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Interview with Levente Szorenyi: Member of the Iconic Illes and Fonograf Bands, Composer of the Rockopera, Istvan, a Kiraly (“Stephen, the King”)

2018.07.20.

We asked Szorenyi, creator of multiple hit albums and plays, about the following: his roots in Hungarian folk music, the role of his play “Stephen, the King” in 2018, the challenges facing younger generations of performers, and his opinion on the global phenomenon of talent competition television shows (especially when considering he was a Ki mit Tud participant in 1962).

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Are you familiar with the joke that has Zoltan Kodaly approaching John Lennon, asking him, “What exactly is the meaning of Obladi oblada?”. To which Lennon responds: “Well Mr. Kodaly, the same as talibe-tutaliba-malibe”.

Of course I know this joke, it’s very old. It already existed while Kodaly was alive.

Based on this observation, have these two artists had a serious impact on your work?

Naturally, every person is influenced in many ways, especially when one starts out as simply a casual fan of music–until things take a much more serious turn. I was 16 years old when I wrote the music for the song “Az Utcan” (“On the Street”) for the Illes band, for which Janos Brody later wrote the lyrics. Folk music is the basis for this song, though that was not at all a mindful decision given that this type of creation subconsciously flows from a person. Within the world of folklore, music first caught my attention, not dance. Learning to play violin from my godmother and consistently learning folk songs throughout preschool and grade school, provided the base for my musical knowledge. I am not entirely sure how this happens these days, though I don’t hear many good things about it. Other musical influences of mine are early swing, beat music, and the folk music of the Carpathian basin, including southern-slavic melodies as well.

Despite you and your brothers’ rigorous musical training, you were called the crazy Szorenyis. Why?

That was already the beginning of the rock and roll age, during which we preformed, among other songs, the Italian hit “Con Venti Quattro Mille Baci” at the Vac high school dormitory. The director of the dormitories was definitely not used to our style of uproarious yelling and singing. Later we discovered that the director didn’t necessarily have a problem with the music, but rather the way we moved to it. We came quite close to being banned when he told us, “do not move” while singing.

“The director of the dormitories was definitely not used to our style of uproarious yelling and singing.” (Photo by Tamas Komporday)

Today in Hungary, if a young, unknown artist who lacks connections in the industry writes music, he or she has only a very small chance of achieving widespread popularity. The radio only plays mass hits, the number of music tv channel viewers has plummeted, and no widely circulated professional music critic newspaper or magazine exists. 

In my opinion, new musicians can still slip into performances; for example, this morning, only singers unknown to me performed–though this was also my mistake. Personally, I do pity the youth because no matter how talented they may be, they won’t be discovered because there is no need for them. These days you can’t explode onto the music scene anymore because the expectations and trends are different.

How could a band like Illes become popular today?

They couldn’t. I see the worst era of music beginning with the rise of ABBA -then still not irreversible- which worsened the demanded music designed for entertainment. I resent the fact that newer generations of musicians assume that just because they may appear on television or radio, they are already stars.

You have participated in talent-competition shows like Ki mit Tud? and Tancdalfesztival as well as competitions on the radio. How closely do you follow both the criticisms offered and the Hungarian and foreign talent scouting shows of today?

Well, this is even worse. Even though the whole country may be sitting in front of the TV watching Megasztar and X-factor, how can I take it seriously? Why even have a show for this in the first place when the majority consists of Pici Presser and other judges laughing at ridiculous contestants who shouldn’t even be there. This ruins the morale. Talent shows have turned into parodies of themselves.

If asked, would you be a judge?

I’ve been asked multiple times, but I’ve never accepted. In my opinion, it is entirely frivolous. The only TV show of this kind that I ardently follow is the live second season of Virtuosos. That is a serious competition: narrowing down, evaluating, and assessing competitors to generate valuable results.

These types of pop-music talent shows assert that there is a demand in Hungary for the entertainment they provide.

This is simply untrue- it’s just an excuse. Have a beauty pageant instead. At least that has a demand and is nice to watch.

“For this exact reason I was nervous for my Fonograf concert- after a while, you can feel that you are fading.” (Photo by Tamas Komporday)

What role does music play in your life currently?

Music is my inspiration day in and day out, however, I no longer compose or direct. In February we played with the Fonograf band in the Sportarena; preparing for it was quite extensive given the challenges of performing at my age. In addition to this, I still regularly play with the Vujicsics band throughout the country, preforming around five of my southern-slavic inspired songs–but that is all. This is just enough to satisfy my need. For this exact reason I was nervous for my Fonograf concert; after a while, you can feel that you are fading. If I cannot properly play and sing the notes, and, moreover, I do not enjoy the experience, then I should not be performing–I should be leaving a pleasant memory.

Since the 1983 introduction of Istvan a Kiraly, critics have been voicing their commentary. Do you agree with what Janos Brody had to say back then: “The value of Istvan a Kiraly lies in its display of these historical contradictions and conflicts as well as providing diversified perspectives. In my opinion, if this play does indeed have something to say, it is that certain conflicts are better off avoided”.

This is an intelligent train of thought, but he and I know that these types of conflicts will always inevitably surface.  For instance, these stem from clashing interests. We can find them in today’s world: in America, a businessman of Hungarian origin decided he would transform the Earth’s population.  This could present a pretty enormous problem.

In this case, what message does Istvan, a Kiraly send in 2018?

That we can perform it. Not only that it can still be performed, but also that such an incredibly large numbers still attend today. Most recently it played at the Opera festival in Miskolc; I was very excited for this because finally we were able to perform without playback or half-playback, considering the fact we presented the original music live. I do not mean to be conceited, but, if the play’s music was bad, it would be of interest to no one–despite its powerful message. Therefore, in practice, the music essentially carries the production. In this manner the two components together go through the viewers’ mind and soul; the two together are essential! Of course, with this statement, I am not demeaning Brody’s role. Besides Istvan, a Kiraly, he wrote Attila, Isten Kardja, Veled, Uram!, and Arpad Nepe; though Istvan, a Kiraly is uncontestably the most popular.

In Hungary both the left and the right accept this play…

It would be quite idiotic if they didn’t.

But considering both unified and diversified perspectives, how do you view our path politically? Along St Stephen’s or Koppany’s?

I have already expressed my opinion on this question and caused quite an outcry with it. I was totally ripped apart for it. I see Stephen as a model, like Brody said too. Based off of this model, I said there are Hungarians aligned with Stephen, Koppany, and then the “foreign-hearted”. The “foreign-hearted” are those who, despite living their entire lives in Hungary, refuse to admit where they belong. These consist of the individuals who are never pleased and constantly say they want to leave the country, yet never actually do. This is what’s written in Istvan, a Kiraly. Specifically in the play, the Teutonic conquerors arriving with the priests represent these “foreign-hearted”.

„Hungarians have suffered during many historical eras, it is a miracle we still stick with each other.” (Photo by Tamas Komporday)

Neurosurgeon, Dr Andras Csokay, who regularly holds lectures on the connections between science and religion, expressed the following to us: Europe has abandoned and thrown out Christianity, viewing God with indifference; meanwhile Hungary is continuously characterized with no empathy, betrayed by neighbours and friends when we deny all forms of migration.  Who speaks the truth?

I see the latter as a lie–or an exaggeration if I want to be polite. Hungarians have suffered during many historical eras; it is a miracle we still stick with each other. Hungarians are a friendly people. Yet there are the moments when “foreign-hearted” politicians do not view Transylvanian Hungarians as true Hungarians.  Let us remember December 2005. Where are we now compared to the battle of 907 in Bratislava when Hungarians lead by Arpad pushed back an army of nearly 100 thousand soldiers representing a “united EU”.

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Reported by Balazs Horvath

Translated by Katrina Hier

featured images via Tamás Komporday


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