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Sunday, March 1, 2020

Providence: An Interview with Szilárd Mezei

Part 2 of 2
Szilárd Mezei ©Manja Holodkov
By Nick Metzger

The Vojvodinian multi-instrumentalist and composer Szilárd Mezei is one of the most original and interesting voices working in the fields of jazz and improvised music today. His multi-faceted work includes leading multiple groups, both inside of Serbia and internationally. A major cornerstone of his work is the blending of traditional Hungarian folk music with free jazz, as well as his endeavors in solo and ensemble free improvisation. He’s one of the busiest musicians in the field but made the time to answer some questions for the Collective over the course of the past year or so (for which we are especially grateful) which touch on his background, projects, influences, and listening habits.

NM: You’ve stated in the past that both of your grandfathers were musicians, your mother is a highly proficient and celebrated artist, as is your sister if I’ve done my research correctly. How did your upbringing aid or hinder your developing musical ambitions? Why did you choose music over the visual arts?

SM: My grandfather from my mother’s line was a trumpet player and leader of a local brass band in the village where my mother was born. I never met him, because he died 4 years before I was born. I know from the stories of my grandmother, that even though he was a farmer, physical worker, etc., the only thing for what he was interested in was music. When he was adult, he got lessons from a conductor, a learned, qualified musician of music theory, so after he composed for his brass band some pieces, polkas, etc. Unfortunately, all these scores were lost in a house-fire after his death, so I could not see them. My mother is a graphic and fine artist; usually – if I can, but almost everytime– I use the graphic works of her for the covers of my CDs. Her work is very important to me, her taste of esthetics in every field of life is always a starting point for me. I’m very bad in fine arts, drawing, etc., I draw only, sometimes, titles of my works, if I cannot find a good word or sentence for the titles of my composition, but these drawings are very simple. (By the way, the titles of my compositions are very important to me, I choose them very carefully.)

My sister is a theater director and actress. We work very often together, meaning I’m writing a music for her theater-shows, and also she sing in some of my vocal projects, she is very talented in music, also with very prolific hearing and voice.

I choose music very early, and honestly, I don’t remember why, I know only that music was always the center of my interest.

NM: Your main instrument is the viola, and you’ve studied the violin formally, when and why did you decide the take up the violin? What is it about the violin family of instruments that resonates with you?

SM: I learned to play violin in primary and secondary music school, and after, I studied composition at Music Academy in Belgrade with Professor Zoran Eric. I switched to viola in 1998 because I felt that violin is too much virtuoso and too much ”brilliant” instrument for me, and I felt that I can better play the music I imagine on viola, which is somehow a bit of a handicapped instrument because the small measure, but have some sound, which I like very much. I like the bowed instruments a lot, and I like a lot of old violas (gamba, etc.). I play occasionally, and almost only in solo (sometimes in duo) on double bass, and very rarely on Koboz (Kobza) and Oud, authentic Hungarian folk music.

NM: Your Túl a Tiszán Innen Ensemble is absolutely captivating; your utilization of the themes from archaic Hungarian folk music in the compositions transforms and elevates them into something else entirely. How do you manage to add so much depth whilst retaining the essence of the original songs? Are you planning more releases from this ensemble?

SM: Hungarian language and Hungarian archaic folk music are from the same root. For me the phenomenon, Hungarian folk music, is my native musical language, and when I’m playing or composing my music, the language is always present somewhere deeply in me, even if I’m not using concrete folk music (which I’m using very rare).

My project with Hungarian folk songs from my region started a long time ago. Ethnomusicologist, the late Anikó Bodor (1941-2010), was the most important music scientist in our region, and fortunately she was a friend of my mother, and a friend of my family, so we were connected not only by music, but personally also. She collected in 6 big books all the archaic Hungarian folk songs. My project is based on these books. In that project I establish an 11 piece ensemble “Túl a Tiszán Innen” (which is a game with words, means Beyond the Tisza river and from here of Tisza river, so from the both sides of the river), with Serbian, Hungarian and one Slovakian musicians from Vojvodina. Vojvodina is a multiethnic region in Serbia, an autonomic province, with a lot of nations. Vojvodina is from 3 part, Bánát, Bácska, Szerémség. Bánát and Bácska divided by the river Tisza. So, we live in this side and that side of Tisza river. There are a lot of songs which text beginning like “Túl a Tiszán”, which means “beyond the Tisza”, and there are some which text “Tiszán innen”, which means from this side of Tisza. So, the name is kind of playing with these words, expressions, and it also characterized our reality.

Almost all the members are from this region, but not everyone is Hungarian – anyway, there are a lot of mixed people, mixed nationality –most of them are Serbians (my longtime collaborators in my other projects), and also some Hungarians, Slovakians. And most of them are not familiar with that tradition.

As I told, that project is about my homage to that tradition, and of trying to put some positive things for that tradition in my way of work. But, of course, all my projects are of the same importance for me. Essentially, that project is very similar with my other projects, so I used almost the same attitude, the only thing is that I use these folk songs, which of course determined the result.

In the project all the songs are archaic Hungarian folk songs from my region, and they are part of huge tradition of archaic Hungarian folk music heritage, which was discovered by Lajtha, Bartók, Kodály. There are no known composers, these songs are from oral tradition, 99% from peasant population, from villages, etc. The songs I used are from my region, but of course in some variants some of them exist also in other regions. I grow up with these songs, with that tradition. That project using these songs is a long time composing project for me, the double CD “Citromfa” is the third release of that project (released at FMR), and also released the fourth double CD, called “Turizmus” (also on FMR). The fifth double CD of material is recorded and waiting for release, and we had this year a couple of very important and very successful concerts with that Ensemble with these material in Serbia and Hungary. I’m preparing to compose the next material, so that project is a long-time composing project, since there is a huge (6 book volume) edition of these songs edited by Anikó Bodor. So, it is a kind of gold mine, and very inspiring for me. I’m a contemporary composer and improviser, but also a big fan of Hungarian folk music, that project is some kind of homage from my side to this tradition. On other hand, there is a very important movement in Hungary and around Hungary where Hungarians live, which is focused on authentic performance of these songs in their original style. Also, there is an important thing, that I living in Serbia, as a part of the Hungarian minority here, probably you know, that after the Trianon contract in 1920, the 2/3 territory of Hungary was detached from Hungary (that you have 300,000 Hungarians in Serbia, 2,000,000 in Romania, 700,000 in Slovakia, etc.)

These archaic folk songs are usually from peasant life, very often about love, and some things connected with village life (very similar to blues, for example), and sometimes they are with humor. The original instrumentation of these songs is various, but first of all, these songs are sung a cappella. Besides that, there are some instrumentations, like a tambura groups, bagpipe, flutes (peasant flutes, like a recorder), hurdy-gurdy, bowed string group, as it is in Hungarian instrumental folk music tradition. But the base is the vocal; a cappela. My instrumentation is abstract, and the compositions on these folk themes are also abstract, so there is no traditional background or intent to be traditional and stylistically archaic. My intent is to make new music using these songs as some kind of homage to that great tradition, focusing on the region of mine.

NM: You’ve mentioned that you consider your septet (with some variations) to be the central medium of your work, what is it about this group that makes them your main vehicle?

SM: The Septet formed in 2005, This is the third in a series of chamber ensembles, and is preceded by my quintet and piano quintet. For long time, that formation is the most important formation in my music, since it is not a small formation (like my trio or quartet), and also not too big for managing it, but I can explore my music through that formation. Also, the members of the formation are the closest and longest collaborators of mine.

The septet's repertoire consists more than 30 compositions, written specifically for this arrangement. There is an evident tendency in the focus of the musical content towards researching complicated musical solutions in terms of chord and counterpoint structures, as well as multilayered sonic scores on the musical plane. I’m dedicated to exploring the possibilities of orchestration which, in relation to the composition of the instruments in the ensemble, offers great versatility of choice. The Septet's program ranges from completely free improvisation to organized improvisation and strict, written composition. And in terms of genre, it ranges from Hungarian folklore-based compositions to contemporary music and jazz. Septet is also a kind of link to larger arrangements and chamber ensembles.

NM: The bedrock of many of your ensembles is your trio with bassist Ervin Malina and percussionist Istvan Csik; how did you meet these musicians and what is their relationship to your composition process?

SM: I met these fantastic guys in 1999 and 2000. I started to play with István in 1999, and then he invited Ervin, in 2000. It is important to mention, that István was only 21 years old, when we started to play, and Ervin was only 19. And they were almost ready for all these shit, what I wanted to play. Free improv, contemporary music, rubato playing – it was really unknown fields, and they was very opened and very talented to make that music with me, and to come with me to these unknown fields. I’m very honored for that. After long years playing together, they are very stable collaborators, they know immediately what I’m thinking and playing, and also I know while composing, what they will do with the written material. That relationship is some kind of brotherhood.
The music of the trio has perhaps the widest spectrum of my ensembles, as it ranges from totally free improvisation to strict written composition, and in terms of genre it stretches from songs based on Hungarian folklore to contemporary music and jazz. All three instruments have a solo role, and usually bass is treated as a melodic instrument just like the viola. Although one might think that the capabilities of orchestration are somewhat limited by the small size of a trio, the advantages of the stringed instruments are certainly represented.

NM: You also compose for dance and theatre how did you get involved in these endeavors? What is it about working in these mediums and with these artists that you enjoy the most?

SM: The very important part of my work is composing for theater, not only for dance and choreography, but for modern theater. I made till now more than 60 scenic music for theater pieces. I worked with famous Hungarian/French choreographer, Josef Nadj, and with a lot of theater-directors in Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, France, Romania, Poland, Mexico (most important directors are Kinga Mezei, András Urbán, Anca Bradu, Tanja Miletic-Orucevic...). Music for theater is for me a bit different than other music I work, but my intention is always to have organic relationship with the other segments in theater (text, decor, etc.) I believe in that organic connection, and I’m always trying to keep up the dignity and importance of music in theater, like in ancient ritual theaters.

NM: Do you find working on projects such as these, where more than one artist vision must be realized to be more restrictive or liberating? What are the dynamics of working with a director or a choreographer, do they expect certain things of you, or have you been given complete creative freedom? Which do you prefer?

SM: I can speak only about theater-music or work with choreographer (very rare). I have to say, that that music which I’m writing for theater is completely different from my own music, but in the same time, it is very close. Different, because I’m serving the ideas of the director, serving the needs of the show, but in the same time, I’m writing the music I imagine for that show. However, it is always depending from the director of the show. Some directors have very concrete ideas about the music; some are not, so it is always different. I like most, if they have concrete ideas, because then I can try to fit in that idea, and I have more possibilities to make more versions. But of course, in my career I worked with the directors, which always counted on my music, and I always had enough creative space to work.

NM: You have also released works of completely improvised music as well, mainly with your international ensembles or solo, and as you have accurately mentioned in other interviews improvisation is the basis of all music. With this in mind, how does your improvisation practice at home or in the studio inform your compositions?

SM: Yes, my opinion is that improvisation is the base of every music. I’m playing in parallel completely improvised music – usually with special formations, first of all with my friend, cellist, Albert Márkos in duo, then with Nicola Guazzaloca in duo, and in trio with Tim Trevor-Briscoe, and also with Joel Grip, Vasco Trilla, Matthias Schubert, etc. With my own formations I play rarely fully improvised music, but my compositions are also based on improvisation, and all of my collaborators are very good improvisers, and when I’m writing for my own groups, I always know, for which musicians I’m writing. This is very important to me. When I’m writing a symphonic work of course I cannot know who will play it, but I’m still trying to find a technique (aleatory, for example), which can give more freedom for players.

But it’s very important that I don’t like to separate these directions (improvisation, composition) in my music. All of them are fundamental in my thinking about music. Composition is my profession, improvisation is the fundament of all music, and Hungarian folk music is my native music language. Jazz music is also very important – in a way, that so called jazz music can organically integrate these music directions. What I wanted to make, an organic music, which cannot be put in any drawer, which can have very serious messages, good feelings for any listener, and at the same time to speak in a serious musical language. I know that it is a bit ideal, but that is my intention always.

I think that if someone works seriously, they have to try to realize the music he/she want. I would be more happiest person/musician if I would have more opportunities to play my music – my compositions with my formations, and my improvised music with my instrument with various great musicians - more often in live concerts in my country, abroad, and in some festivals in Europe, etc, instead of having a lot of releases... I think, that is the first paragraph of my philosophy of music... of course, we can talk deeper about my philosophy concerning music, but it would take more time...
NM: Successful free improvisation can be an ecstatic experience for both the musicians and the audience. As an artist who has a great deal of firsthand involvement with free improvisation, what factors do you think makes the experience the most affective for both the audience and the musicians?
SM: It is a very hard question… Free improvisation is something, for what I believed long time, that is the most honest way to play music. Nowadays, unfortunately I have to see that it is not true. It becomes also a brand. However, I still believe, that good improvised music cannot be played without honesty, and without good efficiency. Today we can hear a lot of so-called improvised music, but these musics cannot compare with really good improvisation.

In practice, when I’m doing free improvisation, a fully free improvised concert in solo or in formation, before playing I’m trying to empty my mind, and to not have any preconception of what will I play. I’m empty until the first sound of my playing (or our playing, if there is a formation). That is, because if I planned anything before, it was determined in wrong way. But, for sure, I have to be prepared to improvise, which is a long-long (takes lot of years) learning process in musical and technical way.

Szilárd Mezei  ©Zdenko Stricki 

NM: Your musical output is abundant; given the complexity of your compositions and the size of some of your ensembles I would imagine that you would have to be a very organized and driven person to be capable of pulling all these projects together. Are you a naturally driven person, or does this arise from necessity?

SM: I don’t know, for that question maybe my lovely wife could answer better… Yes, I’m an accurate person in some way, but in other hand, I’m very confused and freelance… I have a lot of ideas, and I have always problem with time… I’m living in some other timescale, and sometimes it makes complications, since I have to be a present husband, a present father of my four children, etc. But, somehow, at the end everything works. Simply, I believe in Providence (the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power).

NM: What is the current free jazz scene like in Novi Sad? Are there any local musicians whose work has particularly impressed you?

SM: In last years there is a free jazz – or better to say, improvised and experimental music - scene in Novi Sad, but it unfortunately (because the very low, almost nothing, financial support) is not too strong. In Novi Sad there are a lot of musicians with I’m working from almost 20 years, and they are always impress me.

NM: Who have been your favorite collaborators (outside of your main groups) over the years? Who would you like to collaborate with in the future that you have not?

SM: First of all, Albert Márkos, the cello player and composer. We have a duo since 2000, we always play completely improvised music, we are very good friends, also. I had a big honor, that I played in duo with my, let’s-say-master, the late and great György Szabados (1939-2011). Also, I’m very happy always when we have the opportunity to play in trio with Tim Trevor-Briscoe (reeds) and Nicola Guazzaloca (piano), from Bologna, Italy, our trio has existed from 2010, and lately we had a new tour here in Serbia and Hungary, which was very-very successful. It is also completely improvised music. With Nicola we have a duo also, which I like a lot. I have also a longtime collaborator, the great double bass player Joel Grip, from Sweden, living in Berlin. We played a lot in duo, and we had a nice tour in trio with him and the great Sten Sandell (piano) in Serbia/Hungary and after in Sweden/Norway. I had earlier few times a very nice collaboration with Matthias Schubert (tenor sax).

I have also a duo with very good bass player Ernő Hock. Also I have new plans to play with fantastic drummer, Vasco Trilla. All these fellow musicians are part of my life, and I’m much honored that I have that honor to play with them. Also, I had an opportunity to play with Joelle Leandre, George Haslam, Michael Jefry Stevens, Joe Fonda, Harvey Sorgen, Tim Hodgkinson, Charles Gayle, Frank Gratkowsky, Jens Balder, Hamid Drake, Peter Ole Jorgensen, Herb Robertson, Martin Blume, Róbert Benkő, Phil Minton, Roger Turner, Vasco Trilla, Samo Salamon, Mihály Dresch, Evelyn Glennie, Jon Hammersam, István Grencsó, Ernő Hock, Ádám Meggyes, etc.

My dream is to play with Evan Parker, Raymond Strid, Anthony Braxton, Paul Lovens, Alexander Hawkins, and again with Charles Gayle, Joelle Leandre, Sten Sandell, Phil Minton, Matthias Schubert…

I never played with electronic musicians; that is not my cup of tea. Also I never used electronics in my music.

NM: What kind of music are you listening to these days? Have any recent records impressed you?

SM: I’m listening to a lot of musics, very often, when I’m riding a bicycle. I’m listening to a lot of different kinds of music: classical, jazz, contemporary, and I’m trying to listen to the new musics released recently. My favorites are nowdays Braxton’s ZIM Sextet and Creative Music Orchestra (NYC) 2011, and also compositions of Dai Fujikura, again and again the oeuvre of Béla Bartók, Witold Lutoslawsky, Duke Ellington, Lennie Tristano, György Ligeti, Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron, Anthony Braxton, György Szabados, Mingus, Giuffre, John Carter, etc. But, the main piece I admire first of all, from a musical and compositional perspective, is Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. I never heard better music, better composition.

NM: What is your favorite way to listen to music? For example, on headphones or speakers, at your home or in the car?

SM: Ideally, to listen to the music live, after that, to listen to the music in my room on my Hi-Fi, but recently mostly I can only listen to music while riding a bicycle… Hope it will be changed soon.

NM: What are your non-musical influences?

SM: I have inspiration from a lot of directions. Usually they are not first musically. I like a lot philosophy (among others: Kierkegaard, Ortega y Gasset, Hamvas, Jaspers), literature (among others Beckett, Dostojevsky, Bulgakov), poetry (among others Koncz, Sziveri, B. Pap, Weöres), fine arts (among others Giacometti, Cezan, Bicskei, my mother’s work), social things (not actual-politics at all), etc. And of course, I have inspiration from music, and from my musicians, from musicians I’m playing with and from music to which I’m listening. I can order some names, without completeness from Hildegard von Bingen until Anthony Braxton, in line with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Warne Marshe, Lennie Tristano, Jimmy Giuffre, Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy, György Szabados, Evan Parker, Béla Bartók, Witold Lutoslawsky, György Ligeti, etc etc.

NM: You’ve recently debuted a new quartet line-up with Ivan Burka from your septet on vibraphone. Are there any plans to record this quartet?

SM: Yes, we had some new very successful concerts with that Quartet, and hopefully we will record an album. I’m very excited to do that, since that is my new small formation where I can to explore new ideas.

NM: What does the title of your latest release from Túl a Tiszán Innen Ensemble, “Turizmus” (translates to English as “Tourism”), allude to, if anything? It seems like an interesting title given the collection’s model.

SM: It is very funny thing. For that recording we get a grant from the town I live and the project get money from the fund for tourism. That is the reason. Hahaha.


FreeJazz Jeff said...

I had the luxury of sparking up an E-mail conversation with Szilard some years ago, and I can testify that he is a fascinating, busy, creative, busy, visionary, BUSY young man.

A very open and approachable individual and also very ambitious, in the best possible definition of the word.
Virtuosity applied with..... determination and rigour. A musical purist in the AIIA (Age of Incessantly Inane Advertising).

I advocate his music/art to every Canadian I know.