films, and the episodes of the Private Hungary series all of which enjoyed Szemzős participation have developed a genre all of their own. These are silent films, with hardly any words. And when there are words, it is Szemzős music that brings them to the film. The cinematographic concert that put the writings of philosopher Béla Hamvas to music also accompanies the images of a Forgács film. You have to hear the music in these words. It was the lyrical nature of the words that grabbed me, the composer says. He has also said, I hear spoken language very much as I do a musical part, with its unquestioned and purposeful rhythm and tune. And that is not to mention the texts meaning. I find the musicality of spoken words very exciting, especially when it is not an actor that delivers them, but someone who doesnt reproduce, someone who only represents him- or herself and in whose voice an authentic life can be heard. This admission is an almost direct reminder of the conception behind one of the works of Steve Reich. In Different Trains or the video opera The Cave, Reichs composition is based on the rhythm of previously recorded narratives discovered artefacts, if you like. It is particularly in the latter that the technique becomes plastic, for it is here that Reich employs noise, putting to music in the traditional sense, and the rhythm as dictated by the text in question. We ought here to mention one of Szemzős important verbal compositions, A halál szexepilje (Deaths Sex Appeal), inspired by the writings of Tibor Hajas, in which we learn how to get from silence to an unbearably loud noise in the least perceptible and most surreptitious way. But there are other things at work here. At the beginning of the piece it is mostly the unusual style and childlike delivery of the words that fascinates the listener. In the course of the ten or so minutes of the piece, however, the music, initially squeezed into the background, comes to take precedence over the words, and what seems like aggressive articulation almost disappears. This is all worth knowing when becoming acquainted with Szemzős film compositions, as he himself says: I have referred to film music as aural pictures, which judge some kind of sound appropriate and then within that sound remain totally static. They play a role in the construction of acoustic space. I would not call it adapted music, because nowhere has anyone given any kind of instructions. Motivations come and go; there is always an intellectual background of which I am not the originator. We can, of course, find a whole list of contradictions in all this. Text is vital to Szemző, but is it necessarily as text that he is so fond of it? Certainly not, he says. I did not use Wittgensteins text because I found it pleasant, but because the presence of the verbal factor gives a completely different structure to time. So it is here that we can grasp the difference to be felt in Szemzős music, depending on whether we look at its relationship to text or to image. Just as text can be perceived as a kind of music, it necessarily displays a greater dependency for Szemző than does the image. That is to say, he feels far more independent from images than he does from texts. And this makes much clearer the contrast I recognised in Örvény, in terms of images, words, and music. There is one last film-related phenomenon I would like to draw the readers attention to. It has become something of a trend to set originally silent films to music. Eminent composers are commissioned to write new scores for well-known silent films. An example of this from the 1990s is the music of Alfred Schnittke, composed for Vsevolod Pudovkins 1927 film The Last Days of Saint Petersburg. Like so many other similar productions, this prompted controversy. And as at first glance there would seem to be an analogy with the films of Forgács and Szemző, it must emphatically be stressed that this is an entirely different state of affairs. These silent films are feature films, mostly produced from a preconceived script, and performed by professional actors. Their silent nature was the product of technological circumstances neither are these films entirely silent, in any case, for their stories are told not just with the help of gestures, but also with specific dialogue inserted on the screen. The original musical accompaniment was usually in the form of an ad hoc live performance, which is of significance more for assessing the tastes and customs of the period than from any artistic perspective. Forgács films, on the other hand, are so-called discovered artefacts, which come to possess their stories as a result of his direction and creative editing. They did not originally have stories, let alone scripts. Their characters are usually family members, their stories normally those of family life or the local surroundings. Thus the first creative stage involves Forgács hanging the collected material on the right hook (cf. Marcel Duchamps work Fountain, for example, which is nothing less than a urinal from any mens toilet, in a different guise). The second, musical, stage is in stark contrast to that accustomed in silent films. For here the process is not just about providing an accompaniment, about ensuring that the sequence of images is no longer silent, but about a creative contribution and intervention which complements, even changes the meaning of the mere images, as well as comprising content of its own. This is what, in my opinion, differentiates it from established film scores, and what explains the so-called oratorical (live) performance of the music together with a projection of the film, indeed on occasion as a stand-alone musical event. Each different mode of performance involves different elements of meaning, different experiences in terms of content and emotional response. Can Szemzős music be termed nostalgic? Certainly not! It is comparable, rather, to some kind of dream, a dream that follows a sort of meditative process, whatever its subject might be, whether a peaceful memory, or something quite abhorrent…