Samu Gryllus: Out in the garden – insider’s view

Autoethnographical writing within the framework of the artistic research project creative (mis)understandings

First of all, I have to be honest by telling that writing an autoethnography in these special days (April 2020) is not the same as before. We are sitting in a so-called pandemic, a huge wave of destruction and loss, crisis of political and economic systems and of many families around us.


It is an autoethnography. Which is absolutely not the same as an automatic writing. But still it is about me, observing myself. I do not have any plan for the text. I am improvising. That is a basic rule in Soundpainting: Do not plan! Soundpainting is a way of communication. As composer you ask something from the community that you work with, and you receive their answer. You cannot plan the answers if you are asking, and vice versa. And even if it is me who asks and answers, I need to leave some space open. A trajectory created through the questions and answers, but the questions and answers cannot go on a straight and already given path. That would be "dead art" based on Kandinsky. He was 44 years old when he wrote about not living art in Über das Geistige in der Kunst. (no quotations, no footnotes, everything belongs to the body of the text, Textkörper - as my all-time favorite author, Péter Esterházy would say at this point, He would write this word in German, although the rest of the text would be in his case in Hungarian, but let's talk about languages later on) I am 44 too. I usually forget that and have to start to count always from 1976 the year I was born. It is 2020 now, so I am 44.


In 1976 I was born in Hungary. The country was called at that time Hungarian People's Republic. It was the period of the so-called soft dictatorship. Nobody was executed anymore, some could leave the country on a good occasion, some could flee away from the so-called soft dictatorship. I was told last week, that the so called "reformed dictatorships" in our days are more productive than democracies. My father-in-law told that whatever comes after the pandemic, it could work probably within the framework of a "reformed dictatorship". I am married. Have one son. He is 12. He has his birthday on the same day as Wei-Ya. Wei-Ya is one of the project leaders of creative (mis)understandings. I write this text in the framework of the project.


Let me just go back to my father-in-law and Hungary around the time of my childhood. I might find an escape-route to flee away from that era in me and in my autoethnography by discussing those times: Father-in-law was working for the Hungarian television. He was a journalist. He was the one who was asked to give a short and easy reportage in the television few days after the Chernobyl disaster (April 1986) and tell the people, that it is all okay. He was standing in the middle of downtown Budapest on a green area, holding a Geiger-Müller counter in his hand and telling the people, what the healthy limits are, showing them the counter and its values over that limit, and in the same time telling people that everything is fine. So, whoever listened to what he was saying, knew, that everything is all right, but if someone took a closer look on the counter, could know that we are in trouble. This was the only way to tell the truth.

I think with these few paragraphs above I already arrived at certain routes that could lead me to describe my present position and relationship to Creative (Mis)Understandings. These were the following routes:


1. Starting from Esterházy and going out towards my several encounters with different languages and my differentiated existences connected to different languages.

2. Starting from Wei-Ya going towards the constantly developing common knowledge that connected us in the past years.

3. Starting from questions of dictatorship and democracy towards describing my view of the history of different regions including Central-Europe as well as Lanyu and my attempts to compose a piece transforming traditional Tao songs for the young Tao generation

4. Starting from the nuclear disaster going towards mentioning the danger of nuclear waste. 


Probably if I go over these paths now it gives an overview and an overall structured form to this autoethnography. I plan to do this now but keeping my eyes (hands) always near the main topics of the project. (exposition is over)


1, Thinking about language and culture, as well as thinking about leaving one cultural field by choosing a different language can give useful information about me. I was born with Hungarian as my mother-tongue. Hungarian is a rare, agglutinating language, where many things are communicated with one complexly modified word. It is told that it is among the most difficult languages in the world. Even if it is complex, somehow it seems to be very flexible. It allows the speaker to improvise. To figure out the end of the sentence only at the middle of the sentence. In German for example you have to know everything exactly already in the beginning of a sentence in order to have a sentence throughout with correct grammar. I discovered this information about the German language only when I started to learn it officially. But it was already many years after I moved to Vienna to study. In my first ten years in Vienna I somehow enjoyed not knowing the language, to be a stranger, or to exist like a newborn baby who learns things, peoples, ideas, definitions "by experience"[1]. I did not learn the rules of the German language for many years. I have honestly no idea how I succeeded with finishing classes and degrees with that kind of "uneducated"[2] knowledge of the language. I remember one case though. In one of the first years of my studies at an exam I had to write an analysis of a Sonatenhauptsatz. I tried to avoid writing and used a lot of colorful lines, different letters and boxes to show my understanding of structure, texture, form, motives, phrases, etc. of some gems of the common practice period. The exam was judged by two professors. Because of this, it was necessary to create a photocopy of my paper. Of course, it was a black and white copy. The second professor, the legendary Günter Kahovez wrote on my "black page" like[3] analysis-paper that "Kandidat hat keine Ahnung". Literally: Candidate has no idea. Later on, he understood the root of the misunderstanding, and saw the nicely made colorful analysis "ohne Worte", and I hope that he changed his mind, because I think I have some ideas though.


2, I met Wei-Ya through Johannes Kretz. I met Johannes, the other leader of the creative (mis)understanding project in 1999 in Szombathely, at the Bartók Seminar, which was the most important source of new music in Hungary for many years throughout the last decade of the Hungarian People's Republic. And remained it later on throughout the years of Hungarian Republic (after 1989), but it lost its importance shortly before the country changed its name to Hungary, by letting go of the illusions of the word "Republic". In 1999 Johannes was a teacher and I was a student with a very diverse musical background, writing a lot of music for radio- and theater plays, and studying as a jazz musician, because the jazz-department was the only one in the country for instrumentalists playing electric bass-guitar, which I did since I was 11. I´ve known since my early childhood that "I am a composer" (a real quotation from Charles Mingus). When I was 9, I told my parents to give me a book or hire a teacher who can show me how to communicate with instrumentalists and how to orchestrate, because I would like to know what different instruments can play, in order to write them the music as I want them to play. They asked an expert[4] who told me that it is necessary to study harmony first. Harmony in the sense of western harmony, functional-harmony, piano harmony, in terms of triads and extended triads or even reduced triads. I told them, that this is not what I want. I need someone who can show the tools to communicate, but not to tell me what to say. (I started to study harmony though with someone for a while). But many years later I ended up being a "professional student of music"[5].


Oh, it seems that I've just lost the path now that could attach me to the community behind the project of creative (mis)understandings. It happened because even by mentioning these  personal networks of artists around me, I am immediately jumping into anecdotal autobiography, which still could be part of the auto-ethnography somehow, but I am quite sure that even the introduction of this network of communities, without all the associated stories, would not fit in the framework of this text. The best solution would be then to summarize how I think about the importance of the community: A few years ago, I was taking part in a project including 12 immigrant composers living in Vienna. We were discussing for about an hour how we see the possibilities of going from A to B in every sense. And what differences can we imagine between any A and B place. Algy Wu took part in this conversation as well. He is a Taiwanese composer who came to Vienna about the same time as I did. He was a founding member of our community including Wei-Ya, Johannes, Hui Ye, and many others, called the IKult (International Cultural Platform). Algy mentioned in the conversation, that the main difference between the Taiwanese and the Austrian society as he experienced is that in Taiwan the self-evaluation of someone is based on the external values, e.g. how valuable is someone for the society, meanwhile in Austria people are concerned, that they are valuable on their own, independently from how valuable or useful they are for the society. I feel my background somewhere in between these two point of views, meanwhile I grew up and step by step being absolutely convinced as a child that the phrase being useful for the society is a hoax in that very moment, when it is told inside a dictatorial system, while it serves nothing else than maintaining the power of the system by creating controllable citizens.


3, I have to let this text slip into the discussion of the next path, even if I know, that the previous point (2.) is not elaborated as much as it "should be". This quotation mark here only communicates the knowledge and conviction, that all external requirements are losing their power whenever we enter the inner world of the floating creation, and that rules can be relativized by an artist, and overwritten by the inner rules of an artwork. This is the true path to flee away from any external dictatorship and giving the power to the creation itself. Meanwhile it is nothing else than accepting the dictatorship of the material, of the subject, of the work. One can easily understand from these enthusiastic sentences of mine, that I am deeply against any external dictatorship, but still believe in an inner imperative of the things I work with. And here is a case I must report: I was asked a few months ago by Johannes if I could work a bit on transforming traditional pieces of the Tao culture into songs that would fit the taste of young people in the Tao community. I have some experience by doing all different kinds of music including many works within the genre of world music[6]. I have several works using different ideas of traditional as well as urban popular culture. Even if I am not a practicing music-producer of popular music on daily basis, still I was sure that I can make something that would fit the aesthetic preferences of young Tao, using the existing songs or recordings. I tried but I failed. (I am happy to copy here the famous quotation by Samuel Beckett: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It is nice, but still it did not help me in my work) After a few bad results I gave it up. The hardest for me was to somehow create a bridge between the quantized pulsating beat, that seemed to be a "must" in the genre I tried to approach (based on the collected recording of "songs appreciated by young Tao people" in the project-wiki site) and the floating time used in many forms of the traditional music of the Tao. Certain accents and beat patterns are present but not in the form of regular, mechanical beats. I felt that to do anything that would get rid of this temporal quality of the original recordings would devaluate the material. I know that the aim of the project was not to create valuable music, but to create "trojan horses" to bring back the traditional sounds to the ears of young people. I was still not able to do this. Meanwhile I did even much stranger things by translating traditional ideas into each other, or re-arranging well known pop-songs in the manner of several ancient musical languages. Still, this time I had to realize, that I am not able to produce the required material somehow. Probably, because I do not feel, that the original belongs to me that deeply that I could make this step.


4, I am a person who tries to be true to his decisions, so here I could create a nice transition from comparing popular music beats to nuclear waste in order to go over my decided trajectory. But it would be a cheap solution. I do not believe, that even on Lanyu the harmfulness of music of the plastic-ruled culture should be compared to harmfulness of nuclear waste brought to the island. Whatever dictatorial and centralized development happens in the rules, material and practice in the history of music still can be a fruitful soil of human creativity. This cannot be the case with nuclear waste. Johannes told after the disaster of Fukushima, that gene-technology and nuclear power exceed the limit of what humanity can handle, because both can simply and irreversibly destroy our world. There is no such bad music that would be able to do such damage.


I am sitting at the desk looking outside into the garden. Nature is around me, and I am about to finish this improvisational, comprovised[7] report on the insider’s view of my own world. There are many things that were not discussed here. Like the next chapter of the dialogue research, started to come to me a few days ago as I was working in a winery of a friend. It seemed to be an ideal activity in these times, because the winery is huge, there is enough space to be distanced, but still it is outside, where we are under healthy conditions. My job was to walk all along the endless lines of the grapevines and check all the vine sticks if they are tight enough. If they were too loose, then I had to hammer them a bit down to the ground. Weltverbesserung. What else could it be?

[1] I used quotation mark around this two words because this was the answer of John Cage when he was asked by a Hungarian percussion group, who had a rehearsal-residency at his home, about how shall they find the most ideal instruments for a certain composition of his

[2] it is not a quotation like the previous one, it is just the common way of relativizing the meaning of one word by surrounding it with a quotation mark. I think that it is actually a very superficial method in communication, because you do not tell what you think about the context of a certain expression, but just telling that you do not take that particular context seriously, and hoping that others, the readers, who I mainly exclude now actually, share your point of view and have the same denial with the usage of that particular word as you

[3] it was a real quotation with a cultural reference

[4] this word could be in quotation mark, but It is okay like this, I accept that an expert has no overall knowledge and they are not almighty, but they are more specialists of a small slice of knowledge about a particular field

[5] quotation from Anthony Braxton, an important figure in my academic studies

[6] I would be happy to use a quotation mark here because I do not really see the true framework of the genre outside the west and the rest categorization, but it is how the music market named the genre. So, it is a name I use, no need for quotation marks of any sense.

[7] Composed/Improvised