The training I received at the Academy was difficult and at times harsh, but those who survived the experience emerged as real musicians.

Sir Georg Solti

“One must be able to give an account of each second and each note” – Interview with the composer Máté Bella


How can a young composer make a breakthrough in the contemporary international music scene? Where do applied composition and classical quality coincide? These questions were raised in an interview with the Erkel-prize winning composer and member of the Liszt Academy of Music academic staff, Máté Bella prior to his two forthcoming concert events.

On 6 March, your most recent work, Tabula Smaragdina is being taken to the stage in a large-scale concert production. How did it occur to you to set an ancient esoteric text to music? 

It was at a Sunday lunch when my father and I were talking about what Latin-language text I could use for my latest composition that would match the other piece presented at the concert, Andriessen’s De Tijd (''Time''). We read a number of literary works, including Béla Hamvas’s philological interpretation of the Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet).  The text consisting of thirteen sentence-long principles is rather well-defined, and its length seemed to me just right for a 20-minute long composition. Its content is fascinating, as it presents a comprehensive system summarising the interrelatedness of man and the universe. It provides us with a universal recipe to create a natural or perfect order of things. It is no accident that it has captured many a great thinker, among them, Isaac Newton.


Máté Bella. Fotó: VivienNaomi Photography


Apparently, the principles imply a series of associations, but how can a philosophical treatise be formulated via the language of music? 

While we listen to music, time becomes relative, it goes fast, or it slows down. My composition aims at slowing down and ultimately, shutting out the sense of time completely. This process is facilitated by two orchestras and a soprano soloist. The orchestras play soft, lyrical chords, one flowing into the other, like in an impressionist painting. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The soprano soloist – Lilla Horti -, however, sings a very concrete thematic material based on the surviving Latin text of the Tabula Smaragdina.


At the upcoming concert of Studio 5, the audience will be presented with works written by contemporary young composers, among them your own composition, Lethe.  With what vision was Studio 5 established, and what type of event are you about to stage this time?  What is the central theme of your piece?

A year and a half ago, Studio 5 was founded as every one of us, five composers sensed a large gap in the relationship between contemporary classical music and the audience. The ultimate purpose of this musical partnership is to create an audience for contemporary classical music, which is a gradual process, and we need to test continually what methods are popular with the public. Although we are five different individuals, we share the same beliefs: we all write compositions to be performed, and a high standard is absolutely crucial to us all. At the 23 February concert, all pieces but one are written for strings, and the transition between them will be filled with the brief interludes of an erhu player. The event was titled ’Live Animation’, as the music will be accompanied by atmospheric plotless videos. I composed Lethe on commission of the Peter Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation in 2014, its first performance being in Munich. It is a work composed for strings: two string quintets and a strings ensemble. In Greek mythology, Lethe refers to the river of the unmindfulness of the underworld: upon drinking from its water, the dead souls would forget about all their sorrows of this world.  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi also mentions the river metaphor in his Flow theory, and I was inspired by the notions of drifting and flowing.


Despite your young age, you are internationally acclaimed, have had great professional achievements since 2003 at prestigious competitions. What age could be considered young in today’s classical music scene, and what milestones do you regard as determining in your career path so far?

In contemporary classical music, it is very hard to acquire fame at an international level. In my opinion, you are considered young until the age of about forty, so I still belong to the younger generation. As a composer in my thirties, I am still in the process of unfolding my potentials as far as an international career goes. I’m in a fortunate position, as I get several Western European invitations every year. A composer launching a career must participate in competitions in order to be taken note of. A presence in the media is of particular importance. In my case, this breakthrough came with the composition competition of the UMZF (New Hungarian Music Forum) in 2009, in which I won 1st prize in the category of chamber music. I was very young at the time and had never composed a piece for a large- scale ensemble, so I still find this accomplishment a crucial step on my path.


You feel most comfortable in a multi-genre world: your works range from pop to contemporary classical music in various styles, which is quite a unique thing. 

It seems to be a rather conventional attitude – I too had it as a classical musician – that those working in applied composition must necessarily give up on high musical standards, since they are not their own masters anymore, having to collaborate with several artists at the same time. I also raised myself the questions: can I identify with this path and where should I set my boundaries? Then I realised that the separation of classical musical thinking and the applied composition tasks would enable me to work with self-confidence in every genre. I am not in favour of asking classical musicians to participate in a pop music production; I rather strive to bring about something unique or I write purely electronic music. Contemporary classical music and pop music have different focusses: they are both enjoyable, though their purposes differ. Nevertheless, for me, pop and theatre music represent a kind of side path, as I primarily consider myself a contemporary classical composer.


In your popular music endeavours, to what extent does the collaboration with other artists represent a difficulty?

Certain clashes may occur, but all in all, the adventure of joint composition was a positive experience. Although currently I am working less for the theatre, I have learnt a great deal from it, for instance, how to handle the audience, how effective music dramaturgy works that attracts the attention of the audience. This applies to pop music as well, in which one must sum up the message concisely in three minutes. Some people claim that pop music is not more than four chords, but I disagree and consider this view a prejudice, as it is well possible to produce high-quality work in this genre too. Having fragmentary knowledge of the topic, people tend to attribute many properties also to contemporary classical music. The reason behind this phenomenon is that the audience does not understand the piece. If the composition, however, is able to guide and engage the attention of the listeners, their opinion might change.


Making contemporary classical music attractive and comprehensible for the Y and Z generations is one of your declared goals. By what means can a classical musician reach out to young people?

Contemporary classical music and pop music are worlds apart. Nevertheless, the members of the Y and Z generations listening to pop music now will be the future audience of classical music. If we cannot establish a relationship with them, classical music with really end up in the display cases of museums. Reaching out to young people is also the responsibility of concert organisers, not only that of the composers. The context of a conventional concert hall often frustrates teenagers and young adults; it is not their natural environment, as they mainly consume culture online. We can’t and don’t have to change this all together, instead, concert organisers should think of offering alternative concert situations, and musicians ought to increase their media presence. It is still not stressed enough in Hungary today that no matter how talented a classical musician may be, without an appropriate website and a Facebook page, they will not come to be noticed. If the online information is insufficient or inadequate, people will not attend their concerts, however gifted they may be.


Do you therefore regard an intensive media presence as the key factor in accessing the world of young people?

Partly yes. While working in the pop music scene I learned that one must be able to give an account of each second and each note. I try to make sure that my pieces should come across as strong, impressive and engaging, otherwise I lose the attention of the audience. The Y generation can only be addressed successfully, if we are aware of musical references, which are unfortunately not compositions written by Beethoven or Mozart, but popular music from 2016 or 2017; tracks composed before 2010 are regarded as old. If a composer knows these songs and is aware of the fact that they are full of all kinds of effects, he or she will then understand that today’s youth won’t get scared of exciting solutions and sounds.


Then there is mutual interplay, dynamism here. The composer cannot isolate him – or herself from the needs of the audience, but the listeners also have to be open. Can’t it be a potential danger in this situation, however, that composers will eventually over adapt to their audience? Will they not lose their individual personality?

The above-mentioned issues do matter, but they are not the reason why we compose music. You can either decide not to follow the trend – in which case, fewer people will listen to you -  or you can decide to follow it, but they you shouldn’t fall into the trap of selling popular music with classical musical standards. You must become familiar with the music pieces your audience listens to and then pick those you can identify with. This is what you must harmonise your personality with to the best of your knowledge and talent. 


Anna Unger