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By any standards and from several directions, Hotel America is demanding work. It’s a five-movement piece stretching to 76-minutes. Composer Szilárd Mezei conducts an ensemble of 15 musicians and three actor/singers and employs musical methodologies ranging from densely composed to free jazz and free improvisation. The verbal content is also challenging: the actor/singers perform lengthy poems in Hungarian, a language little-used outside Hungary and a few surrounding territories.
Hotel America is an invocation and commemoration of a dark period in central-European history, the Second World War and the redrawing of national boundaries. The work is based on the persecution, torture and mass murder of Hungarians in the Délvidék, a southern region of Hungary, that is now the Vojvodina region of Serbia.
According to László Dormán’s liner notes, “Tito’s communist Partisans occupied the region at the end of WW II, in the autumn of 1944. In Zenta, they had detained people in the basement of Hotel America, where they not only tortured the detainees but also beat many of them to death. In the Délvidék there were numerous places like Hotel America at that time: town or council hall cellars, mills, granaries, football pitches were used for such purpose. Most of the innocent victims of execution rest in unmarked or earlier designated mass graves. In the region along the Tisza, most frequently, the river happened to be their final resting place. Not a single word could have been uttered about these acts of the Partisans for almost half a century. The Hungarians in Yugoslavia lived together with their murderers; what’s more, the heroic Partisans were set up as role models.”
The full title of the work, in Hungarian, is Amerika szálló (
Isten Hozott Kedves Vendég), in English, Hotel America ( Welcome Dear Guests), half of it literally under erasure, as if the irony of the welcome is too cruel to be fully articulated. The special quality of Mezei’s thought comes about in the scenario: “I had a surreal vision that the persons waiting for their death down in the basement recite a couple of poems to each other, which were written by authors from Vajdaság: most specifically, two poems by István Koncz, and a poem each by János Sziveri, Endre B. Pap and István Domonkos each, and it all sounds like an oratorio in the production.” The eerie quality of the piece arises from this particular technique: the mood of the poetry reading—a kind of cultural event and reverie--haunts the work whenever words, whether spoken or sung, appear, and it is precisely this quality of reverie that gives Hotel America it’s special aura and a kind of timelessness—it is, in a sense, death as dream and dream as death.
If we consider all of the actions and moods that constitute Hotel America, we might imagine various values and viewpoints assigned to contrasting musical methods, but what is most remarkable in its realization is the expressive complexity—including the many dimensions of longing--that emerges in its various forms; composed passages may suggest everything from military order to prayer, while jazz can sound mournful or joyous and free improvisation can renders shades of chaos that foretell everything from profound disorder to liberation.
Mezei’s scale and mixed methods succeed on a very high level, and they do so in part through his own fluid mastery of various approaches and his close communication with the musicians, who are as accomplished as improvisers as they are at negotiating complex scores. Since he began recording about 15 years ago, Mezei’s work has suggested roots in both the composed tradition (Bartok stands out) and the jazz tradition of Ellington, Mingus and Sun Ra, the composer working closely with an expanding circle of collaborators. Bassist Ervin Malina, drummer István Csík, saxophonist/clarinetist Bogdan Rankovic and trombonist Bronislav Aksin were already on-board on Bot (Not Two, from 2004) and have figured in Mezei recordings ever since, while pianist Máté Pozsár and flutist Andrea Berendika are also regular members of Mezei’s Septet. The result is seamless work in which composed material is deeply felt and improvisations explode with individual and collective spontaneity (there are alto solos in this vast work that achieve a ferocity comparable to Marshall Allen’s).
Clearly the scale and language of Hotel America will limit its audience and challenge any non-Hungarian speaker, but this is major work—passionate, intelligent and committed. Mezei and his collaborators have created a work that’s an act of witness.