Bálint András Varga is a former head of promotion for Universal Edition and a figure who has to his name a long engagement with contemporary music. His previous books include interviews with Xenakis and Lutoslawski – with both of whom, as with Kurtag, he has had close ties – and on the dust jacket of this new volume on Kurtag, one finds an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Boulez, Peter Eötvös and Kent Nagano.
The book is compiled of three interviews conducted over a number of years, along with a couple of texts by Kurtag in homage to his close friend Ligeti. Neat and well organised, with a catalogue of works, personalia and a comprehensive bibliography, it will mainly be of interest to Kurtág enthusiasts; but it also offers insights on contemporary music, the life of the composer and the mid-twentieth century intellectual-artistic milieu in Europe that will be of wider interest.
Kurtag is notoriously reticent; one imagines he says all he wants to say in his music. When he speaks, Varga tells us at the start of the book, Kurtag 'hardly ever talks in complete sentences… he leaves many of them unfinished or changes direction mid-course.' It follows that though a volume offering Kurtag's views on his own music will be precious, it certainly won't read like a voluble Stravinsky with Robert Craft. And though this volume isn't a rip-roarer, it doesn't make any claim to be. Rather it is a book that in a modest way does its job well – like Kurtag himself.
Its discourse is not so fragmented as you might expect. This is likely due to Varga's having allowed Kurtag and his wife Márta the opportunity to look back over the transcribed interview after the fact and to emend or add to it as they saw fit. The result is a smooth flow, and an ability to elaborate (one imagines) small anecdotes from the initial conversation into fuller accounts. But it also makes the tide of conversation a safe one in its ebb and flow, lacking perhaps that element of danger that would provide an occasional quickening instability. Given that fragmentedness is something one associates with Kurtag's music – allusiveness and an unsteady proximity to silence – it would be interesting to read the undoctored text, syntax rendered with splinters intact.
The interview format ostensibly sees Varga ask Kurtag – accompanied by his wife Marta – the same three questions on three separate occasions over intervals of a number of years (the interviews took place in 1982-85, 1996 and 2007-8). The intention is to see what changes occur over time in Kurtag's opinions and in the weight of his recollections (not a lot as it turns out). The three questions chosen are whether listening to any particular piece of music had brought about a fundamental change in Kurtag's musical thinking; to what extent the sounds of his immediate environment are of significance to his creativity; and up to what point one can speak of a personal style, and where self-repetition begins. As much as to garner straight answers the questions are designed to prompts reflection and reminiscence and to provoke unforseen memory. As it turns out Varga does not really stick to this programme, preferring to let the theme of the interview be determined by what has arisen in previous conversation.
Kurtag's mind wanders freely, visiting various events from his past in close succession and without respect for their chronology. You get the sense that the past has a distinct reality for him that isn't limited to being a time that has passed: it is instead ever present with its own haunting reality. Memories of how hearing Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony at an early age led to his wanting to compose music lead on to memories of dancing and playing piano duets with his mother as a child, this gradually merging into an account of his well-known mental troubles during his time in Paris in the 1950s befoe moving back again. Certain key moments in Kurtag's life seem to have for him a magnetic pull, an attraction that informs upon everything else.
The relation of this early Paris stint is particularly fascinating, the pain then experienced rendered vividly: 'In 1956, the world had literally collapsed around me – not just the external world but my inner world too.' A disturbing account is given of how his state developed: 'I made angular movements, almost like playing a pantomime. I even tried to alter my handwriting to an angular, crabbed style. The next stage of this was my starting to make angular forms from matches. A whole symbolic world evolved. I perceived myself as in a worm-like state, totally diminished in humanity. The matchstick forms and balls of dust, along with black stubs (I also smoked) represented me.' The scene appears like something created and which in turn engendered creation in the mind of its subject.
In the second interview Varga focuses on drawings that Kurtag created around this time, to which Kurtag partly ascribes his breaking free from his mental malaise. Handsome prints of these paintings are reproduced, along with paintings that Kurtag made during the time of another period of creative paralysis in the early seventies, out of which Játékok was born. These abstract monochrome drawings and paintings, by turns spindly and blotchy, are compared with Kurtag’s music for the light they might reciprocally shed on each other. As Kurtag notes, all of his work may be viewed as an ongoing autobiography, albeit one not written in language.
Throughout the interviews we get insight into Kurtag's mindset as a composer. For him, as it was for Schoenberg, composition is largely something involving the unconscious: 'When I know how to do something, when I know what the form will be like, what kind of variations or systems will be in the piece – then I normally don’t write it.' This is obviously not to say that conscious craft doesn't play a role. It is clear from various other remarks made that Kurtag's technical ability and comprehension of his material stems in a large part from his study of scores – an activity he still engages in, speaking in one interview, for instance, of having closely analysed Bartok's fifth string quartet recently. We are also told that Kurtag's appreciation for Webern and Bartok did not in the first come about instinctively through hearing the music. Instead it was through studying the scores and understanding how the works were constructed that Kurtag's appreciation bloomed.
Entitled 'Key Words,' the third interview is by far the longest. Here Varga's approach is to bring to Kurtag certain words he associates with Kurtag's music, for example rite, silence, disperato, memory and so on. Predictably enough, Kurtag does not much elaborate on these leads, preferring to accede to their relevance while bringing the talk back to the more practical matters of specific compositions, their attributes and the experience he has had with performers. The result is an interview peppered with anecdotes and remarks especially relevant to prospective performers of Kurtag's music.
Looming large in this is Kurtag's wife Márta, who contributes in answering the questions. Varga describes their relationship as being one of 'complete harmony', with Márta referred to by the composer as his 'projected self.' 'Those who have experienced the concerts of György and Márta Kurtág, have been able to sense their human and artistic oneness,' a oneness whereby Márta has shared the composer's life for the past sixty years and now too most of his memories. While touching, this relationship is so close that the two can sometimes appear in their sum as one combined or cleft person.
By Kurtag's request the latter part of the book is taken up with 'Mementos of a Friendship', a portmanteau of two texts written by him on his lifelong friend and compatriot György Ligeti. Both of these texts were originally given as speeches: one in 1993 when Ligeti was alive, the other in 2007 after he had died. For the former Kurtag devised a visual aid whereby his memories occupy different positions on an imaginary stage; for example 'back corner, top, left,' and 'corner, back, right, top'; a technique that for Kurtag eased the process of writing and allowed the memories to emerge by their own accord. The text is mostly made up of anecdotes, moving backwards and forwards through time to give a rounded and animated portrait of Ligeti as Kurtag knew him.
The tone is light and full of affection, admiration and respect. An account is given, for instance, of Ligeti's first arrival in Paris, late on Christmas Eve 1957 with Kurtag awaiting him at the Gare du Nord. Upon arriving, Ligeti proceeds apace on foot through the streets, shirking the metro, leading Kurtag and another friend towards the latter's apartment, the location of which he already knows through having known the outlay of the city since his obsession in youth with maps (which fed into his inventing his own imaginary land, Kylwyria). This image leads to a reflection on how this preoccupation of Ligeti's youth seems hereditarily shared by his son Lucas, and then onto how its encyclopaedic eccentricity helped inspire Kurtag to come up with the capacious form of Játékok. Myriad other scenes flash by: musical evenings in Budapest with the composers and their wives singing tunes from Mozart operas, Ligeti storming out of a production of Le Grand Macabre in Paris in the early eighties; and in the end his deathbed scene, by which time he had lost the ability to speak.
The seeming disorder of Kurtag's recollections hides their thoughtful and discrete, if unorthodox ordering. These two texts on Ligeti are the only published texts to ever have been penned by Kurtag, and give insight on his general use of form and expression. As with the rest of the book there is much to pore over in them; and in Kurtag's voice – one very ably literate – scenes from the past shift about in response. Referring to Ligeti, he says that despite his death, 'For me he is more alive than ever.' This is true of the past in general for Kurtag, as is evident in the shuffling through his memories that occurs in the interviews.
Though the overall tone of the interviews is sometimes a little dry or even reverential, this is perhaps necessary because of the subject being interviewed – who would likely not yield much information from a racier or more pressing approach. Varga's book, fed with its subject's life and experiences, is probably the closest we will get to Kurtag's music by way of his voice.
By Liam Cagney
Photo: Kurtag courtesy of Editio Musica Budapest
CD Review: The piano solo Kurtag's Ghosts played by Marino Formenti on Kairos
Concert Review: Stele performed by the BBC Scottish SO at the Proms 2007
Concert Review: …quasi una fantasia… performed by the BBC SO at the Barbican