It was no surprise that UC San Diego music professor Janos Negyesy chose to perform John Cage’s “Freeman Etudes” at a Bartok festival in Szombathely, Hungary, this summer. The trip was his first visit in 25 years to his native country, and his choice of music symbolized the musician he had become in the West after defecting in 1965 when the authorities refused him permission to study music in West Germany.
A proponent of avant-garde violin music, Negyesy has premiered more than 40 works either written for him or dedicated to him over the past two decades.
Among those works that give Negyesy special pride are Cage’s “Freeman Etudes,” which he premiered in 1984 in Turin, Italy, and UCSD colleague Roger Reynolds’ “Personae” for violin and orchestra, unveiled last March.
“Cage is always a good test for audiences,” Negyesy said. “It is 80 minutes nonstop for solo violin, including many silences.”
Much to Negyesy’s astonishment, his Hungarian audience loved the challenging Cage opus and showered him with 20 minutes of applause.
“It was absolutely a big success, which I didn’t expect. I played in a large gallery, and the people were lying on a carpet on the floor. It was like playing in a church. It was hard for me to know how far they had come in 25 years. When I was a student in Budapest, composers like Schoenberg, Webern and Stravinsky were on the black list. I remember when some older colleagues smuggled in recordings of their music from Vienna. We closed the curtains and listened to the records at the softest level possible. It was this kind of terror I grew up under.”
Even after living a quarter of a century in the West, Negyesy remains the soft-spoken iconoclast, still eager to subvert party lines.
In the UCSD music department (where the party line is the pursuit of contemporary music), Negyesy raised eyebrows when he started his series of traditional chamber music concerts, “Soirees for Music Lovers.”
How could it be that the violinist they had hired to play Krenek and Xenakis was organizing concerts of Schubert and Mozart?
“I don’t see any essential difference between a Telemann sonata and the Cage, except that the Cage is not so old,” explained Negyesy, who joined the faculty in 1979. “I have always felt that, if you play only new music, it is just half of the picture. If you play only Mozart and Brahms, that’s another half. I’m sure that, if somebody plays Cage, his or her Mozart is different, and vice versa. I just cannot separate them--that is why I started the series.”
At first, Negyesy said, he had no support from the department. But he continued promoting his quarterly chamber music concerts, and they soon became a popular fixture of university life.
The soirees also had a side bonus. Recently, Negyesy invited faculty members of certain departments to preview the performances.
“We don’t know anybody on this campus,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s wonderful to see people meet after you’ve played for them Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet. At our last soiree, the head of the chemistry department took me aside and said, ‘Some of our colleagues from the chemistry department met at your concert for the first time!’ ”
For his performances, Negyesy tries to find the most appropriate visual setting. Last year, when he brought a program of recent violin works written by young American composers to Bern, Switzerland, he performed them in a gallery that was featuring an exhibit by noted American painter Jackson Pollack.
Recently, at La Jolla’s Salk Institute, an ensemble of Negyesy’s students performed Telemann, Schumann and Mozart surrounded by whimsical sculptures of musicians made by their fellow UCSD students under the tutelage of art professor Peter Phillips.
Mixing temporary sculpture and chamber music is symptomatic of Negyesy’s undogmatic and sometimes fanciful approach to his discipline, an attitude he attributes to Cage.
“Cage enlarged my possible borders to receive influences. I don’t judge things or happenings too soon. He got rid of my black-and-white thinking, as well as the tendency to rely on only two choices. Curiosity, I believe, is the engine of life. Without it, everything is hopeless.”
Among Negyesy’s diverse musical projects is a performance with Belgium’s Rosas Dance Company, an engagement that has turned him into a long-distance commuter to Rotterdam for rehearsals. He will perform Eugene Ysaye’s three Sonatas for Solo Violin as accompaniment to the dancers. Ysaye’s arch-Romantic musical idiom is light-years away from Cage or Reynolds, but Negyesy relishes the challenge.
“It’s really great music in spite of its Lisztian virtuosity, and it’s remarkable what Ysaye could do using just the four strings of the violin. It’s also fun for me to work at the other end of the musical spectrum.”