The Edge of Silence
I met György Kurtág for the first time when I was engaged to sing his masterwork, "Messages of the late R.V Troussova" at the 1986 Ojai Festival. It was Kurtág's first trip to the West Coast and my first experience performing his music. At the end of that short week, he gave me a stack of his scores that contained every work for voice he had written. I did not know it at the time, but this beautiful gift was a touchstone and a guide. I have spent much of my life immersed in this music. It has become essential to the way that I understand music; it is the heart of my practice as a musician.
Kurtag's music for voice is an extraordinary fusion of poetry and music, in which a seemingly endless range of emotions is wedded to highly nuanced rhythmic inflections of the language that is set. Kurtag's notation is idiosyncratic, with unusual symbols that represent an extremely fine gradation of duration and phrasing. His scores contain succinct, unequivocal indications about instrumental color and vocal inflection. Every piece of information on the page is necessary. Yet the final result is a musical language that is intuitive; fluid, asymmetrical, powerful - alive.
Troussova, for soprano and large ensemble, was the work that first brought Kurtág's music to international attention; Scenes from a Novel was completed a few years later; both feature the work of the Russian poet Rimma Dalos. On the surface, they have a similar narrative: an unhappy love affair. However, Scenes from a Novel is in some ways, much grittier. The lovers' ecstasy is short lived; the protagonist's uncertainty and frustration is palpable as the relationship become more tenuous. The implicit message of Troussova is that the protagonist ends her life; in Scenes from a Novel, the protagonist endures - that message, though much less dramatic, is sharper and closer to the bone.
S.K. Remembrance Noise, for soprano and violin is set to short poems of Dezsö Tandori. The seven short songs are at times, darkly humorous; elements of virtuoso writing for violin foreshadow Kurtág's Kafka Fragments, written a number of years later. Erinnerung an einen Winterabend, op. 8, with text by Hungarian poet Pál Gulyás, is an early work that incorporates the cimbalom, the iconic Hungarian folk instrument, in combination with the violin and voice.
In Hét Dal, Kurtág's writing for the cimbalom has become completely integrated into his mature compositional voice. In these six short poems by Amy Károlyi and Ars poetica of Issa Kobayashi, the vocal line and the cimbalom unite to illuminate the text at its fullest - by turns, haunting, passionate, and elusive.
Two of Kurtag's exquisite, fleeting cycles for voice and piano are included. Requiem for the Beloved, describes the end of a love affair. Three Old Inscriptions are brief messages: they describe a leave-taking, a tragic decision and a peaceful end. They seem crystallized in time and in language, transmitted to us through a few symbols that we are left to decipher years later.
I remember working with Kurtág on one of the cycles in Budapest. He had learned English since we first met, because, he said, he wanted to read Shakespeare in the original. I remember the end of one long session. It was late afternoon in autumn. Looking out the window in the dying light, I could see snow beginning to fall. The room was silent. Kurtág opened up a score that lay on the piano. He pointed to an inscription: Virág az ember. Flowers we are, frail flowers.
The Attila József Fragments for unaccompanied soprano are set to fragments of poems of one of Hungary's most beloved poets of the twentieth century. The songs range in duration from ten seconds to several minutes, and present an astonishing range of expression through the vehicle of a single voice. One of the many things that Kurtág told me about the pieces was that the fragments should be presented as if you are switching between two channels of a radio station. But what you need to remember, he said, is that both of the channels are always playing.
A final memory: in 1987, I traveled to Hungary for the first time to study the Attila József Fragments with Kurtág and Adrienne Csengery, the work's dedicatee, at the Bartok Institute in Szombathely. The weather was hot and dusty, rooms were dimly lit and in a state of disrepair. But that was of no importance. Kurtág and Csengery coached me for four hours a day, and every other person I encountered coached me on my Hungarian pronunciation during the other twenty hours. Their generosity knew no bounds. At the end of the two weeks, I had an immense reward: I sang to an audience of five hundred people for whom music was food, breath, life. I felt, palpably, the experience of being heard. I see it now as if it was yesterday; the experience continues to fuel my desire to make music, over thirty years later. I remember, and my heart aches with gratitude.
To me, the music of Kurtág is illuminated through immersion in the poetry which is set. The recording is available through online outlets, not all of which include the extensive text and translation included in the booklet. If you have purchased the cd online and are interested in the texts and translations, please write to me and I will have them sent to you.
Finally, I thank my friends and colleagues, Donald Berman, Curtis Macomber, Kathryn Schulmeister and Nicholas Tolle for their extraordinary dedication and artistry. Without their efforts, it would not have been possible.
- Susan Narucki copyright, 2019