Freedom is Mere Illusion – Experimental Music and Media Arts in Hungary

From Unearthing The Music

Viktor Lois with his »Container Man«

Freedom is Mere Illusion – Experimental Music and Media Arts in Hungary: An essay by Balázs Kovács for Sound Exchange.


We begin with 1970s Hungary. The high point of Communism saw an intensification of all external influences in art to which the younger generations of artists resonated, and this provided the basis for currents and experiments in the work of later generations. Officially this period in music is known as »post-serialism«; still, given the region’s isolation, the influence of John Cage and minimalism blended with serialism itself, the highly disciplined dodecaphonic explorations of the previous era. The historical anachronism of this encounter in Hungary meant that the common traits of these two currents were intensified. Of these traits, we shall focus in this study on the apparent freedom enjoyed by the performer. [1] Performers of compositions that appear random, while in fact being strictly organised, have a certain room to maneuver, yet nonetheless cannot step out of the framework of a piece to assert their independence (or »set their lute aside« as the Hungarian poet János Arany would put it). Such limitations are particularly illustrative of the period. In this study I would like to illustrate how this situation has changed over subsequent decades: today one may step outside of a work, given the autonomous status of experimental music now. Still, such a breakout is inhibited by a societal environment that offers only the illusion of freedom, and hence injects a distorted image of reality into creative work as well. The performer’s apparent freedom is interconnected, thread by thread, with the audience’s own illusory freedom.

Admittedly this may be too dark a characterisation of the present day. Still, such pessimism is not unfounded if we look around ourselves in Hungary. Public life in this country today is not committed to the broad spectrum, nor does it believe in tentative experimentation, in the subcultures of selected social strata, or in »maybes« at all. We are familiar with freedom from the history books, and may if we wish believe that nothing has changed. But clearly, the subject of this study – the culture that developed together with electronic music – never played by the rules of power; rather this was the protected realm of high culture whose traits were critical opposition and irony, distortions, ad hoc groups, and all the impulses of the international and democratic spirit that every young generation nurtures and wishes to express. Hence the reality around us tends in creative spheres to call up inverse relationships rather than analogous ones. This actually offers fresh hope, even if any celebration of well-laid aesthetic foundations has long been cancelled. By contrast, in the brief survey that follows, our motivation is not bitterness but the wish to explore the avenues for problem solving. The problems involved have created a rift between the academic and independent spheres throughout this period; each sphere created its own high and popular cultures. Furthermore, it is still the case that we speak of dance music as merely dance music, and experimental music as an exclusively academic phenomenon. As long as this remains the case, all other artistic realms – and with them the artistic integration of electronic music – will continue to drift apart.

Private Exits: Pioneers and Partisans of Electronic Music

The players in our historical survey are the partisans of electronic and experimental music: independent figures who offered up their own creative work (and sometimes even sacrificed their private lives) for the »common cause«. Without them, so many recordings, concerts, and performers that continue to inspire would never have surfaced, and no one would have served as a go-between bridging first the political Iron Curtain, then the cultural and moral one that has stood since the 1990s.

New Music, Experimental Music, and Electroacoustic Music: An Elitist Defense of the 1970s

The years of »Goulash Communism« in Hungary polarized artistic efforts. Some currents were banned while others received state support. The demarcation line was determined not just by the societal role of the works involved, but also quite the contrary: it sometimes even skirted the borders of art that was internationally significant but uninteresting to society at large. This made it possible for Western currents in contemporary music (Serialism, Post-serialism, Minimalism, musique concrète, sound synthesis, etc.) to take root in Hungary. Through successful international performances and recordings, one could reasonably expect a rise in Hungary’s level of recognition in the field – particularly considering the prestige of composers who had emigrated previously: Bartók, György Kurtág, György Ligeti, Péter Eötvös, and Paul Arma. Particularly important for the new generation of musicians was the New Music Studio (NMS): »What is the common thread uniting the work of the generation of the past twelve years (Barnabás Dukay, Zoltán Jeney, Zoltán Kocsis, László Sáry, and László Vidovszky)? […] What is the theoretical underpinning that incorporates the uniqueness of their inventions and local color to lend currency to their work and thereby ensure the international value of their path?« [2]

The phrasing of András Wilhelm’s questions imply their own answers. In retrospect we can see that he was correct: two decades of the Studio’s output well represent the musical history and New-Music culture of the age, while simultaneously providing a window into the special relationship between politics and art: it functioned under the political aegis of the Communist Youth Central Musical Ensemble, and its members were university students of performance or composition. Hence they received larger press, and the opportunity for regular concert performance. The works they created were printed by the national publishing house Zeneműkiadó, and their performances came out on the Hungaroton label. Still, their prestige was not as great as their name recognition. This background gave them a particular sense of freedom, allowing them (beyond undertaking new experimental works) to have both their own works and music by foreign composers in their repertoire; they were often the first to perform the latter in Hungary. They had freedom to develop an aesthetic palette, which was palpable in the works they performed. A veritable flood of new opportunities marked these two decades generally, and the work of the composers in the Studio in particular. It was a fortunate coincidence that incoming information that led to the adoption in Hungary of foreign musical influences were also present in the country at large, bringing new artistic and aesthetic approaches (leveraging the composers’ legitimated status) to an audience that itself experienced all of this as a liberation. It is understandable in this light why most composers in Hungary retained a constructivist-combinatory core in developing their individual techniques for composition, as a way of incorporating ideas that came from outside the country. But among the »young radicals«, as they are called in one interview [3], we begin to see signs of unusual currents that result from ignoring the passage of time: Jeney Zoltán’s work with minimalism and sound synthesis, László Sáry’s deconstruction of musical material, and László Vidovsky’s open works – all these born of a general interest in algorithmic techniques. Much lies behind this, including a broader perspective open to the music of distant cultures (albeit viewed through a local lens), the traditional knowledge set imparted by musical education, and the serious reception of every new conception coming in from the West. All these factors conspired to shaped the »local color« of contemporary music culture, while Hungarian composers drew inspiration from the idealized notion that they had »emigrated« from the political claustrophobia of Hungary into the globalism of their art, then »returned home« to rethink its traditions.

Electronic music is of particular importance for the new musical movements in the period we are examining. Simultaneous with the experiments of the composers of the New Music Studio, there arose in Hungary (as elsewhere) the first creative studio under the fostering aegis of larger radio stations. In 1975, for example, the Electroacoustic Music Studio, under the artistic direction of János Décsényi, was established at Magyar Rádio. Given the lack of technological infrastructure, it began operation somewhat late – in the mid-1970s – but was nonetheless receptive to international currents in music including musique concrète, mixed techniques, and multi-channel composition. It was a mix of these influences that provided the raw material from which Zoltán Pongrácz, István Szigeti, and Iván Patachich created their subjective, eclectic vision tied to the traditions of Hungarian music, as well as stimulating the demand for live performance and bringing mixed techniques to the fore. Good examples of this are recordings from 1979–2005 (Slpx11851, Slpx12371) showcasing these composers and the performances of the E.A.R. Ensemble. Also highlighting the need for live music (though with a much greater consistency, indeed with an almost mathematical precision) are the recordings of László Dubrovay, which aim to mine the new technological possibilities and explore new musical forms within the electronic realm. This embodied an attempt to re-create New Music, but also offered an example of the individual composer-performer, thereby anticipating the composers of the mid-1980s. On the other side of the spectrum, the works of Máté Victor prefigured the electroacoustic music used in rock and pop music.

The Rádio’s studio was closed in 2007, on the day before Zoltán Pongrácz’ death, owing to lack of interest from Magyar Rádio itself. [4] While it is true that lack of development in the studio’s final years meant that the Media History Archive took over its function (not entirely a negative development), the fact that composers did not en bloc take a stance in defense of the Studio only indicates the closed attitude of those who worked within it. While the Archive remained, the technical facilities went into private hands. Instruction in Electronic Composition at the Academy of Music – another Pongracz initiative – continued under the direction of the NMS’ composers, and (from the mid-1990s) under Andrea Szigetvári. Still, the loss of the functioning studio has proven irremediable, even despite its technological outdatedness (and the cult status enjoyed by analog studio technology today).

Resistance and Exclusion: The Late-1970s and Early-1980s Underground

The above makes clear how things worked in the cultural politics of the socialist Hungarian People’s Republic: everything produced under the aegis of an approved organization (in this case the Academy of Music, Magyar Rádió, the Communist Youth Organization, and Hungaroton) was tolerated, and was banned the moment its protection was abandoned, or it stepped over the line of what was permissible. In this respect, little changed even after the end of Socialism in 1989, except that tolerance became accessible outside the protector organizations as well. But around the turn of the 1980s – our focus – this scenario was still far off. Alternative groups that diverged from the officially exalted »National Beat« genres [5] were labeled »deviant« and forced into silence or emigration; today these groups (among them the Bizottság [Committee], the Spions, [6] Beatrice, and URH [UHF]) are highly regarded. This environment in which art was so tightly bound to cultural politics became the meeting place of New Music and neo-avant-garde movements, and made music the underground’s primary artistic outlet. In his study of the period, Gábor Gavra writes: »Once the borders between rock music and other forms of expression broke down or became permeable, the new wave made music an integral part of contemporary culture, and simultaneously opened the way for the musical experimentation and other directions of its exponents and those active in other branches of art.« [7]

Here he is describing that fleeting moment when »high« and »low« culture met and collaborated to create new forms we might call the unconscious state of Postmodernism. But Gavra continues to say that »[…] we cannot ignore the conclusion that this new wave in Hungary was just a temporary phase created by a bipolar power structure: a cultural-political monopoly built between the vacuum of a nonexistent music market, and the countering force of a second public.«

General opinion considers the output of this period’s long-suffering composers to be virtually worthless. On the other hand, it is rare to see the reality reflected in the »purified« works of the counter-movement that arose after the fall of the old regime called into question. [8] In defense of the former, we shall attempt to expand the sphere of genres considered, with particular emphasis on works that reflect on social realities and respond to them with such a purified approach. We shall keep the focus on music, but will also deal with the appearance of sound sculpture and sound installations below. [9]

Esoterica, Globalism, and Pantheism: The 1980s

Perhaps it was the subjective eclecticism we have seen with the electronic composers, or perhaps the general traditions of Hungarian composition, or even the new simplicity of minimalism in other arts, which was responsible for the increasing interest in the esoteric and in naïve spirituality exhibited by the composers of the 1980s. It is naturally difficult to pigeonhole these works, and indeed misleading, particularly when dealing with performance groups like the 180 Group or Tibor Szemző’s Gordiusi Čomó (Gordian Knot). But it was after all Szemző himself who ventured out of the narrow sphere of music, drawing material for his films from pop music, Hungarian cabaret songs, and archive recordings. As he describes it in an interview: »I create found material and bring found material out of the musicians, the way family movies are found materials. Then I organize music specifically to fit these materials. Formally, this music, like Indian Classical music, have a truly flowing linear texture set to polyphonic rhythms.« [10]

Most of his work is created for performance art and films, including pieces for flute and tape replay (»Water Wonder«, 1982), materials for multimedia performance inspired by pop music and dubs (»Private Exits«, 1988–89; »Tractatus«, 1991–95, etc.), or even narrative pieces moving slowly and imperceptibly between Gypsy music and contemporary jazz (such as »Skullbase Fracture«, written for the Ars Electronica Festival, 1987, 1989). All these pieces share a common trait: to give Hungarian musical traditions a place within contemporary music by throwing the two, often incompatible aesthetics together. This music drew in part on the minimalism of the early 1980s; performance in this area was dominated by the 180 Group, which premièred many works in Hungary, and introduced new composers as well, notably Béla Faragó.

The electronic composer and sitarist László Hortobágyi, already an exponent of minimalism, then turned to world music. Working from his home studio, he created the Hungarian answer to Jamaican dub, using his profound technical knowledge and an experimental urge to blend his sources: Hungarian and fictive Hungarian (»Hungistani«) folk and world music, industrial, psychedelic, and classical music. Both Szemző and Hortobágyi not only push the outer limits of music and technology, but also move outside the usual realms of art and music, incorporating motifs thoughtfully selected from other cultures and domains. The earlier problems and creative solutions that distinguished the NMS and the Electronic Music Studio were no longer signs of backwardness; these were now the tools for redefining the aesthetic of the local environment and re-contextualizing the musical sphere. Now the goal was not to attempt to follow developments abroad via an abundance of information paired with a lack of technology, but rather to use the local givens as a style of their own, opening a true two-way dialog between the global and the local.

The mutual influence of international and local Hungarian currents and the elevation of »couleur locale« to the level of its own independent style, whether transcending or still subject to the political environment – these issues have distinguished the story to this point. It is crucial to emphasize this, since these very questions will continue for some time to move experimental music towards – or away from – sonoric art, in the phase that began in the 1990s.

Towards a Sonoric Art: Installations, Sound Sculptures and Mixed Media

The continuations of the neo-avant-garde opened new frontiers for the intertwining of a variety of artistic genres in the 1980s: poetry became sound poetry (Endre Szkárosi), »outsiders« made films (Gábor Bódy and the language-of-film series from the Béla Balázs Stúdió [11]) and – somewhat later – sculptors became sound-sculptors (Viktor Lois and István Harasztÿ), and programmers became media artists [12]) while members of technologically more advanced ensembles, like Panta Rhei, played synthesizers of their own invention. [13] This period was the direct, if unconscious, precursor of the media art currents that were to explode in the 1990s, and its ideology exhibits the clear signs of resistance and initiative, as well as the yearning for the performance medium. Here I would mention three names which are particularly relevant to our subject: László Vidovszky played a key role in the transition to media art in composition. This founding member of the NMS led the way in his openness to collaboration on film scores as well as performances in the visual arts, dance, audiovisual media, and literary theater. As he puts it in a volume of interviews, »[…] music is fairly detached from what we call life, yet from another perspective only music might represent everything that can be called life« (Vidovszky-Weber, op. cit. 101). In this vein he is searching for the place and mission of music in a world full of changed expectations. In his collaborative installation with Ilona Keserü entitled »Hang-szín-tér« (Sound-Color-Space, 1980) sound 127 painted whistles, among which the viewer may move. His »Autokoncert« (1973) [14] is an installation-performance with an added musical element, precursor to his mechanical sound-sculptures. Here the audience sees and hears the choreographed interplay of instruments that apparently dispense with performers. Vidovszky is a trailblazer in other areas as well: after moving to Pécs he, like Zoltán Pongrácz, played an active role in Music-IT instruction in the Art department at the University there in 1995, followed in 2010 by accredited courses in Electronic Music Media Art, which was the first such university instruction in this field in Hungary. It operated in parallel with the Intermedia Department at Budapest’s University of the Fine Arts. [15]

As for kinetic sculpture, István Édeske Harasztÿ [16] furthered the creation of sounding sculpture. Moonlighting from his job as a machinist, he made objects governed electronically or interactively that were brutally critical of the bureaucratic power structure. His works are not music in the sense of composition and sound formation; rather these are devices built into the environment that emphasize or play on movements in the immediate surroundings, sounded by the conscious or unconscious intervention of the observer. Viktor Lois has been making statue as musical instruments with the devotion of a traditional instrument maker since the mid-1980s. After an improvised concert of ready-made instruments, he says, »I got the idea that you could integrate aesthetically beautiful instruments with their own special sound into traditional rock ensembles«.[17] A simple glance at his acoustic bass made of washing-machine parts, drum machine and siren, and column guitar will convey the second-hand, jerry-rigged style of the period; his Tundravoice ensemble, founded in 1993, is a resonant example. László Najmányi, former member of the group Spions, interpreted his own instrumental constructions as a performer, and achieved great results using the older theremin as well. His widely known and internationally recognized work includes theatrical and radio plays in addition to his solo concerts; the website Wordcitizen, which he maintains, presents a number of artists’ portraits. [18]

The above introduction makes it clear that a new direction was taking shape, poised between music composition, neo-avant-garde sound performances and the visual arts. That these currents peaked around the time of the fall of socialism in Hungary in 1989 is mere coincidence. All the same, as we shall see, the years that followed saw changes brought on by the liberation in the political sphere that were just as momentous as the creative world’s liberation from politics that preceded them.

Media Art Approaches and Recedes: Experimental Music and Sound Art from 1990 to 2011

When techno music came along, it didn’t say anything – but it had a message. This message cannot be translated into any language, but it was more or less this: »Forget about politics and come dancing!« So writes Dr. Hausztusz (Sándor Bernáth/y) in the journal Gépszava (Voice of the Peoplemachine) in 1997. [19] When looking at the history of experimental music in the 1990s it is impossible to ignore the waves made by techno dance music, either in Hungary or elsewhere. There are apparent contradictions between party culture and the radical experimentation that breaks all rules, but if we consider that, up to this point in the story, there has been a direct relationship between openness to outside currents in art and music’s community-building power, it also becomes clear why there is a similar back-and-forth between neo-avant-garde ensembles and exponents of the new live-act culture. Hence the importance for us of the merging of independent electronic dance music and experimental art from academe, and the creative compounding that resulted. That this unification ultimately ended in divorce may be immaterial to us now, and may merely be the sign that a new period is beginning, as far as the future is concerned. So now let us examine the situation outside of time, layer by layer.

Underground Independent Organizing

A watershed: the fall of socialism brought a democratic foundation to Hungary. The year 1989 saw the beginning of an experiment to explore whether Hungarians would prove able to adapt to freedom and use it to their advantage. Freedom naturally also had its price: it meant the end of the state system of institutions, which had provided security (in addition to stifling »wildlings«). As a result, artistic initiatives had to collaborate and organize their own structures. Once history had given things a push, many nexus points popped up at universities and in the larger cities, and even occasionally in outlying areas of the countryside. Perhaps the first of these was the Budapest club Tilos az Á (Trespassers W), which opened in 1990 just after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. This venue hosted nearly all of the above-mentioned performers and their circles, and also become a site for alternative and DJ culture. Tilos Rádio (Forbidden Rádió), Hungary’s best-known community station, also made its first pirate broadcasts from here. When Tilos az Á closed in 1995, its site became home to Bernáth/y & Son and the Lovebarricade techno series begun at the end of 1994 by the young people around them, first at the Young Artists’ Club, then at the Fáklya Club and occasionally at the Sziget Festival.

Ultimately, they found their own venue – which they still have to this day – at the SuperSonic Technicum. Bernáth/y & Son played a symbolic role: having founded the Albert Einstein Committee, the elder Bernáth was a painter in Germany in the early 90s, and his son a punk fan, when they encountered the techno culture and realized its potential. Their live act is marked by free improvisation that emphasizes beat and sequencing – but the party culture they started ultimately proved even more fertile than their music. This culture saw collaboration between DJs, live electronic music productions, VJ projects, and creators of spectacle that resulted in syntheses like the journal »Voice of the Peoplemachine« and, further on, the talent searches in Hungary by Germany’s Under Cover Music Group (UCMG) that came up with the Anima Sound System, Yonderboi, Gábor Deutsch, Miraque & Miro, and others. [20] The Lovebarricade series is just one example; like other cities of similar size, Budapest also became an incubator for underground electronic dance music, teeming with festivals like the Frankhegy, Cinetrip, and clubs like the Kultiplex or the A38 Ship, as well as open community creative centers like the Tűzraktér.

The launch of Freee Magazin helped lay the groundwork for techno-house and trance party culture; the books and articles of its editors Gábor Pánczél and Ferenc Kömlődi energized the free flow of information about the scene. (Komlődi-Panczél 2001). But there was still something missing: while the consumer side of the party culture was satisfied, its producing side consisted largely just of DJs, VJs, and the more creative organizers. There was a lack of producers, composers, and performers. Optimal and the live acts it attracted ignored this imbalance. With no drive to optimize their makeup, they gradually became marginalized. Later though, they solidified and came up with independent events like the Hármashatárhegy and nomadic sound-system parties. With this, the concept of the live act became largely synonymous with experimental and radical electronic dance music, gradually incorporating ever more noise-music and experimental composers. We will now have a look at these.

The Emergence of Experimental-Music Live-Act Culture

»I didn’t want to spend money on vinyl, so I started making my own music«, in the words of aLPi (András Murányi), the founder of the Optimal Group and HTML (Hungarian Techno Mailing List). He found plenty of willing collaborators in this, and as a result parties in the smallest, but loudest venues offered an increasing number of live acts as individual and collective improvisations, complemented by similarly individual VJ and visual concepts like Viktor Vicsek and Prell. There were a number of such groups: the same period saw the launch of Rianás (Tigrics, Prell, and Márton Mezei) in the city of Tata, Terra Rossa in Dunaújváros, Porousher (and later Nicron and c0p) in Pécs, and the Improv Group in Szeged. Their noisy, experimental, industrial, analog sound was something new in electronic music, and the creative potential of this direction was confirmed with X-Peripheria in June of 2000, the first big event that marked the beginning of a rich decade for all involved, with many experimental music, sound-art, and combined festivals (see box below). Behind it all was the C3 Center for Culture and Communication founded by the Soros Foundation in 1996, which provided the impulse for all individual and institutional intermedia initiatives that had no opportunities elsewhere. These included Pararadio [21], the first Internet radio station in Hungary, which sponsored the X-Peripheria Festival, and the Exindex new-media and art portal, together with a number of text and video archives.

A Selection of Important Experimental Music Events, 2000–2011:

  • 1993–2002 Szünetjel (Call Signal) Festival, Budapest
  • 1998–2004 Big Ear Festival, Budapest
  • 2000–2003 X-peripheria, Budapest
  • 2000–2008 (biennial), 2009–2010 Enter Festival, Székesfehérvár
  • 2001 10/26–28 Ötödik égtáj (Fifth Quadrant), Budapest, Kultiplex
  • 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010 Uh Fest
  • 2004, 2008, 2009 Drótanya (Wiremother), Budapest, Gödör
  • 2004–2009 Making New Waves, Budapest, Trafó
  • 2005, 3/21–25 Gallery by Night 05, Budapest
  • 2005, 2007, 2010 d'Arts Digital Art Festival, Veszprém
  • 2005, 11/19 1st Autonomous Gigazone, Budapest, Millenáris
  • 2007, 2/23 Freq-out, Budapest, Műcsarnok
  • 2008– Relative Sound (Leaks) International Contemporary Music Meetup, Budapest
  • 2009–2010 +3dB Festival and Symposium, Budapest

Besides the festivals, there was a new and highly visible current – precisely what had been missing from dance culture: a number of small-edition record companies (Avult, Diaspóra-Dióbél, and the Ultrahang [Ultrasound] CD-R Series), Internet publishers (Syrup, Bitlab, Sensei), both printed and online editions (Improv, the now defunct,, and the BATTA 2009 text collection), online radio stations (ParaRadio, Tilos [Forbidden], and Periscope), and a number of new composers and artists joined the community through searches (Ultrahang’s »What is Music« contests and the Enter Festival). [22]

But despite all efforts (or perhaps because of them), the culture of experimental music is now silent: the larger festivals either no longer exist or program a broader variety of music, while some events are facing diminishing interest or a drying up of creative material. Why might this be? In neighboring countries these performances have gradually united with media-art events (such as the Transmediale and the Club Transmediale in Berlin, the Simultan in Timisoara, or the Multiplace in the Czech Republic and Slovakia). The venues for these events have also become multi-functional. This transformation never took place in Hungary, or only slightly. The Ultrasound Festivals, for example, have survived by transforming into thematic programs rounded out by workshops; the Drótanya’s mission is to pair experimental music performers with contemporary choreographers – and to such resounding success that it has from its inception presented increasing numbers of these collaborations at the Trafó, the L1 Dance Workshop, and the MU Theater. Drótanya’s organizers also program regular events under the name of Havizaj (That Chime of the Month). But the expansion of 2000–2005 now needs to find new forms. What follows will attempt a contribution to solving this problem.

The Winding Ways of Experimental Music, Sound Art and Media Art

Much is at stake: can the art or development component of experimental music develop to the extent of giving this genre a place among the arts? There is not much hope for this at present. Sound art was not yet mature when it began to be forgotten; it is kept alive today by artists who employ sound, like Gyula Várnai and Hajnal Németh, who lives in Germany. Their work preserves the social sensitivity of sound sculpture, and so is open to assimilation into the music world of niche cultures. Another hopeful player is Alapzaj (Background Noise) from Pécs, whose exhibitions and actions from 1996–99, and then the Gallery by Night program in Budapest, constituted a series of sound installations and sound-creations that have shown there is still a demand for expanding and fine-tuning the auditory side of media art. In that vein, the Budapest group Besorolás Alatt has been organizing a dedicated sound-art festival since 2009. So the question then is whether someone in the experimental-music sphere will take up where art leaves off. Are there prospects for an opening up of composition, instrumentation, and creators’ attitudes?  There is clear support for this from the previous generation of experimental musicians. Zsolt Sőrés (Ahad) is the driving force behind several experimental music projects in Hungary and abroad. He has written or translated important theoretical texts. In addition to his acoustic collaborations, he has moved into interfaces. Gábor Tóth (tgnoise) is active in performance and visual art, while Pál Tóth is involved in DJ technology and appropriation art. Attila Dóra, a constantly innovating saxophonist, has been the catalyst for countless dance-theatre and other art projects. Tamás Kopasz (Fineartsmusic) is working in audiovisuality. But in most current areas of media art (interaction, interfaces, multi-channel and specialized acoustics, network projects, radio art, sonification and hardware hacking) it is the younger generation who shine, as we shall now examine.


Interaction in art is, given the nature of communication, possible on several levels. There is the traditional meaning of a dialogue between performer and instrument through interfaces, controllers, gesture control, and other sensors (HCI, or human-computer interaction). Furthermore, there have been developments in the interaction between the audience (or a person on the outside) and the performer or his instrument. There is yet a third category, of installation-type creations that dynamize the performer to create interaction between the spectator and the soundmaking system directly. This list reflects, in descending order, the prevalance of the implementation of these approaches in Hungary: interfaces being the most commonly used, and installations the least. This suggests that direct encounters with the performer remain popular, while there is far less of the open creative process or audience involvement. The reason for this is that nearly all experimental musicians are adept at building interfaces (self-constructed midi controllers, optical controllers, etc.), but constructing installations requires a different approach. Inspiration for crossing this boundary has come from art projects (in the above list: Gallery By Night’s 2005 programs and the d’Arts digital music festival in Veszprém in 2007) and other competitions (like the 2005 NKA [National Cultural Fund] competition for creating media art). These grants meant new opportunities for many artists and groups that had hitherto been active only in art or experimental music. But perhaps the most effective stimulus for crossing the boundary has been exploited by the group (Bence Samu and Ágoston Nagy). Their work ranges from multimedia performances to optically controlled installations (»Strings«, a movement-controlled installation, 2007) to community creative surfaces (»grafIT«, 2007), culminating in the projects created in the Kitchen Budapest mediatechnology lab. Begun in 2007, Kitchen Budapest is a research lab aimed at opening up avenues for creativity and innovation, distributing the results, and fostering cooperation between artists and IT experts. As a result, the lab is also open to the creation and implementation of sound projects. Its current members include László Kiss and Réka Harsányi, whose works focus on this area. The Kibu, as it is known, invited Kim Cascone, leading exponent of the glitch aesthetic, to Hungary (where he is highly respected) in 2008 to create a sound installation in a public space. Furthermore, students of electronic music media art in Pécs, and at the Institute of Media and Applied Arts, also regularly create site-specific installations such as »Musical Zebra« (2008) painted on the street and using a video surveillance camera, the online »Orwell Space« (2009) that models a surveillance network, or »Mama’s Radio« (2010), an interface adapted from an old radio set. We hope that their integration into education will result in ever more productive crossovers among the genres.

Sonic Extremes

A special variety of installations and experimental music performances involves moving beyond the acoustic limitations of sound, using frequencies above or below the limits of human hearing, or inaudibly quiet volumes. Hungary’s sound artists have followed international trends in this area (notably in Japan), showing a general interest in this mode. [23] But since there is greater authenticity in works grounded in the local milieu rather than simple imitation of currents abroad, every work in this vein that reflects upon current Hungarian realities assumes particular importance. An example is a work by Tamás Szakál, a media artist who earned a degree in Leipzig, and was a founder of the Nextlab media lab. His 2005 »Shift in Control« (Dinamó Gallery, Budapest) builds on the troubles caused by the American practice of fuzzifying GPS data. As he describes it: »In case of terrorist attack and during the entire Iraq war, the signals’ precision was reduced to several hundred meters, though according to official sources this distortion ended in 2000. The false positional data of the receiver on the roof modulate the sound and light of the installation. These measurements are imprecise even now. [...] The larger the differences between the currently measured geo-locating signal and the true geographical location, the greater the effect of the receiver on the installation space.« [24]

The final result is a phenomenon of sound that, although barely perceptible to the ear, is impossible to endure for long periods.

The other side of imperceptibility is represented by works positioned on the lower end of digital sampling that cannot be made out by the senses without the help of some device. Avult (Obsolete) Editions’ work, led by R. R. Habarc but no longer in production, are mostly of this type. He pinnacle was the limited-edition double-CD collection »Komprimátum« (Compressed Object) whose illustrations are so tiny they can only be viewed under a microscope. Unscrewing and repacking this edition requires time: an order of magnitude more time than is needed to listen to all of its very brief recordings.


Sonification is a particularly widespread electronic music technique of composition and sound synthesis. It is defined as »the transformation of data connections into connections perceivable in an acoustic manifestation«. [25] In other words, non-sonic signals – visual information, masses of data, or continuously produced signals – are transformed into sound events such as shifts in pitch and volume or other parameters. Sonification has little to do with aesthetic synesthesis or multimedia art since it is exclusively acoustic. In this sense it is closer to acousmatic music, which conceals the source of sound and aims exclusively at the absolute reception of music. There are many types, of which the best known are event-based and parameter-mapping sonification, which associate direct sound-event mapping to a given data relationship (higher sound signals to higher domains, for example), and the newest development, model-based sonification, which creates fundamental interactive opportunities for the user. In addition to abstract changes, there is a much cruder sonification technique that has become widespread: audification, the direct sonification of (mostly image-based) information. All of these techniques have proven very fruitful avenues of artistic expression in Hungary. For years there have been sonification studios at the Making New Waves festival. These allow participants to create sound for raw film with the software (Coagula, Metasynth, or MaxMSP/Jitter) and technology they wish. Joining these artists in recent years is the visual artist Zsolt Gyenes, who has collaborated with Andrea Szigetvári in planning image-sound crossovers based on CT data. Kitchen Budapest’s »Submap« is a similar, parameter-mapped sonification of the map of Hungary, displayed and manipulated visually and sonorically based on regional news from 1998–2010.

Network Collaborations

Though radio stations quite naturally mined the possibilities of network connections, media artists in Hungary have failed to view the Internet as a usable medium. As a result we do not find in Hungary any outstanding online projects like the Dutch-German Soundtransit spatial recording distributor or the Saynow message distributor. On the other hand there has been a clear growth of interest in working up the network character of musical performances in the manner of conference-telephone concerts from a pre-Internet age. Indeed, the media-historical roots of this practice happen to come from Hungary: József Chudy’s 1976 opera broadcast was the first in the world. [26] Given the special nature of the genre, network art is local only as regards its participants, but in every other respect (particularly the concert venue and audience) it is location-independent. It requires only a stable Internet connection of suitable speed. This was the conception behind the European Bridges Ensemble (EBE), created by Andrea Szigetvári and her German, English, and Serbian colleagues. The EBE is a musical ensemble whose technological foundation is being developed by Georg Hajdu under the name of The work of the group has generated much debate on technology and aesthetics, subjects taken up regarding an EU-financed project at the Music in the Global Village conference, as well as at the Making New Waves festivals from 2007-10 in Budapest and Pécs. is largely a local network group; its concerts are largely performed by the full ensemble, or with only a few members participating from remote locations. A similar group (though without the involvement of Hungarians) is the six-member Berlin-based Laptoporchester. It does however have a strong Hungarian connection, in that its director Marek Brandt regularly held concerts in Hungary from 2008-10 that premièred the works of Hungarian composers, Kristóf Weber among them. Local players were active participants at the Headphone Festival in Pécs in 2008 and 2010, which took up network communication once more: the performers were local and remote, and the productions could be listened to on headphones.

Our own creative group contributed to the dissemination of network projects through a distance concert between Germany and Hungary in 2010: »Upgrade 3.0« is a contemporary music and dance project relying on a video and sound bridge between Pécs and Dortmund, with the collaboration of remote dancers. None of these projects were continued, however, once experience showed that staging a remote concert required nearly as much energy and expense as hiring a guest performer in physical reality. Sometimes distance participation adds a special quality to the performance, and it can also happen that a piece brings out the flaws in a network and delays in transmission; the tools for remedying this are quite limited, and solution requires a long wait (even if not as long as Edgard Varèse had to wait for the appearance of electronic sound synthesis).

Radio Art

Together with experimental music performance, it is the sound play or montage for radio broadcast – real or fictive – that can look back on the greatest past. The Artpool archive is constantly in the process of preparing and disseminating cassette radio broadcasts (material played back from cassettes on mobile pirate networks), pseudo-commercials, and the like, made in the 1980s by Miklós Erdély, György Galántai, Attila Grandpierre, László Lugosi Lugo and Gyula Pauer. [27] As a one-way communication environment, radio is an understandable inspiration to marginal artists to exercise (or abuse) their right to free speech while criticizing mass media that are similarly manipulative of everyday life. The Hungarian Media law that was democratically drafted in the mid-1990s made true freedom of speech a possibility for so-called nonprofit radio stations, and later (quite unusually) for community stations with a symbolic 1km broadcast range. So the revolution in the airwaves gradually died down and attention turned to mobilizing the audience that was being reached. »People were listening not to programs but to a process,« says dj Palotai, one of the founders of Tilos Rádió. [28] Tilos and ParaRádió were groundbreakers in this process: the former with its place-specific sound play and software development [29], its open mikes [30] and programs like No Wave, while the latter had a radical outlook. Both of them marked out new directions (at least in Hungary) for the bigger stations through their experimental music programming and events. It was some time after this – only in 2003 – that the first harbinger appeared in one of the public radio stations, on Petőfi Rádió’s »Mixmag« radio-play program produced by Tamás Turay (this program has since ended, with the restructuring of the station). Nearly all of Hungary’s creative musical minds had their day on the program to build and perform radio-plays. Meanwhile community and Internet radio stations began popping up. Periszkop Rádió in Pécs, in particular, has emphasized underground music since 2006, and organized a number of radio-art and development actions [31]; other such stations, to a greater or lesser degree, include Budapest’s Fiksz and Fúzió, Szeged’s Rádió MI (US /WHAT), and Erdély FM in Transylvania. From this point on, radio-art and community programming took on the tendency toward underground initiatives – and since the passing of the 2010 Media Law, they have been a face of the liberal resistance.

Political Reflections

»The minute hand has come around«, says Kornél Gáspár, founder of the New Way of Seeing Fusion band. Indeed it seems that the period is coming to an end. We have moved from art that was waking up from stifling political influence – and returned to where we started. The potential of electronic music for social and cultural criticism, and for stirring up movements, remains unexploited. Independent contemporary music seeks anarchy within the system, inasmuch as experimental music aims to undermine »the validity of activities and creations allowed and categorised as art by the capitalist ethos.« [32] In my view, however, experimental music is not a mouthpiece for anarchy: its deterministic nature comes out when disorder begins. In other words, it counterbalances the world around it. This process depends just as much on grotesque confrontation (besides the aforementioned hypersubjective texts of the New Way of Seeing/Fusion group, one might also look at the disguise performances of the Terra Rossa group), on a neo-primitive or even pseudo-elite style (the Tudósok [Scholars] Group and other works by dr. Máriás, to name a few), as it does on the choice of explicitly political topics (such as our remix entry on the closing vote of the recent Media Law [33] and some of our other actions that followed). The world as expressed through reflections on political life reminds us that free and uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) art will be useless in a society that has lost its freedom if it fails to exploit its force for creating communities and mobilising its audience.

Conclusion: Sound Art in Search of its Artists

I would like to conclude my account with a personal opinion. When electronic music in all its forms suddenly appeared in the public consciousness in mid-1990s Hungary, it seemed only natural to anyone who moved in its circles that the diversity of the medium would lead to mutual reinforcement for all involved. Various creative communities sprang up in the hope of sending out the roots of something that might, given the chance, come to full flower. We were confident that we would ultimately shape these currents in music, and the forums in which they were received, through democratic means. We would, we thought, turn the notion of a passive public into an active one, liberate creativity, and allow a discourse free from hierarchy to take over. This was to happen at »the incredible moment of freedom«, [34] in the years following the fall of socialism, as we basked in this hope, weaving the new with the newer, the unusual, and the strange. But today we have come to see that only a part of these Utopian dreams have come true, and that the resulting hybrid is not strong enough to stand on its own. We should have been watering this plant not only at the roots, but on its leaves and flowers too. Without this care, it bore no fruit; experimental electronic music remains in its ivory tower, and party culture is in ruins. History – and more importantly for us now – media art, passed us by without a word.

Translation: Jim Tucker

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

Contemporary history has influenced the writing of this history at several points. On top of everything, my starting point has not been Budapest, but Pécs. Still, I hope that from here I might offer a more flexible account of the most important events. I thank all the aforementioned people for their help, particularly László Vidovszky for his guidance in all those areas where, given my age, I have no direct experience. I would like to offer this essay to the students in the Electronic Music Media Art Department at the University of Pécs (PTE-MK) who might someday become the exponents of art forms still unknown in Hungary.

Barnabás Batta (ed.), »Médium, Hang, Esztétika – Zeneiség a mediális technológiák korában«, Univ Kiadó, Szeged 2009.

András Éry-Kovács, »Fiatal radikálisok – Éry-Kovács András beszélgetése Jeney ZoItánnal, Vidovszky LászIóval és Wilheim Andrással, a KISZ Központi Művészegyüttese Űj Zenei Stúdiójának tagjaival«, in: »Zenekultúránkról«, István Balázs (ed.), Kossuth, Budapest 1982, pp. 391–403. [08/2012].

Márta Grabócz, »Zene és narrativitás – Írások 18-19. századi és kortárs zeneművekről«, Jelenkor, Pécs 2003.

József Havasréti / Zsolt K. Horváth, »Avantgárd: underground: alternatív – Popzene, művészet és szubkulturális nyilvánosság Magyarországon«, Artpool – Kijárat – PTE-BTK Kommunikációs Tanszék, Budapest/Pécs 2003.

Ferenc Kömlődi / Gábor Pánczél, »Mennyek Kapui – Az elektronikus zene évtizede«, 2001. [08/2012].

Zoltán Pongrácz, »Az elektronikus zene«, Zeneműkiadó, Budapest 1980.

László Sáry, »Creative music activities«, Jelenkor, Pécs 1999.

László Vidovszky / Kristóf Weber, »Beszélgetések a zenéről«, Jelenkor, Pécs 1997.

[1] I have borrowed this formulation from the analysis of: Márta Grabócz, »Zene és narrativitás – Írások 18–19. századi é kortárs zeneművekről«, Jelenkor, Pécs 2003, p. 194.

[2] This text accompanies a recording of Zoltán Jeney’s music, SLPX 12059, Hungaroton, 1979.

[3] Éry-Kovács András, »Fiatal radikálisok – Éry-Kovács András beszélgetése Jeney ZoItánnal, Vidovszky LászIóval és Wilheim Andrással, a KISZ Központi Művészegyüttese Űj Zenei Stúdiójának tagjaival«, in: »Zenekultúránkról«, Balázs István ed., Kossuth, Budapest 1982, pp. 391–403. [08/2012].

[4] see [08/2012], [08/2012].

[5] János Maróthy, »A beat ürügyén a művelődésről« (On Education, by Way of Beat, 1969), in: Zenekultúránkról, Kossuth, Budapest 1982, pp. 101–108. [08/2012].

[6] László Najmányi gives a serialized comprehensive account of the Spions in the journal Balkon, beginning with issue 2010/1.

[7] Gábor Gavra, »A neoavantgárd és a rockzene találkozása a hetvenes és nyolcvanas évek fordulóján« The Meeting of the Neo-avant-garde and Rock music around the Turn of the 90s), in: József Havasréti – K. Horváth Zsolt, »Avantgárd: underground: alternatív – Popzene, művészet és szubkulturális nyilvánosság Magyarországon«, Artpool – Kijárat – PTE-BTK Kommunikációs Tanszék, Budapest-Pécs 2003, pp. 39–54, 53.

[8] For a complex treatment of this topic see József Havasréti – K. Horváth Zsolt, 2003.

[9] It would be desirable, but beyond the scope of this paper to give an overview of the performance-type work of the neo-avant-garde artists (Miklós Erdélyi, Tamás Szentjoby György Jovánovics, György Galántai, et al.). Fortunately their oeuvre receives a much broader readership from the authors that follow, making it easy to search for them by name. I shall deal with their relevant sound works in a discussion of radio art below.

[10] »Átitatom magam velük – Szemző Tiborral Tillmann J. A. beszélget« (I Steep Myself in Them: J. A. Tillmann Speaks with Tibor Szemző) , in: Jelenkor, 2004 (47), 3, pp. 314–318, [08/2012].

[11] This series offers short films from 1975–85 directed by non-director artists (Dóra Maurer, Zoltán Jeney, Tibor Hajas, et al.).

[12] Waliczky’s output is treated in detail by Mark B. N. Hansen, »New Philosophy for New Media«, MIT Press, Cambridge 2004.

[13] [08/2012].

[14] [08/2012], it should be noted, however, that the artist himself does not recommend exposure to the work through video. Cf. László Vidovszky – Weber Kristóf, » Beszélgetések a zenéről«, Jelenkor, Pécs 1997, p. 21.

[15] Information on the former can be found at [08/2012], on the latter at [08/2012].

[16] [08/2012]. A comprehensive look at kinetic sculpture, and particularly at the INDIGO group led by Miklós Erdély can be found at: Hangyel Orsolya, »Kinetikus mûvészet Magyarországon« (Kinetic Art in Hungary), in: Mozgás '08, Faur Zsófi Ráday Galéria, Ráday Galéria és Kiadó Kft., Budapest 2008.

[17] [08/2012].

[18] [08/2012].

[19] [08/2012].

[20] For reasons of brevity I must pass over this as well, omitting composers of downtempo and Juice Records’ »Future Sound of Budapest« selection. This subject has been treated in Hungarian only in conversations. See: Ferenc Kömlődi / Pánczél Gábor, »Mennyek Kapui – Az elektronikus zene évtizede«, 2001, sections 10 and 11, [08/2012].

[21] Pararadio ceased operation in 2007. Its website remains active: [08/2012].

[22] A list of these artists may be found at [08/2012].

[23] For more on mute music performance, see Lorraine Plourde, »Disciplined Listening in Tokyo: Onkyô and Non-Intentional Sounds«, in: Ethnomusicology (52/2), 2008, pp. 270–295, and David Novak, »Playing Off Site: The Untranslation of Onkyô«, in: Asian Music, Winter/Spring 2010, pp. 36–59. ( [08/2012])

[24] [08/2012].

[25] Gregory Kramer et al., »Sonification Report: Status of the Field and Research Agenda«, 1997, [08/2012].

[26] For a more detailed examination see Siegfried Zielinski, »Deep Time of the Media – Toward an Archeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means«, ford. Gloria Custance, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2006, 184–186.

[27] This constantly expanding archive is available at [08/2012].

[28] Ferenc Kömlődi / Pánczél Gábor, 2001, p. 674

[29] Software artist Ákos Maroy tracks the applications developed by Tilos. For more, see [08/2012].

[30] cf. dj Palotai, in: Ferenc Kömlődi / Pánczél Gábor, 2001, op. cit., p. 675. »Later we went into town, to Csörsz St. next to the College of Physical Education. Every morning we put the microphone not in the garden, but on the balcony. You could hear the 61 tram passing by on the radio. […] The most brilliant thing was that the technician, who knew where our studio was, went to see his parents on Sunday morning. He got on the 61 tram at the Déli Station, took his seat, and put on his headphones to hear what was on the radio. He heard the doors opening and closing, and the tram pulling away. Later he said if he hadn’t already been sitting down, he would have had to. It was such a shock to hear the whole thing from the outside. So there were absolutely one-person broadcasts.«

[31] [08/2012]. Its predecessors in Pécs were Szubjektív, Ex-szubjektív, Publikum, and GFM radio stations, which followed in succession – among their work, special emphasis should be given to the Makramé MaxMSP/Jitter source collection, [08/2012].

[32] Zsolt Sőrés, »Hang és anarchia – Gondolatok a független kortárs zene helyzetéről« (Sound and Anarchy: Thoughts on the Situation of Independent Contemporary Music), 2003, [08/2012].

[33] [08/2012].

[34] Cf. [08/2012].