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Interview with Zoltán Rácz

From Unearthing The Music

Zoltán Rácz. Photo by Ottó Kaiser

The following is an interview with Hungarian percussionist, conductor and pedagogue Zoltán Rácz, founder and creative director of the Amadinda Percussion Group, conducted in 13 August 2020 by Lóránt Bódi and Zoltán Pál. It covers the origin and inspirations behind the Amadinda Percussion Group, the musical climate in Hungary before the regime change, and Zoltán Rácz's relationship with American composers John Cage and Steve Reich and their music.

Interview with Zoltán Rácz

Lóránt Bódi: When and how did you start Amadinda?

Zoltán Rácz: It was in March of 1984 that we first said the name ”Amadinda” out loud, but by then we had been working together for a year and a half. What preceded the founding moment was an experience I had in 1977. I was 17 years old, studying at the conservatory school (konzis), and the Strasbourg Percussion Ensemble was playing in Budapest. The Strasbourg Percussion Ensemble was the largest European ensemble of this genre, with a long history, and (very importantly) the unlimited support of the French state behind it.

Lóránt Bódi: How many members did the band have?

Zoltán Rácz: There were six. The sextet is the archetype in this genre. Even pre-World War II American bands - because that's where the genre started - were typically this size. The Strasbourg Percussion Ensemble was also started by six people. In ’71, the percussion group Nexus was formed in Canada, also with six people, and in ’78 in Sweden Kroumata was also formed with six people. By the time we had been working for a year and a half between ’82 and ’84, the situation suddenly became serious. There were four of us playing then, but with a lot of guests, and that’s when we had to determine how many there people would be in this band, which took up the name Amadinda there and then. It was a long debate, we talked a lot and I supported the quartet option all the way through. There were very funny arguments during this time and there were quite serious ones. Firstly, I think we already belonged to the second generation of this genre. Secondly, I believe in the string quartet number. Thirdly, I said, “kids, if we get good enough, we can always find a fifth, sixth person”. Going back to this particular Strasbourg ensemble which played at the Academy of Music in 1977, I can seriously say that if the Martians had come down from Mars, I wouldn’t have been more surprised. I was seventeen, and I had the feeling that a window had opened there that I had never been able to look through before.

Lóránt Bódi: Do you remember what they played that night?

Zoltán Rácz: They played a Japanese piece (Yoshihisa Taira: Hierophonie V) and they also played Ionization by Edgard Varèse, I remember these two perfectly. The Yoshihisa Taira piece was a bombshell, and we played it later. From then on, I could never get this experience out of my head when thinking about something like this formation.

Lóránt Bódi: But then you played a percussion instrument?

Zoltán Rácz: I was already at the conservatory at that time. I started playing the piano, followed by percussion instruments, which I did in parallel, and when I was 16, I still didn’t know much about what I wanted to be. Years passed, but there were no music scores and instruments in Hungary, literally nothing, and especially no fellow musicians who sought the same as me. I wanted to go abroad after my graduation because I felt that the ambitions that had somehow come to life had no place here.

Lóránt Bódi: What would your path have been like if you had stayed at the Academy and you hadn’t set up Amadinda?

Zoltán Rácz: I wasn't afraid of that, I was regularly employed by the New Music Studio since '78, and they practically raised me. And I had another defining experience. In the fall of '78, when I was doing my first year at the academy, I was invited to help at the Erkel Theater. The deal was to play in two productions, Lajtha's “9th Symphony” and Ilf Petrov in “Creating the World". I only had the contract for these two things. What I saw and lived through in that ditch during that year was unthinkable. So after the last performance, I came out from the theatre, looked up at the sky, and said I now knew what I didn’t want to be. I saw everything there: bacon being cut on an instrument during the performance… you can’t make those things up.

Lóránt Bódi: Was the mentality not professional enough?

Zoltán Rácz: No. So how can you behave like that with music? I drew a line there, though I always had a good time in these various chamber and New Music Studio productions. Then a miracle happened in my life. I was twenty years old, the phone rang. It was Zoltán Kocsis calling in the autumn of 1980: “I’m calling you because next year we’ll play Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Dedi at the Bartók centenary, and we want to play with you because I want to play them properly once.” That shocked me. We used to have a very important performance with Bartók’s sonata at the conservatory, and everyone was amazed. From then on, lots of people from the music scene knew me. I was known since I was 18, so I practically just walked into the academy. It was an admission, but I really just ”walked in”. That's how the New Music Studio found me. This phone call was in the fall of ’80 and ’81, when we were already playing abroad in the Bartók centenary series, and on September 11 ’81, and we also recorded the two piano sonatas. I wanted to go to Cologne to study, but in ’82, two people suddenly came to me and said, “let's make a band”! I said “okay” and we got started. We felt our strength in a year.

Lóránt Bódi: You made this big impact at the age of seventeen - where could you go from there? How did the world open up to you in a geographical-cultural sense?

Zoltán Rácz: Not very much at first, since the travel options at that time were limited, as you know. In ’84, I wasn’t the only academic anymore, but we were able to practice at the Academy, where somehow we were able to put together a lot of instruments that we could play, so it became clear that we had to start purchasing instruments somehow. There was so much luck in that too, because the father of one of our members emigrated to Switzerland. He lived there with a regular music teacher job at a normal Swiss standard of living, and he was able to buy us two marimbas and two xylophones. These were not that serious instruments, but they were good enough, and they served us until the arrival of the Adams instruments, in 2000. He bought them and we had to repay him, very slowly. One of the instruments he bought as a gift for his son, so we didn't even have to pay for it. In ’84 we went out to the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, where I had already been alone in ’82. The course of ’82 was a really good experience for me, so I told the boys in ’84 that the four of us should go. By then, we already had a very disgusting little minibus that we bought by playing at the Madách Theater for two seasons in an Albert Schweitzer play. We put that money together and bought an 18-year-old Volkswagen bus. We went out to the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt and then we got stuck out on the German streets for another three weeks, so we started playing seriously on the streets as well. We made a lot of money, no kidding. By the standards there, too. We practically earned, in two days, a good German average monthly salary at that time.

Lóránt Bódi: Didn't you feel awkward playing on the streets or something?

Zoltán Rácz: We had sacred goals ahead and we managed to earn a lot of money from that, but in the meantime, we made pennies for a living, so I couldn’t afford a branded jacket or anything else, we saved all the money that we earned and after three weeks we went to Germany to buy instruments. Our daily average was approximately 1,200 German marks. It was a lot of money then. We could buy instruments with that. Plus, we brought everything across the border easily. The customs officers were stupid beyond belief. I have to add that in ’85 we won the Dutch Gaudeamus competition, which put us in a privileged position from then onwards. At the time, there was a red passport and a blue passport, and in our blue passport, we were given an insert in which it was nicely written that it was valid in every country in the world and could be used to leave the country at theoretically any time. That’s when we started playing seriously: for example, we were invited to a very big London festival in ’88. We soon became successful in Hungary because the genre was new, not least because we were perceived as part of an alternative culture. By March of ’84, our name had also changed.

The fact that we were able to play at the Academy of Music on May 18, ’84, was the result of those two key connections, one with the New Music Studio, and the other one in the collaboration with Zoli Kocsis. Zoli was a huge star in the early ’80s already, and he loved us, I loved him, and that relationship opened doors for us. That's why we got to the great hall of the academy very quickly, he made a recording for Hungaroton right there, at that first concert. It was the spring of ’84. In the fall of ’84, we performed with Group 180, we played the first half of the concert and in the second half, we played the Hungarian premiere of Steve Reich: Tehillim. The auditorium exploded. From that day on, we always played in front of sold-out crowds everywhere. It was in the fall of ’84 and ’85, right? We won the Gaudeamus in March. Within a year of starting out, we had climbed to the top of a high mountain.

Lóránt Bódi: Overall, how do you explain becoming so successful in such a short time?

Zoltán Rácz: It was due to our genre. I know for sure - I have always felt this way, and I think so honestly - that our explosive successes came from the novelty of the genre, and our belonging to an alternative culture, which was not decided by us, but by those who listened to us, although it was true because our concerts did not follow the KISZ and KOMSZOMOL guidelines specifically, and the third reason was that we were not bad. But this didn’t work abroad. Abroad, you must hit strongly. We went out to the Gaudeamus tournament where we played the entire repertoire from memory during the tournament. We outplayed everyone, and that was magnificent start to the year. We came home and within a few days, we received our invitation to the ’88 London Festival.

We are old enough now to be able to say that we have become part of the curriculum in universities in America. The number one reason for our success is the chemistry of the four people in the group, because without it you can’t go on. Because a band is not a good band because the four best players are playing together, but because the four people in it can feel and sense each other. The other thing is: it must be acknowledged that when success comes, it gives you wings, and failure overwhelms you after a while. We started at an incredible speed, and very soon Hungaroton (the only record label company at that time) knocked on our door to make a record with us. I was wiser than before, enough to tell them to thank you very much, we’ll talk if there’s anything to record, and two years later we went to the studio and made the ’86 record.

Zoltán Pál: Who put the songs of the LP together?

Zoltán Rácz

Zoltán Rácz: We started dealing with John Cage pretty soon. After two years, it became a repertoire that was not huge, but enough to put a record together. There were never more than forty-five to fifty minutes on an LP, especially in our genre, which is very dynamic. We conceived the record as being twenty-two minutes long on both sides, and then Márta Pista sent us the Dollhouse story in '85, which [...] was about the 1956 revolution. There was also a tale added by Pista. It was about in the night after closing the mall, a war broke out in the mall’s toy department, a revolution among the dolls. In the ’80s, everything had to be said in a coded language, and then he said that the babies fell on each other with wild force, “nothing indicates the fierceness of the fight better than the fact that there were nine victims in the first minute and six more in the next five minutes.” And there are the four numbers: 1-9-5-6. That was the riddle. The story depicted the dramaturgy of the revolutionary events, (…) and we read it before the concerts.

Lóránt Bódi: In the late 1980s, did you already collaborate with authors as well?

Zoltán Rácz: Well, not that many at first, but we had maybe five or six pieces by the end of the ’80s, although it could have also been eight. Then came the real curiosity: I met Pici (nickname of Gábor Presser, a well-known Hungarian songwriter, pianist) at a house party thrown by Márta Pista. Pici already knew our music, because in ’85 there was a concert in the grand hall of the Academy of Music, where we played Xenakis’s Persephassa. Imagine that the whole pop scene was there at the concert. By then, so many felt that we were somewhere on the borderline between classical and pop culture. (…). Going back to this particular house party, I went up to him and told him I dreamed - really, that's exactly what I told him - I dreamed that we were playing contemporary music, and you're a contemporary composer, so why don't you write for us? (…) And Pici was amazed, but he got on very quickly. This became the Drum Street Blues piece, which we performed in ’89, still before the regime change, in the grand hall of the Academy of Music — when our occasional sextet, the Amadinda Quartet – Presser – Christmas line-up, was created. Since then we have been playing it - the last time we played was half a year ago.

Lóránt Bódi: How much of a connection did you have with the alternative culture scene?

Zoltán Rácz: Well, a very, very big one, because the ÚZS (New Music Studio) was part of that, 180-as Csoport and Főzőcső (an acronym for Fiatal Zeneszerzők Csoportja: the Group of Young Composers – ed.) were as well. Then we inevitably came in contact with artists and filmmakers. There were very serious opposition figures in this circle - most of the political opposition I knew at the time eventually joined the SZDSZ (Szabad Demokrátok Szövetsége - Alliance of Free Democrats – Hungarian Liberal Party). Moreover, even in the early years, there was a music department in which I also participated. But it was a little petty association, it wasn’t a serious thing, unfortunately I couldn’t feel any energy in it. Or I don’t even know if it could have been serious, but then everyone was so enthusiastic with how that there would be a new world here now, and everything would be good again, that we as dissenters got into anything.

By then, we were already in this cultural and political circle. As a band, we were also curious about them, there was the Szkéné Theater, the University Stage, where there were such things…Even today, I think it’s actually a foolish thing to not walk through different genres and just close yourself out. I never in my life knew what to do with these words, “classical music,” and “light music.” I do not know what they mean. I think that might be some sort of Stakhanovist stuff from the fifties, right? What is "classical music", what is "light music?" What makes classical music so serious, what makes light music “light”? Well, how much of Stravinsky’s output isn’t serious, but funny? Or I don’t know... Circus Polka, what he wrote to an elephant is serious? I’m sorry.

Lóránt Bódi: It’s also really interesting how you had an important goal or mission to give under-represented modern or contemporary music a little more space in the spotlight.

Zoltán Rácz: This is natural in our genre, as 99% of our repertoire is from the twentieth century. It is now the twenty-first century.

Lóránt Bódi: And what kind of musical choices did Amadinda have at that time? Did you already know on which direction you want to go ahead?

Zoltán Rácz: The fact that we knew from the first moment that we would not just stand on this one leg, and since I came from the world of classical music, we started making transcripts. Then we started to work with traditional music, and finally, we came up with our own compositions, through Aurél and Zoli Váczi. It was then we started to stand on four legs. We had our music, which was also successful…

Lóránt Bódi: Did you think that this repertoire would become so rich in the beginning?

Zoltán Rácz: I will honestly say from the very first moment, there were three things: the contemporary, the transcribed and the traditional.

Lóránt Bódi: And what was the reception of contemporary music like in the 80’s?

Zoltán Rácz: Speaking frankly, in the ’80s 1200 people sat at the Academy of Music and applauded like wild animals.

Lóránt Bódi: That brings up another question – how is contemporary music received today and what do you see in the future?

Zoltán Rácz: I taught at the Academy for 28 years, from ’90 to 2018. What’s really painful to notice in the world, while teaching, is that the kids who go to the Academy today are surrounded by tremendous indifference. Part of our very rapid success was the closed society in which Hungary lived. Because when we did our first big hall concert in ’84 we already had a little notoriety. We had a B1 poster on the boulevard (körút), not every two, but every twenty meters. Then in ’85 we had that again. And think about it, when you have the Andrássy avenue (the most prestigious boulevard in Budapest modelled after the grand boulevards of Paris – editor’s note.), and the whole way along the boulevard, that's a lot of publicity, plus there was only one TV channel - if you played there, everyone would greet you on the tram the next day"?. So it is undeniable that these circumstances helped us very, very much. But we weren’t the beneficiaries of the system, we simply had strength: we found our strength, that music found its audience, and by the second half of the eighties, it was already really goulash communism. Although okay, I was invited to the ministry to the headquarters of the party or even to the White House (the nickname of the Inner Ministry, now it functions as the House of Representatives – editor’s note).

Zoltán Pál: Did you get lectured?

Zoltán Rácz: They knew my phone conversations word for word. I was involved in everything that the young people at the time were involved in. What's going on now? Everything is open, there is such a flow of information, which I think is already worrying, because that is why there is so much fake news. Slowly, we’ve reached a point where you can’t tell the difference between news and fake news. They can be told apart, but not easily. I feel that the internet is a deadly danger, and I have also called the attention of children to it, as it insanely fragmented their attention spans. And without attention skills, there is no real art of music.

Lóránt Bódi: I still have a question related to contemporary music. How did the subsequent collaboration with Steve Reich begin?

Zoltán Rácz: The Tehillim piece struck me immensely. I liked to try and perform it, and later we played it with 180-as Csoport several times. I knew repetitive music by then, but we hadn’t played such a strong piece. Tehillim had its premiere in Hungary pretty early. Steve had his first performance in ’82 and was here in Budapest two years later, which is fantastic anyway. Steve was in Pest for the first time in ’77 when Zoli Jeney invited me to the New Music Studio - the New Music Studio was my other window to the world. The people of Strasbourg opened one for me in an hour and a half, and the New Music Studio opened another, permanent window. I was the “little boy” and they took me in, Jeney, Vidovszky, Dobszay, and I sat there between them and heard a lot of everything from them, which was incredible. So in ’77, Reich appeared on Rottenbiller Street and brought the tape for Music for 18 Musicians - it’s so fateful too - and played it. It hadn't been released yet because it came out on the ECM for the first time. He played, had a little gig, talked and left. But that was a big impulse. By the way, it was in 1977, I wasn’t there, so what I’m saying now I know from stories I was told, because I wasn’t in that circle at the time (I joined it a year or two later).

Lóránt Bódi: How much was Steve Reich able to take root here?

Zoltán Rácz: Not that deeply. This kind of music only reached a narrow circle. The first person who contacted him was Tibor Szemző, he was in the USA at that time. Reich also loved 180-as Csoport, so then they invited him for the second time. Amazingly, I wasn’t there either because we were in the Dutch race then. It was in ’85, and unfortunately we were out, that’s why we missed it. Well, it doesn’t matter, but Reich’s music touched me a lot and in ’86 I started doing a big Reich series with 180-as Csoport. It is typical of Hungary at that time that I failed with this plan, even though the director of Vigadó, László Rigó, warmly supported him, but in the end, he was stuck somewhere. I think someone in the Party told me that we shouldn’t and we couldn’t do it. But that was in ’89 already. Then we did the twenty-concert Steve Reich nationwide tour, which consisted of four programmes, and we played all four programmes in five cities, which is how the twenty concerts came about.

Lóránt Bódi: It may have been unique that this type of contemporary music appeared in the countryside.

Zoltán Rácz: There were full houses, the concert halls exploded. It must have been this era and music that brought us this excitement. ’92 was a good year for this. It is worth mentioning that there were no authorized written sheets for Music for 18 Musicians. Reich and his ensemble rehearsed for a year, typically once a week, had a two-to three-hour rehearsal, and then went home. Next time, they either played it differently or added a new part to it. So it was the result of organic development.

Lóránt Bódi: That is a very special method of composition.

Zoltán Rácz: It's almost like pop. Or jazz. It started with five gigs out of 18, but it came together pretty well. The first three gigs weren’t so good at first, there were a few small bumps, but we played it anyway. The fourth performance in Debrecen was almost great, but for some reason, it ended up falling apart. But we needed it somehow, and so we went into the Great Hall, sat down, rehearsed, played, and that recording was in my pocket back then.

Lóránt Bódi: In ’92, three years later, you spent a week with John Cage in New York. What were these visits like?

Zoltán Rácz: I went in at nine, I came out at five - I’ve known Cage since ’86, six years before I went there. He had already written the piece for us in ’91. He sent our piece, “Four for”, in ’91. You can imagine my day when I rang Cage at nine, I opened what I wanted, I looked at what I wanted. He always gave me an hour and a half or two in the afternoon when I could ask anything because by then we already knew we were going to record all the Cage instrumental pieces. At five o’clock, I said goodbye to him, left the apartment, and walked over to Steve Reich in 35 minutes.

Lóránt Bódi: How did these encounters affect you?

Zoltán Rácz: I was shocked afterwards. You sit on the PanAm and, you have a day in New York where you spend 6-8 hours with John Cage and then visit Steve Reich. It’s not bad. And then I gave him the DAD tape record for Music for 18 Musicians too - he knew we played it. After listened to it and he was astonished. Once, he also asked how we were able to play this? Then I told him in great detail. At that moment, he immediately asked me to make the sheet music for release.

Lóránt Bódi: But why did not it happen right away in '77, so why didn't you release it?

Zoltán Rácz: This is a very good question that I can't answer.

Lóránt Bódi: How did the cooperation between Amadinda and Reich develop from then on?

Zoltán Rácz: So far we have given four concerts together in Hungary: 2003, 2006, 2009, 2013. We invited him and he came four times in ten years. I think a very serious interpretation of his music has developed in Hungary. He started with Új Zenei, continued with 180-as Csoport then, with us and then the Új Zene Magyar Egyesület (New Hungarian Music Association, UMZE) that I founded. The first concert was in 2003, in the great hall of the Academy of Music. We started by getting him out with us too and playing Drumming Part One with him. Then he rested, we played Tehillim, there was a break and Music for 18 Musicians followed.

Lóránt Bódi: Can it be said that Hungarian interpretation has become an interpretive tradition?

Zoltán Rácz: I would say so, and that's why I take responsibility for this very arrogant sentence: that we can decode and understand the oeuvre of Steve Reich. By the way, when I rehearsed Music for 18 Musicians anywhere, I always insisted on playing it again at least two or three times before a concert without interruption. Because you have to get used to its length, its arc, it's not like we can decipher the sections one after the other, because that's how it all goes.

Steve came to Budapest knowing that except for Steve Reich and Musicians, we were the only ones to perform this piece in the world, in ’89. It was here that that piece was performed for the first time by someone other than Steve Reich and Musicians"?, and yet it’s just an epoch-making piece, not a secluded thing. This was the second time that piece had been reborn in Budapest. I loved it very much and carried that love. The fact is that I wanted to map this up as much as I could. It started then, ’89, ’90, ’92, these gigs, and now I conduct every big piece by Steve. I introduced the You Are variation, the Daniel variation - which is a wonderfully beautiful piece. As well as Variations for String, City Life and Radio Rewrite. I recently conducted Pulse for the Festival Orchestra, which is also a very new piece. So an awful lot of Steve’s sheet music went through my hand, and I can practically say that I essentially know his oeuvre from the first piece to the last one.

The trouble is that I was born and put together in such a way that until all the voices are in place, I am unable to [act]. It may not be completely normal, but there’s something strange, mystical about it, that you either fix it to the last angle or you can’t exist. This is also because I was able to grow up among good musicians. I joined Simon Albert’s band at the beginning and he even wiped the floor with me on the first rehearsal, I was too much for him, too overconfident already. He was a real guru.

Lóránt Bódi: Who taught you and who did you get in touch with at the Academy?

Zoltán Rácz: I have to say that I think I went to the Academy of Music in its last golden age, at the end of its golden age. The fact that that period could still be called the golden age depended on people like Simon Albert, but Dobszay, Kurtág, Kroó, Pernye, Perényi, Zoltán Kocsis, Ránki also taught there. I went to Pernye for general music history, which was taken over by Kroó when Pernye committed suicide. I was already in a very close relationship with Zoli at the time, with Zoli Kocsis and Dedi. I played with Dobszay at ÚZS, with Jumi [Simon Albert] in the band. I didn't go to Kurtág’s class. Yeah, I haven't mentioned Rados yet. And it was all there even between ’78 and ’83 when I went to the Academy. I can no longer compare the academy of that era with the current one, which is why I quit teaching.I felt that there was no need for me anymore. I was constantly trying to break out in some way, most of my attempts died halfway, I got no response, and all of a sudden I thought of the “Amadinda Percussion Project.” Then I said okay, I can see that it is not possible to deal with percussion chamber music in the buildings of the Liszt Ferenc University of Music. So the Amadinda Percussion Project means that we, the Amadinda members, the Amadinda rehearsal room, the Amadinda Instrument Park, gather young musicians, children between the ages of 17 and 27, and rehearse a concert program with them, which we then perform. I dropped out of the Academy but didn’t quit teaching. Not just in the week-to-week chamber class, but in two strong projects a year. We love kids. They come here and we help them, we have everything they need, there are many more instruments than at the Academy of Music. There are many more places to study than at the Academy of Music. This is how I teach.

Lóránt Bódi: Was teaching important to you from the beginning?

Zoltán Rácz: It only became gradually important, so to speak, as time went on. I went to the Academy when I was 30 - they wanted to take me there when I was 23. Then I realized I was going in for a course and I had the misconception that I needed to always have something smart to say. It felt really bad because I couldn’t think of anything. But I needed the experience to realize you don’t have to say anything clever, you just have to notice what’s going on and comment, that’s enough. You can give orientation points to, say, a student. But it takes a year or two for a person to clear up and realize that he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every hour.