Ákos Rózmann (1939-2005) was a Hungarian composer and organist. He was born in Budapest but spent most of his life in Stockholm, Sweden. Throughout his life he dedicated himself to musique concréte, developing one of the largest and most rewarding bodies of work in the most alchemical of all musical genres. In the early 80s, he started to build a private electroacoustic studio in a church, whilst continuing to work at the Elektronmusikstudion (EMS Sweden), where he produced his earlier pieces. No matter how prolific and unique sound legacy he created, Rózmann’s name fell under the international radar until Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ label (operating under Editions Mego) started to revisit and release his oeuvre. In 2014, they presented the complete version of his epic masterpiece ‘12 Stations / Tolv Stationer‘ for the first time in its entirety as a deluxe 7CD set. This finally gave his music the well-deserved attention, and also offered numerous opportunities for Mats Lindström (Studio Director of EMS) to present Rózmann’s work in front of a wider audience worldwide. We were lucky enough to witness one of these astonishing performances in Malmö, Sweden during the Intonal Festival, and also had the honour to talk to Mats about this mysterious Hungarian composer.
How did Ákos Rózmann’s Swedish period start?
He came to Sweden in 1971 with a Hungarian scholarship to study under Ingvar Lidholm, who was a professor of composition at the KMH (Kungliga musikhögskolan) in Stockholm. During the 60’s, György Ligeti had been a guest professor at the KMH, and had good connections with the international environment. Ákos already had a diploma in composition and organ playing, and he was also a qualified teacher in Hungary. I think he had more qualifications than many of the Swedish composers. His first piece called ‘Impulsioni I, II, III’ (1974) was made with the British EMS synthesizer VCS 3, oscillators and pulse generators. ‘Impulsioni’ is quite a (primitive) raw and puristic synthesizer piece…
So this was the first piece he ever made?
Yes, when it comes to electronic music. In 1981 he made another version, which was called ‘Impulsioni I-IV’. This has a slightly different dynamic mixing in the first three parts and a new forth movement called ‘Birds and Humans’ (Fåglar och Människor). The piano and soprano composition, which is the origin of the ‘Twelve Stations’ (Tolv Stationer) was a tape piece commissioned by Miklós Maros for a record release. But it was never released. Ákos was not pleased with the outcome or thought it was a failure. So he tried to deconstruct this ‘failure’ and it started to grow in the studio. In the meantime, he lost faith in instrumental music. He once said that the reason why he became interested in electronic music was due to his experience of Pierre Henry’s ‘Voyage, the Tibetan Book of The Dead’, and he realized that the future of music is electronic music. At that time, the atmosphere at EMS was similar. Knut Wiggen, the director of EMS and the president of the Fylkingen society wanted to ban piano music… They had serious meetings and discussions at Fylkingen on these anti-instrumental music ideas. Ákos never took part in these discourses but was quite provocative when in the late 80s he claimed that the reason why he was not engaging in instrumental music anymore was that it had no future.
But if he said he had no faith in instrumental music, how does that fit with him being a church organ player?
The belief in electronic music aimed for the future and was strictly personal. Organ playing was his profession and he had great respect for the old masters. During the last year, I realized that he even had ‘a secret passion’ for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and especially Johann Sebastian Bach… He played all of his pieces. He really admired the old masters, but he also enjoyed contemporary instrumental music like Ligeti’s string quartets and the orchestral music of Giacinto Scelsi.
Do you think he had some kind of a battle within himself when it came to instrumental and electronic music?
No, I don’t think that was his main conflict. When he was working with ‘Images of the Dream and Death’ (Bilder inför Drömmen och Döden), he explained that he heard some kind of voices coming out of the synthesizer. If you play this piece for people, they really think there are actually voices involved. It’s really organic and human, tormented souls screaming from the bottom of the other side. Really spooky sounds… but it’s made on the Buchla synthesizer with mainly the plate reverb, some filters and that’s it. He had this tremendous sense for squeaking out organic sounds out of anything.
His music was quite ‘early’ for the people. He had this old-fashioned, very romantic perception that the artist is a tool for something higher, like God is speaking through him. He felt he had a call from above and he’s got a mission. You could of course say that this was a totally megalomaniac way of seeing things, that you are super important and God chooses you… but this is also a way to become quite humble in front of the workload you put on yourself. Sometimes he was actually standing at 7 o’clock in front of the studio door… Then he might have had some things to do in the church, and then he went to his home studio and continued working. In the late 80s and early 90s there was a strict quota of how much time you could use in the studio at EMS and he was always on the limit.
Do you remember what was this limit, how many hours?
I think he worked at EMS around 6 hours a day… but not every day, of course. He was really disciplined and he also worked in his home studio. After his death, his studio was sent to the Museum of Musical Instruments, and that was when I found out the real reason why he built up the home studio… Everything he has constructed was his own version of the EMS tools. He had a more affordable synthesizer, but the same kind. He divided his studio in two parts: he had an analog part for analog treatment and one digital part. When he started working with music, there were only analog tools available, and in the end he was doing most of his work on the computer.
He was keeping up with the trends…
Also, it was an illegal thing but he used plenty of hacked software that was circulating around. He was really creative using the glitch technique and heavy digital distortion. As he was painting his music, I could see these images of small organic beings. It’s very easy to imagine the tormented souls and the small demons that are making the life difficult for him. When he was doing the tormenting sounds of the devil, he used pretty heavy digital distortion, sort of glitch music… He used me as some kind of a diffuser and performer of his pieces, because he didn’t want to go to his own concerts. Some film directors never go to the cinema to see their films together with an audience.
But isn’t it different with music? Since you kind of have to perform…
He worked with a fixed media, so when the piece left the cutting board, his work was done. He was kind of leaving it to me. I think he had very high expectations from himself as the artist and he demanded the same dedication from the audience. He felt really bad if someone was looking at a wristwatch during a performance, he was personally offended… and he kind of knew that this would always be the case. When there was a live broadcast on the Swedish Radio, he was always listening to it from home. He told me that when he knew the concert was on, he was always meditating and he was there together with the audience in his mind. He had some special restrictions, for example if the concert was in a church, the bell ringing procedure always had to take place before and after, just to clean the air from bad spirits.
It’s interesting that he didn’t trust himself with this but he trusted another person with all this.
He didn’t trust himself that much. He was present once, at the world premiere of ‘Images of the Dream and Death’ at Stockholm Electronic Music Festival, sitting by the mixer decks… He played way too loud and some people left. He was really upset afterwards.
But that happens all the time…
I can actually understand that he didn’t want to be there. It was better that he left everything to me than just sitting around without having any task to do, which would have made him even more nervous. I never tried to get him to do the performances, I just accepted it. Also, he liked the idea of the almost mystical image of the ‘absent composer’. He always appreciated to have night sessions in the church before the performances. He liked listening to the piece alone, just me and him going through it, discussing different parts… he just didn’t enjoy interacting with his audience.
How was your personal relationship with him?
We didn’t have such an easy-going friendship. I don’t want to brag, but I’m kind of a busy person… sometimes I can forget people, even my own kids. Sometimes when I say “I’ll call you back”, I may forget it and they have to call. But he could be really, really, really angry for this kind of negligence. We had some misunderstandings, but I never experienced an open conflict in that sense. He just called me after a month and said “I’ve been really, really, really angry with you for three weeks but now I decided to call you back”. Also, when he gave me his new piece, which was like 70 minutes long on a DAT tape… and that time I didn’t have a portable DAT. He asks me four weeks later: “Have you listened to the tape?” And if I haven’t, he could be really upset. And I haven’t. He was a difficult person, but he just didn’t accept an amateur level. Also, when they were making heavy mistakes when presenting his music… he actually called the director of the Swedish Radio 7 in the morning and told him off!
How did you get the idea to release the ‘Twelve Stations’ (Tolv Stationer) on Editions Mego?
I was thinking about releasing his music for many years, especially tried to promote his really large pieces like the ‘Mass’ (Mässa), which is 6,5 hours long and also ‘Twelve Stations’. I started to work with Stephen O’Malley, because we released my LP (‘МИГ’) on his label, Ideologic Organ, and then we had this discussion on Ákos, which led to the first release, the last part of ’Twelve Stations’, then the ’Images of the Dream and Death’ on 3 LPs. These releases were quite successful when it comes to the international reception, and Stephen said that we should do this really long piece, so he decided to do the whole box. I hope there will be more coming…
How was the reception of ‘Twelve Stations’?
I think it has been doing quite well. Of course, it’s not a commercial release but I think it’s been more or less sold out. So it’s a success and it has been received in a really good way… and he’s well-known now. I meet people all the time and they say that “I heard about this Ákos Rózmann, he’s gonna play in London in April” and I’m like, “yeah, I’m the one who does that”.
How are these shows? Can you see a difference between the public back then and now when it comes to the reactions?
I really like that when we did ’Images of the Dream and Death’ at Club Transmediale in Berlin, we had this kind of bean bag style place where people were actually laying down on the floor and spread out in the place. Totally different from a church concert with this hard wood seating. I prefer to have a more relaxed environment. Also, when I performed ‘Twelve Stations’ in New York at Experimental Intermedia run by Phill Niblock… it was actually a home-like environment with comfortable couches. Some people could go to the kitchen and hang out, have a glass of wine, go back to the venue… but there were also people who were hooked on the music and spent most of the 7,5 hours in there. It’s very difficult to take it all in at once.
How about having a pause?
When we did the ‘Mass’ in 2005, we divided it into five afternoons. Some of the performances lasted 50 minutes, some 2 hours, and I think that’s a good way to do it actually, although it’s harder to get the audience back every day.
How important the locations are for these kind of performances? For instance, if you’re sitting in a church, you might be influenced by the building itself, even if you’re not religious… or you might feel this pressure of going there…
Well, your funeral will most probably be in a church. You have a reason to be humble in this environment. But of course the church colors the experience in a way.
Acoustic-wise as well, I guess…
Yes, a church is always a difficult environment. Usually I work with smaller speakers to have direct contact with the audience, but you can also use the whole church. When I did ‘Twelve Stations’ in one whole piece, everyone was exhausted. It’s like a marathon, when you’re just checking how much time is left, when you will reach the goal. You’re kind of losing it, and can’t even tell if the clock is actually ticking or you’re in a static mood. Sometimes your defense is destroyed by exhaustion, so the beautiful things can be tremendously beautiful… especially the last part ‘The Celebrators’, the piece I also performed at Intonal Festival in Malmö. This part is always so beautiful, especially when you went through all that exhaustion. That’s when you actually realize that you want to keep up this mood, you want it to last forever, because the music really reaches you.
Did Ákos have a studio in the church as well or had only the home studio?
He built up the studio in the cellar of the church, which was his private studio. But then he had this conflict with the Catholic Church, and he left the church and also moved his private studio to his home. The conflict is one of the reasons why the only full performance of the ‘Mass’ was held in a German church. Most of his pieces deal with philosophy of life, faith and religion.
Seems like he felt lots of pressure, there are so many contrasts surrounding him.
Maybe. At at least he had very high standards for everything. He wasn’t pleased with the renovation of the organ in the Church, he thought it was not gentle enough… Also, he kind of believed in a pure and innocent Christianity… The church as a workplace is full of power struggles and conflicts.
How about his last period?
He gave me his last piece ‘The Grey Block’ (Det gråa blocket) in January 2005, and I did the world premiere in Edinburgh in February. He said that this was meant to be a much larger piece, just as big as ‘Twelve Stations’… but he only had one life, and he was never able to finish it. He said that he wasn’t totally convinced by this piece, because there’s some kind of a mysterious ‘spot’ on it. He couldn’t tell what it was, and in his last month, I asked him: “Do you think the ‘spot’ was your own death?” He said: “Yes, maybe.” Because he realized that he’d never be able to finish the complete piece. When I played the piece in Edinburgh, there were some people who didn’t like it and some people who loved it.
How much time did he work on a piece to make it spotless?
I don’t think the ‘spot’ on ‘Det gråa blocket’ has anything to do with insufficient work with the composition. The ‘spot’ was there for other reasons. He worked on many pieces at the same time. I asked him once and he told me that he worked in five minute blocks. When he was working with these huge forms, you could always hear that the struggles are coming back and forth. If we study one of his pieces, we can see that there’s a five minute block followed by another one, and another one… The eternal journey of a tormented soul.
A beehive buzzing around…
I asked him about the language, because sometimes you have Swedish, Hungarian or Latin… But there was this one piece with the expression ‘drogoda’. I asked him what it means, because I assumed it was Hungarian, but he answered: “How should I know? I just imagined this is how they speak on the other side, and no one knows the language on the other side.” I asked him: “Do you think this is a universal language on the other side?” He said: “Maybe, but at least that’s how I imagine it’s a different language. You know, you can’t pass to the other side and continue speaking Swedish or Hungarian or whatever, you have to switch language.” Maybe we have to learn a new language.