Milan Adamčiak interviewed by Dušan Barok
From Unearthing The Music
Milan Adamčiak (1946-2017) was a Slovak composer, cellist and musicologist; author of acoustic objects, installations and unconventional musical instruments; performer, visual artist, experimental poet, and mystifier. Adamčiak was born in 1946 in Ružomberok. He studied cello at the Conservatory (music school) in Žilina (1962-68) and musicology at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Comenius University in Bratislava (1968-73). From 1972-91 he worked at the Institute of Musical Studies (later renamed to Institute of Art Studies) of Slovak Academy of Sciences as a researcher of 20th century music and relations between music and visual arts. In parallel he worked as a lecturer on 20th century music at the Music Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts, Bratislava (1977-88), the Faculty of Philosophy of Comenius University, Bratislava (1979-88), and the Academy of Fine Arts, Bratislava (1991). In the mid-1960s he focused primarily on experimental poetry, graphic scores, and constructing sound objects. Trained in a traditional way but influenced by the poetics of John Cage and Fluxus, he created a large body of work that transgressed the conventional definitions of the arts and quickly moved towards the concepts of opera aperta, action music and various intermedia forms. He also experimented with electronic media and created several pieces of electroacoustic music and musique concrète, but it was primarily live electronics that fit the principles of his radical poetics. In the second half of the 1960s he worked in several collectives, namely DAD (1965), and Ensemble Comp. (1967, with Róbert Cyprich and Jozef Revallo). At the same time, he produced the sound and music parts of several projects by other authors (Alex Mlynárčik, Jana Želibská, Jarmila Čihánková). By the end of the 1980s he renewed these activities by starting the Transmusic comp. - Ensemble of unconventional music (1989), founding the Society of Unconventional Music (Spoločnosť pre nekonvenčnú hudbu, SNEH, 1990) and initiating the FIT - Festival of intermedia creativity (Bratislava, 1991 and 1992). In 1990 he co-founded New Seriousness with Július Koller and Peter Rónai. From 2005 Adamčiak collaborated with Michal Murin on the social project Altruism as Arttruism. He lived the last years of his life in Banská Belá near Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia.
The following interview was conducted by Dušan Barok as part of his continuous research of media arts in Central and Eastern Europe.
D.B .: How did you get interested in music and graphic scores?
M.A .: My brother and I were both born with complications. Our legs were dislocated and they had to fix us, so to speak. They managed with me, but not with my brother who remained disabled and one of his legs is shorter. Our parents were always forthcoming with him, all his wishes were sacred. And he wished to become a musician. He got accepted for accordion to a music school in Ružomberok [note: a city in northern Slovakia]. I learnt to play the violin from Palo Čonek, a local Roma who delivered milk and was an excellent violinist. At around 13 years, I was accepted to a violoncello class at the music school where I was taught by another Roma, Jožko Lakatoš, a really good person. Two years later, I continued studying the cello at the conservatory in Žilina. Soon, I found out that I knew too little about music, so I started reading books. Over the course of two years I devoured everything that had been published in Czech and Slovak. I wished to become a theorist. It was in 1964, the year they began to write about contemporary music. One professor noticed it and told me there's more to the world than music. He introduced me to poetry. And since at that time, more books on fine arts and poetry were being published, I delved into it.
Coincidentally, Cage visited Prague in 1964. My professor invited me and another student to his apartment. He turned on the radio, flicked through it, and I told him to stop. He stopped, and there was ... beep, beep. I said this must be Webern! I'd never heard it before. I just thought it might sound like that. When it was over, they announced it was Anton Webern's Five Pieces for String Quartet. They also mentioned that John Cage was in Prague, with Rauschenberg and Cunningham, and the radio show started. Cage said: "My intention is to have no intention." To which I responded that my intention is to have infinitely many intentions. Arnold Kojnok featured it in his film [note: Slovak film director and producer who made two documentaries about Adamčiak]. He visited Professor Edo Beke, in the same room, under the same library. I wasn't sure if he could remember it. It was extremely important to me, I heard Cage and Webern for the first time in my life. I had explored Webern's music before, making a score, linking a pseudo-scheme - one point here, another point there, and suddenly I heard it live. It was at this time that I decided to explore the music of the 20th century. In the same year, Jaromír Paclt, the second most progressive musicologist in Prague next to Vladimír Lébl, was featured in Slovenská hudba (Slovak Music) magazine. He wrote about Milan Grygar, Warsaw Autumn, and Palermo Festival. He went wherever something happened. Anestis Logothetis (note: Greek avant-garde composer) gave him a set of music and graphic scores. He couldn't get it published in the Czech Republic, so he managed to do so in Slovakia, in Slovak Music. When I saw those four pages about Logothetis' scores, I realised this is what I want to do. And this is called "graphic music". I was elated. That was in 1964.
In 1967, my cello teacher Jožko Lakatoš died, and the music school offered me a job teaching the cello. I'd been to the conservatory by then. At the school, I had a student, violinist Robo Cyprich, the son of the head of the military hospital. He came fresh-faced, anxious, five years younger than me, and suddenly he blurted out that he had written to Stockhausen and received a response. I immediately said that we had to do something together. His parents were scared, but he was such a brave person, well-read, curious. I didn't have as much knowledge as he had. Once I wrote in my diary: "How can I be responsible for my irresponsibility?" He wouldn't ask such a question. He would rather say: "How can I complete the incompletable?" And so we became friends.
D.B .: Ligeti, Stockhausen, Kagel and Lutosławski visited Slovakia for the Smolenice Seminars on New Music in the late 1960s. How did this event come about?
M.A .: Warsaw had its own festival, Warsaw Autumn, and my colleague, composer, musician and conductor Laco Kupkovič performed there with Hudba dneška (Music of Today). Inspired, he wanted to do something similar in Slovakia. There was no need to organize another festival, so his colleague, musicologist Peter Faltin, suggested a symposium instead: a seminar with musicologists, theoreticians and musicians. Since the Smolenice Castle was the workplace of the Academy of Sciences, a holiday home where representative events could be held, they agreed to host it there. In 1968, I was still at the conservatory, and learned about the first seminar later. At that time, Stockhausen attended, and dedicated a composition to Music of Today, which was presented in his presence. I attended the following year when Ligeti came. They refused to play his composition, a symphonic poem.
D.B.: Why did they reject it?
M.A.: Apparently it wasn't music. He brought it along as a sort of musical joke. There is also a recording, presented by Jožko Malovec, coincidentally one of the composers of new music and one of the artists. He was laughing. It was amusing to him even though it was actually something serious through which he wanted to present the rasters used in his symphonic poems. He got also included in the Fluxus movement with that symphonic poem because it expresses it. But they could also be done on a metronome. They did not manage to obtain 100 metronomes - only around 60-70 in the end - and Ligeti agreed it could be done with a smaller amount. Six of us executed the piece, including Jožko Malovec, composer Juro Hatrík and three engineers from electroacoustic studios in Prague, Pilsen, and Bratislava. Laco Kupkovič conducted it. A review was published in the form of a collage by Ilja Zeljenka, who replaced Kupkovič with a circus horse. A horse on his back legs, as he conducts. This was when Ligeti was here ... Can you imagine such nonsense?
At that time, I performed in Smolenice for the first time. I gave them three proposals. Two of them got declined, the third one was accepted. I opened for Mauricio Kagel [note: German-Argentine composer]. The piece was called Dislocation. Eight musicians play checkers against eight others. They made a 6x6 meter carpet to fit into the hall. The game was announced through microphones to the neighbouring room where the musicians were present. Above me stood a musicologist, a chess player, who was concerned I would lose four figures. I told him, thank God, go listen to them, I will be glad if they leave, because they cannot play. We did it twice and the audience had a chance to see the difference. In order to give musicians a chance to play it better, I had pieces marked with chalk to be thrown out as soon as possible. Because it was about music, not about winning checkers.
D.B .: How long did the performance last?
M.A .: 12, 20 minutes? They wanted to record it, but I disagreed because I knew they wouldn't play well. They hadn't rehearsed together … Paradoxically, soon after, they invited me to Darmstadt. But I hadn't been allowed to travel for four years. In 1974, I traveled there secretly and got an ensemble. After four rehearsals I told them I didn't want to do it, they couldn't play it. These were top musicians. "Two more rehearsals ... And you're going to make it." I also told them I didn't want a recording. But they archived it and I received the recording last year for my birthday. When they asked me, I said they didn't play as they should have. They found me difficult ... The top pianist, Herbert Henck, who led the ensemble, asked me that if I knew how it should be, why hadn't I written it that way. But I wanted it to be the way they were able to play it, not me.
I called them “projects”. They never presented them the way I wanted: playing according to Milan Adamčiak's project, rather than playing Adamčiak. I was listed as a composer in the lexicon of Slovak composers, so I scolded them. "I am not a composer, where did you get it from?" "We played your compositions." “You didn't play my compositions, you played my project.” Music is often compared to architecture. The architect can do various projects, but there is a builder and a bricklayer between him and the occupant of the house, who can change it quite significantly. And then the resident who can totally mess it up. I have a friend, a semiotic ant. When he gets his hands on a composition, he gnaws it to the point no one can put it back together. He goes to the bottom of things, down to their bone. Eugen Suchoň [note: one of the most important Slovak composers of the 20th century] told me, “don't write it, leave a little secret. For the listener. Even for the composition.”
D.B .: What were the discussions at the Smolenice seminaries about? Participants came from different backgrounds.
M.A .: We would have guests from Germany, Slovakia, Czechia, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere. Guests from Russia, Romania and Bulgaria were invited, but they did not come. Things were discussed as it is done in contemporary arts. What is the issue? Music. How? The issue of harmony, the issue of rhythm, the issue of perception of this, the sociology of that, the psychology of contemporary music. The psychology of German contemporary music is quite different from that of Czech music, so it was discussed. How come every present composer had a different approach to composing when they had been working in the same field for years? For me as a student, it was fantastic, I was in heaven. I had already had five years of experience from Warsaw because I had been attending the Warsaw Autumn festival since 1965. And I was bold. I went to the musicians and composers and asked them to explain something or just to chat. But this was work, there were no random attendees or composers. This was targeted, planned.
D.B .: At the time of Smolenice, the Experimental Studio had been already operating in Bratislava.
M.A .: In 1964, the first electronic music workshop took place in Pilsen, organized by the Research Institute of Radio and Television. At that time, Pilsen was given permission to establish an experimental studio. They had engineers and composers. I learned about it about half a year later from the magazines I subscribed to. I wrote to the Institute and received their magazine Radio and Television Work. All the texts from the Smolenice seminar were in there. Later the proceedings were also published. From Slovakia, Jožko Malovec joined the Pilsen studio, who had some experience and also made music, as well as Ivan Stadtrucker, an engineer. The composer Peter Kolman was a radio dramaturg at that time and decided that there would be a studio created in Slovakia. The Slovak Television (STV) had set up a work unit. Jožko Malovec began working at the TV as well. The experimental radio studio in Bratislava was established and approved later, in 1965. The communication between them was very friendly. I talked about Ligeti’s metronomes in Smolenice in 1969. Miloš Blaha from the studio as well as Ježek, Jaromír and Peťo Janík immediately went there to deal with it. It was obvious for everyone involved to live with music. They also communicated with each other, there was no rivalry. They had extremely friendly relationships. Humane and professional. When we organized the first electronic music festival and published a magazine and CD's, it was open to anyone, regardless whether from Pilsen, Brno, Prague or Bratislava. Our studio was built according to the Warsaw model because its founders, Dobrowolski and Patkowski, were our friends. I was a kid really, but they treated me as a colleague. I was curious and well-read. I was able to talk with them. I was lucky to meet the better ones. The best ones, in fact.
D.B .: Was there a fourth year of Smolenice planned?
M.A .: Yes. They were also supposed to play my piece, and there was an ensemble coming from Holland. The third edition of Smolenice was put together by Ivan Parík. They wanted to appease and invited national artists [note: a state honorary title awarded to exceptional artists in the postwar Czechoslovakia] and others who might have not cared about it. Kupkovič's composition Ad libitum was performed, with a graphicon, a diagram made for each room, that each of us received. "Here you can play the violin, there the drums, go quietly here, scream over there, sing there, listen here ..." They ridiculed it in the papers, showing a national artist playing on the referee's whistle, and consequently we received a decree from the party's central committee – it was the end. Kupkovič emigrated. Peťo Faltin followed.
D.B .: Did the review play such an important role?
M.A.: Of course. It was someone from our circles. It wasn't a politician, but someone envious who needed to ridicule it. In 1970 there hadn't been normalization yet, and the police had no influence. We were still on academic grounds where they couldn't intervene even if they wanted to! I was shocked when I found out. It was hard to believe, as it only got going. Some people didn’t understand what I was scared of. But after I took part in the hunger strike for Jan Palach [note: Czech student whose self-immolation was a protest against the invasion of the Warsaw Pact troops in 1968], the police kept an eye on me and they were also aware of this. I knew what I could afford to do and what not. I learned after years that Sebastian Pont was not included, because one composer had said it was a malicious piece. Do you know what Saint Sebastian is about? His own soldiers were to shoot him because he became a Christian. This was my allusion to the arrival of the Soviet troops, with Catholic undertones. Suddenly I received a telegram that Sebastian Pont could not be realized for technical reasons. Well.
Nusberg, Dvizhenie, Galeyev
D.B .: The book Milan Adamčiak: Archive I (EXPO) mentions that you were in touch with members of the Russian experimental group Dvizhenie.
M.A .: In 1967, Dvizhenie decorated Leningrad on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the October revolution. I read it in the papers. Between 1964 and 1969, a pleasant, free period prevailed in our country. In November 1967 you could read about the Soviet avant-garde in all the magazines - from the 1910s to 1930s until the most recent - such as Francisco Infante, Lev Nusberg [author's note: members of Dvizhenie], Bulat Galeyev, and the like. It interested me and I subscribed to 30 magazines. When I visited the Soviet Union, the first thing I wanted to know was where to learn more. But Alex Mlynarčík [note: Slovak Postwar & Contemporary painter], with whom I organized events and happenings, met Nusberg in 1966 or 1967 in Paris. He invited Nusberg to our event, who couldn't come in person, but he sent his project. It was executed and we kept in touch. In the meantime, I happened to meet Infante, which was a shock to both of us.
D.B .: By chance?
M.A .: He had an event in Prague. We were sitting in a café, and he seemed like a Russian to me, so I approached him. We drank a lot of vodka and then we never saw each other again. It was different with Nusberg. In 1990, the European Cultural Club was founded in Prague with the Russians as co-founders, Nusberg being one of them. We met at the opening and a few more times afterwards at Club sessions. We talked a lot about art. It really was changing at that time and we both felt that Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union would fall apart.
D.B .: And the event that took place in Slovakia – can you recollect it?
M.A .: It was the Day of Joy (1972) on a train in Orava [note: northern Slovakia]. Lexo Mlynarčík gave one station to Nusberg, who sent a project for kinetic sculpture that was placed on the locomotive. As the train went, lines and surfaces were spinning on the top. From Dvizhenie, Galina Bitt came, who made striking geometric graphic art, very refined and close to computer graphics.
D.B .: Have you met Galeyev?
M.A .: I never met him personally, but the Scriabin Museum in Moscow brought to my attention that he had written a book on light music, entitled Light-Music (1976). I managed to get hold of it. Later he published a book about Lev Theremin, the creator of electronic instruments, that he sent to the Experimental Studio in Bratislava. We had already known about him, as it was in the second half of the 1980s. I did not dare to write to him anymore, as my correspondence was monitored. One of the first things I said to myself when I was threatened at the Academy in 1977 that if I made a mistake I would have to leave, was: no correspondence. Even if I did receive a letter, I wouldn't respond, at my own decision. When I managed to travel abroad I tried to find contacts, but it wasn't always easy.
D.B .: Recently, I learned about a center in Austria, where scientists from the East and the West worked side by side on so-called non-contentious topics in the 1970s, among them also the first experiments with the Internet. In 1977, a three-week telematics conference experiment happened between centers in Vienna, Wroclaw, Kiev and San Francisco. Bratislava was also involved in the development of the international computer network. What was your experience with the West?
M.A .: I was at the Slovak Academy of Sciences between 1972 and 1991. During this time I learned about the East-West collaboration. In 1987, the Americans proposed a cooperation to Czechoslovakia. In December, three of us attended a conference in Prague. We were told that by January - in a month's time - we should propose topics for a 10-year cooperation between Czechoslovak academies and US institutions. The center was called IREX, and was supposed to deal with history, present, forecasting topics, and mutual research. We would explore American reality and they the European one. The Americans already had a precise topic for the first meeting. The first event took place in May 1988 in the US. It was a conference about Leoš Janáček [note: Czech composer, musical theorist, folklorist, publicist and teacher]. They invited specialists from all over the world: seven people from Czechia, while from Slovakia my boss was supposed to go. It was an attempt to establish whether we could communicate at all, whether there would be clashes during the conference already, preceding the longer-term research. My boss got scared. When he found out who was going to attend, he refused to go. The Americans insisted that there must be a Slovak person participating. In April I was told that next month I should have a presentation in Saint Louis, US. I had a lot of work to do to become an expert on Janáček in a month. But I ended up going only to realize that the Czechs had been there before, through the Antonín Dvořák Czech-American Society. Thanks to the New World Symphony, Americans consider Dvořák an international composer. It was a shock to me when my colleague told me he was there for the seventh time. I was wondering how the hell could he get there? It was simply impossible. Everything was possible, the Americans paid for it. And the Americans also visited us.
I had a tooth extraction done out there. It was hurting terribly just as I was about to have a lecture. I told them to postpone it until the following day. It was not possible. So I achingly presented it and asked if they had any questions. And my Canadian colleague asked me if I still had a toothache. So we burst into laughter. I went to the dentist and had my tooth pulled out. It cost a hundred dollars. I had six hundred dollars all in all, and was able to pay for it, but the conference chair paid it for me. And when I told him he shouldn't have, he said that his wife was operated for a stomach ulcer in Brno and that he didn't have to pay anything. So I was also shocked to hear what kinds of relationships had existed here, him even coming with his wife to Czechoslovakia. During harsh totalitarianism.
D.B .: Slowly it has transpired what sort of rapport was happening.
M.A .: I bought a book called Mineralogy of the Moon in the Soviet Union. It was a beautiful book, full of photographs, nano-snapshots, 10,000-time magnifications made with an electron microscope. And a chemical-physical analysis. The Americans and the Russians made it together. It wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Imagine the space research during the so-called Cold War, and the rivalry. It was jointly managed, they had an agreement on who will do what. We'll send the first person to the moon, you'll send one to the free space, the cosmos.
D.B .: That's the sixties.
M.A .: I'm convinced that it started right away. As soon as Russia emerged as a superpower. Theremin was in the United States in the 1920s as a Russian electronics specialist, along with Henry Cowell. They even invented the rhythm machine - today we would say the world’s first instrument to generate rhythm. But Theremin returned to Russia, and got sent to a labour camp, or the laboratories, to be precise, even though he was the person Lenin had allowed to conduct electronic research. The Russians had the most advanced research on electronic tools and radio technology. Why? Because Theremin told Lenin that it could be used for military purposes. Theremin devised the denoiser, a sound absorber, and thus they were able to intercept submarines with oceanographic microphones. His daughter had no clue where her father was, and the father had to sign that he would never reveal what he was doing and where he was doing it. But maybe he lived like a pig in the mud. During the Russian famine, his US colleague, Cowell, raised money among American intellectuals and sent it to the starving Russia.
D.B .: The work of many experimenters with new technologies transgressed to national defense and security.
M.A .: None of us will ever know about the extent of their activities. Why did Galeyev research light music? He was an engineer at the military airport in Kazan and he was obliged to conduct research on how colours affect humans. It is enough to introduce pilots, who orient themselves according to lights, to a different system, and we have clear cut manipulation in place. So does any research, including music. The largest research in contemporary art in the US has recently been done at MIT. Why? Because it's a military workplace. When they sent Günther Uecker or Otto Piene as bosses there, Europe gasped. The Americans knew that artists could also see ahead of their time. Unfortunately, we ourselves fail at this.
D.B .: You are often perceived as an intermedia artist. On the one hand, we can take any discipline, not just artistic, but also scientific, and once there's an intersection, it's branded as intermedia. Or rather, we can look at them from the cultural perspective, through Fluxus, specific artists, groups, links to them. How do you perceive this term?
M.A .: Nowadays in a different way than ten years ago. The terms "interdisciplinary" and "intermedia" originated in the 1960s. While interdisciplinary was used for science and technology, intermedia was applied in the arts. Where theater has become something more than a theater - something other than theater - although theater itself is intermedia, but this is natural. Originally, it was syncretical, united, and out of this came painting, sculpture, dance, singing, music. Once it was a ritual that connected everything: from crafts to social life to ideologies. Gradually, it separated, and then it again searched for its way back to reunite. But when opera came into being - though operas had existed for a long time, and we find it in native peoples to this day - intermedia became its own medium, as if independent of this, while reflecting on the events of these and when it needed innovations, it received them from other media. Theater thus incorporated film projection, music absorbed elements from theatre, poetry integrated the visual and vice versa. In the 1960s it was roughly defined that these were intermedia. When I'm not sure if it's music or theater, when I'm not sure it's music or drawing. Dick Higgins, coincidentally a member of the Fluxus movement, was the creator of the term “intermedia”. The term “interdiscipline” had been invented before. I'm not sure if you speak Polish. When Russian formalists encountered the issue of the theatralization of poetry or dramatization of literature, the term interdiscipline came into being. It thus transgresses the field of linguistics and crosses over, for instance, to sociology. I'm not quite sure about this, but I assume so.
D.B .: In the 1970s-1980s the term transformed.
M.A .: In the 1960s it got generally accepted, indeed. Lettrism originated in visual arts; visual poems in poetry; geometric painting and concretism in painting; concrete poetry in literature; while in music it was music graphics or graphic music. Nowadays, graphic music is considered when someone draws according to music, by listening to it, or needs to visualize their impressions of what they are listening to. Marshall McLuhan began to speak of the media as mass media, with the media shifting, from hands to that typewriter, or car or clothing, as an extension of the body and the skin. Anything could suddenly become the media. Mass media culture ensued, and it was necessary to choose the medium that would be key. Today, intermedia means what works between the media. Historically, it is necessary to talk about old media, or intermedia, as well as about traditional, classical, historical or contemporary media. Current intermediality allows for human interaction with different technologies, information channels and so on.
When we were doing this, information channels didn't play a big role. The fact that I wanted to find out who was active in this field was my personal interest, and I didn't necessarily need it. When I showed my poems to Láďa Novák [none: Czech painter and illustrator], we found an identical one. He also had constellations, and used the letters “N”, but in addition he had an “U”, and I had an “H”. Mine was called Perspective, but it could also be called A Giraffe Between the Antelopes, and it would be the same - a joke - letters based on the visual. When I showed my poems to Gerhard Ruhm [note: Austrian author, composer and visual artist], he told me that he does the same. The artist Edo Ovčáček [note: Czech visual poet, graphic designer, painter, sculptor, photographer, curator, professor] worked with a typewriter and created circular structures which are almost identical to mine. We laughed at it, each of us did it from a different perspective. When they put it side by side today, I don't care how they look at it. Today it is a separate medium that does not need to dissect contexts. If you want to explore the history of computer art, you can't bypass those contexts.
I would call them sketches for screen printing. Some of Edo’s screen-prints are enlargements of what he did on a typewriter. The first time I saw them, I told him straight away I shouldn't have seen this. He was puzzled. I pulled an identical one from my drawer and he laughed and said it doesn’t matter, I should keep it. He gifted me both the graphics and his typographic books made on a typewriter. When I had no money because I was unemployed for ten years, I sold everything I had: books, pictures, graphics... When I met him, he was already the head of a screen-printing workshop, the first thing he asked me was if I want to make some screen prints myself. I told him that I sold his screen prints because I was destitute. And he retorted: “Milan, that's why I gave them to you.” I was floored. It made me cry.
Yesterday, Kata Rusnáková [note: Slovak curator, art theorist and historian] asked me about my relationship to my work. I gave away a lot, much has been destroyed, lost, I traded it a lot. And I replied that I'm a musician. I know what I've heard, I know what I've done, I will not miss it.
The interview was conducted in April 2012 in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. The interviewer would like to thank Michal Murin for arranging the meeting, Katarina Sido for transcription, and Lucia Udvardyová for translation.