‘Do you have a lighter?': An interview with 12z

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12z is a Budapest-based duo comprised of Bálint Szabó and Márton Kristóf (formerly also including drummer Áron Porteleki). As pure improvisors, 12z [pronounced as ‘onetwozed’] have constructed a substantial body of work, including film scores, studio recordings, and a significant archive of 12z [sessionz] — weekly improvised jams with a shifting cast of collaborators. These sessions were compiled into a self-released podcast which followed their self-titled debut on Hungarian label Farbwechsel. Their latest album is Free Fall Inspirations, released on Nicolas Jaar’s Other People imprint, with another release planned for the label later this year. This interview took place after their rehearsal in a Budapest flat ahead of their ICAS Festival appearance. 

You have computers here facing each other, is this how you practise?

Marci Kristóf: We don’t practise because we don’t know how to do it, we are not patient enough and get bored of it after a while. Usually, our music starts to build up slowly as we search for the right sounds and instruments so it’s more of a performance than a show. At the moment, we are trying to use samples and themes from our upcoming album though.

When you were making your latest album, The Free Fall Inspirations, was it also improvised?

MK: Yes, only improvisation. We spent a few minutes finding the sounds and instruments, but then we just pushed the record button and did what we felt like. And as usual, we edited it in the end because these recordings are quite long.

Bálint Szabó: After you push the record button and record or release them, sounds become tracks. That’s a big problem. We don’t want to repeat ourselves. We create the atmosphere but want to improvise. It is called live act, but why is it so? For us, that’s the biggest challenge. We also have a trio with a drummer and play live instrumental music but at the moment we are dealing with a new issue of how to make laptop music as live as possible.

What can make a live act more live? Is it the improvisation factor?

BS: It is quite hard to improvise with a laptop. It’s totally different with real instruments. We still play with Áron, our drummer, but when we make film music, for instance, it’s just me and Marci. The drummer is very busy, he is a musician.

And you don’t consider yourselves musicians?

MK: It’s not our profession but we are definitely obsessed with sound and music.

It’s interesting to talk about what makes a musician a musician these days, especially since the underground music scene is more or less a precariat.

MK: Our drummer spends most of his time with music, it is his job. I feel it’s more correct to say that I make music instead of I’m a musician.

And what do you spend most of your time with?

MK: We also have office jobs. I work for Artpool, the experimental art archive based in Budapest. They collect artworks from the 70s from all around the world and have a lot of underground music records, Fluxus and video art, experimental films…But in the last two years, I’ve been working less and less there because of the music.

BS: So you are becoming a professional musician then?

MK: Okay, let’s just say I’m a musician.

And you, Bálint, do the music programming at the art centre Trafó here in Budapest.

BS: I want to see myself as a musician, not a music programmer. Maybe it can be part of being a musician. But for me there are not so many common things apart from being able to meet other musicians and jam together. When I work there, I don’t use the musical part of my brain to solve issues.

You had this project, the Wednesday Sessions, where you met with various local and foreign musicians like Mica Levi aka Micachu, for instance, in your flat. Do you still do this?

BS: It takes place in my flat every Wednesday, and people join in and we just sit down and play. There is no concept. We record everything and show it to each other. Maybe after the summer we will make another podcast out of it.

MK: The only concept is to make it free and open, follow some kind of mutual thinking. We regularly change instruments as well.

It seems there is a certain collaborative aspect to the Budapest music scene. Your debut was released on Farbwechsel, a local label also renown for its many collaborations. Why is it important for you to remain open to other people in terms of music?

MK: I love human beings and it’s really nice to sit down with someone and have this way of communication with others. It’s a very intimate thing to sit down and make music together. It’s like a communal meditation.

BS: Or a renewal.

Can you speak about the film soundtracks that you do?

MK: Most of the directors we’ve worked with didn’t have a concrete idea of what they really wanted and even if we are really qualified film music composers, we couldn’t work together with them easily. On the other hand, film music is still quite conservative, at least in Hungary.

BS: Everybody wants that John Williams kind of symphonic stuff.

Marci, you also played the main character in the recent Hungarian film Utóélet/Afterlife.

MK: It was a very exciting experience, but once was enough. Sometimes I think I don’t even want to make film music again. It doesn’t make me happy the same way making music the improvisational way does.

The Free Fall Inspirations was originally a soundtrack for the film Free Fall made by Taxidermia director György Pálfi.

MK: We were extremely happy to get this possibility because György is one of the most original film directors in Hungary. His movie is about some kind of incomprehensibly dark and surreal attitude to life. The plot is a bit incoherent, it builds up over several episodes with very interesting Monty Python like sketches including a woman who wants to put her baby back into her womb or an old lady who jumps off the roof several times but never dies. György urged us to create something new and experimental. We mixed electronic synths and drums, church organs with metal percussion, Tibetan rag-dung samples and a lot of randomisation to create a disturbing, restless but sacred atmosphere which would reflect the religious allusions in the movie. Our music didn’t make it into the film though. It’s about the director not being satisfied with the music and a lack of time. In the end, Amon Tobin’s music was used.

How did Nicolas Jaar find you for his label Other People which ended up releasing Free Fall Inspirations?

MK: Our journalist friend, Krisztián Puskár, suggested that we should self-release this music so he could write an article about it as a side story for his Free Fall film review. We already had the complete material because of a previous concert so we just gave titles to the tracks (still reflecting the movie scenes and dialogues and then naming it The Free Fall Inspirations) and uploaded it to Bandcamp. A few weeks later, we got an email from Nicolas Jaar where he said he liked it very much and would like to see it released on his label Other People.

After this release you are planning another album for Other People entitled Trembling Air. What is the concept?

BS: We have a global view on our next record, the whole recording process was based on our obsession with traditional music. We wanted to avoid making world music which is more like pop music, a genre for commercial purposes, a consumer product. So instead of using real instruments, we used samples from recordings from Africa, Asia and Alaska to morph them into electronic music. I learned to play Tabla and we’ve been listening to a lot of traditional music since childhood anyway. I think if you want to make new music, music that is relatively still unheard, you have to learn how to listen to that primordial and unsophisticated music which is several thousand years old and the knowledge of humanity is all in there.

What does 12z mean, actually?

MK: The name is a joke. Onetwozed phonetically sounds like ‘Do you have a lighter?’ in Hungarian but we just wanted to have a name which doesn’t have any meaning. It’s more like a keyword, a label which encourages allusions, association of ideas or something totally empty because a name or even a genre cannot be a definition for music.