Tibor Szemző (HU)
Autor: Richard Constantinidi
Etichete: .a Guest Of Life, Alexander Csoma, Apollohuis, Danilo Kiš, Group 180, New Music Studio, Péter Forgács, Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, Solidarnosc, The Gordian Knot, Tibetology, Tibor Szemző, Tibor Szemző, Tractatus
Embarking on a solo career in 1983, Szemzö began integrating spoken word and visual elements into projects and in 1987 he issued his first solo recording, Snapshot from the Island.
Group 180 (180-as Csoport)
- Tibor Szemző (flutes, composer)
- Steve Reich (composer)
- Laszlo Melis (violin, composer)
- Frederic Rzewski (composer, piano)
RiCo for CZB.ro: What was the Hungarian Revolution like in 1989?
Tibor Szemző (ex-Group 180, Hungary): There was absolutely no Revolution in Hungary. This is the problem. Nothing has changed. There were no serious changes.
People just changed the clothes they wear but generally there was no real change. I was very disappointed already after the so-called changes in 1989-1990.
Everything was very soft.
I don't want to talk (about this)… because I'm not an expert in politics and I'm not very interested in the subject. My personal position in my country has not really changed during the last 25 to 30 years. It was exactly the same before: they let us exist.
In a way, opposition during the Communist regime was better - as the Millieu …and Life was in someways better. This doesn't mean I have a kind of Reminiscence with the Bolshevik era - it just means that at that time, we all were on one side, on the same side …so we identified ourselves against something and this made the Youth of that era united.
It was like a ghetto warmness.
This was the spirit of the 70's and 80's. In Hungary there was no need for us to be afraid of our political retorsions. They let us react, they let us criticize the system. We were able to travel as avant-garde, radical artists.
In 1986 I traveled to New Music America in Houston, Texas, I was in London, I was in Germany, I was in Switzerland …all around the world. It wasn't easy but I was able to travel with my band.
Atop of that, we were very exotic by that time in Western Europe.
This was part of the deal.
I am talking about Group 180, which I founded in 1979.
I started in a cellar with a friend of mine; we played some music… my quartet was active since 1972… The Szemzo Quartet. Around those people we formed 180, so it goes back another 5 or six years. The Group 180 was the creation of its Age, of this Ghetto warmth in Hungary, wich was gone soon after the (1990) changes, because of the differences that appeared between the people previously united together… I think this is natural and has also occurred in Romania and everywhere (in post-communist countries). They identified themselves against something - then when the enemy was gone - the differences within the group of people became significant. Also in our case, we were in our 20s and when we got older, we started feeling a bit different, on an individual level. Group 180 was a collective - but somehow - this happened together with the changes and I am in some way disappointed in this collective life and the way of creating things in a community… I don't know what the original question was… I probably went too far with the story…
RiCo for CZB.ro: You said you were rehearsing in a cellar with a friend when you formed Group 180. Who was the friend?
Tibor Szemző (Group 180): Laszlo Melis. He used to live in very poor conditions at that time. He was a violin player; when we got together we started to play Musical Offering (Musicalisches Opfer) by Johann Sebastian Bach. So Group 180 was formed perhaps due to the personal things and the old friendships that were very important (to us all). The whole project was based on this and of course other connections came through 180. For instance, Péter Forgács, the filmmaker, for whom I made about 20 movie soundtracks, when I was a composer and adviser. We made at least an opera, an oratorio and several other projects.
CZB: Why did you choose the name Group 180 (I made a gesture with my hand, showing a 180 degree arch)?
Tibor Szemző: No, everybody thinks this. I myself was 180 cm. high.
We were sitting in a pub; we rehearsed every day and in the evenings we would go to the pub… this was more of a community project and we had 6-7-8 people within the collective and it turned out that the 6 of us sitting around the table were 180 cm tall, so I decided to give this name to the project.
CZB: What instruments do you play?
Tibor Szemző: I was a flute player; Laszlo Melis played the violin; we had piano, we had other string players and brass and wind players and Group 180 was 12 to 14 people altogether: 4 strings, 4 winds, percussions, piano ...something like that.
CZB: Why did you decide to go solo in 1983?
Tibor Szemző: Maybe 1982-83… I was invited to the Music Gallery in Toronto/Canada and also some other gigs in Vienna/Austria and Germany… so I put these solo programs together, which became rather successful and soon I made several concerts in Western Europe and also for the New Music America fair held in Houston, TX in 1986.
So I did this between 1982 and the early '90s… even after that… but seldom and only occasionally - because I also had some very important concerts during the '90s, like the London Royal Festival Hall or Tokyo… I am still doing it, but seldom.
In the meantime, I formed my own group during the '90s, The Gordian Knot, with which I performed.
CZB: What kind of a culture shock did you have when you first traveled to Western Europe?
Tibor Szemző: It's very hard to describe. I'll tell you why.
It's almost impossible to describe.
We grew up in a certain world where our limitations were quite normal for us. This was our surrounding world. But for young people, this is a TOTALITY - but we were happy with that. You could have LOVE, you could have FUN, you could have PAIN, you could have MISERY. This is the world, which has it's own TOTALITY.
But you kept hearing that our world was very limited; you heard that there is no freedom, without even knowing what FREEDOM is. So, the first time we crossed the border… what we experienced was really just in a materialistic world. The difference was in a materialistic sense - and also, probably, the behavior of the people. So in the Netherlands, where I used to travel very often by the time - because of the Apollohuis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Het_Apollohuis) very early - in 1983 or 1984 a Dutch guy, my first Dutch friend Paul Panhuysen came to Hungary, who died recently at the age of 80, and whom I visited a year and a half ago… He came to Hungary, we met and I built a personal relationship with the composers of this music scene.
I met Steve Reich for instance and visited him in Vermont in 1983.
I traveled personally and I got to know Louis Andriessen, the Dutch contemporary composer.
I had a personal contact with the American composer Frederic Rzewski and the people around him
…or I had telephone conversations with minimalistic composer Michael Nyman...
Of course this was the pre-email time; I used to write often and I visited them personally; they gave me their scores and we performed their pieces although we are talking about the early '80s.
But back to your question, what did this mean to us… of course, another dimension probably - but to be frank with you, I think we were free enough. We reworked ourselves to be free enough, within these limited conditions - as young people and being able to imagine whatever we wanted - and working together with filmmakers, with visual artist, with poets, writers - and there were no limitations, no police attacks… and there was a kind of solidarity and we made some political things because I remember we were in Poland during Solidarnosc times in 1980, before (Wojciech Witold) Jaruzelski,
When Lech Walesa led the Polish Revolution - and the army took over the country's affairs, we lived the Solidarity times and we were openly against these happenings - so that was one thing… the fight for political freedom. Nowadays we clearly see that this freedom is nothing. I mean, we were already FREE inside as young people at the age of 20. Of course there is one thing you have to consider: that in Central Europe, maybe even yourself, growing up in the United States but with immigrant parents, you always carry the fate of your parents and ancestors; which is a miserable fate. History is just …pick up people here, push down, pick up again… so it's like a roller coaster …there is no stability in the small Central European countries since the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed, during the past 100 years.
My parents never spoke to me about the historical problems in our region but I saw what I saw - their fate was written in their behavior and obviously, that is what makes me very ambivalent. In a certain way it is very positive; like the Kafka Universe.
Kafka says you are guilty by birth.
That's what Kafka says. It is very familiar to those born here: being guilty by birth.
In a certain way this misery is part of life and it is one side of things; it does not mean that you cannot be happy and independent - but this miserable history of almost every family …if you look at the family saga… you know this because you live in Romania now… it is impossible to find a family where nothing bad happened in the past, within the last 50 or 100 years… and what does this mean? What is the message of this? Is it the message that history might repeat itself?
CZB: History repeats itself and we are worthless, just slaves to the system.
Tibor Szemző: How did you feel this… immigrating to Central Europe… let's say Central Europe instead of Romania, because those countries are different but generally the same. They think they are different; I think they are not. They are very common in many ways. I personally think that some younger nations are very talented… look at their music and art - very good spirits are being nurtured there, unfortunately I was never outside of Transylvania.
Now, a few months ago in February (2015), I finished my Radio play based on Danilo Kiš (a Serbo-Hungarian writer of Jewish decent) that will be transmitted in Bucharest
I was busy with this project for the past 16-18 months, as he had a very complex Central European character. The play is actually a music piece with literature, lots of music …and poetry. He wrote three autobiographical books about his childhood and I traveled to the specific area where he grew up very poor. He escaped from Serbia to Southwest Hungary, where Serbs and Hungarians Jews were being shot in the head and dumped in the Danube River in January-February 1942. His father was a Yugoslav Jew, originally from Hungary but his mother was from Montenegro. They thought it was safer in Hungary but of course his father was deported to Auschwitz. Danilo Kiš, his mother and his elder sister escaped because they were baptized Greek Orthodox. So Danilo lived for seven years in Hungary. Hungarian was his first language. Back then he was very poor; he didn't even have shoes. They lived in a small village and they were working on the fields when he was a child and he went to school, then he wrote three very very beautiful, absolutely marvelous books about his childhood, and trying to reconstruct his father's fate from the signs he had left and the single letter that his father wrote. I worked on this and I traveled to this small village; I traveled to Belgrade ...I traveled to Paris, where he lived towards the end of his life. I was filming and I made the installation piece and I made music and finally I finished this radio play, which will be aired at the Radio Art Festival in Bucharest this month (May 2015) - but I won't be there myself.
I am very much interested in Romania but unfortunately I have never been there - only in Transylvania.
CZB: How did you discover John Cage?
Tibor Szemző: There was a group of composers at Budapest at 70s called New Music Studio; a generation of composers… The musical situation of Hungary is very specific; it's again a very long story; I don't want to get into details - but because of Bartók Béla and Kodály Zoltán, the new music, which came with the Darmstadt School and John Cage, never really appeared in Hungary in the '60s. In the '70s, when this group of younger composers (which is in their 70s now) made a performance ensemble called the New Music Studio - and this was influential to me. They performed Cage and music by other contemporary American and non-American music composers and it is through them that I came to hear and perform John Cage with Group 180.
Then I went to Szombathely in 1984 to see him Live.
1984 was a fantastic year because there was a huge week long festival in Budapest for contemporary arts, the Planum 84, and we invited several artists from all over the world. This was a big event.
John Cage didn't influence me musically but rather spiritually, through his behavior. John Cage did influence me through the prepared piano though.
The so-called Beat music, the early Pop music, like Beatles, Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix … this was my childhood and this meant freedom to us, behind the Iron Curtain. At another level, a step further, when I was 15-16, I got to know the Black Jazz artists, like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus and the fabulous jazz musicians and this was just a step towards minimalism.
Meanwhile, at a very young age, I got interested in Indian classical music through Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin, who played together. So Indian classical music was a great influence as well… and the Blues, through this Pop music. Lightnin' Hopkins was like a God to me… This was real Mississippi Blues… and also Hungarian peasant music in general ---
This meant freed for us. I can't say if we were disappointed when we discovered the West. This is not true - but of course their system was completely different. Maybe I am not correct because at a very early stage - I forgot - we were taught to be afraid. You know what I mean. We had censorship and you had to be disciplined.
We were young and we thought we don't have to be disciplined.
CZB: How did you get your idea for the Award winning A Guest of Life and how much time did you spend in Tibet?
Tibor Szemző: This goes back to my collaboration with the filmmaker Péter Forgács. As I told you, we made twenty some movies based on home movies, which is a completely different way of making films, based on found footages and incidents of facts of life. Then in the mid '80s I bought my own camera and started to film. With my first film, Cuba, which I shot with 8mm film in Havana, Cuba in late 1980s (I made three trips there), I put together and I discovered that this kind of 8mm films: in the photographic filming, along with the atmospheric music I composed, I realized that the images became kind of sacred (please, don't misunderstand me…) it picks up and it puts up the images somewhere...
…and then from the '80s and more into the '90s, I was very much interested in esoteric behaviors. I used to travel to Japan during the early '90s. First I was invited to Nagano in 1991-92; then to Tokyo and Yokohama to perform my Wittgenstein piece and conduct other things - and I was very influenced by the Buddhist Church, without really knowing what it meant. Then in 1999 I found myself in the high Himalayas, where Alexander Csoma was living. This is a Hungarian, born in Romania (Kőrös, today Chiuruș, in the former Comitatul Trei Scaune). He was poor but very clever. At 14 he decides he wants to find out the origins of the language of Hungarians …to go back to Eurasia and find their origin through the languages. He prepares himself for this journey for 20 years. He studies 14 languages fluently (Arab, Turkish, Persian, Slav languages, French, ancient Greek, Hebrew and several others…). He only has a Pass to go to Bucharest but no passport, and he's walking by foot on the same route to Asia - but without passing through Russia where he might have needed a passport …he had no documents. He chose the “safe” route, the silk route and ended up in the high Himalayas, he became a Buddhist saint. He wrote the first English-Tibetan dictionary and the first English-Tibetan grammar. He spoke 21 languages fluently at the end of his life. He lived with the monks for years in the high Himalayas and he was the founder of the science of Tibetology.
Me as a child, and all of the children of my age, when we heard of the story of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma at school and about his travels …this was very mysterious. So, finally, in 1999, when I was performing in Delhi, there was an expedition. There was a group of Orientalists who planned a journey to follow Csoma's route through the Himalayas …and I joined them!
I had my camera with me; I was sitting with them in the car and we went up into the Himalayas - and I went up there to get to the monastery where Csoma lived for years and where he wrote the dictionary and grammar book and fluently learned Tibetan.
From that moment I decided to make a film about him to describe and find his motivation because instead of finding the origin of the Hungarians, he came to a completely other level of existence. I am proud and happy that I got to understand a little bit about what he was made of. It is hard to describe what I understood - it is something very personal.
This film speaks all the languages he spoke (Pali, the language of Buddha; Bengali; Hindustani; German; Chinese; English - and of course, many others.
It was a very personal thing.
When I was there, the irony is that when I arrived to the heights of the Himalayas we opened this Hungarian Palinka brandy …and I think we understood something which could hardly be described in words. I worked on this film for seven years… finally we finished. There are animations in this movie that we did frame by frame… and the painter team and the cinematographic team… this was a nice job for me, for us.
Interview conceived by: RiCo
Corvin Cinema, Budapest, 5 MAI 2015
After the interview, we continued to discuss about our current society and one of the things Tibor Szemző spoke about was the fact that one of the most recent nations to accept television into their culture is Nepal. It was somewhat strange seeing satellite dishes on the mountain houses and seeing people watch Baywatch with Tibetan subtitles.
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