Szilárd Mezei: Open Your Ears And Mind

It can happen that one extraordinary and very talented musician graduates at a music academy and yet knows nothing about improvisation, that is in fact essence of music and life. We don’t even live our lives by the book, but we always have to improvise

Foto: Đorđe Gavrilović


If you are a violist from Senta who plays avant-garde music, it is highly unlikely that you will gain much publicity or make a fortune from concerts and sold CD-s.  Even the “average” jazz musicians from abroad are compelled to work with many different bands and record a large number of albums in order to secure their sole existence. On one hand such life includes considerate amount of stress and daily struggles, whereas on the other hand it leads to creative effort and constant improvement of one’s expression.

Szilárd Mezei is the violist from the beginning of the text, of whom the audiences of the Belgrade “Ring Ring Festival” and “Jazz, improvised music…” of Kanjiža know very well, and where he is a regular guest. He’s one of the most hardworking local composers and a musician who is probably more famous and acknowledged abroad. Most famous jazz media like “Downbeat” or “AllAboutJazz” website review his albums and his albums are being published by esteemed record companies such as Not two.

He playes avant-garde and traditional music with smaller bands and ensembles and has recently won the prize for original stage music for Oto Tolnai’s play “The rose of  Kishinjevo” at the 56. Sterija’s festival. The occasion for correspondence  that we had recently conducted were multiple  performances on a festival at Kanjiža, but there are always many more subjects to talk about with Szilárd. Using this opportunity we wanted to include various aspects of his career.


As your first music role models, the most mentioned ones are Witold Lutoslawski and Anthony Braxton. Both of them are known for their affection for aleatoric music composition/improvisation, as well as the fact that they played their own music – Braxton as the member of the ensemble and Lutoslawski as the conductor. Is it important for you to be a part of performance of your own music? Does giving control to others represents a difficult step? 

I would say that the composer and the performer are actually one man, and it is certainly important to me to participate in performance, of course not because it would be difficult to give control to somebody else. The music I play, I actually create together with the musicians I’ve been working with for so many years.


What are your experiences with others playing your compositions without your direct participation? 

I don’t have too much experience with that kind of performance of my music. Some are good, some are terrible. Me not participating in the performance wouldn’t be a problem, but with understanding the music notes and the purpose of aleatory. If I have an opportunity to be at the rehearsals, than of course, it’s different. But, that’s participating, in a way.

I think that’s why Lutoslawski has often conducted his orchestra when playing his compositions because his conducting signs are very different from ordinary conductorial signs, since his aleatory wasn’t always completely understood.


Combining improvised music with academic composition and avant-garde jazz is what the audience most recognizes you by.  On the other hand, you also have a career as a performer of traditional Hungarian music on authentic musical instruments. How possible it is to combine these two directions? Does free improvisation have room for improvement of the traditional sound and does traditional music have enough of flexibility to abandon the rules? 

I wouldn’t call it combining. I think that the basis for every type of music is the same and I don’t like to make limits between them. Every type of music can be performed well or badly. Avant-garde jazz includes improvisation, while, unfortunately improvisation lacks in so called classical music or serious music. That’s the problem of the entire system, especially the dogmatic musical teaching and musical life.

As far as the folk music is concerned it is basically closed, conservative. That’s why it’s impossible to improve it. That’s why among other things, I’m not a fan of world music. It’s some strange mixture of everything and anything that, I admit, goes well on the market. But who really cares about it if we talk about artistic music?

Authentic folk music has always in every occasion, at any time, had a specific role in people’s lives. That’s not the case today because life is so much different. I have great respect and try to help as much as I can to those who play and make authentic folk music. It’s important to preserve it somehow, but what we need is music with specific role and specific answers to our lives. Although, that’s a matter of the entire modern art and that matter would take a long time to discuss.

Unfortunately, we see that none of the music genres aren`t able to fulfill the role that music is supposed to have. What we have is a product of crisis and it doesn’t give straight answers. It always leads to a dead end. That’s why it changes so quickly, fashion, style…. Real jazz music has an exquisite and special role there, or at least it did while there were old jazz musicians and while it still wasn’t commercialized. I am convinced that today this tradition, it will sound awkward, is free jazz and improvised, creative music that carries on, and definitely not mainstream jazz that we can hear at the big festivals.

My performance of folk music isn’t worth of mentioning. It’s a kind of love and I rarely have the chance to play it. That’s why I consider that part of my creation to be less important.


You studied the violin, but today you mostly play the viola in bands which are mostly based on avant-garde jazz. How hard or easy it is to play a relatively quiet instrument in a surrounding known for its extreme sound amplitudes characteristic for percussion and horns? Did you have to adapt to other musicians playing during your career or since you became the band leader, they have to adjust to yours? 

Well, for the simple reason that my instrument is quieter, in acoustic occasions the rest of them have to adjust to me. However, that problem is resolved by recording which always represents a new big problem, since it’s difficult to wire an acoustic band so it would approximately sound acoustic , which our music requires.

When we have a chance, we try to play acoustic without amplification. I think that in normal circumstances, instruments can sound balanced without anyone having to play differently. Not to mention that there should sometimes…often in performance be humility towards all partners and music, and if there is, than it will always be demonstrated in the field of acoustics.



Avant-garde music is often abstract and chooses to communicate indirectly, sometimes understated. How important is for it to speak clear language and even send a strong message? One of your latest bands, Szilárd Mezei Vocal Ensemble, has string instruments, percussion and a vocal beside brass instruments. Is this including such pure “humane” sound a risk?

I think that like any other serious art, music sends strong messages. Although, instead of avant-garde, I would rather talk about modern music. Anyway, music actually speaks a language which affects the deeper layers of human being, the spirit, layers we aren’t able to control. That’s why ancient cultures had so much respect for music, since people were aware of its powers, just to mention the Greek theory of music, or ancient China where they had a ministry for music, and they punished severely anyone who deviated from pentatonic, for example.

Like Hamvash said, I’m quoting him by memory, “Music influences the man’s sleeping being”.  I believe that the art cannot speak a clear language, because in essence it represents what’s behind, or beyond that “clear” language of reality, etc. Strong messages can be sent indirectly, understated. Look at the example of the “Deer hunter” movie, that is in my opinion one of the best war movies. Real war isn’t there, except for minute or two. The war is shown indirectly through the consequences of that war, and yet the movie is not about the consequences of the war.

As far as the human voice in my music is concerned, it always fascinated me. One of our larger concerts after war years in 1999, in Denmark, was also with a band where we had a vocal in a couple of compositions. On one hand, using vocals in my mother tongue is kind of a disability because the contemporary type of singing doesn’t exist.

Earlier in the beginning of the ’90 I experimented a lot with the way of singing. With the graphic marking of such singing, I analyzed in contemporary music as well (sprechtgesang at Schönberg, free jazz singers) attempts of different ways of singing. However, that direction also seemed to me not wrong, but insufficient. On the other hand, we have a very good form of singing in Hungarian national music, but all that music is closed. That’s exactly what I’m missing, something between the closed tradition and modern experimental vocal sound.

What my sister Kinga represents as a vocalist is firstly folklore singing, but since she has an extraordinary musical ear, she can easily sing much more complicated songs, so we’re trying to do something in that field too. The lyrics are important as well. I mostly use the poetry of contemporary poets, firstly poems from Vojvodina, my environment.


You were born in Senta and gained musical education in Serbia, but somehow if you hadn’t turned to Hungary, there wouldn’t have been a breakthrough in Europe/the world. Is it just better organization, or Serbia lacks basic elements of infrastructure that would support jazz or avant-garde music which doesn’t have a clear picture of commercial potential?

We must certainly draw a line between jazz and modern improvised music, since mainstream jazz is a kind of jazz which is very close to commercial music and is sold simply as “jazz”. Therefore, we cannot say that it doesn’t have a distinctly profiled commercial potential, on the contrary. It is the first motivation of that music and jazz label is just a false wrapping. There’s a line of mainstream jazz in Hungary, that is mostly, if not the best, than well supported financially.

As far as the contemporary improvised music is concerned, it was mainly created around the deceased György Szabados, who gathered around himself musicians and made his own style of improvisation that later continued in independent formation of people like Mihály Dresch, István Grencsó and others.

In the beginning of the nineties that style was more present than today, more musicians were engaged  in this music and there were more festivals. Somehow, it seems to me that in the last few years there are again more inquires for such music by the young musicians and young audiences. I hope that this will mean something. I also see that tendency in Serbia, Vojvodina (organization “Improstor”) and myself are looking forward to it. There’s also, of course, the festival in Kanjiza and its organizer Zoltán Bicskei who has been nurturing this kind of music for about 30 years.



You played all over Europe. What is the inquiry of the European audience for this type of music when it doesn’t come from elite centers?

Unfortunately, the first reaction is that we are exotic. Of course, on most concerts people know what they are about to listen to. Interest is certainly much bigger than in Hungary or Serbia.


You often write theatrical music. How possible is it to improvise with this kind of creation? A couple of a years ago at the ‘’Ring Ring’’, we watched your band improvise with a movie projection made out of clippings of classic noir movies from the ’30 and the ’40 of the 20th century. How did you manage yourself with this material?

The project that you are mentioning isn’t connected with the way we work in the theater. We played a loose composition in that project together with the movie, but under no circumstances was the idea that music followed the movie. Working in theater is versatile and always depends on who we’re working with, who is the director, what is the concept. I often work with directors, but I still don’t think of myself as a composer of theater music. I work with a small number of directors, with whom I have shared similar opinions of art and theater for many years. AS far as the improvisation is concerned, it’s realistic that it functions in the theater music as well, especially if the music is performed live during the show. And if it’s played from the recording, which is more often the case, than of course it’s imprisoned as much as possible and that it serves the show which is its priority.



What do reviews in magazines/websites like ‘’Downbeat’’ and Allaboutjazz mean for your career and yourself personally?

Those who understand and follow closely told me that it’s a big deal and that of course I should be glad our music is being talked about. I’m especially glad our music is listened to, but it’s always more important to perform live at concerts. I didn’t receive a bunch of calls after those reviews.

I’m missing bad reviews. That’s how it goes on this stage. If one doesn’t write about a CD, than it means it’s not worthy of attention. However, it can be very useful sometimes to write about things that are troubled in critic’s opinions. I rarely see examples of something like that.


You’ve been working with Ervin Malina and Istvan Cik for almost a decade. How and why did you decide to work with them specifically? How much does your music and concerts ( with them in the band) sound the same/different today than at the very beginning of your cooperation, and how much did they personally influence your approach towards composing/improvising?

I cannot remember how and why I chose them. What I would foremost like to point out about them is that, beside the fact that they are remarkable musicians and partners, they’re also good friends, extremely faithful people to improvised music. It never happened that they don’t respond to the call because the music isn’t really profitable. I can honestly say that they very often choose our together music instead of some well paid jobs. It was always important to me to have a good relationship too, with people who I’m working with. And, thank God, I can say that we’ve succeeded doing so for years even with trios and large bands.

As far as our performance 10 years ago an now is concerned, of course there’s a big difference , but that’s the purpose of improvised music, i.e that type of improvised music that we play with  the trio, since there’s also spontaneous improvisation that happens between musicians whom we meet for the first time, but that’s another story. The one I’m talking about is based on cooperation lasting for several years.

We know each other very well both musically and personally. As far as composing is concerned, I have less and less things to write down, since they already know what I’m thinking about. And, vice versa, they participate creatively in making of music that sounds different every time, but  still remains within what was planned. Anyway, I almost always write for certain kind of musicians so that their manner of playing in a way determines what I will write, and what I won’t.



You held several workshops of improvisation in Novi Sad. What is it that you specifically want to pass on to younger musicians and what principles do you stick to in this field of work?

That question leads too far away, it’s hard to sum it up. Basically the problem is musical teaching that is brought down to musical letter, i.e music in notes. That’s why it can happen that an extraordinary and a very talented musician graduates at a music academy and yet knows nothing of improvisation that is in fact the purpose of music and life of course. We don’t even live our lives according to rules, but we always must improvise. György Szabados said that very often. And if we put away music-stand with notes from such a musician, he will not know anything to play.

In my opinion the whole music teaching is upside down. Of course that notes are necessary at a specific moment since our European music culture and heritage are mainly based on music in notes, but that’s not the essence. Learning of the music should start with the one that makes the basic musicality of the man that is in him, that is productive and creative and not just reproductive.

Musicality based on improvisation, in the spirit of such a point of view, the purpose of music , can later help in reproduction of music in notes and can never do harm to it. But if reproduction is taught from the beginning, than it’s very difficult to change perspective. It’s difficult to achieve that open mindedness that is necessary for improvisation and music in general. As far as the workshops are concerned, the basic motive is this, we’re trying to open ears and minds through different exercises, the road to improvisation.



Translation from original article (19.09.2011): Vladislava Vitić



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