Review – HŐ by Szilárd Mezei on Aural Terrains


I’ve reviewed several releases by Aural Terrains recently. If you’re wondering why I’m so positive about all of them, it’s because I’ve enjoyed listening to all of them and because, as far as my modest critical faculties allow, I’ve found them all to be of musical interest, to offer something new and to have some depth about them. I’m also drawn to the fact that all the releases have evidently been selected (or solicited)  because of an original underlying conceptual approach.

Szilárd Mezei’s [69:52] is true to Aural Terrain’s aesthetic. The first  ‘side’, (heat), for viola,  has three tracks. The second shorter side, (snow), offers three tracks for double bass. There’s a final piece, track 7,  Króm (Chrom), for viola, though I’m not sharp enough to ‘read’ the programme here. Chrom as related to colour would seem to be a probability.

The album consists of a printed CD and a card inner. Further details are given on Aural Terrain’s website where we are told that Mezei is of Hungarian origin living in Serbia. I’ve always found similarities in the folk musics of these regions and I could draw connections over many musical parameters, for example dance forms with odd metrics, a certain gestural flair. In addition I have my own personal connection with elements of these folk traditions as they caught on in the Irish tradition in the ’70s and later in the Scottish tradition, even unto the dour bastions of Highland piping. Furthermore I’ve always felt that something binds together certain strands of the fiddle/violin classical/ folk musics of the Balkans across to Romania and Hungary. I can’t think of Hungary and folk music without thinking of the peregrinations and research of Béla Bartók , Ligeti’s 2nd string quartet, an open approach to scordatura and rhythmic invention, respect for the spontaneity of extended techniques before they become fixed in notation.

On the topic of notation and composition, we are told in the online notes that the pieces are compositions, but I suspect we’re talking here about a method or methods of notating possibilities, directions, shapes and arcs. It would be very scary indeed to contemplate the possibility that the whole of track 1 is conventionally notated.

And so, to my ears, Mezei’s viola work seems to dig out a rich vein from these traditions, to temper it with a fine conservatory technique and to forge new models of creativity and expression.

The piece that stands out on this album is Track 1. This is such a powerful statement of what the viola can offer. My experience of the viola is sketchy though I’m deeply impressed by the fact that one of my best friends at school stuck religiously to his viola despite the powerful and popular trend at the time which encouraged everyone to take up guitar, bass or drums. He’s now one of the world’s foremost soloists. I also know that it’s no longer funny to regard the viola as the ugly cousin of the violin.

Track 1 is a forceful mixture of percussive statements, muted scalar runs, pizzicato slaps and pops, the soundtrack to an animation in which a family of mice attack the strings and fingerboard. More seriously, the manner in which certain gestures pop out of the mix signals a robust conservatory technique. But over and above the world of technique I was thrown into a highly charged sensual musical universe. If you’ve ever had the privilege of sitting in a session cheek-by-jowl with a first rate fiddle player cutting his or her way through a Strathspey, you’ll know what I mean. The essential force of the upbow sends showers of roisin into the air like an explosive pollination, felt as a dust shower as it lands on your skin, smelt like the residue of a gunshot as it fills your nostrils, and eventually imbibed and tasted as it settles on the froth of your Guiness. Add this to the sight and sound of the player and the music and you are enjoying a truly multi-sensory experience. All of which puts representational attempts of such experiences, by media art or certain forms of audio visual installation, back into the shade.

And this is what I take away from Mezei’s playing on the first track –  relentless physicality and sensuality. We are reminded that music has its origins in simple materials, wood and string, and in the human body.

Track 2 makes use of  harmonics, drawing us into a less frantic world through the elaboration of breathy flute-like phrases, yet retaining a rough edge of uncertainty. Although one hears further evidence of a finely honed classical technique throughout this piece, I found myself at times comparing the improvisational flow to the feedback work of Jimi Hendrix in his more introspective moments. It becomes apparent that what you’re being offered is an exploration of a particular choice from a range of technical procedures. As with the first track, I found myself intrigued by and wanting to know more about the composer’s processes and intentions as I struggled a little to read the ‘heat’ programme initiated by track 1.

Track 3 presents us with yet another physical onslaught, a world of harsh, scraping, sharp gestures, beautifully balanced in terms of pace and dynamics. At times the music sounds like a full quartet in the same way that a quartet can sound like a full string ensemble with percussion  Moreover, the sound quality throughout is excellent.

Everything changes with track 4, the first of three double bass pieces dealing with (snow). A minor niggle – I find this piece harder to talk about because from the start I can’t help being drawn into comparisons with the world of jazz, which is at odds with the first three pieces.  It’s almost as if the composer/performer is trying to showcase his range too much, when more of the same would have sufficed. The overall feel is that of the bass soloist in a fairly free mood, slightly off-kilter with the tempo, a hint of swing in the offing.  Given the competition in general over the decades, Ron Carter, Mingus and company (you can’t ignore these players) this piece loses some of its effectiveness. Perhaps also, as a result of the idiomatic referents, a predictability within the unpredictability is engendered, if that makes sense. This wouldn’t be a problem if the previous pieces had prepared us, which they didn’t. Track 4 does eventually mellow out into a long elastic line which happily redeems the piece to an extent and I emphasise once more that the listener can never escape the spellbinding effect of Mezei’s strong improvisational skills.

Track 5, slower this time, takes us back to a more focused approach to the instrument. The harmonics returns, a range of techniques and expressive devices are set forth, a tantalising sense of unpredictability results. We are treated to a very beautiful ending.

I particularly enjoyed track 6  with a melodic sensibility that sniffed around the bones of a Celtic air. In fact it sounded for all the world like a take on ‘Bury me not on the lone prairie’, a heartfelt cowboy song with Celtic roots recorded by Bruce Molsky on Soon be Time. I love the sincerity and open-heartedness of this kind of playing. In the intense world of experimental music it can take great courage to be simple and candid.

With track 7 we return to the viola and to various types of pizzicato. Mezei seems to be playing the instrument like a banjo: small jittery runs, subtle gestures, a range of articulations around specific tones. The piece as a whole created a mood of great deliberation which I can only describe as very liberating.

There are so many reasons to enjoy the music on this release. Despite my feeling that the formal structure of the tracks came over as a little contrived, I would qualify this by saying that more details about the thinking behind the concept would fill in the blanks. There is no doubt that the composer has formidable compositional and performative skills and that he knows what he wants to achieve on this album.

Finally, to recapitulate what I said at the start, if you wonder why I always end up heaping praise upon the albums that I review it’s because I think the music they offer is excellent. Szilárd Mezei’s latest release is no exception.

Released March 2010 on Aural Terrains.


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