Tibor Szemzö

Conscience: Narrative Chamber Pieces

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Issued by Leo Fegin's visionary record label in 1993, this collection of Hungarian composer Tibor Szemzo's chamber pieces with spoken text is unlike anything else of its kind. While it has certainly been attempted and accomplished many times, the pairing of a chamber ensemble with a reader, more often than not, offers mixed results. Szemzo has already accomplished one major project of this type with his recordings of the texts of Ludwig Wittgenstein with sound collages and chamber ensemble, and here he purifies his environment further on three major works dating from 1981, 1984, and 1888, respectively. Szemzo most recalls Gavin Bryars with his slow tempos, intentionally limited harmonic range, and repetitive phrasing -- however, this is hardly "minimalism." It is instead a miniature landscape painted in lush textures and colors with tonality as the basis for building a larger work. That "larger work" is the scope of Szmemzo's vision. These works all have the feel of film director Wim Wenders' auto-documentaries. Films such as Tokyo-Ga, Lisbon Story, and Room 666 all offer an intimate perspective on the perplexing situations one encounters while interacting with other humans on the planet. Szmemzo's compositions are like this too, as in "Skullbase Fracture," where a narrator tells an unbelievably strange and surreal story of an encounter with a man on a bus, all the while, no matter the drama or lack thereof, his chamber strings play the same eight measures over and over. With a larger ensemble comprised of reeds, winds, and percussion -- and a shorter running time -- Szmemzo offers us music to accompany the "Optimistic Lecture" by Rabbi Akiba and Miklos Erdély. In truth, this piece is a Yom Kippur song composed in memory of Erdély, with the great Jewish cantor Marcel Lorand. A written text is read underneath the singing as the band plays a fugue-like big-band vamp -- à la Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabakin Big Band -- throughout with some of the saxophones taking a bar or two for improvisation. It's the most exotic thing here and rightfully so -- it's more wonderfully exotic because musically none of this seems like a stretch, it all belongs together under the roof of tonal harmony and sharp, incisive rhythmic composition. The final work, "The Sex Appeal of Death" from 1981, with a childlike voice as its narrator, is easily the most disturbing and brilliant work here. Its text comes from an essay by Tibor Hajas, examining death via the attraction of simulacra and brokered images that are both results of and create ideologies of attraction toward death because they are mediated in the mirror of themselves as somehow above their situation. It is the only non-musical piece herein that the narrator speaks rhythmically, droningly precise in a childlike sing-song voice -- the composer's then seven-year-old daughter. Its hypnotic appeal is chant-like, with only sound collage and small percussive elements to accompany it. It is riveting in its method and the dark truth of its message. Even in these early works, Tibor Szemzo was forging an individual identity, one that draws on all the traditions he had been exposed to during his 20th century -- attractive and repulsive, and creating works of subtle yet provocative beauty.

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