Driven by the sun
Hungarian singer Atilla Grandpierre talks about the magical power of his music
Singer and astrophysicist Atilla Grandpierre is the founder of folkpunkband Vágtázó Csodaszarvas, or Galopping Wonderstag. “I stand on stage as if my last hour has struck.”
René van Peer
In the big hall of Petöfi Csarnok, the rock temple in the Budapest city park, three drummers beat forcefully pounding rhythms, that get ever more exciting as fast accents find their way into the patterns. String instruments join the ranks with buzzing chords. In this shimmering setting two bagpipes raise shrill extended notes, circle around each other in exuberantly meandering melodies. Then a man in a long white coat jumps onto the stage. He dances among the musicians in whirling leaps, before ending up at a microphone. With raised fist he utters a protracted scream, which is taken up by the audience. It sets the tone for a concert of the Hungarian folkpunkband Vágtázó Csodaszarvas.
The Galopping Wonderstag, as the band’s name would translate into English, appears prominently on a backdrop behind the band, a radiating sun between its antlers. It is an ancient Hungarian totem, a reference to the endless steppe east of the Ural mountains, the area where the Hungarians originated. Founded in 2005 by singer and astrophysicist Atilla Grandpierre the band combines the boundless energy of punk music with instruments and melodies from various musical traditions – of his homeland and of the Asian steppe plains.
Subtlety is not what Grandpierre is aiming for in his delivery. He hurls his texts into the audience as if each line ends with exclamation marks. When he’s not singing he moves around the stage indefatigably. He runs, he dances, he swirls his arms, makes gestures that are reminiscent of tai chi. Two hours at a stretch, without pause. Astonishing, all the more so when you take his age of 58 years into account.
“It is high voltage music”, says Grandpierre. “I want everybody on stage to play as if their last hour has struck. All energy of your life is concentrated in that one moment. It is music on which life and death depend. I know that I demand something from my musicians that is unusual, but for me there is no other way. With this group I have people around me who are prepared to do this.”
Grandpierre already has a long career in music behind him. For 25 years he was the front man of the trailblazing group Vágtázó Halottkémek (the Galopping Coroners), that won international acclaim and often performed in the Netherlands. One of their CDs was even recorded in Eindhoven.
Since early childhood he has been gripped by both music and the sun. “When I was five years old I told my father that I wanted to be an astronomer, because I wanted to study the sun. Two years later it had slipped my mind and I was convinced that I should be a singer. When my father reminded me of my earlier plans, I said I would become both. Maybe they were childish impulses at the time, that I forgot afterwards, but in the end they did come true. I felt that there should be music with a magical power that nobody would be able to resist, music holding the grandest secret of the universe within itself.”
What shaped his direction in music was a session with school friends, at the home of one of them. They used objects they found there as instruments. “Some of us were going about with chairs. I had a metal wash basin with just a bit of water in which I had a pingpong ball roll around. It produced extraordinary sounds, but after a couple of hours I realized that actually it was extremely boring. It was nothing at all. I stood up, started to run – right into the opposite wall. There was a clothes chest standing there. I started banging on it. I felt as if letting go of my consciousness: I only concentrated on what was moving inside me and began to sing. When I regained my senses my friends told me that a muezzin lived inside me. I had never known about that. It must have come from very deep within me.”
Experiences such as this made him decide to carry on with music. Originally he wanted to make a kind of folk music, inspired by the traditions from his home country and from Asia. Just like every other Hungarian he grew op with the folk songs that lie at the heart of the musical curriculum of the country. In Asian music, and especially the music from Mongolia, he found the intention that he had discovered within himself. “I was fascinated by music that had a shamanistic context. Music that arises on the spot in a state of heightened consciousness; music that is intended as a means to establish contact with the world around you, and that transcends the personal and individual. This music spans centuries. It stems from a culture that is related to the origins of the Hungarians a thousand years or more in the past. I wanted to make something in that spirit, with acoustical instruments to achieve the appropriate intimacy and to stay close to human proportions, but with the intensity of a shamanic ritual.”
It is eventually in the Galloping Wonderstag that he has been able to achieve his original aim: his first band Vágtázó Halottkémek used rock instruments. It was a band that generated new ideas with every new album and concert, says Grandpierre. Life was not always easy for them under the Hungarian communist regime. Concert tours abroad were thwarted by the authorities. When the band was invited to perform at the Hungary in the Netherlands festival in Amsterdam, they got their permission to travel just in the nick of time.
Grandpierre’s musical activities never had an adverse effect on his career as an astrophysicist. He works at the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, an institute for space research, that focuses mainly on variable stars. As a theoretician Grandpierre specializes in the characteristics of the variable star that is closest to the earth – the sun. He approaches it from an unusual perspective, that of theoretical biology, inspired by a book on that subject by the Hungarian biologist Ervin Bauer. He received it as a present from his father, who was a historian and philosopher.
“Bauer defined the basic principles for what you can consider life, he thought out models that can be applied in a broad sense. One of those is having autonomous activity. From that point of view you can see the sun as a living being. With all its eruptions of energy it seems to call out: ‘I am alive, can’t you see that!’ At the institute people don’t understand my work completely, but they do respect it.”
As a result of that he could organize an international conference last year about the significance of astronomy for human civilization. He advocated a world view that pivots around biology rather than physics. That’s where his work as a scientist corresponds with his music: the sun as a source from which he and his musicians draw power. One could say that they call out to the sun: ‘We see that you are alive!’ With this energy he inspires his audience. A concert is a collective event, that the audience experience as a ritual. On the other hand, his references to the mythical origins of the Hungarians could well feed the growing currents of nationalism. When asked whether he doesn’t run the risk of being used as a mouthpiece for unsavoury political movements, he grins. “Those people want to have control over everything. That was in the communist era, and it hasn’t changed since then. We are far too unpredictable. They wouldn’t want to be associated with us for the world.”
NRC Handelsblad, Cultureel Supplement, January 15, 2010
Translation: René van Peer, June 17, 2010