Tall, close-cropped, and monastically grim, Gyorgy Kurtag is a man of famously few words. "No, no, no, no, no!" is his commonest utterance, accompanied by groans and sighs, during his sought-after lessons. Musicians like to recall, as an example of his expressive economy, his reply when asked what one work was about: "Something happens!" accompanied by a fist banged on a table.
This parsimony also characterises his musical output. He was 33 before he was willing to give any of his works an opus number; over the following 14 years, he created less than 90 minutes of music. He justified its slow gestation with the words: "The child decides when it wants to be born, not its mother." A typical Kurtag piece may last a minute and consist of an exploration of the space bounded by a mere handful of notes. The Kafka lines he once set for piano and violin enshrine a quintessentially Kurtagian thought: "There is a goal, but no path to it. What we call a path is hesitation."
His own hesitations delight the ear and fascinate the mind, because these one-minute jewels are strung into mysteriously evocative chains. As 20th-century music's promotional tumults die away in the 21st century, Kurtag is one of the few colossi left standing, even if he is wreathed in oracular mists. He has given just two authorised interviews in his life; he halted the transmission of a four-part video-portrait on Hungarian television, after the first two parts had displeased him. A would-be musicological exegete has been beavering away for decades, but is not expected to deliver.
But from his closest collaborators, you hear only devotion. His record-producer, Manfred Eicher, compares working with Kurtag to working with Jean-Luc Godard. "He's so deep inside his creative world. He plants his ideas, then takes them out of the earth, then replants them repeatedly – all in the quest for the right intonation, the right turn of phrase, the right sort of silence." For violist Kim Kashkashian, Kurtag's demands came as a shock. "To work with him, you have to put music on a higher plane than anything else. A sick child, a string that may be about to break – you have to learn to regard such things as irrelevant intrusions. He expects everyone to operate at his own level of intensity." Daunting? "No. You just have to put yourself inside that head."
Rachel Beckles Willson, who is the prime mover behind the South Bank's forthcoming Kurtag season, decided that the only way she was going to get inside that head was by going to study with him in Hungary. "At the first five-hour class I sat in on, with groups of instrumentalists coming and going, nobody was allowed to play for long before he stopped them. His words came out in painful spasms, and when he demonstrated on the piano, he groaned along with the music. But you sensed something extraordinary was happening." If you graduate to being a performer of his music, she says, you're not allowed to find your own way into it. "You are his voice, just a piece of putty, and that's a painful situation to be in – particularly for singers, who can be destroyed by it."
Who is this man? The biographical facts are sparse but illuminating. Born in 1926 to Hungarian parents in the Romanian village of Lugoj, he played the piano with his mother from the age of five, and when he heard Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" on the radio at 13, he decided to become a composer. Since, for him, this meant worshipping at the feet of his hero Bartok, he beat a path with some difficulty to Budapest, but when he arrived at the Liszt Academy he found the black flag flying, because Bartok had just died in New York.
The musical world he moved into was circumscribed by politics: very few works by Western modernists were available, and Kurtag only heard Stravinsky thanks to his fellow-student Gyorgy Ligeti's record collection. He developed into a notable pianist, wrote a few socialist-realist works that he later disowned, and in 1957 went to Paris, where he promptly had a breakdown. Willson attributes this to delayed shock at the Soviet invasion of Hungary: he was never a card-carrying Communist, but he was an ardent socialist, and his god had failed.
He was studying with Milhaud and Messiaen, but the tutorial relationship that released his block was with a psychologist who made him go back to basics and explore all the possible connections between individual notes. "I [had] realised that nothing I had believed to constitute the world was true," he later declared. Instead of paying rent to his landlady, he would take her children for walks in the park. "A magnificent place, with fantastic trees. The impression made on me by those trees in winter was my first reality. That lasted until the spring, and the appearance of my second reality: birds."
And in the same cautious way, he began to compose: short pieces, containing worlds of feeling in a few musical brush-strokes, the template for his creation ever since. "One can make music out of almost nothing." Like Bartok, he unlocked his genius through composing simple piano pieces for children: over the past 30 years, these "Games" have grown into a multifaceted work filling five fat books dealing with tempi, textures, and literary-musical references. The other mode that liberated his genius was the lament: the in memoriams that stud his oeuvre are intense and powerful. He was too diffident to teach composition in Budapest (where he subsequently sat out 30 more years of Communism). His classes were in performance: "I understand music only when I teach."
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Some of Kurtag's pieces last seconds rather than minutes, but they're a world away from the miniatures of Webern. Some are, technically speaking, atonal, but have nothing to do with the aridly intellectualised world of Boulez and co. Kurtag's voice is richly and indelibly Hungarian, and if one senses the imminent presence of Bartok, one also hears Bach. Or, as he himself puts it: "My mother tongue is Bartok, and Bartok's mother tongue was Beethoven." He has written a song cycle on the sermons of a 16th-century Hungarian reform preacher; he learned Russian in order to read Dostoyevsky, and relishes setting Russian words to music. And it's this rootedness in the great European tradition that the South Bank/Royal Academy season, entitled Signs, Games and Messages, will stress.
Tomorrow, the composer and his wife Marta will open the event with a rare four-hand recital; 3 May will see a collaboration between the composer, the Arditti Quartet, and his electronic-composer son Gyorgy Jr, where literally anything may happen, including walk-outs. The first half of the programme will consist of Kurtag grunting and groaning his way through an exegesis of this "dialogue" for string quartet plus electronics; the second half will, in theory, consist of the dialogue itself. The composer has already presided over several try-outs of this work, but all have ended in disaster. Rachel Beckles Willson predicts that this time, there will be "at least one gigantic row".
No, no, no, no, NO!
Signs, Games and Messages will run at the South Bank Centre (020-7960 4242) and the Royal Academy of Music (020-7873 7300) from tomorrow until 10 May
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