Your latest release with Piranha Records is with The Glass House Orchestra, how did this project come out?
Six years ago was the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary. What I didn’t know before then, in most places in Germany and Europe, the Holocaust took place over approximately 5-6 years. In Hungary, it all happened at once. The Jews were more or less surviving until 1943. Then in one year, all of a sudden – in 1944, there were more Jews killed than anywhere else. It happened very quickly.
I was approached by the Balassi Institute, by the Hungarian Cultural Organization, to do a project that commemorated this anniversary. They wanted to address the facts of what happened, but look at it in a different way. And so, in my talks with the Balassi Institute we agreed on something, and this is really the genesis of the Glass House Orchestra.
Hungary, especially before WWII – even now – but especially then, was an incredibly sonic, artistic, multicultural place. You had Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Roma, Jews – you had Hungarians, Carpathian, you had what nowadays we would think of as Austrians, and really totally mixed with all the cultures, urban and rural. We all said, instead of mourning what was killed, let’s celebrate what existed before that, as a way of honoring the memory. We did a lot of research and we found all this different music; Jewish, Roma, Hungarian, Carpathian, classical, folk, popular, cabaret music, that gave a picture of what it was like in Hungary before the Holocaust, before this decimation. It was so thrilling and exciting, that we then created the group – The Glasshouse Orchestra, to take this source material and find a new direction with it.
Do you or any of the other band members, have any Hungarian family background?
There is some Hungarian background, but generally most of us – Jews and non-Jews alike – have strong, East European family backgrounds. And again, it is about the diversity of it and we bring this into the project. Our base player – Pablo Aslan, is Argentinian. Our guitar player – Aram Bajakian, is Armenian. So, it’s not just Hungarians or East Europeans and how we moved into the diaspora, but it is really spread out.
What we all have in common, is that every member of that group, knows how to research a traditional music. Whether it is Argentinean tango in Pablo’s case, Slovakian folk music in Aram’s case, or in the case of Jake – our American fiddler – Hungarian and Carpathian music. To play a piece traditionally, but then to move it into the future. And that’s what we all have in common, and that’s what we do together. We start with a deep knowledge, respect and love of traditional music, and we embrace that, and then we go out into the furthest reaches of the universe with it.
The general subject of the project is a very dark one …yet – it’s amazing how big the contradiction is with its music. The results are particularly life-affirming. Did it come out like that naturally? Or did you have to work on it so that it comes out like that?
As with the genesis of the project, we decided to look at the tragedy but not make that the focus. When we come to this music, the music has joy, because that’s what the music was, that’s what the culture was. We didn’t want to only focus on the tragic part, and we can’t.
Nevertheless, there are at least two moments in the recording; one Roma-Gypsy moment and one Jewish moment. Miklós brought in a Hungarian Roma anthem, and this piece creates a very ambivalent experience because it has both joy and suffering in it. I brought in a piece that I found in my research which is a cantorial piece, a song piece, that was done by the head cantor of Budapest. It is the Jewish prayer mourning the dead – “El Male Rachamim”. This version of the prayer was done in Budapest before the war, and we play it in a very open, almost Miles Davis, Gil Evans kind of way. But it is not melodramatic – we are not trying to make people cry.
I think it is more important for people to understand the beauty that exists in our lives; when we process all of our experiences – the joyful ones and the tragic ones – we can find that beauty in there. And this is a universal thing, but we do it through the very particular expression of a Hungarian, Carpathian, Jewish, Roma – multicultural musical experience.
How was the repertoire chosen?
The repertoire was chosen in a number of ways. I started even before we came together by doing a lot of research and finding these obscure songs in different archives that I didn’t know existed. As we started, I also wanted to include all the members of the ensemble, so I invited different people from the group to bring in different pieces.
One of the most interesting pieces that didn’t end up on the Piranha CD but is in our recorded oeuvre, is a suited music by Imre Kalman; the greatest Hungarian-Jewish operetta composer of the – end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th – century. Our saxophone player – Bela Agoston, brought in his most famous piece, “The Csardas Queen”, and he deconstructed in the most amazing way, as the entire operetta lasts about 12 minutes. What’s fascinating about this aspect of the repertoire is that, Kalman was Jewish, but this
piece, “The Csardas Queen”, was so popular – it was Hitler’s favorite operetta. To the extent that Hitler actually offered to make Imre Kalmán an “honorary Aryan” and not be killed. Kalman declined, managed to escape and survive anyway. It is interesting how we get these deep stories on one hand which like you say have this tragic, and sad and complex elements, and then the music itself, which is joyful. And maybe that’s the point – the joyfulness of the music can be a way of getting into these very complicated, deep stories.
What is the meaning behind the album’s title “Astro-Hungarian Jewish Music”?
I love the name Astro-Hungarian. I was very happy about that and it’s very funny because different festivals and promoters all over the world have said “Oh you’re spelling it wrong – it’s Austro-Hungarian”. And it is as if people have no imagination. No, actually we know what we are doing – it is Astro Hungarian because we’re acting like Sun Ra looking at this great tradition but taking it into the future, into a multiverse intergalactic universe.
Interviewer: Dimitra Zina
The Glass House Orchestra is:
Frank London (trumpet, music director)
Edina Szirtes “Mókus” (violin, voice)
Jake Shulman-Ment (violin)
Béla Ágoston (winds, voice)
Miklós Lukács (cimbalom)
Aram Bajakian (guitars)
Pablo Aslan (bass)
Yonadav Halevy (drums)