Hungarian Minimalism: Zoltan Jeney March 23, 1982

One thing you notice when you view new music from Paris instead of New York is that Paris offers a more international perspective. From a vantage point halfway between Washington and Moscow, global tensions have two sides, and aesthetic ideas seem to drift in from all directions. This is partly history. Gamelan ensembles and Indian singers began coming to Paris long before it ever occurred to producers to try such presentations in New York. People and ideas from Algeria and other Arab countries still pass this way often as a result of France’s colonial history. American art is readily available, too, as in the current Jackson Pollock show at the Center Pompidou. You also become more aware of the Eastern bloc. In fact, about the only kinds of music I haven’t heard since leaving the United States are country-and-western and salsa.

Sociologically things seem pretty mixed too. I have met composers from Eastern and Western Europe and North and South America who are fully accepted in Parisian experimental music circles, and that too feels different from New York. I can think of only a few composers active in SoHo who were not born in the U.S. or Canada, and they tend to work in fringe areas. It now seems a little odd to remember how rarely discussions about New York styles versus California styles ever verged into international questions.

One special benefit of my time in Paris is that I met a young Hungarian musicologist, Marta Grabocs, who was able to tell me a lot about new music activity in her country. It would be relatively difficult for her to obtain the money and permission to visit the U.S., but she can come to Paris rather easily for periods of study and research, and has been here this winter, attending the lectures of Daniel Charles, who is probably the best Cage scholar in the world, and going to many concerts. She talked particularly about the New Music Studio in Budapest, which was formed in 1969 by three Hungarian composers, Zoltan Jeney, Laszlo Sary, and Laszlo Vidovsky, and a group of eight or 10 instrumentalists. She also lent me several records issued by the state Hungaroton label, one of which is worth describing in detail.

Zoltan Jeney, a man in his mid-forties, is a dedicated minimalist who was clearly influenced by American innovations when they first reached Hungary in the very early ’70s, but who has taken the music in some highly personal symbolic and conceptual directions over the last 10 years. The Jeney album I heard includes four pieces, three of which I found completely compelling.

‘Impho 102/6’ is a piece for six tuned antique cymbals. It has a wonderful tinkling quality, so high that at first I thought I was hearing the same sound over and over. Only a little later did I realize that the pitches were changing. The piece is of course restricted to the six pitches of the instruments, played by six players, and it maintains a steady, moderately fast beat throughout its nine minutes. But within these restrictions, there is a consistent stream of interesting details. Sometimes every other beat is a repeated pitch, which becomes a sort of droning tonic. Sometimes the center of gravity shifts to another note. Sometimes a cymbal you haven’t heard for a while comes back at an unexpected moment, creating a level of surprise that would practically require rifle shots in the context of a traditional symphony. Sometimes you think you are hearing pitches that aren’t really there, because of the complex overtones of little cymbals. Sometimes you can discern low mysterious difference tones. Always, the music tinkles on with what I would like to call a sumptuous delicacy, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

‘Orpheus’ Garden’ mixes a lovely combination of two winds, two strings, and four keyboards, and again the musical vocabulary is rigorously restricted. This time we listen for 15 minutes to short phrases of three or four sustained chords. The pitches remain more or less in the same mode for long periods of time, but they change a little from phrase to phrase, and the orchestration shifts continually. There is clearly a rationale behind the changes, and at some points I can even predict what will happen 1982/on-the-fringe-of-paris-pierre-marietan-eliane-radigue-horacio-vaggione, but I can’t exactly tell what is going on. My favorite theory is that the notes and orchestration are somehow working their way through a set of permutations, though I’m not sure. It is not the kind of system one can figure out easily. Nor is that necessary, of course. The rich colors of the flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano, harpsichord, electric organ, and accordion, along with the inevitable phrase structure are quite captivating all by themselves.

‘End Game’ is one of the most unusual piano pieces I have ever heard. The whole history of the piano has been oriented toward virtuoso textures and unusual colors, and even the simplest piano music generally requires all 10 fingers. ‘End Game’ begins with a dissonant chord that is sustained for a long time, but from here on the seven-minute piece could all be played with one finger. It is just a simple melody, moving in a rather slow steady beat, and it doesn’t even use the extreme registers. For a while I couldn’t believe it, and thought the composer must be a little naive. Didn’t he ever take an orchestration class? Didn’t he understand that a piece like this would be much more appropriate for clarinet or cello? But after a while I began to realize that the decision to go with piano was actually very knowing. A wind or stringed instrument would have added too much color, too much inflection, and what the melody really needed was a drier, more consistent color. The piano was actually a perfect solution. Nor is the piece demeaning to the instrument or the performer. It is always hard to play really well, regardless of how ‘easy’ a piece may be, or how many fingers are required. And as I listened to this pianist, Zoltan Kocsis, I could admire the unusual consistency of his touch as much as if he had been playing Liszt. Perhaps more.

The melody of ‘End Game,’ like the variations in ‘Orpheus’ Garden,’ is sort of a puzzle, and I had the feeling it could be decoded if I only had the key. And since I couldn’t read the Hungarian liner notes, I figured I had better check back with the woman who had given me the record. I was glad I did. She explained that, while no specifics are given on the record jacket, and the composer refuses to write program notes, it is common knowledge that ‘End Game’ is a literal translation of a particular chess game. ‘Orpheus’ Garden’ is probably derived from a painting of the same name by Paul Klee, though she didn’t know exactly how, and ‘Impho 102/6’ apparently remains a mystery to everyone but the composer. I’m not sure I even want someone to tell me more than that. I prefer to keep listening, and to try to work these lovely puzzles by myself. They are as fascinating as the Rubik cube which, come to think of it, is another Hungarian invention.


Here the anthology departs from its theme from new music in New York. It seemed important to include a few of the articles I wrote about composers in other places, not only to show the change in my own perspective around this time, but also because we wanted to lead the reader into a more international understanding of the subject. Finally, minimal music never was strictly American. People in Budapest and Warsaw and Paris and many other places were working in this direction at the same time, sometimes having almost no contact with their American counterparts. It might be added that this anthology would not exist without Paul Panhuysen, whose Maciunas Ensemble has long been the chief proponent of minimal music in Holland.