"Music doesn’t originate from music" - Gábor Gadó interview

From Unearthing The Music

Gábor Gadó in his home

We took a visit to one of the most prominent Hungarian contemporary jazz guitarists near lake Balaton, in the idyllic volcanic ring of St. George mountain, Gulács and Badacsony.

Arriving close to the house I can already hear the highly sensitive and unique sound of his guitar playing - inside in his studio, books are laying everywhere from bottom to top. We started the conversation with a strong tea.

Let’s start from the very beginning: what were your possibilities in the previous system, was there any kind of cultural openness and was it possible to get inspiration from beyond the Iron Curtain?

I started to play in pop groups and restaurants when I was fifteen. I got plenty of inspiration from my mother who was an administrator. She and her colleagues were pretty much interested in cultural products like theatre, music, dance or literature. György Aczél was the head of art and culture in the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He had been a member of a drama group from a young age, and he had also become acquainted with the prominent names of the avant-garde art circles. His political career didn’t interrupt his love of the avant-garde: he tried to maintain good contacts with the best artists, and his way of managing helped to spread high culture throughout the country. And this was also supported by a fairly good network of directors operating cultural centres (művelődési ház) and event organizers of different factories.

And how did this era influence the beginning of your musical career?

As I mentioned earlier, high art had been at my disposal from a very young age, and it was inherently planted in my character, no matter if my family might also have helped. Anyway, in 1979 I applied to the Béla Bartók jazz conservatory. Back then it didn’t belong to the Academy of Music. So I moved to Budapest and started my studies. Already in my first year, I was asked to play in the groups of prominent musicians like Pál Vasvári, Csaba Desző, I was also invited by Péter Gritz and László Gárdonyi, and we also had a guitar duo band with Ferenc Snétberger.

How was the education at the conservatory? Was there any kind of open-mindedness, were they aware of the international musical trends?

The conservatory started in 1965 thanks to János Gonda. They didn’t have any elaborated methodology, nor pedagogy - theoretical education, in general, was quite in its infancy. Although we had very good and reliable guidance in the practical fields thanks to our teachers who were the most prominent jazz musicians in the country. The atmosphere was very inspirational and we were all conscious and supportive of each other’s projects.

What did the authorities think of jazz, how did they handle it, being aware of its African-American roots?

They didn’t seem to be interested politically at all, jazz was weightless in their eyes. It simply couldn’t have the same effect as writers (e.g. István Örkény, Tibor Déry or János Pilinszky) or actors (Zoltán Latinovits, Hilda Gobbi, Mari Törőcsik) had at that time. Nonetheless, every university had its jazz club in every part of the country, and there were even more possibilities to play at venues like cultural centres and other institutions. So jazz was quite lively and popular. The main cause of jazz music’s popularity was unquestionably that it had its political messages: its African-American roots represented a way of resistance against the prevailing system.

What would be the names you would mention as early inspirations from this period? Did you have any gravitational centres, creators, thinkers?

Well, my primary inspirations have never originated from music. For me, music doesn’t originate from music. In this respect I completely agree with Keith Jarrett who once answered a similar question: “the baby doesn’t come from the baby”. To me, literature is the basic inspirational zone, especially the Russians: from Pushkin-Gogol-Dostoevsky to the modern era. It is too hard to name or highlight anybody from the improvisatory music scene, most of the jazz music world was a huge inspiration.

I have never been interested in pop music, no matter that I played it as a youngster, but from an early age classical music had always been my central issue, and it came from my mother. During my studies, romantic music was the most influential up until the Second Viennese School’s (Scönberg and his disciples, Webern and Berg) twelve-tone dodecaphony. Dodecaphony was also part of the romantic school - Schönberg once said, that what counts is the sounding of the music and not its structure.

The regime change happened in 1989, how did it influence your everyday life as an artist?

The changes in history never actually happen all at once, so our regime change was not immediate either, there was enough time to make the switch. To me, this happened completely naturally. Although it was interesting to see how certain people gained an advantage over others by trying to snatch most of the goods and possessions available. This was especially true for the members of the political nomenclature who succeeded in doing so in most cases. At the same time, many books were published that had previously been banned due to political censorship, and many pieces of junk also appeared parallelly like “esoteric” literature or porn. It was so miserable to see that the newspaper booths were full of this trash, but this is how democratic regimes and free markets function, there is nothing to comment on.

Around this time the legendary Béla Balázs Studio had a building with a cinema and a ballet hall in the park in front of the jazz conservatory in Köztelek street. We started our concert club series at this place. I had just popped in from the street and asked the head of the Studio, the film director István Dárday if they were interested in doing such a series there. He liked the idea so we got the ballet hall three times a week for rehearsing and we presented a concert each Saturday. We even got the musicians' fee! This all seems unprecedented and a utopian situation today. In that era, we all had our permanent club series each year, for example, the Keleti jazz club at the Keleti railway station, or before that at the University of Horticultural Science. So I would say that there were not many changes in my career around the time of the regime change.

Gábor Gadó in his home

Interesting... but something must have happened in the meantime because you finally went to live in France…

I needed to breathe fresh air and meet new music in an unknown climate. Actually, I always wanted to go there because, besides Russian art, French culture had been very important to me from an early age. I was especially interested in fine arts. For example, those artist circles who lived and worked at Bateau-Lavoir - an atelier residence in a small square on the Montmartre hill of Paris made of an oldie but goodie wood -, people like Max Jacob, Picasso, Modigliani and many others. I was also in awe of the French existentialist literature and was fascinated by the Romanian writers living in Paris, like Emil Cioran, Ionesco or Eliade. By the way, my wife is French too, it helped a lot when we were moving there and around in France. So I arrived in Paris in 1995 but stayed there only for a short time. Due to lack of money, we had to come back and we only returned in 1997, that time as happy owners of a Parisian apartment. Two years passed and I founded my first French quartet and it immediately became one of the most prominent European jazz bands.

Now let’s get down to your instrument a bit. How is your relationship with the guitar? You have been using the volume pedal for a long time, we could say it has become your trademark. Is this a visceral thing or how did it come about?

I had never used such a pedal before, I had not even known about its existence. I started to use it in France, but I hardly used it on the first two records with my French quartet. Basically, I don’t like the archaic jazz guitar sound that much, it’s way too far from the sounding of something close to human singing. What I represent in music comes from all sorts of things, for example, I need sounds that imitate the sounding of bowed instruments, so for all these the sound of the volume pedal is perfect. And yes, it’s visceral, because the sounding comes from my inner hearing and not from any other inspiration.

Do you listen to music a lot?

Yes, all the time. I rarely listen to jazz, because individual playing is what counts in jazz music and what interests me is a composition that has much less emphasis there. I’d rather focus on contemporary chamber music or on historic music, especially the preclassical and the baroque periods.

And what have you been listening to recently?

The three Viennese giants: Schönberg, Berg and Webern. Or many more like Schnittke’s beautiful Requiem, Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Glenn Gould’s Bach records, Ockeghem, Josquin, or Honegger’s King David.

Do you feel connected to the music of Ligeti, Kurtág, Eötvös?

I love all of them. I’m on good terms with Péter Eötvös, he asked me once to improvise to one of the parts of his opera entitled Le balcon, it was also published on a record. I follow his musical career and he also visited some of my concerts to my greatest delight. With György Kurtág we were only neighbours in the BMC building. He is also a crucial composer to me, I love his Russian cycle or the Beckett songs. Actually, I never met Ligeti, but his opera Le Grand Macabre is one of my favourites.

What have you been working on?

Recently on the material of the next two records, one of them will be a duo with saxophonist János Ávéd, the other will be recorded with my quintet. To tell you the truth, I’m working on becoming a better musician, to have higher qualities in what I’m trying to convey. This has nothing to do with any actual work that has to be done, but it’s a continuous process from the first moment I met music until the very last.