Mária Horváth, Gábor Csalog, Bálint Szabó, Csaba Klenyán, László Rákos, Componensemble, Zsolt Serei Zsolt Serei: I look up, just light

BMCCD073 2002

Serei writes his pieces with severe self-criticism, with meticulous care, and thus does not count as one of the prolific composers. Though in the last few years he has begun to take an interest in music for the theatre, a significant part of his life-work to date is made up of instrumental and vocal chamber and solo chamber compositions. His scores are characterized by a delicacy of sound and tone, a richness of mood and atmosphere, and he shows a preference for the smaller forms of aphoristic conciseness in which the logics of thematic-motivic construction and the balance created in the tonal system of the given piece play an important part.

Tünde Szitha


Mária Horváth - mezzo-soprano (2-4)
Gábor Csalog - piano (2-4, 6-14)
Bálint Szabó - clarinet (5)
Csaba Klenyán - clarinet (5)
László Rákos - horn (15)

Zoltán Gyöngyössy - flute (1, 15)
Béla Horváth - oboe, English horn (1, 15)
Bálint Szabó - clarinet (1, 5, 15)
Csaba Klenyán - clarinet, bass clarinet (1, 5)
Attila Jankó - bassoon (15)
László Rákos - horn (1, 15)
Kálmán Kovács jr. - trumpet (1, 15)
Gergely Bíró - vibraphone (1, 15)
Sándor Szilvágyi - guitar (15)
Ágnes Polónyi - harp (15)
Zsuzsa Kollár - piano (1, 15)
Ildikó Vékony - cimbalom (15)
Zoltán Tuska - violin (1, 5, 15)
Adél Miklós - violin (5)
Spartakus Juniku - violin (5)
Márta Németh - viola (1, 5, 15)
Katalin Mozer - violoncello (1, 5, 15)
Vilmos Buza - double bass (1, 15)

Conducted by Zsolt Serei (5, 15)

About the album

Recorded at Phoenix Studio, Hungary
Recording producer: András Wilheim
Balance engineer: János Bohus
Digital editing: Veronika Vincze

Cover art by Yasar Meral, based on photo by Lenke Szilágyi
Portrait photo: Huszti István
Design: Yasar Meral
Architect: Bachman

Produced by László Gőz

The recording was sponsored by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the National Cultural Fund of Hungary


Szitha Tünde - Muzsika (hu)

Gramofon ***** (hu)

3500 HUF 11 EUR

Zsolt Serei:

01 Seven Minutes for Twenty Years (1990-91) 7:57

Zsolt Serei: Three Chinese Quatrains (1996-98)

02 I. Quiet Night 2:56
03 II. Seventeen Songs of Chiu Pui - No.15 6:13
04 III. Sitting by Myself on the Ching Ting Mountain 1:47

Zsolt Serei:

05 L'ombre sur les structures pliées (2000-2001) Hommage á Pierre Boulez 16:03

Zsolt Serei: Album Leaves (1983-1996)

06 No. 1. Introduction 1:02
07 No. 7 For László Vidovszky's 50th Birthday 1:51
08 No. 2 For György Kurtág's 60th Birthday 1:34
09 No. 9 For József Sári's 60th Birthday 1:37
10 No. 6 For Zoltán Jeney's 50th Birthday 0:51
11 No. 3 For András Wilheim's 40th birthday 1:12
12 No. 5 For Barnabás Dukay's 40th birthday 0:48
13 No. 4 For László Sáry's 50th birthday 2:27
14 Postludium 0:27

Zsolt Serei:

15 Serenade 18:30
Total time 65:15

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I look up: just light

Zsolt Serei's music studies began with the piano; during his high school years he went on to play the trombone. From adolescence he consciouly prepared himself for a career as a composer, retaining his interest in the practical, experiential areas of music-making even in later years. He took a degree in conducting as well as composition at the Academy of Music in Budapest, and in the past three decades has become one of the leading personalities of Hungarian contemporary music. In other words his experiences as a performer are inseparable from his activities as a composer - not only those gained during the 1970s and 80s with the New Music Studio, the most important experimental workshop of avant-garde music, but also those gained as a conductor of Componensemble, founded in 1989 by Serei himself. And though music critics most often classify his life-work to date as part of the experimental line of contemporary Hungarian music continually seeking new paths, the analysts of his works generally agree that from the beginning of his career the sensual beauty of sound appearing as an independent quality has always played a greater part in his compositional technique than speculative musical structure. His most significant experiences as a performer, notably of the pieces of Schönberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók, Varese, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage and Feldman, besides making an impact on his compositional technique have also made it a primary requirement, a matter of vital importance to Serei as a composer that these techniques be no more than useful aids in the arrangement of musical ideas.

Serei writes his pieces with severe self-criticism, with meticulous care, and thus does not count as one of the prolific composers. Though in the last few years he has begun to take an interest in music for the theatre, a significant part of his life-work to date is made up of instrumental and vocal chamber and solo chamber compositions. His scores are characterized by a delicacy of sound and tone, a richness of mood and atmosphere, and he shows a preference for the smaller forms of aphoristic conciseness in which the logics of thematic-motivic construction and the balance created in the tonal system of the given piece play an important part.

The years spent from 1978 with the New Music Studio as composer and performer made a decided impact on the development of Zsolt Serei's original compositional technique. His older colleagues, Zoltán Jeney, László Vidovszky, László Sáry and last but not least conductor Albert Simon - who brought the Studio into being - were all his masters, though not in the traditional sense of the word. Working with the Studio turned his attention to the newest schools of international contemporary music, and the concerts provided regular opportunities to present his own work.

Seven minutes for twenty years, written to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the New Music Studio, evokes the atmosphere of the innovative work - relating to the essential elements of music - which affected Serei like a revelation at the beginning of his career. The twelve parts of the movement essentially determine the most important pillars of the sound and tonal system and the approximate procession of musical events. The performers are free to choose not only the instruments they will use but also the number of parts they will play from a minimum of six to the maximum of twelve parts at their disposal (our recording presents the complete version). Each part is played in a different register, but each moves within the range of an octave and a quint. Within the seven minutes at his disposal, each performer sounds twenty notes and makes a pause of twenty units, which are distributed differently, according to the part. The composer determines the length of the twenty primary melody notes and the pauses in seconds. The harmony can be supplemented with optional notes; it is left to the performer to decide whether these will be sounded or not. The starting of the parts is also undesigned, which contributes to the unrestricted freedom of the piece. (After the sounding of the first note, all the other performers begin to play when the minute hand has completed its round and begins the next on their own watch.) Thus events shape differently in the course of every performance, even when the number and set-up of the performers is the same. It is practically impossible to predict how many notes will be sounded simultaneously, how the pitches and periods will be assembled into melodies, consonances or discordances, thickly or thinly woven musical progressions in the harmony that develops.

A delicate equilibrium of extreme emotional states condensed into a fantasy-like musical form characterises the atmosphere of the sequence of songs entitled Three Chinese Quatrains. The laconic verses of the 7th century Chinese poet Li Tai Po are deliberately mellowed through the process of setting the words to music. While the voice part follows the five-syllable rhythm of the verses in a faithful, disciplined way, the piano portrays the poetic images of depth and height, light and shadow, permanence and transience as well as the human emotions related to them with an almost film-like precision. The preludes, interludes and postludes of the instrument enhance the gestures of the voice part, turning them into passionate, tense commentaries, especially in the lament-like second movement. The three songs are bound into a unified cycle not only by the tonal system they share but also by the connecting, bridging passages on the piano that link them together. At the same time all three pieces convey a personal message: the first is a gesture of friendship, written on the occasion of the fortieth birthday of vocalist Mária Horváth and her conductor husband János Dobra; the second is a piece of funeral music written in memory of Miklós Forrai, a friend who died young; the third was written for István Fekete Győr, Serei's first master, for his sixtieth birthday.

L'ombre sur les structures pliées was written in honour of Pierre Boulez's 75th birthday. Besides the title, put together like a mosaic from three Pierre Boulez pieces entitled Dialogue de l'ombre double, Structures, and Pli selon pli, the homage-character of the piece is also indicated by the Reihe used as a base, originating from the composition entitled Structures. (The Reihe was used as a quotation by Boulez also; originally this series was the basis of Messiaen's piano piece Mode de valeurs et d'intensitées). The passage-titles of the form made up of seven sections and the character of the musical material of the individual sections all point to pieces by Boulez though they do not contain a single actual quotation from them. In sequence, following the score, the sections are: 1. Originel (...explosante-fixe...) and Originel-Multiples I.; 2. Prisme (Figures- Doubles-Prismes); 3. Originel-Multiples II.; 4. Explosantes (...explosante-fixe...); 5. Improvisation (Improvisation sur Mallarmé); 6. Originel-Multiples III.; 7. Don (Pli selon pli). The Originel sections are always recapitulative in their effect (the melody - the E flat note of which is of primary importance and at the same time the focal point of the piece's tonal system - always appears, like a signal, in the closing bars), and in this way the structure brings to mind the composition of the traditional ritornelle forms. Despite the solid form and the serial structural principles directing the harmonic system and the rhythm, the overall effect of the work is that of a sequence unfolding, a free fantasy. The reason for this is that the parts developing from the pillar-notes of the exact structure move within freely-flowing melodies with a wide scope of sound and each form-section represents a characteristically different, independent rhythmic aspect. From the point of view of genre the piece is a one-movement chamber concert in which two emphatically polyphonous clarinet parts play a leading role alongside a string quintet. The concerto principle is especially obvious in the fifth, cadenza-like form- section, improvisative in its effect, and in the last, stretta-like section which concludes the composition. During concert performances, it is an essential element of the piece that the musicians playing the clarinet parts constantly change their position. While the strings remain at the centre of the stage throughout, the two clarinet players, starting out from the left and right side of the stage, finally meet behind them (in the fourth section), then slowly begin to move off stage, one to the left, one to the right. In the final closing section (Don) the string players, who have until then played with muted strings, step out of their accompanying role, their material becomes solistic, while the receding notes of the clarinets come from behind stage. The piece is dedicated to Bálint Szabó and Csaba Klenyán, who performed on this recording.

The piano series entitled Album Leaves is an open piece, like an imaginary keepsake album which is continually added to, and the pages are connected through the owner of the album. The movements that form the series begun in 1983 can be played singly, independently of each other and also in a freely chosen sequence. If the work is played as a cycle - as in the case of this recording - the order of subsequent movements is optional, but the sequence must begin with the movement entitled Introduction, and must end with Postludium. The aphoristically concise central piano pieces are occasional compositions, written as birthday gifts for friends and colleagues, their melody or sound hinting at the works of the recipient, or alluding to musical experiences which for Serei are in some way connected to György Kurtág, András Wilheim, László Sáry, Barnabás Dukay, Zoltán Jeney, József Sári and László Vidovszky. The loose album-leaf series of 19th century piano literature (the works of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt) or György Kurtág's piano-piece cycle entitled Játékok (Games) can equally be considered as the antecedents of or inspiration for the series.

In view of its arrangement, Serenade, written for horn and a chamber orchestra of fourteen instruments, may also be regarded as a chamber concert. The one-movement piece written on command of horn player László Rákos is at the same time related to the notturno music of the 18th-19th centuries. It is a character piece in which a subdued, subtle irony makes itself felt alongside the characteristically night-time atmosphere. The solo role of the horn is obvious throughout, though the initial impetus is not sustained, and in the course of the movement the instrument falls silent with increasing frequency, as if the imaginary person giving the serenade was growing tired, or losing heart. The instruments of the accompanying group join in with the horn in three ways. The parts closest to the horn in register or in timbre (clarinet, English horn, bassoon, viola, violoncello) play the melodies of the horn, delicately repeating them, supplementing them, or slowing them down, thus their role is essentially an accompaniment to the horn. The role of the flute, the violin, the trumpet and the double bass is more solistic: these instruments, significantly dissimilar to the horn in register, counterpoint the horn's solos, hold dialogues with it, at times playfully imitate its melodies, as though they were deliberately trying to break the impetus of the instrument giving the serenade. The third group (harp, guitar, vibraphone, cimbalom, piano) plays soft, veiled, evenly progressing harmonies, creating the illusion of night-time tranquility (or from an ironic point of view, that of an indifferent environment). In the last section of the piece, when the first and second group of instruments are no longer playing, and the horn solo has become increasingly fragmented, these veiled sounds hold together, their rhythm gradually breaks up - the sound environment is reduced, progressively emptied.

Tünde Szitha
translated by Eszter Molnár

Zsolt Serei was born on April 3rd 1954 in Takácsi, in Western Hungary. He began studying music, first the piano, then the trombone at Pápa. He attended the Vocational School of Music in Győr and in Budapest, where he studied composition under István Fekete Győr and the trombone under György Zilcz and József Nagy.

He became a student of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in 1973, where he obtained a degree in composition as a student of Endre Szervánszky and Emil Petrovics, then from 1979 he went on to study conducting under the tutelage of András Kórodi and Ervin Lukács and took a degree in 1982. During this time he also studied under Zoltán Jeney and Albert Simon as a private pupil. He has been a member of the New Music Studio since 1978, participating in the concerts both as a performer and conductor as well as composing pieces for the group.
He has been teaching at the faculty of composition of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music since 1986, where his subjects are vocal and instrumental counterpoint, classical stylistic practice, orchestration and conducting practice.

In 1989 he founded the instrumental group Componensemble, which has become one of the most significant bases of contemporary music-making in Hungary. It is to the Componensemble that we owe the Budapest premieres of Pierre Boulez's Eclat / Multiples, György Kurtág's What is the Word, Morton Feldman's For Samuel Beckett, Routine Investigation, For Frank O'Hara, among others. The group primarily plays Hungarian contemporary music, though their repertoire includes 20th century classics and the chamber works of Berio, Boulez, Xenakis and others. At the head of Componensemble, Zsolt Serei has made several CD-, radio- and TV-recordings of works by Gyula Csapó, János Decsényi, Barnabás Dukay, Zoltán Jeney, György Kurtág, József Sári, László Sáry, József Soproni, András Szőllősy, László Tihanyi, László Vidovszky and others.

He has given many guest performances and attended several festivals abroad with the group (the Zagreb Biennial, the Warsaw Autumn Festival, the Melos Festival etc.)

In 1991 he conducted Pierre Boulez's Le marteau sans maître, and Dérive at the head of the Dutch Nieuw Ensemble.
Serei's Rege was performed in 1982 in Brussels, and Calyx in 1986 in Budapest as part of the ISCM Festival.
Componensemble and Zsolt Serei have won the Hungarian Artisjus award several times for their excellent rendering of Hungarian new music.
In 1999 Zsolt Serei won the Music Award of the Soros Foundation.
In 1999 his chamber opera, based on István Örkény's One Minute Stories and written on command of the Budapest Chamber Opera, was performed at the Bárka Theatre as part of the program of the Budapest Autumn Festival.

Three Chinese Quatrains – Poems by Li Taj Po
translated by Éva Forrai

Quiet night
Moon shines by the bed,
white frost-patch below.
I look up: just light.
I look down: just woe.

Seventeen Songs of Chiu Pui – No. 15
Sorrow engulfs me,
my hair have turned grey.
And who put this hoar
into my mirror?

Sitting by Myself on the Ching Ting Mountain
Birds, clouds and shadows
have floated all off.
The one faithful friend
left is this mountain.

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