Tibor Szemo,
The Other Shore &
Snapshot from the Island
(Leo, 1999)

Tibor Szemo is probably best-known as the composer of "Tractatus," an ambitious and decidedly odd project which sets to music the terse words of Wittgenstein's founding work of linguistic philosophy. Well, Wittgenstein may have been popular with the minimalist artists of 40 years ago, but Szemo's form of minimalism -- if it can properly be called that, which of course it can't -- sounds modern, glossy and much too eclectic to be really very minimal at all.

The music on these two discs has one immediately obvious thing in common: it is rather slow-moving. That's not to say that it's static, drifting music of the sort that Thomas Korner does, because Szemo's compositions have a definite sense of direction. Or rather, they have a sense of momentary direction; it's as if the music moves purposefully minute-by-minute, but has no particular architectural scheme to confrom to on the larger scale.

Szemo's world, unlike that of so many composers working with electronics, is largely a sunny one. His Snapshot from the Island is infused with sunshine, Oceanic or Carribean rhythms, and the swooping sound of synthetic gulls decorating his flute. The latter patiently lays down notes as long and cool as a drink of water, creating music which is as pictorial as it gets. As such, of course, it's hugely reliant on convention, but that's OK because Szemo is smart enough to work within those conventions and create a 25-minute-long composition that always feels welcoming, interesting and colourful.

The title track is augmented by two additional pieces on this release. "Water-Wonder" sends overlapping, looped flute gestures piping against one another, sounding something like a miniature organ, echoing and drenched with reverb. Again, there's something magical, pictorial and slightly camp about this music, and while it's certainly less sophisticated than "Snapshot," the fairytale music that results is characteristic and surprisingly elusive. "Let's Go Out and Dance" is the least successful, its 1985 synthesiser textures feeling hackneyed, and without any excuse, given that the imaginative "Snapshot" was recorded only a year later. As with Frank Zappa's work with the Synclavier, the musical ideas are okay but time has been very cruel indeed to the execution, so that it's impossible to hear this music as anything but a very superior version of Rick Wakeman's godawful synth fantasies.

The Other Shore comes with a fat booklet containing a Buddhist text and some other experimental writings, all of them impenetrable, which is a good start. The title track certainly delivers on this promise: it's a long, textural piece that features Onishi Ryokei reciting a sutra (perhaps the one in the booklet, but who knows?) in suitably stentorian tones and, of course, in its original language. It builds slowly until -- and here you'll have to trust me -- a rock drummer and bass guitar appear, and it sounds good. Yes, really; it shouldn't, but it does. The result is a piece which is unique, accessible and downright weird at the same time, and one which will leap into your CD tray with alarming frequency.

This release, too, pairs up the title composition with two other pieces. The first, "Symultan," simultaneously justaposes two spoken texts. This is by far the most "difficult" piece on these two discs; the monologues seem to be field recordings of the most dreadful quality, and are accompanied by doleful chimes and disorientating congas (or similar) that constantly threaten to develop into a regular rhythm. This they eventually do, sort of, but it's a limping, drowsy kind of thing, giving the whole piece a rather disturbing air. Needless to say, it's the finest piece on these releases, but it won't go down well at dinner parties the way the tracks from Snapshot from the Island will.

The final piece here is a string quartet, augmented by tabla. It's a fairly ambient piece with simple, open harmonies and a languid rhythm, but there's not much to grab the ears about it. Szemo's harmonic schemes often seem engineered deliberately for their directionlessness, but here that approach is at its most pronounced. Rather a shallow composition, if not offensively so.

These two discs document the work of a composer who seems to care little about the fashions of contemporary music, and less still about the need to be "difficult." Szemo's attachment to folk musics may be naive, and his approach may often be too saccharine for many listeners, but there is a fertile imagination at work behind these compositions. The Other Shore is probably the most satisfactory of the two, but the title track of Snapshot makes it worth looking into, too.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002