Technique should create itself from spirit not from mechanics.

Franz Liszt to Lina Raman

Parity – Ferenc Sebő and Kristóf Bacsó

17 July 2019

Fantasy, education, taste, music - these were the topics discussed with two outstanding Hungarian musicians. Guitar and hurdy-gurdy player and folklorist Ferenc Sebő and jazz saxophonist and composer Kristóf Bacsó are both members of different generations, moving in various music scenes, yet both deep-thinkers, whose opinion often point in the same direction.

Could there be musical talent without imagination? In other words can musical consciousness, knowledge of musical tradition and technique substitute a lack of fantasy and inspiration?

F. S. – Of course not! Just because somebody learns English, it does not mean he can become Shakespeare. However, there is no Shakespeare who could express himself without knowing the language.

K. B. – Knowledge of traditions and the technique are means to formulate our fantasy. A kind of abstract thinking, an inner creative world is definitely needed to learn music. All children have this; I see it in my own kids too. The problem is rather with education. With time, these freely and creatively flowing thoughts are slowly being ruined by the school or school system, and the compulsion to conform to various things replaces them. Certainly, we get better results if children are left with the education of the ancient creative self, and that is being developed.

 

 

Ferenc Sebő has been teaching at the Folk Music Department since 2007 and Kristóf Bacsó at the Jazz Department since 2012. In your opinion how permissible is it for a student to let their imagination free and look for new roads or is it better to bridle their fantasy and stick to an established practice?

F. S. – I want to respond with the language comparison again. If I subscribe to a language course my task is not to let my imagination free but to quickly learn what is taught there. It is wrong to think that 'art' can be taught. We should not even try. Van Gogh or Wagner were not whom they became because they were excellent art students of an 'artistic education'. One can and should teach ground knowledge, language, writing and reading. There is no use in promising a student that with hard work he can become an artist. Buddha was quite remarkable, yet he went to all schools of his age, followed all 'established methods' – with exceptional results – and only after this did he let his imagination free and established the system of his teaching. So, it is better to handle everything in its place. Learning is one process, and creating another. It is self-deception if we are trying to rationalize work with 'searching new ways'.

K. B. – To me, the obvious is that someone comes to the classes already having some creative idea about things. I can only speak for the Jazz Department, education at other departments is perhaps more about traditions, but I think these are inseparable like yin and yang. I am also sure that even a church musician needs some kind of improvisation and composition, as it helps them understand the musical language and tradition he plays. We mostly do creative tasks at the Jazz Department, but knowing the traditions is also very important, which is why we do stylistic exercises so that students can go under the skin of certain musicians for few minutes.

 

What is your opinion about the mixing of various music genres, particularly the mix of Hungarian folk music and jazz? Does this fusion help or rather hinder the promotion of the genre?

K. B. – Jazz has always been about mixing something with something. If it is not mixing Hungarian folk music, then it is mixing others. It’s unimaginable for it to not work this way, otherwise it becomes a static thing. When jazz and Hungarian folk music meet in one person, this is what happens, and it is beautiful. I like it a lot too. I think it promotes jazz, although I am not particularly eager to use these labels. It is easy to categorize things, but when someone goes to, e.g. a Dresch Quartet concert, he does not go to a folk-jazz concert, but to a Dresch Quartet concert. Let’s speak more about music and not genres.

F. S. – A good composer can afford anything; there are no specific recipes for this. Unfortunately. How simple it would be! If we want to enter with a lesser known language, it would be a cheap solution to mix our production with already known templates, only so that it is accepted sooner. In music, you only combine various elements when they organically relate to each other both in terms of structure and function. Anyways, fame is only a short-term remedy that quickly falls in abeyance.

 

Do you draw inspiration from other types of music, particularly jazz and folk music?

F. S. – Many types of music settle in our heads over time. This comes more from our education rather than from the absolute value of each genre. However, it is evident that one does not operate with a randomly picked language as if going by a recipe but looks for a mode of expression matching his message based on knowledge and associations mixing in his head. I do not know the complicated and expanded world of jazz enough not to step on the most basic clichés just because they are already known.

K. B. – You can find such elements in several compositions of mine, but you have to know that I was not been raised around folk music; therefore, it would be false for me to take certain things from folk music. However, I very much love particularly the already adapted folk music works. On my Circular album, I have a song called Variations on a Folksong, and you can hear these influences on my recent albums too.

 

Bartók once said in an interview that he does not find the introduction of jazz necessary to Hungary, as jazz is also a folk music, the folk music of Afro- Americans, and we also 'have beautiful folk music, it is unnecessary to throw ourselves in the arms of jazz.' Despite this, many great jazz compositions inspired by folk music or Bartók are born worldwide. What is your opinion on this?

K. B. – Jazz meant something else in those times. Jazz became a more abstract genre after the birth of bebop, around 1945, until then it functioned as rather entertaining music. I understand the question, but I feel it is not relevant any more than Bartók and we are not speaking of the same jazz.

F. S. – I agree with Bartók, although he didn’t even know how many young people would throw themselves into the arms of 'native music'. I also don’t mind if we are rummaging in century-old European roots. Maybe one day even this genre will achieve the same marketing attention jazz has – although as a result of much effort. I know that there are many more people, who speak English in the world, yet I do not think Hungarian should be stopped. However, Hungarian should also not be sung as if it was English, like we used to do when we were young, and it was the trend, but only to sell ourselves. To whom? I think one should properly learn Hungarian and English as well.

 

I turn now to Ferenc Sebő: You managed to launch the dance house movement in the Seventies despite a lot of hardship, effort, and a significant opposition, as many challenged the modernity of folk music and the raison d’être of the revival of folk traditions. Dance houses have been operating for almost fifty years now, but what do you think, would such a movement be successful in today’s circumstances?

F. S. – The many hardships were precisely the result of us being continuously targeted from the bastion of the well-known clichés ('sad music', operetta, chanson, Hungarian song, jazz, hit music... I could go on and on…). And the effort didn’t go into 'marketing' and convincing others, but into us. We liked this world of music, so unknown then, yet belonging so strongly to us that we had the 'crazy' idea that we should learn it. The fact that so many followed us can only be explained by the bewitching character of the material. Even for us, it only became clear later what a fantastic self-expressing opportunity it was, and gave us self-healing for today’s abandoned 'buyers'. Is this not modern? Then what is?

 

 

I am now asking Kristóf Bacsó: jazz in Hungary became an accepted genre around the mid-sixties. You were not yet alive, but you must have learnt about the first two-three decades of Hungarian jazz from your colleagues. What do you think, are jazz musicians in a better position today than in the Seventies?

K. B. – From a certain perspective, it is easier, from others it is harder. The fact that today any music and information is one click away has created a situation where also musicians can access everything quickly; thus, they get to levels that earlier were harder to reach as well. On the other side live music from the Sixties-Seventies had perhaps a better reputation, as there wasn’t music everywhere. We are talking about the tape-recorder, radio age: it was also a sort of event when one turned on the machine itself, and even that was more than a mere click. It had some kind of a ritual, not to mention the ritual a concert had. It is harder to find opportunities in today’s world overflooded with music. There are many more musicians, more competitions, and even the international flow is more significant. There are many more cultural programs a day than in those times.

 

Today’s pop music mostly lacks musical fantasy, absorption, and fastidiousness without which no good music can exist, whether we are talking about classical music, jazz or folk music. What is your opinion about today’s pop music, and the general level of musical taste and education?

K. B. – What is pop music? If pop music is what we hear on the radio, then my opinion is very low. Unfortunately, I listen to some radio while driving. We always fight with my kids as to which we should listen to. My problem is that almost every song is the same. They sound the same, the same song is twisted and changed, but I cannot distinguish which one is which. It relates to the same masscult that is not only present in music, but also fashion, or even fast food culture. This phenomenon is also present in other areas of life. However, if one searches, one can find exciting pop music too, therefore we cannot state that none exists, although whatever serves the masscult will never broadcast it.

S. F. – I am not too keen on mixing stage production problems with those of everyday music, as different rules apply to both. In my view, the so-called 'folk music' in reality is historic pop – the past of everyday music. However, it was the people and their communities that shaped it, matching their own needs over the generations, and since so many people participated in this process, for such long periods, that only the most 'valuable' could survive; that which worked for most people. The comparison of today’s industry-made, audience-manipulating mass products driven by the financial world and beyond, becoming obsolete in minutes with this language is both false and unfair. I think we should refrain from sparing the work so that we can have our multi-branched inherited communication (speech-music-dance) become 'humane' again just as earlier, and we should not allow the big industry to talk us out of our personal messages, our soaring fantasies and of expressing our unique personalities in a unique language. What if we turn things around – let them learn something at last!

 

György Szentgallay