FEATURE
Szilárd and Erzsébet Mezei - Letters from Northern Serbia

Szilárd and Erzsébet Mezei - Letters from Northern Serbia

1. The length of 100 needles

I first heard Szilárd Mezei's music when Leo Records sent me a promo copy of Draught in 2005. The combination of collective improvisation and folk music within the context of exquisite big band arrangements à la Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra was instantly captivating. I went online to find out more about him and ended up initiating an email conversation. A couple months later he sent me a box with dozens of recordings. After listening to everything, I was completely hooked on his music: he music possessed a level of vision, personality, passion, breadth, and stamina that I hadn't discovered since first hearing Anthony Braxton. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’d come to discover, Braxton was also a key figure for Mezei.)

Szilárd and I continued to email until 2009, when he invited me to spend a week with his septet as they rehearsed his original music for choreographer Josef Nadj's "100 Tu Hossza"/ "The Length of 100 Needles" in Kanjiža, Serbia. (The title is a sentence in Hungarian that Mezei heard his grandmother say; literally, it means "I walked the length of 100 needles." But what it is saying is "I walked a lot but did not finish anything…I didn't get done anything that I wanted to do, all my work was without sense." Considering Mezei’s vast output––over 40 albums of his own compositions and improvisations, and counting––the phrase is not often uttered in his direction.)

I went to Kanjiža to watch the rehearsals, spend time with the musicians and of course actually meet Mezei in person. It was a real honor for me to follow along in the intimate process of a band learning new music, with the added challenge, halfway through the rehearsals, of syncing that music with the action of Nadj’s dancers. After that experience, I wrote an article about Mezei for Signal to Noise, and we emailed to stay in touch over the intervening years.

In 2016 I finally had the chance to get back to Serbia to visit the violist and composer in his hometown of Zenta. For those not fluent in the history of this region, Zenta is in Northern Serbia, in the North Banat District of the Vojvodina province, and contains an ethnically Hungarian population that outnumbers the Serbian population by two to one. Mezei's family is Hungarian.

At the end of July, I spent a week visiting with he and his wife and their three awesome kids, as well as his mom and dad. (An interview with his mother, a superb visual artist, follows.) Szilárd and I sat down for another interview, seven years after the first. After having spent a decade listening to his music, I'm most riveted by the intensely personal perspective on the history of so many different kinds of music that he saturates every one of his compositions and improvisations with. I hope these excerpts from our interview help the reader understand Mezei's growth as a musician and also recognize the power of passion and belief in what you do.

If you want to study music seriously in Serbia, you have to commit to it early. Mezei had been taking lessons since he was a small child, but, at fifteen, in order to continue his studies, he had to move to Subotica. This city––an hour from his family––had the only music school in the area. There, he lived alone in various apartments while studying classical music for four years.


2. Playing with words

Szilárd Mezei: I moved to Subotica so that I could attend a music school. I was studying classical music, and until about this time, that was enough. But then suddenly it wasn't enough, and I began listening to jazz, mostly jazz classics - Chick Corea’s Trio Music, Monk, Mingus, Chet Baker, etc.]. But then that wasn't enough either. And somehow I found the Robert Schumann String Quartet record by [Anthony] Braxton. This was a composition, yes, but I really felt something was happening there. And it caused me to seek more - then I heard György Szabados and Braxton together, and then it was done! And soon after that I went to a festival in Hungary and saw Alexander von Schlippenbach…my path was set. But I discovered improvised music through Anthony Braxton.

From the beginning, Braxton was a big influence on me - his creativity, his philosophy. I have a copy of a letter I wrote to him in the late nineties, when I was in my twenties. I praised him for his "exemplary and uncompromising perseverance." He genuinely inspired me to stay on the path to make my own music. He was alone and he never gave up, he never went to make commercial music. His melodies, his orchestrations, his ideas…everything about his approach to music gave me courage.

Andrew Choate:One thing you and Braxton have in common is the use of visual elements in your titles - did you learn that from him? How do you title pieces, and how do you use lyrics in your compositions?

Szilárd Mezei: I used visuals in my titles before I knew his. I am very bad at drawing and my mother is a visual artist, and so is my sister, but I cannot even draw a man or a face. At the time I started including visuals in my titles, I made very simple things, a tribute to my lack of talent in visual art. But also because at certain times I do not want to put words on the music. Sometimes I want not even a picture, just lines.

I often have titles before I start a composition. They are the things I'm thinking about. Like, right now, I am working on "Autumn" and "Leaves" - it's a diptych. Obviously I like to play with words, and of course there is the classic song Autumn Leaves [written by the Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma - ed.], but I had the idea to break it up into two songs, songs that follow each other sequentially. It allows me to think about both the history of the first song, and how the two words individually create different moods.
This is very typical of my process: I have the titles first. then I develop the music to fill out the thoughts that the title gives to me.

With lyrics, I am trying to use them as naturally as I can, so that I don't force anything. The rhythm of the words is the most important thing. I don't want the words to sound like they are just fitting into measures, and I don't want the music to sound that way either. With the poems I used in "Amerika szálló – Isten hozott kedves vendég / Hotel Amerika - welcome dear guests," I did not choose poems that were about this event, and there was no serious relationship between these poems before I put them together. I picked these five poems because, first of all, I always liked them, and, secondly, they are each written in first person, with, obviously, a very personal point of view. And I wanted to challenge myself to make music that would tie the poems, as lyrics, together. I wanted to create a story of five people who are waiting to be executed, and now they are talking with each other.


3. Wholeness history

Andrew Choate: I had the chance to watch the video recording of this piece yesterday, and one of the things that struck me was the wholeness of the piece. After reading the texts of the poems, I mistakenly thought you had written them, and that's because the way that they appear in the composition, even in Hungarian, they blend with the music to become one entity: the rhythms and the melodies work with the overlapping insurgencies that are spilling out from the various sections of the orchestra working to be heard.

Wind ruffles the water,
the splash of a distant, leaves-cloaked
sunbeam
rhymes with its muddy flow*

Andrew Choate: Lines like this describe not only the river Tisza, the titular subject of this poem by István Koncz, but also the process of working with chaotic raw materials, whether those be light (sunbeams), time (rhymes), rivers (water) or composition itself (muddy flow). Later in the same poem, Koncz writes:

Everyone’s cursed
who killed but once,
even if only in the heart,
or by writing history

Andrew Choate: In the context of "Hotel Amerika - welcome dear guests," these lines seem to comment directly on the double-edged nature of understanding--or thinking we understand--any historic event. Also, the curse of reliving an event, with no relief, is explicitly the curse of reading or writing history. History, along with everything else, is a killer. What is the role of history in your music?

Szilárd Mezei: History is the last thing I use. The only reason I wrote this particular piece is because it happened. When it was discovered in the nineties, it made an impression on me, and I put it in the back of my mind to think about. In 2013, in the context of more globalized war, torture, and terror, I revisited this event and decided to make an homage.

Andrew Choate: What happened?

Szilárd Mezei: As revenge for the ”Cold Days” in Novi Sad, where, one or two years earlier, Jews and Serbians had been executed by officers and members of the Hungarian army, this time Hungarian civilians were tortured by Yugoslavian partisans and executed in the basement of Hotel Amerika, the building in Zenta. These events happened during WWII. At the time, and for a long time, it was a big secret, you weren't allowed to talk about it at school, only at home with your family, maybe. You had to be careful - if you had a child that was too young, and they heard something at home, and then they said something at school, this could be very dangerous. The family could be jailed or any other terrible thing done by the Communist regime. My father, born in 1945, didn't know about it and it happened in his village. This is not uncommon. It was very dangerous to speak about these kinds of things.

There were innocents on both sides, in both events. But, in people's minds, the only event that exists is the one in Novi Sad. There is no official remembrance for the victims of Hotel Amerika, not only in Zenta, but in the whole of Vojvodina, where Hungarians live. Historians speak of almost 40,000 people victimized, but no one knows the exact number. It was only three or four years ago that the Serbian president acknowledged the event and apologized.

These kinds of events are not the answer - there are always innocent people on both sides and very guilty people on both sides. It's not an answer, it would be like ping-pong to do this.

My piece "Amerika szálló – Isten hozott kedves vendég / Hotel Amerika - welcome dear guests" is a musical piece, not an oratorio or dramatization, the relationships are in your mind: in the music, in the poems, without any concrete acting out of the events.

Andrew Choate:That reminds me of lines from another poem of Konc's that you use:

sometimes we drink beer and wine
but poetry stutters –
see, clear consciousness is
a curse for inspiration.

Andrew Choate: There is no real clarity or clear consciousness in relation to these two tragedies, and if there was, there might not be anything to say, only the silence of an empty enlightenment. Now, I know these poems were not written about that event specifically, but, the sentiment fits.

Szilárd Mezei: You forgot, tellingly, the first and last line of that poem: I'm scared. This important line repeats a few times in the poem.

Andrew Choate: Probably because I'm not courageous enough to admit my fright! Or the obscurity of my vision!

Szilárd Mezei: Let me then remind you of two lines from János Sziveri that are also used in this piece, "god organized an internal parade/ non-existence asks what is at stake."


* poems translated by Petra Bakos Jarrett



4. Improvised music

Andrew Choate: This seems like a good time to ask you how you feel about the current state of improvised music?

Szilárd Mezei: When I started playing improv, I was taught and I naively believed it was the only kind of music in which you cannot lie. If you play this music onstage, you are completely naked, nothing to lean on. But the sad thing is that I am seeing that it is possible to play this music with lies, to play it for commercial sake, with improvisors leaning on the crutches of personas rather than on musicality.

This is something I've only seen within the last ten years; this didn't use to happen, it wasn't possible. And its not necessarily the fault of the musicians, it's about this world: the market eats everything. It's about the marketing of the world. Musicians are not immune to it. They brand their music, consciously or unconsciously, in order to get gigs and grants, and that branding seeps into how they play and what visions of possibility they can recognize.

There's free jazz on House of Cards [Chapter 50] - this is an extremely high budget TV show and now it is acceptable to have free jazz on TV. This is a big change from even ten years ago.

Andrew Choate: It takes a very stubborn psychology to remain immune to voracious commodification.

Szilárd Mezei: So it's become apparent that it is possible to lie when you play this music, and also, unfortunately, it's possible to make even free jazz commercial, branded.

Andrew Choate: Why do you continue to write music and also make completely improvised music? Is there something that is easier to get to via one method that the other forecloses?

Szilárd Mezei: Good free improv could sound the same as contemporary classical and vice versa. One is written very complicatedly, yet the result can sounds like good free improv. I often work with both mediums within the same band or tune because I’m just trying to make the music work. Look, as Szabados said, ”[I]f we didn't improvise, in life, we'd be dead in five minutes. You can’t say: I’m going to leave home and go straight to the store and buy milk and come back. Because when a car comes in the street, you have to move out of its way.” That’s improvisation. Why should music be any different? We don’t improvise completely in life, but we also can’t walk solely based on a score. I have the same relationship with my pieces that are improvised as those that are completely written.

Andrew Choate: Do you imagine other things besides the music when you write, and if so can you give an example?

Szilárd Mezei: Yes, but I cannot tell what. I’m dreaming. Sometimes I write when I’m riding a bike.

Andrew Choate: I always describe your music to people that haven’t heard it as containing the kernels of Ellington and Mingus plus a love of folk music plus a deep investment in contemporary improvisation. How does that sound to you?

Andrew Choate: You have to add classical music: Lutosławski, Bartok––his music is very close to me––, Debussy. Also, Chinese and Japanese folk music - in addition to Hungarian of course. And Buxtehude, Bach's professor. And so on, there is a bunch of fantastic music.


5. Mother

Andrew Choate: You’ve played all over Europe and Japan with your music; what else do you want?

Szilárd Mezei: My idea is to play for the people. I imagine I would like to be a musician in my own region who plays every week in some club or concert place for the people with which I share my life. That's a utopian ideal. It's not about the size of the audience, this music isn’t for a lot of people, but I am 100% sure of one thing: it is for more people than the ones that are hearing it now.

Ideally I'd like for the people of Vojvodina to hear themselves in this music, because it's not just music I wrote for myself; I write it to represent a circumstance of living in a place and in a time. I decided to stay here in this region because I believe that no one is accidentally born somewhere; alternatively, no one chooses the place where they want to live, if they move, accidentally. So what do I have to do here? This is a question everyone needs to ask: what is the work I have to do here? Sometimes people have to leave the place where they feel at home, and this is happening more often here right now because this is a very hard place to make a life, no matter what you do. So what would be the most common thing is if I acted like an egotist, leaving my home to go play as many concerts as possible, as far away as possible, thinking I have something to say to everyone in the world. But I feel that I would lose something––something that is the very sense of my work––if I did that. It's a tension, of course, because I play free improvised music with other musicians from Sweden, Berlin, etc. and if something good happens in that music, it is because I am from where I am from and they are from where they are from, and we play wherever we are playing. The music depends on all of that.

Andrew Choate: What is the influence of your mother’s work on you?

Szilárd Mezei: I got a very strict and uncompromising taste from her: an aesthetic sense. She was a role model to me because her aesthetic choices were sound. If she said it was good, I knew something was good. I was always sure she was right because I unconsciously also agreed with these decisions.

She has a friend, an ethnomusicologist, the late Anikó Bodor--the most important person concerning not only my project „Túl a Tiszán Innen Ensemble” but many other things--who taught me that you always have to say what you think in art, and not be diplomatic in your work. It sounds basic to say "being honest is important" but it is rare. Everyone thinks they are honest. Me, I am not honest, but I am trying to be.

Andrew Choate: What do you think about when you look at your mom's work?

Szilárd Mezei: I like it. I was growing up with her motifs - she was always making something. It was just part of growing up, so when she started making pictures and graphics, I was already familiar with this language, with these colors. I like the graphics more than her watercolors. But I don’t know that much about visual art, I don’t have a wide perspective, I focus on one artist at a time, you could say I’m monogamous with painters, faithful. I study one very closely and for a long time - Giacometti, Cézanne, Tamás Menyhért, etc. My mom, I live with her work.


6. Erzsébet Mezei

On the same trip in 2009, when I met Szilárd for the first time, I also met his mother and father. And just as I did with Szilárd’s music, I fell in love with his mom’s visual work, absolutely instantly. (As for his father, I also fell in love with his homemade schnapps, but that’s a different story.) She works in a multiplicity of media: printmaking (monotypes/ drypoint), montage, felt, ceramics, etc. The sheer range is impressive, but what’s really spectacular is how recognizable her hand is in everything she touches, no matter what medium it might be in or what subject she might be investigating.

Her work incorporates a lot of abstraction, yes and always, but also landscape, architecture and animals: ladders, moons, trellises, earthen crags, fish. The question of what is “real” and what is “abstract” isn’t relevant when looking at her work: she creates seamless combinations of the two: how we see things, and how it feels to see them. Possibly even how it feels to be seen.

Erzsébet Mezei was born in January of 1947 in Székelykeve, a Hungarian village settled in the late nineteenth century by Bukovinians in what is now the southern end of Vojvodina. Her ancestors arrived into this region of the Lower Danube in 1883, bringing with them a way of life that treasured singing and storytelling. She earned a degree from a Teacher Training College in Novi Sad in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and enjoyed a career teaching art to school children.

In 1991 she had her first exhibition in Novi Sad, and three of her pieces won the Katona József competition. She has continued to receive prizes, including the Takt in 1996, the Forum Award for Fine Arts in 1999, the Pro Urbe in 2009 and, most recently, the Nagyapati Kukac Peter Prize in 2015, the most important prize for fine art by Hungarians in Vojvodina.
watercolor and graphite

When I look at her work I see shadowy spaces, splintered wood, breathing threads, stark earth, brightnesses glowing and softened, indefinite distances, scribbled weather, leaf coffins, abyss meters…her work makes me think: poetically, geographically, politically, psychologically. Ivan Obseiger described her work as if it brought “binoculars to see beyond the ephemeral quality of everyday life,” reminding us that “joy is not an antipode to sorrow and discomfort but a companion.” Her stark burnt colors and morphing forms balance physical attraction with psychic challenge: metallics bleed “in bright dusk,” to use Pál Léphaft’s apt phrase.

I sat down with Erzsébet and Szilárd, our translator, at her kitchen table, to talk with her about her work and its place in her life.

Andrew Choate: Why did you start making visual art?

Erzsébet Mezei: I don’t think of myself as an artist, only time will tell. But I have always made things with my hands. When I finished high school, I wanted to be an architect. But in school I changed my mind and decided to study to be a professor of fine arts. And after graduating, I started to teach. During this time I didn’t make a lot of my own work - the things I made were small, like prizes for the kids I was teaching in school. I also made clothes for Szilárd and his sister. Once they were teenagers, and grown up, I started making graphic works - monotype and drypoint prints.
I had my first exhibition in 1990, showing these graphic works.

Andrew Choate: How did you start working in felt?

Erzsébet Mezei: I was teaching a ceramics workshop for professionals, and next door was a group doing felt, so I decided to try it. Like I said, I always liked working with my hands, and this was a new way to use my hands.

Andrew Choate: Does Szilárd’s music have an influence on you, and if so, when did that start?

Erzsébet Mezei: The first concert I saw him play, when he was really his own person, was in 1990, I could really feel his music, and that did coincide with the arrival of my own work in my life. But it was a lot of things - his sister Kinga was also growing up, and she started acting, and that influenced me also. The inspiration was going both ways, all three ways - Szilárd began composing music to be performed in public and Kinga was performing in public, it gave me new energy. And I started making posters for his shows.
I should also say that my father was a trumpet player in a brass band. And he also composed music. Sadly his scores were lost in a fire when our house burned. He composed polkas.

Andrew Choate:How do you feel about Szilárd’s music?

Erzsébet Mezei: Even though it is new, it seems very recognizable to me.

Andrew Choate: One of the similarities I find in your two arts is how distinctive you both are: when I see an image by you, I know it is you; when I hear a note of Szilárd, I know it is him. Is your art connected to this place?

Erzsébet Mezei: Yes, through the theme of ground, the grass, the animals, the sheep. I don’t have to paint those things directly to feel that they are near and in my work. This place is not a concept, it is just the way it is, natural. Colors from the earth, as if you cut into the earth - those are my colors, the colors of this region. Here there is no direct light, unlike the seaside, here we have more pastels and peasant nature.

Andrew Choate: What motivates you to continue?

Erzsébet Mezei: I can´t imagine how to live otherwise. I’m always finding something new; you can't ever reach oneself in time. It's a lifestyle of making things. Like a jazz musician. It's a form of life and also a profession at the same time.
--


*photo credits: szilardmezei.net


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