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György Kurtág was a fellow student with György Ligeti in Budapest, and both composers have found inspiration right at what might be called the source – the very fact that the phenomenon of music can exist. They share a continual sense of wonder at what most of us take for granted. Kurtág’s brief exile in the late 1950s in Paris (before he returned to Budapest) allowed him to study with Messiaen and Milhaud and exposed him to the Western avant-garde. The stark contrast he encountered there with the tightly controlled, state-approved aesthetic policies in place back in Communist Hungary – where not only Schoenberg, but the later music of Stravinsky and even of Bartók had been officially banned – had the effect of an epiphany.

So too did Kurtág’s meetings with Marianne Stein, an art psychologist of great significance to the composer while he was in Paris. She guided him through a period of acute crisis that was both personal and creative. Kurtág continued to draw inspiration from her decades later and went on to dedicate the whole of Kafka Fragments to Stein. He summarized her significance as follows: “If my experience with her in Paris was marked by rigor on many levels, she later helped me greatly by doing the exact opposite: by teaching me to take my time and, as it were, to forgive myself. It made me freer.” Kurtág wrote a String Quartet under her influence, which he named his Opus 1, rejecting his previous compositions as inauthentic.

Upon his return to Budapest – he would go on to serve as an influential professor of chamber music at the Liszt Academy for several decades – Kurtág continued to build up a highly personal and idiosyncratic language. Another key discovery in Kurtág’s artistic evolution was the supercondensed brevity of Anton Webern’s works, as well as the new music Ligeti had begun writing since his own arrival in the West and the sonic experiments of Stockhausen. Kurtág’s all-embracing curiosity, however, is by no means limited to modernist icons. He is also keenly drawn to music of the past, in particular such figures as Robert Schumann (reflected directly in his Hommage à R. Sch.) and J.S. Bach, whose work Kurtág has come to know intimately as a keyboardist. Both composers are among the multiple artistic ghosts appearing in Kafka Fragments.

Kurtág’s relatively small body of work attests to a Cartesian process of doubting and reconstructing an entire world anew with each piece. His unique musical voice radiates a haunting awareness of transience, of the fragility of our very attempts to communicate. This sensibility engenders a profound affinity for such literary figures as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin as well as Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Kafka in particular, who died two years before the composer was born, is a kindred spirit not only in the integrity of his narrative economy but in his unfaltering gaze into the vulnerable heart of our alienated condition.

It was during his Paris sojourn that Kurtág rediscovered the allure of Kafka (especially via a close reading of The Metamorphosis). Over the ensuing decades, Kurtág collected random fragments of his writings. These weren’t excerpts from the published works but texts that were ready-made fragments in themselves, taken from Kafka’s writing notebooks, diaries, and letters. This personal collection became the basis for the 40 pieces of which Kafka Fragments is comprised, which are divided into four larger sections (Kurtág gives his own titles to the individual fragments). About half are less than a minute each, while the longest, midway through – “The True Path,” dedicated to Pierre Boulez – makes up Part II by itself. Kurtág began composing a few of them in 1985, having no grander scheme in mind. But soon he found himself hooked, “like a little boy nibbling at forbidden sweets.” Kurtág completed the work (his longest to date) in late 1986.

Kafka Fragments might be viewed simultaneously as a song cycle, a personal diary (for both writer and composer), a duet between vocalist and violinist, and even a work of music theater (Kurtág’s instructions call for specific “extramusical” gestures, such as the violinist moving between two music stands). The last is of course the path pursued in the present performance/production by director Peter Sellars, who first conceived his staging of Kafka Fragments for New York’s Zankel Hall in 2005 as a drama shared by a barefoot, jean-clad duo of soprano and violinist (Dawn Upshaw and Geoff Nuttall also performed in the premiere). Sellars has described Kurtág as “a hugely theatrical composer,” but one whose natural guide is the theater of Beckett. In a New York Times interview, Sellars defined this as “a theater of restraint, of hidden worlds, hidden meanings and hidden emotions, which surface unexpectedly and disappear without a trace.”

Kurtág doesn’t attempt to foist any overarching linear narrative onto Kafka’s texts (in fact he has changed the ordering of individual pieces since the work was first introduced, giving priority to musical considerations). What he reveals instead is a sense of being a soulmate to Kafka, his music complementing and giving greater dimension to the writer’s self-enclosed visions, just as violinist and vocalist mutually reinforce their acts of expression of these texts. A further counterpoint is overlaid via Sellars’ imagery of unsettlingly familiar domesticity and his use of projections. The Kafka sources “are like those bits of crumpled paper which, when dropped into water (the music), unfold into flowers,” observes critic Paul Griffiths in a beautifully memorable image.

The Kafka texts range from miniature parables to imagistic snapshots (“The onlookers freeze as the train goes past” in Part I, No. 10, “Scene at the Station”) and brief but indelible sighs of insight (Part III, No. 3, “My fortress”). Stark beauty sits side by side with the blackest humor. For all their shard-like dislocations and intense contrasts, the fragments also betray recurring patterns of imagery. Chief of these is the metaphor of the path and locomotion (and the implication of the search for some path through the labyrinth of our existence – e.g., Part II’s “The True Path”). Other images involve the body’s fragility, erotic anxiety, states of exile, and the demands of the creative life.

Instead of merely attempting to illustrate these texts, Kurtág’s musical profiles create uncanny parallel universes with their own recurrent patterns of imagery. In the very first fragment, for example (“The Good March in Step”), he sets up a counterpoint between the simple, mechanical oscillations of the violin and, for the singer, a contrasting freedom of line, moving from folksong innocence to giddily hiccupping leaps. Kurtág repeatedly alternates between stratagems of extreme simplicity and almost absurdly extreme acrobatics for both musicians.

The arsenal from which Kurtág draws embraces an assortment of extremes: ethereal reflection and folkloric lustiness, violent staccato attacks and feather-wisps of lyricism, shocking silences and frenzied momentum. Expressionism (from primal shrieks to Sprechstimme) takes its place alongside shades of the past, from Bach to Romantic luminaries who register a nostalgic presence nearly unbearable in its poignancy. Consider Part I, No. 18 (another homage to Schumann) – “The Flower Hung Dreamily” – with its desperate attempt to recapture a lost lyrical innocence in the violin’s lofty but aimless flight. Throughout, Kurtág wrests the maximum of expressiveness from minimal gestures, all the while leaving space for the complex of imagery – verbal and musical – to resound and realign according to the private universe of each audience member.

Thomas May writes and lectures about music and the arts.