The 71 year old Hungarian piano player and philosopher György Szabados is practically unknown to fans of jazz and improvised music who live outside of Eastern Europe. Despite his marginal status in the West and Far East and Beyond, he has appeared on several recordings and concert dates with iconic players like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Vladimir Tarasov. I was lucky enough to spend a long afternoon with him in the Fall of 2009, and am thrilled to be able to present some of his ideas and history and music to my fellow English speakers.
While Szabados is a piano player first, he is almost equally as well known in Eastern European circles as a spiritual and intellectual godfather to the worlds of improvised music and free jazz. A book collecting several of his essays was published in 2008. This philosophical side of him is wrapped up in his music, of course, but also in his bearing. As violist and composer Szilárd Mezei told me, “Szabados is an artist in everything he does. He thinks and acts very deeply.” The breadth of his profundity quickly made itself apparent in just the little time I spent with him; I felt like we could have talked for days.
In order to do exactly what he wanted to do with his music – he could never entertain compromising something so powerful and which he holds so dear -, he has been a practicing doctor for the duration of his career. His first recordings were done in 1962, but his first release, The Wedding, didn’t arrive until 1974. What most excites me about his music is how astoundingly unique his compositional sense is, and how it changes so much according to the needs and ideas being worked through in a given piece. Combining his love of Hungarian folk forms with Bartók and traditional European composed music – all under the umbrella and guiding principles of improvisation and jazz – gives his music not an otherworldly quality, but a further-worldly essence.
As a longtime lover of freely improvised music, I was blown away when I first discovered Szabados in 2007. His percussive proclivities and dexterity inside the piano helped me understand that there was an important canon of improvising pianists beyond Cecil Taylor who have directed considerable time to expanding the percussive depths of the instrument. I’m thinking of Englishman Keith Tippett’s phenomenal Mujician solo records on FMP; Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer’s jawdropping Wilde Senoritas and Hexensabbat LPs, also on FMP; and, more recently, Australian Anthony Pateras’ Chasms on Sirr; the Dutchman Cor Fuhler’s 7cc in 10 on Geestgronden andStengam on Potlatch; Englishman Chris Burn’s Music for Three Rivers; and all of the Swede Sten Sandell’s work. Szabados helps put all these musicians and this particular kind of playing into perspective.
Of course, the best way to approach Szabados’ music is from within. For starters, I recommend The Wedding; Adyton; The Sons Turned Into Stags; The Secret History of Events and his solo album Ruttings of the Sacred Phoenix Bird.
This interview with György Szabados was conducted over the course of many hours one mild afternoon in September, in Budapest. It was made possible with the help of Szilárd Mezei, who arranged it, and Szabados’ sister, Klára Sarkadi, who translated for Szabados and I, live, as we exchanged thoughts. Also invaluable was the translation assistance of Kati Toth, who painstakingly went over every word of my audio recording of our discussion, and helped talk with me to make sense of both how my English sounds in Hungarian, and how Szabados’ Hungarian sounds in English. Without the supreme efforts of these three individuals, I wouldn’t be able to present to you this long overdue introduction to English speakers of the extraordinary thoughts of György Szabados.
Andrew Choate: How did you discover jazz?
György Szabados: I was born in a family of musicians. My mother was a singing teacher. I was brought up surrounded by Hungarian traditional music and European music, as well as classical music. In the 1950’s, right after World War II, we were schoolchildren when harsh times came for Hungary: we lived in the toughest dictatorship you can imagine. We hated all this. And at nights we listened to Western jazz programs on the radio, like “Music USA” and “Voice of America”. This was one discovery. The other one is connected to the band I was in as a teenager. One of the guys in our group lived in the same block as a famous Hungarian water-polo player, an Olympic champion. Well, this athlete – unlike us – could go abroad and visit Western countries. And he loved jazz. Every time he went abroad, he bought and brought home lots of records: music by Ray Anthony,Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and later Bob Brookmeyer, Gerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker…
AC: So this was quite a fortunate coincidence.
SzGy: Yes, exactly… We visited this water-polo player and listened to – or rather listened with – all our ears to those recordings. I remembered the music and took it down for my band. And this water-polo player was also trying to get us to play jazz, because he wanted to hear it live when he was at home in Hungary. Anyway, our band was becoming extremely popular among high school students. At each of these secondary schools, there was always a dance on Saturdays at one of them, so we started playing this music each Saturday; lots of people came, lots of young people. Of course, the headmaster, who was a tough Communist, always wanted to give detention and punishments for the students who attended these dances.
AC: Was jazz attempted to be suppressed simply because it was American music?
SzGy: Of course, because of politics: it symbolized freedom. As I have a talent for improvisation, an instinctual feel for it – it’s in my blood -, it was a great encounter for me to meet jazz. I of course found a natural affinity for this kind of music. At that time, the world of the joy of improvisation was unknown not only in Hungary but also in other European countries at this time. Here in Hungary everyone always played music only from notes. This is why this encounter was such a strong inspiration. And as all this meant a protest against the totalitarian system, the music itself provided a great feeling: the experience of freedom.
AC: It seems like this discovery of jazz gave you the confidence to feel that the music that was already bubbling away inside you was legitimate, that it had connections with other people and places, hearts and minds.
SzGy: Yes, though I need to add something to this. I composed my own music from the very beginning, and music in the Hungarian tradition was also playing inside me and appearing in my compositions. So after I discovered jazz, I began writing compositions that drew on both traditions. Well, my friends and I had very lively debates about this at this time: it wasn’t “pure” jazz because Hungarian melodies come into it…[laughing]
AC: I think the essence of jazz, the way it has developed and grown, it has never been pure. It is a music that takes influences from everything.
SzGy: Jazz is a phenomenon…an ample phenomenon, which bears both the freedom of the future and something ancient in itself. Jazz is an attitude, which is much more than a style.
AC: If jazz was banned, how could you play in public? Did you play in clubs?
SzGy: We played where we could and where we were invited. Our band – and this music itself – was so popular among young people that it could not be totally oppressed. Of course, there was no similar musical movement at that age. You didn’t really have the chance to play in clubs – those were banned also. But it wasn’t explicitly banned in secondary schools, so we usually played at high school parties, or small concerts in someone’s apartment. It’s very interesting that up to the point when rock-and-roll emerged, jazz was the popular music; it was what the youngsters loved. But when rock-and-roll came, young people turned away from jazz. There were always two kinds of audiences for jazz – the youngsters who made it popular, and the intellectuals. When rock and roll came in, the popular crowd disappeared but the intellectuals stayed. This was in the early 60s.
However, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 preceded this. This revolution was a crucial event from all points of view. It did not only affect politics but also arts, social life…everything in Hungary. Hundreds of people were hanged: this was a form of political revenge. Besides it was not only a revolution but also a fight for freedom, which is again very important in connection with jazz. Jazz, as I said, is the voice of freedom. This smashing, gigantic experience made me feel extremely responsible to and for music. From that event on, I understood my own music as a meeting point combining musical traditions with the effect of jazz and human fate. Since 1956, I have considered all the music I compose or play – regardless if it’s jazz or not – serious music.
AC: You say that the intellectuals stayed with jazz even after rock-and-roll came on the scene; it seems like contemporary jazz and improvised music finds its biggest audience amongst intellectuals even today.
SzGy: I think that jazz as a phenomenon is the ‘epitheton ornans‘ of 20th century music. It has influenced the music of the whole world and impregnates it even today. This is because an ancient musical thinking gathers ground again through jazz. And this is a smashing affect in a world dominated by hyper-rationalism, since jazz is not the voice of rationalism at all. What is resurrected in jazz is an ancient, holistic attitude connected to the heart and pulsation. It is always personal as it binds and reconnects Heaven and Earth inside us. This is truly sacral; these are sacral depths.
AC: Do you mean that by connecting Heaven and Earth, it sanctifies Earth as well?
SzGy: Exactly. Well, it is our Earth that should be sanctified, isn’t it?
AC: Tell me about your first recordings – the earliest ones I know areThe Wedding, from 1974, and the recently issued live document from 1973, Baltás Zsoltár.
SzGy: My first recordings were freely improvised music, in 1962, which at that time seemed to be incomprehensible. But this also has antecedents. I also gave an absolutely freely improvised music concert first in 1962. This happened at a club in Budapest, the only jazz club in Hungary at those times, which was closed later because the American ambassador went there frequently…Ha! Still, my first concert for the public was at this club, where I was accompanied by a bass player named Endre Publik. But I didn’t know what “free improv” was – I just played. Of course, I also improvised freely at home all the time…
AC: Yes, this is, after all, the way music has been made for centuries: you improvised. This is the way music is born…
SzGy: I do agree. Well, this concert had awful consequences then… Extremely critical articles came out, they said I was destroying music and this should be abolished forever because this equals the death of music. But we – me and a few of my fellow musicians – got into such a blessed state because of this free music, that we feel it still today. We were pregnant with enthusiasm for this music and how it made us feel, so there was no way we could stop. I practically got into a trance when playing. I felt that this is the real origin of music; this is the way that leads to unity and comes from unity, that is: One-ness. Then I started working on it. I learnt classical music, music history, and the science of music as well. That is, I practiced and prepared myself in order to make music on a professional level. This way I became aware of the ancient nature of improvised music and how it had disappeared for a long time, and at the same time I also knew that it is also the music of our age, that it was the right music to fit with our epoch. I also wanted to experience and understand the spiritual side of it: this is why I started to deal seriously with Greek and modern philosophy, all kinds of religion – Buddhism, the Vedas, etc. – so I could make myself a complete person, and be intellectually and spiritually well-informed.
AC: Do you have any recordings from these early times?
SzGy: There is an unbelievable amount of recordings. You know, I established a certain “school” where I intended to initiate the musicians who were interested in opening their minds into this universe of music. This work of 30 years was recorded, but in secret, because these were prohibited. But these were all recorded poorly, on cassettes. However, Radio Hungary (MR) also made plenty of recordings, but these were not accessible for a long time. I have only recently received a few recordings from the archives, all of which were banned previously.
In the meantime, I graduated as an MD; this was my father’s wish. This was so that I could make a living for my family and myself. But through all those times I was living in music, and in this way I could remain autonomous both musically and mentally. And also, this way, I could clearly form the music I felt I needed to give birth to: I didn’t have to worry about making money from it. But because I was sovereign and making whatever kind of music I wanted to, my music was banned. At this time and place you could only work and influence people if you made the necessary compromises, but I could not compromise with my music. Thus, we have a collection of recordings from the time when this music was prohibited which we intend to publish now, through GYŐR FREE. We are trying to figure out, now, how to bring these recordings out, since they are under state control through Radio Hungary.
AC: Are all the recordings still under state control? Were these practically hidden?
SzGy: Not the private ones. However, the state and the Radio ordered different pieces from me, when I became officially ‘tolerated.’ (Nowadays cultural policymakers try to compensate and admit certain things – they’ve started to grant me prizes… ) None of these recordings for Radio Hungary were ever published, though. Instead, they were all kept secret, in the hands of the state. In the meantime a few recordings were successfully saved; these are the ones that we intend to publish now. Besides this, there existed another source of recordings: quite a few young people went from concert to concert with their tape recorders and ‘documented’ these concerts. Such recordings are also extremely useful today. They meant a secret solution at that time; we are now systematizing and archiving these materials.
AC: It seems that several things are happening at the same time in many of your compositions. Adyton , for example, blends powerful silences with Hungarian music, symphonic music and jazz.
SzGy: This is true. Well, Adyton is a story on its own, a separate book could be written about it… Even the title has a double meaning. On the one hand, in ancient Greek, it means the inner sanctuary of the human spirit. On the other hand, it includes Ady’s name – Endre Ady was an extremely influential Hungarian poet. His personality and poetry were so comprehensive that they concerned unbelievable dimensions. He lived through the hell of the first World War: the first huge collapse. And during all those disastrous times – and maybe exactly because of that – he always addressed his words toward heaven, toward unity. And for me, deep inside, I am practically always motivated and occupied by this struggle, this opposition of falling apart and recuperation, the sense of entropy and destruction versus the need to make things come together. This is a foundation of my aesthetic, and I think also of our epoch: a tension between disastrous things happening and idealistic efforts of recovery and creativity in response. The sounds – the sonority of all this – is always manifested in my music.
As for the Hungarian motifs – there is a very simple reason for them: my voice – my song – can only be Hungarian since I am Hungarian. At the same time, the outside world – the whole globe – lives in an abhorrent welter. And not only lives but also burns. The sense of what I mean by this burning is extremely important; I think Coltrane is analogous to this in American jazz. He’s the one at whom you can detect the moment when the jazz musician becomes a sacred musician. He left the world of jazz standards and started to study Indian Ragas – this was his last great period. The moment he started working this way, he was not only living the music, but also burning– which is what we all must do if we are to survive the abhorrence:burn: use the desperate destruction around us as fodder for our own communication with the beyond. Coltrane ‘ascended’ to heaven in this way and became intellectually complete – and his music became eternally…serious.
AC: “Serious” is a good word to use in this context, much better than ‘experimental.’
SzGy: Well, one thing I object to in contemporary music is that much of it is about nothing, the Nihil – it doesn’t take itself seriously. The place for ‘experiment’ is in a school’s lab. But art is not an experiment. The music that can burn in unity and omniscience is something that can maintain human spirit and humanity as such. This is an ethical issue for the artist – of course not only in music but also in literature and in all the arts. This is why “Adyton” lives inside me as a shrine, as an altar with wings.
AC: Let me ask about your record The Secret History of the Events. A man can be heard singing on the record. Who is he and what kind of language is he singing in?
SzGy: He’s Kobzos Kiss Tamás, a Hungarian singer and musician. “The Secret History of the Events” is an historical song – this genre used to be widespread in Europe and Asia, but with the spread of recorded media – radio, television, etc. – it died out. Wandering musicians and artists were the source of these historical songs – playing music from town to town telling people stories of great heroic deeds and battles and other important news.
The revolutionary struggle in Hungary in 1956 was such a heroic event, and yet it was prohibited to talk about, sometimes even within families – people would say “the walls have ears” – because if you were caught, you could be imprisoned. So this piece is in that style, and about this event. And because it was still prohibited to talk about this, my composition had to be written in an encrypted code. I wrote the story in Hungarian and then the lyrics and the music were transformed into another invented language according to a certain code. The coded language is a certain meta-language – as we were under Eastern rule, it has some of the structure of an Eastern language. When we performed this piece, we were secretly celebrating this event. The singer spent a long time studying in order to perform this difficult text.
Another interesting thing is that although there are some fixed parts, a great deal of the manipulated piano play is improvised, and even the way the language is sung uses improvisation. I consider this piece as one establishing a unique musical language within the frames of an extreme totalitarian system. The dictatorship was hard, that’s why this piece has a certain toughness: the story could not be told in a classic or romantic style – it could only be told in this way.
AC: Your MAKUZ orchestra reminds me of great groups like Sun Ra’s Arkestras, the ICP and Globe Unity – big bands that directly focused on large ensemble improvisation and direction. What is the history of MAKUZ?
SzGy: Well, the name of the ensemble is an abbreviation. It means: Hungarian Royal Court Orchestra. This is a statement, a position. And an attitude. When we reached a point at which everybody could see and comprehend this aspect, then it became obvious that we had to distinguish ourselves from the whole political circus in Hungary. We were turning the ideas of kings and politics upside down by creating an orchestra and workshop that was about freedom and egalitarianism rather than about kings in control and political courts where whatever the king says rules: no. We were all making sounds and learning from each other, and this is what true “royalty” should be about, in a more majestic, eternal and natural sense.
We have been working under the name of MAKUZ since 1982: we took their name, implanted our own ideals inside it, and acted upon them, expressing this new way of thinking with our music. When I announced the name of the group to the musicians in the orchestra, they somehow started to play differently, working even harder. It was truly interesting.
AC: You had other bands before MAKUZ. Why did you form MAKUZ?
SzGy: Yes, I had a septet, an octet, a quintet before – but these were all smaller bands. MAKUZ became crucial both on a personal and on an instrumental level. By that time I knew whom I really wanted in my band, who would be good to play with and collaborate with. We had been working hard for a long time building the foundations of our own personal and yet common, freely improvised music. This way the base became so strong – and yet so clear and transparent – that when we needed to work with another musician, it was easy for the ‘outsider’ to fit in. We were building quite a singularity, a singular musical force and expression in such a way that the music shaped itself: it was powerful enough to become its own living thing and sweep us along with it. At the same time I got to know how to assemble composed music and free improvisation into an organic, living unity. Last but not least, this orchestra became the artistic symbol of the mental and spiritual consciousness of an ancient yet always revolving culture.
AC: A lot of people in the US first came across your name from your collaborations with people in the AACM – Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, etc. How did you meet and start to play with these guys?
SzGy: Leo Smith was in Hungary playing on the same bill as me; he played in a trio after I played a solo. He liked my music so much he bought my album “The Wedding” and gave it to Braxton to listen to. (Braxton told me this story later.) Braxton liked the music and said he wanted to play with me. Later, when he was in Austria, he organized a concert across the border in Győr, Hungary. My trio was also playing at this concert and, while we were playing, Braxton got so excited he grabbed his saxophone and joined us onstage spontaneously! At another concert, after I played solo, Braxton came down and we played some pure improv, and then he asked me to do a record with him, which became Szabraxtondos [Krem, 1985].