Reduction | Novemver 1992

Kalligramm | A. S. Yussuph | essay | November 1992 | English I read somewhere that Thelonious Monk, the King of Jazz, always used to put a mirror on the underside of the piano lid while he was practising so that he could see the hammers at work while he played; he wanted to see as well as hear what he was doing. I never did make sure whether the legend were true, nor whether Monk, who was no monk, really did persist in such self-suggestive peeperism; at any rate, I can easily imagine Charlie Parker’s sweetheart become a celebrity, the fair Pannonica de Koenigwarth, cut adrift from her aristocratic milieu, on the point of departure after a tryst, stopping short upon being presented with the evergreen song “Pannonica”, named after her; and in the mirror on the propped-up lid was reflected the beautiful live statue arrested in mid-flight, on the verge of leaving and wanting to stay and the image of Monk with his hat on and a cigar dangling Bogart-like from the corner of his mouth, above and between the hammers beating for them, like a message from an ethereal dimension. My vision may be impressionistic trash patterned after the artistic melodramas of Hollywood, but somehow I am nevertheless inclined to think that this is what the culture and artistic culture of our century is all about. Or at least those trends which hold that the question of “how” is more important than “why”, and the followers of which – owing to childhood experiences and archetypal preferences – refuse to make their own either of the reflective spheres, set apart by the majority into high culture and the entertainment industry; who stumble about instead – in our opinion at least – on the boundary of these two provinces, convinced that they are giving us a share of their experiences; in such a way, moreover, that their freedom of expression is curtailed as little as possible by some kind of inner interpretative process. To put it more simply: these artists allow spontaneous analogies to infiltrate their means of expression instead of measuring the object of their revelations against analogies regarded with respect. They have recognized the effect of the presence of motion-picture culture, jazz, the mass media and the interactive arts: namely, that outside the business sphere, every intention to canonize, by endeavouring to guarantee certain standards in the name of aims, trends and genres made sublime by manipulation, has today become absurd, even ridiculous. Beneath the trite image the hammers of Monk’s piano pound into our ears that there does exist a dimension in which adventure is a more essential measure than success; where experience is more important than interpretation, where the immediacy of the experience is the source of its profundity, and where the unabridged revelation of the sources of experience bears testimony to self-knowledge and honesty instead of to concessions made to commercial demand. Where the composer is composer and performer in one. Where the composer creates and presents himself in such a way that the two processes become one: manifest themselves, exist within each other. Listening to Skullbase Fracture I had the feeling that Szemző was displaying on Monk’s mirror – like some sort of prelude – the figures that would later be heard, as if he were saying: if you don’t like the image, throw away the mirror. It is I that you see. This record is curiously constructed, whether you consider it in its unity or in the sequence of its pieces: it reflects an individual process of reasoning upon the ways of the world. It is a process of concentration, of clarification, of reduction. Skullbase Fracture is an elaboration and completion of a simple phrase that bridges the boundaries of several genres and musical modes that are seemingly contradictory with rococo-like delicacy and grace. In Optimistic Lecture, composed in memoriam and inspired by the statements of Miklós Erdély, the central figure of the performance is Marcell Lóránd, the great Jewish cantor; his singing is an inherent part of the context, a piece of musical ready-made which is heard before a musical background that differs fundamentally from his own but, given its historical connections, is also an imitation of a closed and – especially because of its “canned” quality – a canonized world. The third piece, The Sex Appeal of Death, despite the enchanting child-voice, is like a single -non-musical- chime, it’s duration appropriate to its significance, like the OM sound of the Brahmins, to the sound of which the god Brahma created our world, the rich vibrational domain of which contains all existing sounds. It is from the extrinsic forms, the abundance of extensity that we reach, by the end of the record, the unity concealed in the chime of the omnipotent SINGLE SOUND, the power of intensity: come to the purity, the universality of energies accumulated through the experience of retiring within ourselves, of introspection. This position is not accidental for several reasons. On the one hand, given his age and temperament, Szemző belongs to the generation(s) succeeding John Cage and perhaps even Charles Mingus and Gil Evans, which senses and feels that – by no fault of its own – it has missed the opportunity to create the GREAT COMPOSITION, for the simple reason that sound has come to play a more exciting role than structural skills in the culture of its age, even in cases where the former results from the latter. On the other hand, his musical and extra-musical past is interspersed with elements more complex, diverse and even extravagant than is customary in the case of artists consciously preparing for a musical career. It is no mere chance that one of the pieces on this record was written in memory of the greatest Hungarian concept artist (proficient in several genres), and the last in memory of a similarly important performance artist (who started out as a poet). And Skullbase Fracture, which gained its final form after eight years of peaceful repose, is at least as interesting from the point of view of contemporary performance-art as it is from the point of view of the art of music. For example, the moment during the live performance when half the musicians – the so-called classical musicians, as it happens – ranged in a half-circle of 180 degrees watch the gipsy band playing on the “other side”, silent and unmoving, bears a cathartic, dramaturgic significance in a technical sense, as well. And when the leader of the gipsy band plays the popular tune of “Boating on the Rippling Balaton” solo at the end of the piece, rendered with an emotion as strong as that radiated by the Hollywood-type vision of Monk conjured up at the beginning of my piece – that is, with similarly gushing self-revelation, and Viktor Kariph, the surgeon’s assistant become a librarian in America says THANK YOU from the monitor to him, to us, and now that the record is on sale, to everyone all over the world, then the listener may rightly feel that this is what we have come to today, this is our life. It seems that Szemző is fond of practical jokes. To justify this it is sufficient to recall the case of the blind man and the cheese factory, but any statement or definition of Viktor Kariph’s could be fitted into this logical sequence. And in consequence of the context for which Szemző accepts responsibility, the Hasidic theses of Miklós Erdély and Hajas’ words are delivered with a similary broad interpretability, though on a different level, for it is with similar fallibility that they are organically integrated into the legion of chaotic events. We certainly do hear curious parlandoes: the text is there, yet not there, like the present Mátyás, the greatest Hungarian king of the renaissance period, received from the clever girl of the story: she brought him a bird in a cage, and when the cage was opened, the bird flew away: she had been told to bring him a present without giving him a present. So it is with us. The words are spoken, but not in that isolated dimension we are accustomed to in the case of narrative musical compositions; the content is interpretable, but not in every case, and not always clearly, and sometimes we are made to hear such nonsense that it may rightly occur to the listener that it may not be worth his while to bother with interpretation; that he would do better to consider the texts as emotional, evocative elements supposed to lend colour to the whole. In Optimistic Lecture the text of the Yom Kippur song sung by the Lóránd Trio and the theses of Erdély cited by Szemző are superposed; in The Sex Appeal of Death everything is clear and comprehensible, except that we do not want to understand why a gentle and innocent girl-child’s voice should be speaking about death. The manner in which the text is used ensues from Szemző’s diverse interests. He uses the methods of experimentalist film-makers who have recognized that, owing to the one-way rationing of time, the spectator has become lazy in consequence of his position: has been assigned the part of the passive witness. Szemző has presumably recognized that the listener can just as easily take flight on the wings of ready-made dreams. Perhaps even more easily than a spectator for the effect of music is more absolute psychologically than that of moving pictures: it resolves our intellectual and sensual resistance alike. It would be boorish of me if I were now to speak of background narrative, but the reception of un-film-like films, in the complex world of this music, the listener must struggle to understand the message of the reduced, but still conceptual sphere. If he renounces to do this, the pleasantly instrumental sound offsets his loss, but in this case the text and the tangible presence of the deliverer will frustrate him; he will be made conscious of missing something. I close my eyes and imagine John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jasha Heifetz, Marcell Lóránd, Pablo Casals and Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix and Andre Segovia, Bob Marley, Maurice André and Sándor Lakatos, the famous gipsy band leader, playing in one common big band: they could not be playing anything but a Szemző piece. According to the one-time argumentation of a Hungarian avant-garde artist, the undulating rhythm of reggae was born because Jamaican youngsters could not get American rock&roll stations clearly on their radios. This explanation, whomever it may concern, could only have been arrived at in Hungary, or, at the most, in this section of Europe, where teenagers would climb up into attics every night to try and “pick up” Radio Luxembourg or the rock stations of Radio Free Europe or the BBC, where every pop and jazz musician imitated an idolized because self-picked model consciously and with total empathy; where everyone was always asking anyone returning from the “West” what they were supposed to be doing now, and where people, after drinking their first glass of Coca-Cola, were ashamed to admit for a long time afterwards that they did not really like the taste. Influences gained admittance here only through a series of contradictory linked transmissions, irregularly and generally behind time, and everyone mixed their own personal “mischung”. It is from these “mischungs” that Szemző develops his own poetical world of sound and image. He brings into it many things that he likes, is interested in, and was affected and influenced by at any time; in addition, attempts to induce his colleagues to yield up those suppressed and – irrespective of their suppressedness – un-elucidated personalities, and the forces shaping personal desires; or, to put it more simply, the inter-relationships that go to make up a style. And if someone in these parts is open and sensitive enough, then the thirteen martyrs of Arad and noodles with cottage cheese, the bass guitar and the cimbalom will all come together. A.S. Yussuph Budapest, November 1992