December 30, 2016
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.