The Strange Appeal of Bela Bartok

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Over the past few days, I’ve been listening to some of my favorite Bartok, in particular his amazing, complex Concerto for Orchestra and his second piano concerto.  I have been drawn to his music for the same reasons jazz musicians are:  his music combines Hungarian folk melodies and dances with cutting-edge modernism, strange modes and surprising twists.  The ethereal, floating sound.  They loved the dissonance, the frisson, the edge.  Others find it weird, dark, and creepy.  Even scary—many a soundtrack composer for horror movies borrowed musical ideas from him.  Lenny Bruce, in his witty recorded caricature of jazz musician Shorty Petterstein, says he liked Bartok because he “swings”.  I love the music even more because it is swathed in personal memories.

In 1969 I was a junior at USC and went to the 21st birthday party of a childhood friend.  He was acting strangely that night, a kind of  serene detachment that didn’t match the festive surroundings.   On my way home I heard Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto on the radio, probably on KFAC, the commercial station and then the only classical music station in LA.  I was mesmerized by the floating, eerie second movement and knew I’d buy the album.  It kind of matched the mood my friend was in.   The next day I got a call from someone else who was at the party saying that my friend had attempted suicide by swallowing a bottleful of pills but didn’t succeed.  My friend returned from the hospital and crashed at my place, sleeping for 36 hours straight.

When I was living in Paris in the mid-70s, I met a white South African guy who’d left Johannesburg because he didn’t want to drafted into the army and was opposed to apartheid.  Like many of my South African friends, he was in love with the vibrant soul stew that is zulu jive.  He told me about one night in Jo’Burg, high on LSD and walking around the city at 4 a.m., he heard this amazing music coming out of an apartment window.  He walked into the building an knocked on the door.  An old couple greeted him and welcomed him in.  Together, the three of them enjoyed the rest of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Events like this serve like mnemonic devices that keep music etched in your brain forever.  And makes me enjoy listening to Bartok even more today.