Ernő Király

From Unearthing The Music

Ernő Király. Photo sourced from Discogs

Ernő Király was a Serbian Yugoslavian composer and ethnomusicologist (born on March 16, 1919 in Subotica, Kingdom of Yugoslavia; died on December 14, 2007 in Novi Sad, Serbia). He was interested in folk music, improvisation, instrument building, unconventional tunings and graphic scores. He collected over 3000 folk songs and published many books documenting them.


Kiraly was born in 1919 to Hungarian parents in Subotica, a town sitting on the Yugoslavia/Hungary border. He learned how to play the guitar in his teens while working as an upholsterer and first performed in workers' union orchestras before making his way to the Subotica Philharmonic. He later moved to Novi Sad, the capital of what was then the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. Working at the state radio, he began to collect local folk music and study the musical customs of the local elders. The radio station provided him with information on audio technology and soon a journalist friend introduced him to Edgard Varèse's "Poème Électronique."

He spent most of the '60s composing tape music, occasionally scoring it for folk instruments (or using them as sound sources). In the '70s, he turned to ensemble composition, using graphic scores and chance operations. This was made possible through his encounter of Dubravko Detoni and his ensemble Acezantez. That decade also saw Kiraly involved in the creation of new instruments. Born out of a desire to go beyond the twelve-tone scale, his creations usually derived from existing folk instruments. The best-known is the zitherphone, a quarter-tone instrument made of five different zithers mounted on the same body.

Kiraly's music was occasionally performed in Novi Sad. He also scored film soundtracks and taught composition and folk music history in local colleges up to the late '80s. The annexation of Vojvodina to Serbia in 1988 and the Yugoslavian war that soon followed brought down the music institutions in the country, forcing Kiraly to work alone from his home and with no exposure. Colleagues and former students of his, namely Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer, made efforts to keep his music alive. In 1996, Kiraly performed at the RingRing New Music Festival in Belgrade, in a trio with Tickmayer and ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. Later that year, Cutler's record label ReR Megacorp released Phoenix: The Music of Ernö Király, a collection of works from the '60s, '70s and '80s prepared by Tickmayer.

He became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts in 1992. On December 4, 2003, he received the "For Hungarian Art" award at the Károlyi Palace in Budapest. He received the Parallel Culture Award in 2005.

His son is composer David Zsolt Kiraly.


  1. Discogs Profile
  2. Allmusic profile