Timezone Records TZ865, CD album, 53m 9s
I don’t know if Christina Domene and Robert Hofmann were a performing duo before they conceived their love of the Hungarian language, and began to set that culture’s poetry to music. That is the agenda around which this project revolves, however, and they certainly chose its name, which translates as ‘Pannonian melancholy’ on that basis. Pannonia was a province of the Roman Empire, but the name was applied to several states or provinces in Transdanubia and the Pannonian Basin, including the medieval kingdom of Hungary. Claiming a Pannonian identity for their music (not for themselves, as both musicians are German) implies a more historically rooted, and less geographically or ethnically exclusive perspective than ‘Hungarian’ might have suggested; and indeed, this album is not a curation of autochthonic culture, but a cosmopolitan, self-aware act of composition, executed from a decidedly international perspective. While the affective landscape of European folk musics is certainly evoked on Szerelmedért, it draws equally on aspects of the Western classical tradition, and on creative practices characteristic of the avant-garde wing of progressive rock. It’s this last tradition that is of most use in attempting to contextualise this music, and which, in particular, offers a precedent for Pannón Melankólikusok’s treatment of language as an object of phonemic aesthetic value rather than a conduit for denotational meanings. Of course, to anyone who understands Hungarian these lyrics have literal meanings, and I’m sure that the meanings of the poems as apprehended in translation played their part in the duo’s desire to set them to music, but it’s important to note that nether Domene nor Hofmann speak that language, and that they derive their understanding of the poems from translations. Such an approach to the verbal text of the music has a clear parallel in Christian Vander’s synthetic language of Kobaïan, devised for his avant-prog band Magma, a language which is conceived as meaningful, but which cannot be literally translated, word by word. To me this suggests a broader, more contingent sense of meaning than is usually ascribed to songs, whose subjects are usually described by reference to the lyrics alone; although Domene worked carefully on pronunciation, and it’s possible that this level of signification might be lost on a Hungarian speaker, it seems to direct the listener to the subtlest of interactions between the verbal and musical texts for the affective meanings of the music. This also serves to highlight the basic phonemic material of the language, which is often hard to hear when we’re attending to its literal meanings.
Szerelmedért opens with ‘Ábránd’, a piece accompanied solely by church organ, and the sound of the organ seems immanent in many of the orchestrations from which it is actually absent, such as the following track, ‘Fa leszek’, in which long bowed bass notes echo its sonority. There is a darkness to the instrumental textures, independent of the melodic and harmonic melancholy which we are promised by the duo’s name; thus, ‘Milyen volt’s’ simply arpeggiated acoustic guitar chords are voiced in the instrument’s middle register, and recorded to emphasise the warmth of the fundamental, rather than the upper partials or the details of string noise. Similarly, ‘Jó Csönd-herceg előtt’ is marked out rhythmically by the ride cymbal, but its sound is rich rather than crystalline, and the most distinctive voice is the (again, organ-like) fuzzed-out bass guitar. Although the music fills a broad sonic spectrum, and Domene’s voice is (approximately) in mezzo-soprano territory, its emphases fall towards the bass. Mostly the arrangements are pretty simple, in that they are orchestrated for a circumscribed subset of the resources at multi-instrumentalist Hofmann’s disposal (which include vintage keyboards such as the Fender Rhodes, Mellotron and Philicorda); drums are employed selectively (in songs where the tempi are less flexible, according to the informative interview on the Pannón Melankólikusok website), as is bass, either acoustic or electric. As such, what might be described as a full rock texture is not found on the album, although the piano is often placed at the centre of a dramatic rock ballad feel; electric guitar is an even more sparingly utilised area of the arranger’s palette. Often the instruments are simply employed in pairs, such as the piano and tom-tom texture above which Domene articulates the astringent tension in the first half of ‘A vaáli erdőben’, or the combination of organ and acoustic guitar in ‘Anna Örök’. This simplicity serves to foreground both the voice and the harmony.
Harmony is a powerful tool in the hands of these musicians; of course, a nuanced and shapely melody goes a long way towards making sense of harmony (or is it the other way around?), and there is an abundance of such top lines on this record, but it’s in the harmonic rhythms that the emotional colours of the album are laid bare. There is a good deal of tension in the chord voicings and in their sequencing, expressive dissonance of the chromatically tonal sort, rather than the atonal or aharmonic (although the piano exposition in ‘Fekete zongora’ skirts the fringes of atonality), but there are also many consonant and confirmational cadences, and tension is always the harbinger of resolution. Melancholy is, naturally enough, the predominant affective material in play, but this is not maudlin or sentimental music; it’s as complex an articulation of emotional narrative as it needs to be to resonate with the listener’s experience, and there is a world of lived experience in the sound. Key centres are not unstable, although they are contingent, and can shift unexpectedly to powerful effect; there are a fair few grand gestures in the album as well, and a potent sense of drama. ‘A testvér’ trades in one sense of the epic, with its sweeping, theatrical changes and its driving rock feel; but its final, thrilling unison riff leads into the altogether more contemplative, though equally epic, ‘Fekete Királynő’, with its gentle dynamics and subtle brushed snare. On the whole, however, contrast is not a prominent feature of Szerelmedért.
The extremes of the record’s timbres, dynamics, tempi and harmonic territories remain pretty much in spitting distance of one another. The feel, looking back from the intense closer ‘Szerelmedért’, is powerfully moving, but it is neither abjectly sad nor (unsurprisingly) happy; the songs mainly move at a lugubrious pace, and the sense is of a measured approach to making music. Pannón Melankólikusok may not have known exactly where they were going as they followed the road to the finished album, but they were clearly not suffering from any great anxiety regarding the nature of their destination, and I get the impression that they were not in any particular hurry to reach it. There is a sense of pain and longing, of nostalgia in the original sense of the word, a sort of spiritual homesickness running through the music, often articulated in epic terms that help connect the particular to the general, with a very consistent emotional feel through the whole album. But there is also a noticeable sense of pleasure in the journey, of the savouring of the experience, whatever it may be. The album is not exactly a celebration of melancholy, but its authors value the experience of living, of which sadness is necessarily a part. The most distinctive aspect of its emotional tenor, for me, is the carefully modulated tension between its grand, dramatic gestures and the very particular emotional colours of its harmonies, but what makes that dialectic so compelling is Domene’s voice. She is a vocalist with enough faith in her own abilities to play things simply; her control of timbre and dynamics is precise, and these elements are articulated in a sophisticated interplay with pitch, phrasing, and of course, the phonemic material of the lyric, but there is no grandstanding, no histrionic chest beating, and no contrivance. Instead a real grasp of the precise affective value of the melody informs a beautifully nuanced delivery that, at moments of heightened dramatic intensity, can be profoundly moving. Matched to Hofmann’s equally impressive instrumental skills, and similarly restrained approach to their use, this makes for a singularly powerful recording. The material is extraordinary, the performances completely committed yet self-effacing, and the affective content of the music is utterly absorbing. Szerelmedért is a unique and wonderful album.