Multiethnicity and performative music in the former Yugoslavia. Katalin Ladik and Ernő Király’s cooperation

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Katalin Ladik and Ernő Király. photo: Ana Lazukics. Credits: The artists and acb gallery

The following essay, written by Budapest-based art historian, art critic and researcher Emese Kürti, explores the life and work of Katalin Ladik and Ernő Király, two Hungarian/Yugoslav avant-garde artists, their mutual relationship and their status as outsiders/insiders in the multi-ethnic state of the former Yugoslavia. Text translated by Ádám Lovász and Emese Kürti and edited by Lóránt Bódi.

Multiethnicity and performative music in the former Yugoslavia. Katalin Ladik and Ernő Király’s cooperation

At the 1977 Text in Sound international sound poetry festival, organized at the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), over twenty sound poets participated, among them such widely recognized names as Francois Dufrène, Henri Chopin, Gerhard Rühm, Bob Cobbing, Franz Mon and Bernard Heidsieck.1 Yugoslavia (and for that matter, the entire Eastern Block) was represented by a young woman called Katalin Ladik. According to the programme booklet, which has been preserved in her archive, the artist presented sound pieces from her 1976 Phonopoetica album, including recordings produced together with composer and ex-husband Ernő Király (1919-2007). Ladik also performed with the so-called „tablophone”, a multimedia instrument designed by Király. In his sound poetry monograph Poesie sonore internationale published in 1979, Henri Chopin attributes the international breakthrough of the Yugoslavian artist to this event, and expressed great aesthetic satisfaction with her musical performance.2

Katalin Ladik, poet, performer, actress, the first (female) Yugoslav sound poet, emigrated to Hungary during the Yugoslav Wars, where she remains a fixture of the art scene to this very day, whilst Király, who lived most of his life in Subotica and Novi Sad, was also a highly important figure in the local Yugoslav experimental music scene.3 Their musical cooperation extended beyond the usual model of the prefeminist Eastern European artist marriage, the latter consisting of a subservient female role and a superior male „genius.” Ladik and Király’s cooperation, with all its dissonances and conflicts, can be thought of as a durable and professionalized relationship. The dynamism and quality of this alliance, with its interdependences (far from unusual in art projects), shifts in roles and changes in emphasis, can all be mapped via an oral history approach and a textual analysis alike. Additionally, one can take Ernő Király’s almost ritualistic silence about the ups and downs of his personal relationship with Ladik as being symptomatic in itself. It would appear that the atypicality of the Ladik-Király case was informed by the relatively independent career of the female protagonist, including her professional ambitions, transcending as they did the confines of her marriage, as well as the (compared to the rest of Communist Eastern Europe) great openness of emancipatory discourses in Yugoslavian society.4

Katalin Ladik performing on the tablophone at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1977. Photo: Guy Schraenen. Credits: The artists and acb gallery

The Ladik-Király relationship is inseparable from the Yugoslav socialism of the 1960s and 1970s. Borrowing Želimir Žilnik’s expression, this „regional socialism,” because of its relatively more tolerant multiculturalism and its self-positioning as a non-aligned „Third Way” between Western liberalism and the Soviet model, made possible a greater variety of artistic careers than would otherwise have been the case. This was especially facilitated by the ease with which foreign art movements were imported and adapted. Ladik and Király, as Hungarian-language artists, belonged to a marginalized ethnic group in a political experiment based on the coexistence of many different ethnicities. For the most part, the fate of modern art in the Yugoslavian cultural scene hinged upon Serbian, Croatian or Slovenian centres such as Belgrade, Zagrab and Ljubljana. The capital of the Hungarian community in Yugoslavia, Novi Sad, was economically and culturally speaking a peripheral place, a circumstance that is frequently referred, not always negatively, in the memoirs and works of Vojvodinian intellectuals. As Misko Šuvaković writes, „What was important for Novi Sad, and where Novi Sad was before Belgrade, was that Novi Sad was a mixed environment where different cultural models mixed and correlated.”5

In this multiethnic cultural environment, Ladik and Király’s program attempted a mediation and redefinition of Hungarian and Balkan cultural traditions through the expressive language of the international musical avantgarde. In their works there can clearly be discerned a folk music origin, but their compositions are nevertheless organized along the lines of contemporary musical notations, improvization and experimental poetry. A precursor of this hybrid practice can be found in Béla Bartók’s highly influential methodology. Just as Bartók found in Eastern European folk music a source for his musical modernism, so Ladik and Király discovered in Hungarian and Balkan folk music and folklore inspiration for their folkloristic avantgarde works. Although both Ladik and Király connected primarily to Hungarian culture, they knowingly gravitated toward the hybridity of languages and cultures, exploiting a temporary geopolitical situation and social experiment which allowed for a greater interethnic transitivity. In this regard, Ladik and Király’s work can be considered a unique product of a specifically Yugoslavian cultural-political model. Their musical cooperation enhanced the critical potential of local cultures not by rigidly imitating Western avant-garde languages, but rather by proceeding from cultural self-identity, while creatively exploiting opportunities provided by the extraordinary and unique Yugoslav cultural horizon of the time.

The subversion of the minoritarian situation

According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s characterization, minor literature (literature mineure) is not the literature of a minority, but rather a literature written by the minority in the language of the majority.6 As opposed to the discourse of the majority, the language as practiced by the minority contains a subversive potential, a „revolution”, a transitivity, an openness, a nomadism epitomized by a new language: „The three characteristics of minor literature are the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation. We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.”7 In Deleuze and Guattari’s theory, minoritarian language use is not just a social construction among others, but also a product of interrelations between various discourses, functioning at once as both a transgression and a mediation, connecting images and concepts, creating an intensive network. In the case of the Yugoslav Hungarian cultural scene, this linguistic subversion was dependent upon embeddedness in a heterogeneous intercultural context suitable for dialogue, one that excluded ethnic homogeneity. In the 1960s this program was not entirely new of course, for Yugoslavian members of Lajos Kassák’s classical avantgarde circle already thematized a transgressive „metanationalism,” distinguishing between „Hungarian language” culture from „culture written in Hungarian.”8

The Vojvodina Province, in the context of the Serbian state, was one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the entirety of Yugoslavia, perhaps also in all of Europe. A total of 25 different ethnic groups can be found in Vojvodina. The phrase „minority” was not officially used though, the Yugoslav constitution preferring to differentiate „nations” and „nationalities,” depending on whether a given nationality had a state of its own somewhere else. Because ethnicities such as Albanians, Hungarians, Slovakians, Romanians and Italians had external countries of their own, these were considered „nationalities,” while Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosniaks and Montenegrins did not. Therefore these latter were categorized as „nations.” After the Second World War, the reformed Yugoslav state accepted the principle of ethnic coexistence, and, as Tibor Várady explains, gave expression to the opinion that the most dangerous enemy of Communism is „nationalism.”9 This political position allowed for a certain restricted concept of multiculturalism, but as the history of Yugoslavian government-critical intellectuals shows, the regime actively tried to stamp out anything that resembled nationalism. Besides Josip Broz Tito’s cult of personality, the system was also integrated and solidified by a resolute opposition to self-organization of communities along ethnic lines. This latter possibility was, for most of the history of Communist Yugoslavia, treated by the Community Party as anathema, even if the right of minorities to speak their own languages and maintain their own distinct cultures, was generally accepted. 10

Regarding the status of Hungarian communities in Yugoslavia, a set of highly intricate connections can be discerned, the relationship with Hungary, the compulsorily disavowed „non-Homeland” (the writer and poet Ottó Tolnai’s expression) chief among them, which led to the evolution of a contradictory yet productive internal cultural dynamics. At the end of the Second World War, the ability of the Hungarian minority to represent its own interests was greatly compromised by a variety of geopolitical and ideological factors, being forced to accept a completely new institutional framework and cultural-political identity. An important basis of this new minoritarian identity was the Forum Publishing Company (Forum Lap- és Könyvkiadó Vállalat) and the journals it published, such as Híd [Bridge] – founded in 1936 – and, from the 1960s, Új Symposion [New Symposion], the latter serving as an important organ for left-wing intellectuals, often highly critical of Tito’s system. Híd, as opposed to Új Symposion, was a great deal more conservative, being for the most part chosen by those intellectuals who were interested in building a Non-Aligned type of independent socialism, not unlike similarly minded conformist representatives of other Yugoslavian ethnicities. The marked similarity in the ideological operations of most Yugoslavian journals of this period was not just a product of censorship and Party ideology, but rather – to borrow a neologism coined at the time – a result of their „engagement” („angazsáltság”). 11

The intellectual environment of Új Symposion represented a significant shift from the older generation’s political and ideological choices. As Alpár Losoncz explains, the „Symposians” gave expression to a wish to collectively transcend contemporary social conditions, while seeking to reconcile minoritarian concerns with a broader utopian perspective, working toward „the promise of a concrete universality.”12 The theoretical outlook of the Symposians could not help but be universalistic, as the Communist regime had methodically eliminated the reception of all „bourgeois” or „fascist” writers, including most literary works that had formerly been part of the Hungarian literary canon. Within this disturbed continuity, this absence of prior references made possible a more intimate connection of Hungarian Vojvodinian artists with contemporaneous Yugoslavian (Serb, Croat, Slovene) artists, as well as allowing them to draw upon international models more freely.13 The violent disconnection from the „Homeland’s” culture meant that „Yugoslavization” was not just a distancing from what formerly could be defined as „Hungarian,” but also the creation of a completely new artistic language that resulted in a far more international and „contemporary” minority culture.

Together with the editorial board of Polja, Új Symposion (founded 1965) belonged to the Youth Tribune (Tribina Mladih), an informal collaborative multicultural and multimedia environment which placed great emphasis upon international relations.14 In the main urban centres of Yugoslavia, a network of Youth Tribunes soon cropped up, leading to the development of what came to be known as New Artistic Practice (NAP), greatly assisting the spread of international art trends and participation in the global art world.15 According to many authors, the Vojvodina Youth Tribune can be said to have been one of the most important centres of Serbian cultural life, where Bogdanka and Dejan Poznanović organized events, opened exhibitions, and made it possible for local artists to connect to the international scene. 16 The representatives of the new art and literature strove to deliberately sabotage the officially promoted „socialist modernism” through a variety of subversive aesthetic practices, and, analogously with international art trends of the time, attempted to stretch the autonomy of art as far as possible, utilizing the most up to date techniques of artistic expression. One could mention specifically the Bosch+Bosch Group, founded in 1969 in Subotica with Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian members (its most active representatives: Slavko Matković, Bálint Szombathy, László Kerekes, László Szalma, Ante Vukov, Attila Csernik and Katalin Ladik).17 The language of the group’s visual art was built on a transversal of both simultaneous multiple identities and the official cultural standards, influencing not just Belgrade or Zagreb, but also the art community in Budapest.

The Personal is Professional

Katalin Ladik published her first book of poetry in 1969. Entitled Ballada az ezüstbicikliről, the book came with a record supplement containing phoenetic interpretations of four poems featured in the book.18 One of the poems was played by Ladik with a Hammond Organ, an electronic musical instrument that was frequently used in pop music at the time. By then Ladik as a poetess had a decade of publishing experience behind her, impressing the Vojvodinian and Hungarian literary scenes not only with a highly eroticized language, but also the performative mode of presentation, signalling Ladik’s disengagement from poetic norms. This striving was in many ways a logical culmination of Ladik’s work in radio and theatre, two areas that take the „remediation” of the written text as self-evident, yet her performances still nonetheless managed to make a provocative impression in the Yugoslav context.19 The manner in which poems were presented by Ladik, the replacement of the written text with orality, connects with the search for identity that characterized the activities of female artists in the 1960s. As János Samu has written, „in the 1960s and 1970s the Yugoslav neoavantgarde, in spite of its critical and subversive intensity, was not quite ready for accepting the self-construal of the female subject, especially not the unavoidable exhibitionism of such an experiment. 20

The Yugoslavian state actively promoted the participation of women in social and political life, as well as gender equality, and one could mention several key areas (administration, economy, industry and culture) in which the apparatus included women.21 This apparent social mobility did not, however, entail a democratic equality, but rather was achieved at the expense of a uniformization, while everyday life remained locked in the confines of classically hierarchical relationship patterns intolerant of deviance. A good example of this ambiguity is shown by Katalin Ladik’s own biography when, in 1962 and 1963, she worked as a bank clerk to provide for her family. This was the first emancipatory step, during which the young woman knowingly separated herself from her extremely poor and illiterate childhood environment. The infamous „Telep,” a settlement built by the Hungarian government for Vojvodinian Hungarian workers in the 1940s that, despite its relatively generous infrastructure which included a cultural center, was essentially a ghetto of sorts and also the place Ladik grew up in.

In the 1960s the Vojvodinian Hungarian community was at once a self-managing grouping within the larger Yugoslavian socialist system, replete as the latter was with a nascent market economy, a strongly mediated and urbanizing culture, an administratively manipulated program of „emancipation from above,” and the remnants of a traditional patriarchical outlook all mixing together to produce a somewhat contradictory social system. This ambivalent duality of modern and traditional elements can be retraced in the relationship of Katalin Ladik and Ernő Király. Beginning in 1963, the complexities of their relationship did not stem simply from the far from negligible age difference between the two lovers,22 but also from the divergence in their social status: Ladik was a promising, albeit young and inexperienced poetess, while Király was an intellectual with real standing, a radio editor and music composer respected by members of the culture. Their marriage would ordinarily have predestined Ladik to informal work and economic domination by the male partner, as was the standard in the Balkans in this period, but she nevertheless proved capable of subverting traditional gender expectations in radical ways, creatively exploiting opportunities provided by the cultural scene more radically than her husband. Ladik has emphasized on several occasions how important her participation in the memorable 1968 happening in Hungary (entitled Ufo and organized by Tamás Szentjóby), was for her later art career.23 Her trip „abroad”, to the location of the event was only possible because Király „allowed” her to choose artistic creativity instead of private life commitments. In Ladik’s retrospective rendition of events, Király serves as the representative of traditional family structures and values, a placeholder for the patriarchal power position, which related conflictual to any female pursuit of professional success.

The participation in the Ufo happening, which simultaneously meant the end of Ladik’s marriage and the start of her performance career, also brought with it the difficult social status of being a single mother. The professional relationship between wife and husband continued, in large measure because of Ladik’s dedication and commitment, which also connected – in her opinion – to the new responsibility of motherhood.24 The crisis of Ladik and Király’s private relationship is not, incidentally, referenced by Király anywhere in his texts or any other retrospective autobiographical works. These details can only be uncovered through contemporary documents, scores and media content, as well as articles relating musical events, and certain memoirs.

Performing the body-poetic/s

In the context of the present text there is no space to enquire as to what, if any, role the subversive events of 1968 could have played in Ladik’s decision to travel to Budapest against the wishes of her husband. In any case, her decision resulted in a break from patriarchical norms, allowing for the young female artist to create a new poetic-performative language, which assimilated experiences obtained with Király while also producing another type of language: „until 1964 I felt myself to be a ’writer,’ because until then atmospheres and images moved me. Then the folk effect took hold, which taught me a greater degree of discipline. This folk music theme was introduced to myself by my husband, who was at once a composer and a student of folklore. I went in search of the real folk, in music, literature, wherever, I really liked it” – explains Ladik in an interview published in 1968.25 As we shall see, Katalin Ladik actively participated in Ernő Király’s collection of folk music, which was an important inspiration for her relating to this genre: „now I no longer relate to the folk element in an instinctual manner, but rather reflexively. I wanted to integrate the Balkan folklore and the Balkan mentality, even if not to as great a degree as Hungarian culture. The elemental, the rough, the wild Balkanism was what I wanted to introduce into Hungarian literature. From the cruellest female tales to the ancient Slavic psalms... My goal was to uncover the deepest depths of the Southern Slavs, especially the Macedonians, Kosovans.”26

The integration of traditions into avant-garde praxis was not a completely self-evident move in a literary generation that was characterized, as members of the Új Symposion grouping were, by a general distancing from traditional norms. Broadly speaking, Ladik’s interest in such topics can be traced back to childhood tales, prose poems, songs, rhymes and mourning songs she encountered in her family environment, yet the frequent non-linearity of such texts represented a fundamentally alien logic to the intellectualised and urbanised cultural environment. Ladik’s method consisted not so much of conserving folkloristic remnants, but rather of rethinking the traditional poetic form, extending it to incorporate different conceptual elements. Sonic poetry, in particular the performative elements that were incorporated into it, meant the end of the strictly „poetic” form, while radically extending its expressive power. As Giorgio Agamben writes, „The body of poetry thus appears to be traversed by a double tension, a tension that has its apex in the corn: one tension that seeks at every opportunity to split sound from sense, and another that, inversely, aims to make sound and sense coincide; one that attempts to distinguish the two wombs with precision, and another that wants to render the two absolutely indistinct.”27 Ladik’s poetry combines a modern poetics with folkloristic methodology, decomposing and deconstructing the traditional levels of meaning in written poetry. Transitioning to a language of body art and music, Ladik was able to construct a more purely performative sonic poetics.

The practice of the phonic performance, pioneered at the 1969 UFO Party, was also an attempt to integrate the concept of the „unknown object” into art. In Ladik’s words, „this title appealed to me greatly, because back then I myself was considered this weird creature back home in Yugoslavia. Even if the culture accepted me, I was unusual. My strangeness, if you could put it that way, was somehow of ’unknown origin’ inside Yugoslavia, because, you know, I was Hungarian, and a woman, a multiple deficit, marginal... and then I thought, UFO means exactly this!” 28

Katalin Ladik: Shaman Poem. Performance at the Geff, Zagreb, 1970. Credits: Marinko Sudac Collection

During the course of the 1970s, with or without titles, Ladik performed several variations of phonic performances in both Yugoslavia and Hungary: „as I felt too restricted as an actress, and did not really belong to either the Serbian or Hungarian scenes, I decided to create my own theatre, my own presence, with a single actor or performer. I used my own texts. This was not poetry alone, mind you. Several texts were included which I had specifically prepared for performing, and practiced them intently, refining my voice. Theatrical elements were naturally part of my act, and movement was also an integral element.”29 Ufo Party performances were held in March of 1970, at the Belgrade International Theatre Festival (BITEF), hosted in the Atelje 212 Gallery’s basement, as well as the experimental film festival GEFF (Genre Experimental Film Festival) in Zagreb. Besides linguistic and musical elements, the feminine body also played an integral and transgressive role. Robed in a „shamanic” bear fur, Ladik became the focus of media interest as the „nude poetess.”

It opened with a traditional recitation of originally written poems (in Serbian), then made a dual shift to recitative and Hungarian. Regardless of the language of the location, the switch to phonic poetry was always made in the strange, exotic language most suited to abstraction, that is in Hungarian, because Ladik found it the most capable of transmitting the mystical found in musicality and folk sounds. A number of poems indeed originated from archaic cultural tropes, such as shamanic mythology, or magic rituals, the latter of which were often conducted as improvisations accompanied by folk music instruments such as drums, animal skin bagpipes and jugpipes.

During the course of this musical process, traditional instrumentalism was left behind when Ladik abandoned music instruments in favor of „playing” her own hair with a string. This gesture displayed a similarly eroticized aspect, evoking the musical techniques of the Hindus, who, not unlike the Balkan Serbs, played music with their hair. By coating the string in rosin, Ladik was able to elicit unconventional sounds from her freshly washed hair. These strange sounds were amplified by other musical effects playing in the background, such as musique concrète recordings which included emissions of Hammond organs, mechanical noises (tractor engines) and sine waves. The combined use of primitive musical sounds and nonmusic noises meant that Ladik’s phonic performances could be readily categorized as constituting an example of post-Cageian avant-garde experimentalism.

Folkloristic appropriations in avantgarde music

Ernő Király was a folklorist, musicologist and composer, and also a music editor of Radio Novi Sad, who created a distinctively local contemporary synthesis of tradition and modernity, enriching avant-garde music with its unique Balkan character. Király was well versed in various musical trends, having already gotten to know very well electroacustic musical techniques in the Novi Sad radio, while listening pieces of the genre like Edgar Varése’s Poeme Electronique early on, which had an important effect on his later work. After this, the titles of Király’s first electronic music works implies a literary thematic background: Hajnali költemény (Morning Poem, 1960) for instance, was composed for voice then rewritten for electronic music, while Az ég (The Sky) was inspired by Stefan Raičković’s poem of the same title.30

Ernő Király experienced the various newer tendencies of contemporary music as well. In his article, A végzet hatalma és zene Párizsban (The Force of Destiny and Music in Paris, 1961), Király recounts having listened extensively to Schönberg, Webern and musique concrète pieces while staying in Paris, as well as other experimental works often illustrated with film extracts. Maurizio Kagel’s provocative works, and then P. Jansen and N. Schaffer’s Concerto audio visuel, which reminded listeners of a colour and sound film, opened Király’s eyes to the possibilities of multimedia music.31 According to Zsolt Sőrés, in this period Király discovered Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Although these names are not mentioned in Király’s autobiographical statements, Király’s entire modus operandi and terminology, from his use of home-made instruments to improvisation, from aleatoric music to multi-instrumentalism, were all part and parcel of neoavantgarde practice at the time. An universalist reflection met with a reinterpretation of what it means to be local. Király’s definitive statement on this matter leaves little doubt: „the new musical language demanded new acustic-musical expressions. The artist, in order to create an individual musical language, can choose from the following possibilities: using traditional classical music instruments in a novel manner, while also exploiting the unexplored possibilities of the human voice, making silence articulate. Alternately, electronic music can also be utilized, unleashing the almost unlimited possibilities of the magnetophon and noise music, perhaps even using specially designed or repurposed musical instruments; folk music instruments especially have an important role to play in this.”32

Király’s avant-garde musical practice – not unlike Ladik’s phonic performances – was an exploitation of the subversive potential of traditional (folk) musical forms. Already in the 1940s, it is known that Király discovered Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály’s epochally important work, Húsz magyar népdal (Twenty Hungarian Folk Songs), whose sound and melodic turns, as well as the vertical sound of the suite was inspirational. Király himself commenced collecting folk songs from Vojvodinian villages.33 This effort was assisted by various researchers interested in Serbo-Croat, Slovakian, Rusin and Romanian folk music, as well as the Novi Sad Radio and the Vojvodinian Museum. Thanks to this assistance, Király was able to collect a far from unimpressive grand total of 3000 songs under a period of 35 years. Similarly to his intellectual predecessors, Bartók and Kodály, Király was not just interested in Hungarian songs alone, but also eagerly recorded Serb, Croat and Roma folk music as well. These recordings have successfully preserved the most varied folk traditions, such as weddings, carnivals, nativity celebrations, mourning songs and even the sounds of some instruments used by locals. His sizeable collection included lots of zithers, tamburas [note: Tambura here and throughout this article refers to a family of long-necked lutes popular in Southern Europe and Central Europe, also known as tambouras or tamburicas, rather than the Indian tamboura], and pipes. Ladik accompanied Király on these expeditions on several occasions. The pair even met in person with the aging Zoltán Kodály, who was quite interested in Hungarian folk music in Yugoslavia, the role and use of the tambura and tambura orchestras in folk music. 34

Ernő Király performing on zitherphone. Still from the film "Promenade" by Igor and Ivan Buharov, 2006-2009

The self-imposed task of combining folk music tradition and the language of contemporary music led Király to the creation of two specific experimental musical instrumens. The first of these was the zitherphone (1974), based upon a traditional folk string instrument that was extremely common in Vojvodina. The zitherphone, which represented the cutting edge technology of the day combined bow and string instruments into a prepared zither built from different size bodies, which included additional pick-ups and pedals. This peculiar medley allowed for a simultaneous playing of many different sounds, making possible a poliphonic musical performance. With 58 strings in total, the zitherphone could be played with a variety of objects, such as plucks, drumsticks, string, or metallic boxes, resulting in a greater heterogeneity of sound.35

Király’s other instrument was the tablophone (1976), whose first international premier most probably took place at Ladik’s Amsterdam performance. This instrument was a smaller, handheld multimedia device. With the tablophone, Király’s aim was to make possible a transition between the visual and auditive spheres, making audible the drawing of visual lines, combining visual art with sound.36 A 50 x 70 cm thin metal tin was twisted onto a wooden stand. Onto one side of the tablophone was placed a sheet of drawing paper, onto the other various amplified noise-emitting objects. Once struck or played, the instrument emits tempered and untempered noises, while the other side results in a drawing of sorts. Király’s idea was that one individual could draw on the watercolor paper, while the other person could play some music while being inspired by the drawing, resulting in an improvised multimedia composition.37 Ladik used the tablophone in numerous sonic poetic performances.

„Four Black Horses are Flying Behind Me”

The first important double performance by Katalin Ladik and Ernő Király was conducted at the 1969 Opatija music tribune, a highly important forum for Yugoslav avant-garde music. Ladik, as a mezzo soprano, performed Király’s experimental composition, entitled Reflexiók (Reflections), while the latter accompanied her on guitar and tambourine. The novelty of the piece was defined by Király in terms of „musical reflection,” which meant a reinterpretation of the role of both performer and listener: „the matter I work with is composed of various shreds of speech, song and instrumental music, which are recovered by the provocative sound of the instrument from the interiority of performer and listener alike.” 38 The interactivity of performer and listener was an important aspect of Ladik and Király’s musical collaboration in later phases as well, during which Ladik’s poems became musical elements through her performances.

Király’s experimental musical compositions displayed a hybridity of folk music elements, as well as the experimental use of home-made instrument technology and contemporary music theory. Pontok és vonalak (Dots and Lines, 1972) contains explicit written instructions for Ladik, from which we can discern a distancing from traditional musical instrumentalism. The performer strokes chords with a guitar pick or coin, placing the instrument on her knees, plucking at the higher chords with a thin metal wafer, tearing newspaper into pieces, making the corncob-violin screech, playing Hungarian peasant zithers and Turkish bells, and screaming while muffling herself with her own hands. Other instructions in the score relate to clicking scissors, „panic-inducing” whistling with either mouth or whistle, the use of tin sheets, as well as making various thunderous noises. Elements already used in Ladik’s phonic performances gained a new musical context when she performed together with the the avant-garde music ensemble ACEZANTEZ (Zagreb Ensemble of the Centre for New Tendencies) which was renowned both in Yugoslavia and abroad. The composer and pianist Dubravko Detoni studied at the Darmstadt music courses under the guidance of names such as the Hungarian emigrant György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen, subsequently working as an assistant to John Cage. All this had transpired prior to founding ACEZANTEZ in 1970, his first own avant-garde music ensemble. Detoni defined the group as a sort of musico-religious community: „it is at the same time a group of visual mobiles, a music-and-drama theater and pantomime, a light spectacle, and much more, not simply music alone.”39 Király and Ladik’s compositions formed an ever more integral part of its repertoire, with Ladik’s expressive techniques strengthening the already quite multimedial profile of the group.

Király composed several pieces from Ladik’s prose poems, which the latter presented with ACEZANTEZ. One of these choiral pieces, A kendert szedegető leány („The Girl Harvesting Hemp,” 1971) contained an absurd story of folkloristic origin about a young girl who promised to bake a certain amount of bread for the king, but failed to achieve her overambitious goal. For this immense crime the king dismembers the girl (and, to make matters worse, her mother too!), and ties their undoubtedly gruesome remains to the tail of a horse. The entire narrative, which, in its original form, is fairly simply linear,40 is only alluded to in Király’s composition with a couple of horrorific words, but the absurdity of the tale is heightened by Ladik’s overexaggerated use of consonants in the performance. The score of the piece made possible a great artistic freedom on Ladik’s part, because she could intone sounds with a pitch of her choice, and the melody and rhythm could also be modified at will. The performer does not have to stick to a literal translation of either words or melody. Rather, incoherent shreds of words and incoherent sounds allow for a subjective expression and transmission to the audience. The openness of free improvisation made it possible for Ladik (and of course later performers too, should they feel the urge) to focus on experimenting with a range of instrument uses and modes of noise generation (folk instruments, drums, tearing of paper, etc).

Király’s Négy fekete ló mögöttem repül (Four black horses are flying behind me) was a piece written specifically for singing and chamber music, being similarly a rewriting of one of Ladik’s poems prepared specifically for ACEZANTEZ in 1972. This work takes the ancient form of the mourning song and reworks it a formally loosened, linear manner, while following, if only tentatively, the contents of the original poem.


My black-eyed mother, allay your thirst from the dark room. Night will come, I will wrap you up in burning ash, mure up your window, seat you in a dummy window. A white dove flies, there is no door and no win-dow on it. I count my fingers seven times, clap my wings. A warm wind blows my back, look backwards, my mother, what can you see? ‚Four black horses, they are so thin that I am cold of them.’ Mother, cut your arms, put them into my mouth, I want to fly to you. Eyes, mouth, nose, ears, where are you all? Here we are in the hot ash. A white dove flies, it takes away the door, window for ever. This is what I sang in a dark room at the death of my mother. 41

Ernő Király performing on zitherphone. Archive photograph from the film "Promenade" by Igor and Ivan Buharov, 2006-2009

According to Király’s description, the material of the work in question are, from a sonic point of view, composed of modal, dodecaphonic and non-tempered sounds, enhanced with folkloric elements and folk instruments. Again, the performers, the solists in particular, have wide-ranging possibilities when it comes to the mode of musical performance they choose, but all have set responsibilities too. 42 In the piece the symbol of the mirror references the popular idea of the deceased person’s soul haunting others. This work in particular was highly praised by music critics, as were ACEZANTEZ’s concerts in general, which extended to most of the contemporary music festivals of Yugoslavia at the time. Alongside Király’s pieces, works by Milko Kelemen, Branimir Sakac and others were also performed by the band.

Ladik’s collaborations with contemporary Yugoslav music composers did not simply copy new so-called „electroacustic” experiments in music, but also effected these in turn. As Milan R. Milojković has proven, the musical creativity of the artist and their relationship to musical sound, was in the 1970s very similar overall in many contexts.43 The role of the human voice and the exploration of vocal creativity (which gained visualization in the 1972 experimental film, Opus),44 formed an important part of contemporary music in this epoch. In this regard, the cooperation of various avantgarde music composers and groups took place at the techno-medial intersection of vocal operativity, performative conception and electro-acoustic composition. The distortion and manipulation of the human voice via electro-acoustic means followed, in great measure, the model of Paul Pignon’s „human noise-generator,” an effect achieved by Ladik by mostly natural means. In certain cases and musical collaborations, her voice was able to fill gaps that technologies of the time were unable to fill, transcending the possibilities of instrumental music. It is a far from the trivial circumstance that Ladik’s experience with radio performances gave her important technical knowledge, which was not generally available to many of her contemporaries. Composers who worked with electro-acoustic music could profit much from involvement with Ladik, and it is no accident that many such individuals testify to the importance of Ladik’s vocal creativity in their own compositional practices. 45

In a 1975 article, Bálint Szombathy registers a paradigmatic expansion of contemporary technical-aesthetic tools in musical practice, defining this change as a paradigmatic shift in the very nature of music performance in the Yugoslav cultural space: „as visual art has emancipated itself from attachment to the gallery or the depths of the museum, so Ladik’s independent works, as well as those written in collaboration with Ernő Király, have extracted musical performance from its confinement to concert halls.”46 Phonetic works necessitated new materials and new instruments, such as recordings, radio, television, new methods of synthesizing, multiplying the modes of experiment and performativity in the process. In this manner „the musical effect, sound, mimicry, the phonic materials, all these became part of the textuality of the piece, all serving as the verbo-voco-visual characteristics of concrete, visual, phonic poetry.”47 With their musical experimentalism, Ladik and Király realized a cooperation and coordination, an authentic blending of contemporary music with visuality, the hybridity of different cultures and cultural memories, as well as a deep and profound cultural translation, leaving a lasting impact in the history of the neoavant-garde movement. Both of these artists recognized the values inherent in local culture, while reinterpreting these given elements in the language of international artistic practice, all the while successfully introducing these innovations into the relevant institutions and communities.

„Here again, as generally in the case of Yugoslavia, I was accepted because of my exoticness – the Yugoslavs felt the Hungarian, the Hungarians felt the Balkan exoticness in me. (...) I carry a double weight of sorts: the fate of the partiarchal woman, but also that of the woman who has had to achieve her own emancipation. This causes a sort of neurosis in me, but I like to think of this as a creative neurosis” – states Ladik in an interview.48 This „creative neurosis,” prioritizing as it does artistic creation, can be thought of an encapsulating the best of 1970s Yugoslav culture, especially considering that today collaboration among so many different ethnicities seems like nothing short of a miracle.


  1. Kontextsound, ed. Michael Gibbs, Amsterdam: Kontexts Publications, 1977, 27 pp. Published on the occasion of tekst in geluid [Text in Sound] festival, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, April-May 1977.
  2. „Acoustically speaking, it is as if Ladik directed a verbophonic orchestra: her voice is now crisp and then dark, she uses unexpected variations, plays with tones, introduces rare modulations. This vocal functioning, however spontaneous and natural it may seem, is actually very much controlled, and its colours are highlighted and intensified by the microphone. Amplification produces such an intensive vocal presence that one is actually surprised to see how such an output may come out of such a fragile, slender body [...] Sheer vocal magic in space.” Henri Chopin: Poesie sonore internationale, Jean-Michel Place Editions, Paris, 1979, 254; translated from French by Endre Szkárosi.
  3. Ernő Király is often mentioned in connection with a number of Yugoslavian composers, such as Vladan Radovanović (b. 1932), Dubravko Detoni, (b. 1937), Milko Kelemen (b. 1924), Vinko Globokar (b. 1934) who emphasized new compositional techniques. We could mention here serialism, aleatoric music, accidental and incompleteness.
  4. Regarding the topic of gender in Yugoslavia, see: Zsófia Lóránd: The Feminist Challenge to the Socialist State in Yugoslavia, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
  5. Omitted History, Transcript of Debate between Želimir Žilnik, Miško Šuvaković, Latinka Perović, Zvonko Maković, Bálint Szombathy, and Lazar Stojanović, in: Omitted History (ed., Revolver – Archiv für Aktuelle Kunst, Frankfurt am Main, 2006, 58.
  6. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature, translated by Dana Polan. (Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 16.
  7. Ibid., 37-38.
  8. „We live on polygot soil: here we have a double need to demonstrate our metanationality. We are not offering Hungarian culture, but culture in Hungarian language! Today, art and culture are already moving toward metanationality and universality.” Quoted by Darko Šimičić: From Zenit to Mental Space. Avant-garde, Neo-avant-garde, and Post-avant-garde Magazines and Books in Yugoslavia, 1921-1987, in: Dubravka Djurić and Miško Šuvaković (ed.): Impossible Histories. Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, The MIT Press, Cambridge-London, 2003, 307.
  9. Tibor Várady: Minorities, Majorities, Law, and Ethnicity: Reflections of the Yugoslav Case. Human Rights Quarterly, John Hopkins University Press, Feb. 1997, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Feb. 1997), 19.
  10. Ibid.
  11. A literalization of the French word an engagement which, one could uncharitably add, exerts a rather irritatingly distressing effect upon the foreign ear. – note from the translator.
  12. Losoncz Alpár: A hatalom (nélküliség) horizontja. Hommage à Új Symposion [The horizon of power(lessness). Hommage á New Symposion], Forum, Újvidék, 2018, 19-20.
  13. „We were pioneers. We had to start almost everything from scratch. We didn’t bring anything with us from our family background. We had no tradition.” László Végel: Szellemi krónika – Hatvannyolc [Intellectual chronicle- Sixty eigth]. In: ibid: Hontalan esszék [Stateless essays]. Jelenkor, Pécs, 2003, 294.
  14. „The atmosphere at ’Tribina Mladih’ was stimulated well, in a way, by multiplying national experiences. We had a board, where, next to me as the editor-in-chief, sat László Végel as my assistant and he was the editor-in-chief of the Hungarian board where there were Tolnai, Bosnyák and a mass of other young Hungarians. The first intellectual “violins” in the country at that time were Krleža, Ivo Andrić, Marko Ristić. Those were the people who had, not only had the intellectual experience of universities in Paris, Vienna, London, or experience in diplomacy, or, for example, people who lived dangerous lives during the anti-fascist war, they were also people who could communicate with their colleagues all over the world.” Želimir Žilnik in Omitted Histories, 2006, 61.
  15. Marko Ilic: ‘A Taster of Political Insult’: The Case of Novi Sad’s Youth Tribune, 1968-71. Third Text, 32 (4).
  16. Dietmar Unterkofler: Grupa 143. Critical Thinking at the Borders of Conceptual Art. 1975-1980. Službeni glasnik, 2013, 51.
  17. Emese Kürti: Transregional Discourses. The Bosch+Bosch Group in the Yugoslav and the Hungarian Avant-garde, acb ResearchLab, 2016.
  18. Katalin Ladik: Ballada az ezüstbicikliről [Ballade of the Silver Bike] Forum, Újvidék, 1969.
  19. Katalin Ladik was first discovered in 1953, at the age of eleven in a radio talent show. After this, she became an employee of Novi Sad Radio, where she met Ernő Király.
  20. János Samu: Határpoétikák. Redukció mint intenzív nyelvhasználat Domonkos István és Ladik Katalin költészetében [Boundary poetries. Reduction as intensive usage of language in the poetry of István Domonkos nad Katalin Ladik], PhD dissertation, Pécsi Tudományegyetem Bölcsészettudományi Kar, Pécs, 2014, 81.
  21. Sabrina P. Ramet, „In Tito’s Time”, in ibid. (ed.): Gender Politics in the West Balkans, Women and Society in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Successor States, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1990, 90.
  22. „He was 45 when we got together, I was 21. From this meeting there eventuated a marriage, because I thought well, I’ve finally found a real avantgarde artist who understands me, with who we can be in harmony, because he deals with so modern stuff like electronic music.” The author’s interview with Katalin Ladik, draft, 2016.
  23. Tamás Szentjóby – Miklós Erdély: UFO (tryst). (Happening /without invited public/ - 1st of May 1968, Szentendre, H). Participants: Katalin Ladik, Tamás Szentjóby, Miklós Erdély, Györgyi Szalay, István Dárday, Antal Dúl, Miklós Urbán, Roger Benichou, topical dormen, ad hoc car mechanics, Joyce (the dog).
  24. „Our marriage lasted for five years. After the divorce in 1968, when I had become part of the avant-garde, body and soul (this was the cause of the divorce by the way), we did not entirely end our professional collaboration of course, and because of our son this was not a prospect anyways. I travelled back to him almost every day, taking the kid to his grandma, as he attented a nearby school. We went walking together, we had outings, so we maintained contact, so the child wouldn’t notice too much about the divorce.” Interview of the author with Katalin Ladik, conducted in 2016.
  25. Hornyik Miklós: Jaj annak ki erdőt hord magában. Kérdések Ladik Katalinhoz [Woe to whom who is carrying forest inside. Questions to Katalin Ladik], Képes Ifjúság, 1968. jan. 27., 19. o.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Giorgio Agamben: The end of the Poem. Studies in Poetics. trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1999., 23.
  28. The author’s conversation with Katalin Ladik, 2016.
  29. Sasa Asentić and Ana Vujanović: Tiger’s Leap into the Past. An Interview with Katalin Ladik, transcript, 2006.
  30. Kovács Tickmayer István: Király Ernő (részletek), in: Király Ernő: Relexiók [Reflections], Forum, Újvidék, 1998, 47.
  31. Király Ernő: Reflexiók [Reflections], Forum, Újvidék, 1998, 26. o.
  32. Király Ernő: Reflexiók [Reflections], Forum, Újvidék, 1998, 15. o.
  33. Népzenekutatói munkálkodásom (1988), in: U.ő.: Reflexiók [Reflections], Forum, Újvidék, 1998, 12. o.
  34. I.m., 1998, 15. o.
  35. Nándor Hevesi– Kornél Szilágyi: Promenade. Király Ernő portréfilm [Promenade. Portrait movie of Ernő Király], 2008, 52 min.
  36. Ernő Király: Reflexiók [Reflections], Forum, Újvidék, 1998, 21. o.
  37. The Czechoslovakian Milan Adamčiak’s noise boxes followed a similar logic, as did Mylan Grygar’s acustic drawings in the 1970s. In Grygar’s case, various everyday objects, such as combs, springs, cog wheels, spinning tops and wind-up toys, would be dipped in ink and then spun or dragged across the surface of the paper. A degree of chance was involved, as the mechanical toys knocked into one another. David Crowley, in David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk: Sounding the Body Electric. Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984, Museum Sztuki, Lodz, 2012, 91. o.
  38. Ernő Király: Reflexió [Reflections], 1978, in: Reflexiók [Reflections], 41. o.
  39. Quoted by Mirjana Veselinović-Hofman: Problems and Paradoxes of Yugoslav Avant-garde Music (Outlines for a Reinterpretation), in: Dubravka Djurić and Miško Šuvaković (ed.): Impossible Histories. Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, The MIT Press, Cambridge-London, 2003, 415.
  40. Katalin Ladik: Mesék a hétfejű varrógépről, Symposion könyvek 53 [Tales of the seven-headed sewing machine ], Újvidék, 1978, 91
  41. Katalin Ladik: Mesék a hétfejű varrógépről, Symposion könyvek 53, Újvidék, 1978, 49. Translated from Hungarian by Lóránt Bencze
  42. Ernő Király: Négy fekete ló mögöttem repül, score, 1972.
  43. Milan R. Milojković: Saradnja Katalin Ladik sa kompozitorima elektroakustičkih muzičkih ostvarenja, Matica Srpska Journal of Stage Arts and Music, Nr. 60., Novi Sad, 2019.
  44. Attila Csernik – Katalin Ladik – Imre Póth: Opus, 1972.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Bálint Szombathy: A Bosch+Bosch öt éve [The five years of Bosch+Bosch], Híd, 1975/1. 144.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Vesna Kesić: Katalin Ladik: JA SAM ŽENA, Start, Zagreb, 1981. febr. 28. idézi Miško Šuvaković: The Power of a Woman. Narratives of Interpretation, of Subjectification, Women and Art Between the Cold War and Transition in Central Europe, in: The Power of a Woman: Katalin Ladik. Retrospective 1962-2010, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina in Novi Sad, Novi Sad, 2010, 33.