Issue 30 / 2017

Glimpses from the history of the Eastern Bloc’s neo-avant-gardes: Katalin Ladik’s collage-portrait

Antoni Michnik

31.08.2012 – London

Still from Berberian Sound Studio

The opening of Peter Strickland’s movie Berberian Sound Studio1. The main character, British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is working in Italy on the soundtrack to a giallo movie. In a studio that simultaneously brings to mind all the legends about the magic of experimental music studios and also those stories about bad working conditions on C-grade flicks, the magic of film sounding occurs: from voice acting dialogues, through the use of electronic effects, to performative imitations of the filmworld (Foley). One day, an unexpected guest appears on the set – a person voicing the character of a “demon”, greeted by the director with unusual courtesy. As it turns out, this is Signora Ladik, whom we later observe working in a studio, creating demonical sounds by means of a broad spectrum of extended vocal techniques.

The character is played by none other than Katalin Ladik, one of the leading Eastern European artists of the 20th century, and a key figure of the Yugoslavian neo-avant-garde from the second half of the 60s until the demise of the country. An outstanding sound and visual poet, as well as a performer, sound artist and composer of conceptual music; she still belongs to the group of toolittleknown figures of Eastern-European neo-avant-gardes2. The short episode in Berberian Sound Studio – an homage paid to her by Strickland – makes for an adequate preface to her oeuvre as it brings together a group of themes that are important to her artistic practice: the uncanniness of sound and its eroticism, the complex relationships between the visual and the aural, and finally the transcendence of the borders of language and the abolition of the division between high and low culture. In the rest of this essay we’ll examine Ladik as a sound poet, radical performer, player of new music and creator of experimental scores. Following in the footsteps of her art, we’ll journey through the different circles and tendencies of the Eastern Bloc’s neo-avant-gardes.


29.07.1973 – Balatonboglár

“Vowel prolongation, repetition of consonants, words that seem to come from her gut, her throat, her mouth; such techniques became an early repertoire that was often performed as a shamanistic ritual, enacting the poems through the artist’s body, as an extension of her voice and her language. Sentences became embodiments, words produced their meaning through ritualized gestures, letters were spat out or swallowed—a corporeal manifestation of language.”

Hendrik Folkerts3

If we want to focus on the topic of film sounding in Ladik’s own art, we should begin with the experimental movie O-pus (1972), created in collaboration with Atilla Csernik and Imre Póth. A fine example of the translation of the principles of visual poetry into the language of film, O-pus was conceived as an intermedia entity, a piece of audiovisual poetry. The original soundtrack was lost, which turned the images themselves into a score that Ladik interpreted anew, vocally, in Balatonboglár in 1973. As David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk write: “The film is a poem, a piece of music, and the documentation of a highly erotic performance, all at the same time”4. The situation we’re facing here is similar to that of Signora Ladik in Strickland’s movie: the image demands sounding, and its framework is decided by the author, leaving a wide margin of freedom for the performer. The concrete, onomatopoeic texture of O-pus – on the textual level the soundtrack of the film consists only of repetitions of the phone “O” – leaves Ladik the space for various voice modulations, and gives her the chance to use a wide palette of extended vocal techniques. O-pus is a kind of tour de force of her voice’s abilities, transformed by the sound engineer – first and foremost through layering different vocal parts, which come to resemble the visual imposition of different letter “O”s.

Thus, if we approach the visual material of the movie as a score for performance, it is definitely one for a vocal piece with tape. It’s a score we can witness unfold and, as it occurs, decode the schemes of its interpretation. In the second part of the film, the main theme becomes the relationship between the body and language – a topic that interested both Ladik and Csernik. Letters on human bodies were a frequent motif in Csernik’s works from that period; there is even a photo (1971) in which we can see him placing letters on Ladik’s body. Hendrik Folkerts wrote that the compositions performed by Ladik were a kind of bodily manifestation of language, a specific extension of voice5. It is precisely this corporeal aspect of her vocal art that makes her role in Berberian Sound Studio such a great metaphor for her oeuvre – the voice seems to live its own life, uncovering the uncanniness of extended vocal practices. Because of that aspect, her art fits well into feminist investigations of the relations between the body and language, such as can be found, for example, in works made in the 60s and 70s by Ketty La Rocca – another artist who began as an experimental poet.

The Balatonboglár chapel, where the O-pus performance took place, was one of the most important sites for the Hungarian neo-avant-garde during the first half of the 70s. Rented by György Galántai, it functioned between 1970 and 1973 as an exhibition space, gathering the most interesting Hungarian visual artists, performers and critics. In 1972 László Beke initiated international activities in the chapel; in the following two years a large number of exhibitions, situations and other meetings of members of the Eastern Bloc neo-avant-gardes were organised there6. The crucial part in that networking was the activity of the Bosch+Bosch group (1969-1976), which gathered artists from the Yugoslavian autonomous province of Vojvodina. Ladik became a member of the group in 1973. Born and raised on the border of two cultures among the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina, she speaks, from her childhood, both Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian. Bosch+Bosch, which included other members of complicated descent (for example Atilla Csernik), tried from the beginning to combine Yugoslavian and Hungarian avant-garde traditions. Its members engaged in various collective projects, searching for ways to overcome established categories and subvert dominant identities.


01.05.1968 – Szentendre

“On 25 June 1966 Erdély and Szentjóby organised with Gábor Altorjay the first happening in Hungary, called The Lunch [Az ebéd] (in memoriam Batu kán), during which Penderecki’s music, emitted by the artist, was accompanied by the sounds of eating a chicken and nailing it to the table, washing it down with salt water, the binding and flagellation of one of the participants with horsehair, setting the cart on fire, etc.”

Magdalena Radomska7

“On her arrival in Budapest on the evening of 30 April 1968, Ladik was given a letter from Szentjóby by the hotel receptionist. It informed her that when she left the hotel the next morning she should follow a man waiting there with a dog and, without speaking, get into his car. This she did, and the man drove her through the town to the banks of the Danube in Szentendre. On leaving the car, Ladik saw some men taking photos of her. She followed the dog and found a human-shaped form wrapped in aluminium foil lying on the grass in the sunshine. She also saw a man – Erdély – sitting on a stool a few metres away, flagellating his naked torso with one arm and having the nails of his other hand trimmed by a woman over a basin of water with some goldfish in it. Without any instructions, Ladik did what she supposed to do: she slowly unwrapped the foil. Szentjóby sat up, opened an aluminium sardine tin, and put some fish on two slices of bread. They ate, then opened an aluminium-foil packet of chewing gum and shared the gum with Ladik – still without uttering a word. He then stood up, and they started to walk slowly away from the river.”

Klara Kemp-Welch8

Since the beginning of the 60s Ladik had been writing poems in Hungarian9. Her debut, Ballada az ezüstbicikliről [Ballad of the Silver Bicycle], published in 1969 in Novi Sad, gathers her poems from 1962 to 1968. Ladik at that time used to hang out with the community of a Hungarian magazine published in Novi Sad called Új Symposion, and, at the same time, in Yugoslavian neo-avant-garde circles, collaborating with Bosch+Bosch and various figures of Yugoslavian contemporary and new music. From the beginning, her poems defied the traditional boundaries of poetry: the meanings of some of the pieces in the book are connected to the typesetting and graphic design of the texts, inscribing her into the developing scene of Yugoslavian visual poetry10. The book also includes a vinyl record containing vocal interpretations of the poems. This indicates that even back then Ladik treated her poetry as a trans-, multi- or inter-media entity – both as text that contains a sonic dimension, and also as a kind of a score that can be the basis for performing a sound composition.

Bernard Heidseck called the poetry intended primarily for readings poésie action, and it can be argued that all of Ladik’s poems are, first and foremost, precisely that: poems to be read / performed11. From the first half of the 60s she was connected to the theatre, both the stage (she studied at the Dramski studio in Novi Sad) and radio theatre. In 1963 she began working for Radio Novi Sad as an actress in the so-called Mađarske drame, a Hungarian-language radio theatre special series, which turned out later to be the launch pad for Hungarian theatre in Novi Sad. Radio became the first platform for her vocal experiments and explorations in sounding texts and images. The experience of studio work on audio material influenced her writing in a major way: by the end of the 60s we can find a distinctive strain in her poetry where the sonic quality and rhythm of the spoken word is more important than its literary qualities. Meanwhile, she had already begun participating in happenings and made her own sound performances, sometimes entitled “gests”.

In Ballada az ezüstbicikliről we can find, among others, a piece called UFO Party, which contains a part embracing Dadaist-Futurist traditions, where the rhythm of the words is disrupted by typesetting (suggesting the layering of two different voices) and the inclusion of LOOOOOOOONG strings of vowels screaming at the reader. What’s crucial here is the use of a type of stage direction introducing that particular section of the poem a voice from a tape. As has been pointed out by Jacques Donguy, the development of sound poetry in the 50s and 60s was directly connected with the introduction of various tape recorders to the market, which opened up new possibilities for performing poetry12. The text of UFO Party can also be interpreted as the record of a potential sound poetry performance. Its origins date back to the happening that took place on 1 May 1968 in Szentendre (near Budapest): a huge undertaking arranged by Hungarian neo-avant-gardists Miklós Erdély and Tamás Szentjóby, the organisers of the first happenings in Hungary, who also made contact with artists conducting similar activities in different Eastern Bloc countries – for example, Szentjóby took part in the performance of Tadeusz Kantor’s Panoramic Sea Happening in Osieki in 1967.

Organised by Erdély and Szentjóby, the UFO happening consisted of many simultaneous actions in the open air. It was also the first happening in which Ladik was a participant. UFO Party could be interpreted as the score of a future performance, especially as from 1970 she began using the phrase as the title of some of her performances. The text of UFO Party exists in a few different versions. Apart from the one included in Ballada az ezüstbicikliről, the artist also published it as a Dadaist collage juxtaposing different fonts and images in Új Symposion where, the previous year, Gábor Altorjay had published his memories from participation in Az ebéd (in memoriam Batu kán)13. That version foreshadowed the graphic scores Ladik would create in subsequent years. There’s also a manuscript of UFO Party, shown in recent years at several retrospective exhibitions, which is more of a sketch for particular performative actions, and differs a lot from the versions published in the poetry collection and the magazine. In the manuscript’s case we deal only with handwriting, but the meaning is inscribed into various positionings of the letters, as well as differences in their size, shape and thickness. This kind of score directly foreshadows the types of experiments undertaken in O-pus.


1-3.04.1970 – Zagreb

“It comes about in a continuous ritual game of decomposition and recurrence, whose decomposing eroticism, bearing infinite and misty fruit – the more artificial, the more real – discloses the ultimate, primordial bareness and desolation. […] This game, as cynical and self-distanced as indeed immersed in itself, dances to the rhythms of pathetic prophecies and brass music, rhymed folk songs, sometimes asymmetrically comprising wailing and mourning, or to the rhythms of super-urban perpetuum mobile radiophonic electronics, to the rhythms of absurd dialogues bantering Oriental sententiousness (perhaps an attempt at poetic transplantation of the immediacy of zen), folk riddles, and our Ionescian communication. In the heat of this game the speech is divided, the cracked and mutilated thoughts incorporate and mould into definite pieces of nonsense, the words are relieved of their initial meaning, becoming a medium of a semi-articulated ritual (‘kibla kibla kibla’ in the poem UFO Party), to be reduced for a moment to a single voice beyond this equation – a result and value equivalent to the heterogeneous mishmash of sound and thought.”

Judita Šalgo14

Ladik’s early performances were, in the first instance, transpositions of her poems. The idea of performative declamation became a starting point for explorations into the realm of sounds devoid of conventional semantics. Performances of Ladik’s poetry for a Serbian audience already contained an inherent element of the language barrier, undermining the literary level of the meaning and shifting the attention of the audience towards the musical aspects of the performances. In the photographs of a 1970 Zagreb performance entitled Šamanska pjesma [Shamanistic Gest] we can see her using her voice throughout the piece, performing among the parts of the textual score scattered on the floor, surrounded by spectators in a performance space with a burning candle in the middle. Midway through the photographic sequence we see her outfit change: dressed in a black turtleneck, black trousers and a necklace-amulet (?) at the beginning of the performance, in subsequent photos we see her girded just with leather. However, other requisites appear, including bagpipes, which she plays during last part of the performance. We see her submitting her whole body to different theatrical acting techniques, but also turning it into an instrument as she treats her hair like strings, “playing” it with an object resembling a bow.

The extensive documentation of Šamanska pjesma comes from Ladik’s appearance at the GEFF festival in Zagreb in 197015. GEFF was a fascinating biennale of experimental cinema, organised in Zagreb from 1963, and with an edition planned for 1969 that eventually took place after a year’s delay. The festival was a crucial endeavour for Yugoslavian (especially Croatian) experimental cinema of the time, as well as a place where an audience could see cinematic experiments from the whole world – where, for example, P. Adams Sitney could present a 10-hour marathon of American avant-garde film. In 1970 the theme of the festival was “Sexuality as a potential road to new humanism”, and the programme included, among others, Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1965). Ladik was invited to perform within the broader context of a festival analysing the (counter-)cultural tendencies of the age of sexual revolution. Right from her debut, the eroticism of Ladik’s poetry was polarising, yet it was when she began using sexuality and nudity in her performances that she was labelled a scandalist16.

However, some saw deeper traditions behind her performances, analysing their ritualistic aspect as derived from Hungarian folk culture, and describing her art as “ethno-surrealism”17. Yet despite the transgressive potential of her activities, Ladik’s works are far from the oppressive Actionist performances of the 70s: her actions demonstrate power and strength, but are not violent – their transgressive energy is one of emancipation, not revenge. Her works are indeed more connected to the tradition of Surrealism, especially its emphasis on the archetypical dimension of artistic practice. With her performances, Ladik falls within the tendency of the neo-avant-garde to turn towards the past in search of primordial energy. A similar focus on the ritualistic, archetypical aspects of performance and the functions of the voice suggest comparisons with the works of Joseph Beuys, but we can find such themes in the art of many other creators of happenings, events and performances in the 60s – from Milan Knížák to Bengt af Klintberg.

In the collection of Ladik’s recordings published in 2004 on the occasion of the internet appearance of the majority of her writings, we can find a piece from 1968 called Sámánének [Shamanistic Song]. I think we can assume that at least large sections of Šamanska pjesma sounded similar to this18. The recording contains only a short solo vocal piece (with a percussion instrument – Ladik would often perform with a drum at the time). The voice first appears in it as a hum, then shifts to noisy sounds which stop at the border of speech, barely forming phones. Yet the voice carries meaning: it evokes breathing, fear, pain and relief. Ladik’s voice is performative, trained so well in leading the narration that it can disperse with words. It’s a voice of extra-linguistic narration, using a broad palette of acting techniques developed during her work for Radio Novi Sad. When she left the station in 1979, Ladik tried to implement a similar attitude towards the voice in repertory theatre and cinema. The turn of the 70s and 80s is marked in her artistic practice by a group of works which use the scream to directly criticise the position of women in a society of socialistic rhetoric but patriarchal reality – one should mention here her performance entitled Rupa koja vrišti [Screaming Hole, 1979] and the monodrama Bayer Aspirin (1981), written for her by Ottó Tolnai. Her voice became a social weapon, a tool of critique and emancipation19.


1976 – Belgrade

The best-known of Ladik’s recordings, Phonopoetica, was released in 1976 by the SKC Gallery in Belgrade and lasts for just 15 minutes. The material is, as announced on the sleeve, a “phonic interpretation of visual poetry”. On the record, Ladik interpreted a group of works by different visual poets from various circles – from Bálint Szombathy (her husband at the time and also a member of Bosch+Bosch), through Gábor Tóth (a conceptual artist, self-publishing cassettes of his own experimental music) and Franci Zagoričnik (a member of the Slovenian neo-avant-garde group OHO), to Italian visual poet Giovanna Sandri and Dutch sound poet Gerrit Jan de Rook. The crucial aspect of the material is the work of Borislav Stajić and Ivan Fece, the record’s sound engineers. The record is deeply rooted in the practices of experimental studios of the time. Phonopoetica is a coherent composition, much more futuristic than Ladik’s ritualistic performances of the early 70s. The vocal delivery is clearly an element of a longer studio process: Ladik’s voice is transformed in different ways, layered and looped. It is accompanied by the sonic equivalents of found objects – which resembles the working method of many musicians labouring at the time in experimental / electronic music studios – unused scraps of tape from the parallel recording sessions of a jazz band20.

Phonopoetica shows how important the development of experimental music studios after the Second World War was for the sound poetry of the 60s and 70s. When Henri Chopin stated that Ladik’s recordings sound as if she was “conducting a verbophonic orchestra”, he was referring not only to the variety of her vocal techniques, but also to the efforts of the sound engineers she worked alongside. Chopin was among those who particularly emphasised the new possibilities of sound poetry – in an age of the ongoing development of the techniques of sound manipulation – in comparison with the phonetic poetry of the interwar avant-garde. In 1967 Chopin wrote that words were no longer the primary material of the new sound poetry, replaced in that regard by “vocal microparticles”21. The textual-visual premises of concrete poetry meet here with the properties of musique concrète, and the studio recordings of Ladik’s sound poetry are the product of such a meeting.


27.10.1975 – Novi Sad

The phrase “phonic interpretation of visual poetry” is one of the keys to Ladik’s art – especially to a series of works from the 70s which are simultaneously experimental scores and visual poems. During that decade Ladik created a large group of collages exploiting various aspects and elements of musical notation. In some of them, the staff is used as the background on which chosen objects are placed, as in A “Sába Királanöje” (c. operából zenekari szólamrészet) / “Die Königin Von Saba” (a. d. Orchesterstimme) / “The Queen Of Sheba” (selection from the orchestral part) (1973). In others, the artist uses parts of cut-up notation, as in Жути болеро[Yellow Bolero, 1978], or positions given work within the field of music only through the title, as in the case of Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1972). Ladik often used press clippings in those works (especially from women’s magazines), as well as stamps and other illustrations: in particular she utilised sewing patterns and pictures showing women sewing. On the one hand, such a treatment of the score clearly evokes the feminist art of the decade, as well as the broader cultural practices of second-wave feminism with its celebration of stereotypical “female” activities as artistic practices. On the other, it refers to the old Surrealist slogan of the “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. Besides, the sewing machine has, over time, become an important element of her poetry: her collection of poems published in 1978 was entitled Mesék a hétfejű varrógépről [Stories of the Seven-Headed Sewing Machine].

During the second half of the 70s, aside from collages, Ladik also began making text scores stemming directly from concrete poetry. She created a series of works which – similar to collages – she brought within the field of music, giving them particular titles such as Zsoltár [Psalm, 1977] or Ének egy beolajozott kályhacsöre és nöi hangra [Song for an Oil-coated Furnace and a Female Vocal, 1977]. She had already used concrete texts as performance scores – a good example is R.O.M.E.T. (1972), created in collaboration with the poet Janez Kocijančić, a member of the group KÔD – but during the late 70s her experiments with text scores became more frequent and more radical. Let us use as an example Tavaszi zsongás [Spring Buzzing, 1977], which can be interpreted as a table or chart score with given time brackets gathered in a grid. The visual aspect of the work is still present, but through the structure itself rather than the collaged layering and juxtaposition of different elements. The visual recedes even further into background in a series of text scores published by Ladik in 1975 in a special issue of the magazine novine Galerija SC (a bulletin of the Student Centre Gallery in Zagreb), created by members of Bosch+Bosch. The issue, entitled WOW was a catalogue of their exhibition, containing among other things Ladik’s text scores – very much in the aesthetic of event scores. These were propositions of actions “for Novi Sad” – ideas of site-specific actions mostly connected to the Danube. For example, Ladik proposed colouring the ice flowing on the river through Novi Sad or sending postcards of the city (Spuštanje novog sada kroz dunav)22 via the river.

The last of these pieces points at crucial thread within Ladik’s artistic practice – the constant eagerness for cross-cultural exchange, apparent both in her collaborations with members of different artistic circles and the highly conscious use of different languages in her own works. The same could be said of mixing high and low culture – Ladik shared the interests of both the majority of Yugoslavian new music composers and of folk musicians. Among her visual scores we can find two cycles entitled Ausgewählte Volkslieder [Selected Folk Songs, 19731975] and Balkan Folk Songs (1973). These are among the best of her collage-scores, and yet what’s most striking about them is the use of foreign languages in their titles. This suggests high self-consciousness about (and critical distance towards) the (ab)uses of traditional culture(s). The search for rituals and archetypes in performances pushed Ladik towards folk music, not as a direct source for composition or as the source of texts, but rather as part of a broader, multilinguistic substance for concrete procedures that could be used to create new, radical art forms.


22.09.1974 – Warsaw

“1: Darkness. In the center of the stage Katalin lies buried, hidden from the eyes of the audience. No one can notice her presence. In a faint glimmer, the ensemble slowly approaches the piano from all sides. They begin to play with the instrument and around it. The play becomes more and more frenzied, faster, but not a single [musical] sound is produced. At a climax of playing, at the signal of a hand everything begins to slow down. Finally everything calms down. Everybody goes to their instruments and resumes the echo of one’s decelerated play. Easier and easier… At the end, a long silence. Listening to one’s own thoughts. Listening to one’s own nervous system by means of electronics.

2: Monos III in an extremely slow tempo. Extremely long pauses. Unusual sounds, very much like electronically filtered sounds. Almost nothing is played. A gesture or voice can be used instead of a musical phrase. Like music under water.

3: At the signal of a hammer, Katalin awakes. She gets up slowly, in an impressive way. Her appearance and movements should produce a small shock. A pantomime starts, considerably more varied and contrasting, slightly more dynamic, faster but longer. It directly turns into a monologue of gestures (a story). The intensity is growing. Katalin becomes more and more nervous, her hysterical gestures become mechanical – very fast, brief, but rapid. She ascends higher and higher on an invisible crane (?) At the climax (physical and psychological), noises from the tape appear, stunning her for a while. At the same time, it is a sign for the ensemble, and they start responding to each noise. Graphics IV has thus already started.”

Dubravko Detoni23

In 1974 the Warsaw Autumn festival included for the first time a concert of the ACEZANTEZ ensemble, one of the key proponents of new music in 70s Yugoslavia, founded by Dubravko Detoni. The concert opened with La Voix du Silence, a highly theatrical composition containing a number of Detoni’s earlier pieces. The performance instructions for such a “multimedia stage fantasy”24, published many years later, are directly connected with Ladik, who is the main protagonist of the performative story, binding together its parts. The project had premiered during the previous year at the Zagreb Biennale, as part of the happening-concert Carousel II. The choreography for La Voix du Silence was created by Milana Broš, one of the most important figures for dance in Yugoslavia at the turn of the 60s & 70s and the creator of the KASP ensemble (Komorni ansambl slobodnog plesa, Camera Ensemble of Free Dance). Detoni eagerly experimented with instrumental theatre, moving towards musical happenings. The strong performative quality of his pieces can even be heard on recordings, as he frequently used extended vocal techniques and the studio’s possibilities to create spatial effects and build futuristic, autonomous sonic worlds.

Between 1971 and 1973 Ladik was de facto a permanent vocalist for ACEZANTEZ, performing with them at numerous new music festivals, even during a concert given as an official presentation of Yugoslavian culture accompanying the Olympic Games in Munich (1972), where they performed Yebell akcija za soliste, an interpretation of Milko Keleman’s (also a member of the ensemble) piece Yebell (1972). Yebell is composed around the sonic imitation of speech, foreshadowing the later vocal-instrumental experiments of Peter Ablinger. However, the composition stands out because its sonic texture is created out of vulgarities. On the occasion of the Munich concert Ladik prepared a libretto with Csernik, and the piece was performed by ACEZANTEZ and ensemble Peters with groups of dancers and mimes.

Yet, by the time of Warsaw Autumn 74, the vocal part of La Voix du Silence was being performed by Veronika Kovačić. On a photograph from one of Ladik’s performances from her period within ACEZANTEZ (1972) we can see her performing naked, playing solo saxophone, enacting a choreography, and finally sitting between dressed and somewhat bored ensemble members with her back towards them and the camera. Later, Ladik would add the title Apparent Presence to this work, and one can think it could serve as a metaphor of her place in the historiography of experimental music in Yugoslavia. Ladik’s first performance in Warsaw would eventually happen in 1976 during the exhibition Nowoczesna Sztuka Jugosławii, therefore within the context of the performing arts, not the new music scene.


1969 – Opatija

There aren’t many joint recordings of Katalin Ladik and ACEZANTEZ, and the majority of existing ones are connected to Ernő Király – an ethnomusicologist, self-taught composer, inventor of instruments, and also Ladik’s husband in the 60s. Király was important to the development of Ladik’s interests – during the 60s he worked for Radio Novi Sad, gathering and cataloguing the songs of various ethnic groups living in Vojvodina. At the same time he learned via the station about musique concrète and electroacoustic music, and began composing his own pieces. As a self-taught composer he created successive systems of graphic notation, from geometric figures to photographs of plants. Detoni and ACEZANTEZ were among the first to begin playing his pieces. Király’s experience as an inventor, along with Ladik’s acting background, brought to the ensemble a new attitude towards improvisation and expanding their musical material. This can be heard on two recordings of Király’s compositions where Ladik performs with ACEZANTEZ: Abszurd Mese [Absurd Story] and Sirató [Lament] (Ernő Király, Spectrum, autobus, trAce Label, 2001). In the first we hear Ladik using methods of sound poetry to make the titular story more surreal; in the second, the expanded vocal techniques are used to audially expand a short poem from Ballada az ezüstbicikliről.

Ladik collaborated with Király for many years, starting with works made at Radio Novi Sad. She frequently performed pieces from his cycle Refleksija [Reflections], beginning with her new music festival debut during the Yugoslavian Music Tribune in Opatija (1969). On an album released in 1991 (Ernő Király, Király, Udruženje Kompozitora Vojvodine, 1991) one can find recordings of the second (Elegia) and third (Scherzo) pieces from the cycle. Ladik’s voice serves there as a counterpoint to the strings, which experiment with extended instrumental techniques. Király also composed music for her radio play Aki Darazsakról Álmodik[Who’s Dreaming About Bees?], which premiered in 1982 on National Hungarian Radio and was released on vinyl in 1989 by PGP RTB (Produkcija Gramofonskih Ploča Radio Televizije Beograd) in a different version prepared for Radio Novi Sad. It’s a surreal, Lynchian story, where the narration is given by a group of transformed, processed voices – Ladik herself plays the main character using four different voices, and she’s accompanied by the actors Júlia Biszák and Károly Fischer. The sonic background is comprised of music played by Király on instruments of his own invention – the zitherphone and tablophone25.


06.10.1979 – Belgrade

In the 50s Dušan Radić was one of the composers that caused the hottest disputes within new music circles in Yugoslavia. His Spisak [Name List, 1954] became a voice in debates about the character of new Yugoslavian music, torn between the neoromanticism “nationalised” by the new state during the interwar period, the Socialist Realism still dominating in the Eastern Bloc countries, and the modernist tendencies coming from centres of new music. In the following decades Radić turned away from Darmstadt, Warsaw Autumn and post-Cagean tendencies, towards the Medieval music of the Balkan Penisula26. In 1974 he composed the huge Oratorium Profanum, comprising several parts and conceived as an ironic essay about the evolutionary direction of contemporary music. The piece was written for three narrators, three choirs, three camera ensembles, four orchestras, four kettledrums, organs and tape, and it incorporated fragments of the aesthetic writings of well-known neo-avant-garde proponent Bora Ćosić27. It premiered at the opening concert of the BEMUS festival in Belgrade in 1979. For that project, Ladik was cast as a soloist.

The piece consists of four parts. In the first (Geometrical Man) Radić presents his own search for a synthesis of early music and Hindemithian neoclassicism. In the second (Surrounding) he focuses on the connections between new music and the aesthetics and forms of mass culture – some parts paraphrase the music of the golden era of Hollywood musicals, some phrases directly refer to classic jazz, and the narrators read quotes from Claes Oldenburg. In the third part (Happening) Radić evokes the post-Cagean tradition: he creates a musical happening, applies aleatoric structures and procedures, refers to Fluxus (through the words of the narrators), and quotes Cough Piece (1961) by George Maciunas. Finally, in the fourth part (Sonic Models) he looks at the possibilities of electroacoustic music, using a recording prepared for the occasion in the Electronic Studio of Radio Belgrade by Vladan Radovanović. Ladik appeared mainly in the last two parts of the piece. In a way, Radić placed her (and her art) into the Fluxus context and Dadaist traditions, as she performed fragments of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, her voice juxtaposed with traditional choral music, in a section that begins with direct reference to Fluxus. In the last part, her vocal techniques served as a counterpoint to Radovanović’s timbral experiments. Here, key meaning is attributed to the colour of her voice, in dialogue with layers of electronic sound. From today’s perspective, Ladik and Radovanović are the bright spots in an otherwise massively verbose piece. The composition as a whole sounds terribly pretentious and could serve as a symbol of the creative exhaustion of the representatives of the first generation of post-war avant-garde music in Yugoslavia.


02/03.1988 – Novi Sad

The end of the 80s was a period when Ladik spent more time back in recording studios, following a few years of intense work in theatre and cinema, and also on frequent exhibitions. Among the projects recorded during that period, two stand out as the most interesting. The first is a collaboration with Mitar Subotić, also known as Rex Ilusivi. A leading representative of a young generation of electronic music composers, Subotić also worked in the 80s as the producer of many of the important Yugoslavian new wave bands. Drawing equal measures from Radovanović’s achievements and various post-punk genres, at the beginning of 1988 he recorded a great work in Radio Novi Sad that wasn’t released until 2015. As the Yugoslav Wars broke out, Subotić moved to Brazil, where he lived, composed and produced music until his tragic death in 1999. He found himself in Brazil as the result of a UNESCO composing contest, where was awarded the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture for his The Dreambird, In The Mooncage, in which he combined electronic sounds with field recordings of birds from Madagascar and Serbian folk songs. The material had two distinctive parts – one was closer to ambient music (released in Brazil as The Dreambird [COMEP, 1994]), and the other – darker – was further developed during sessions which included Ladik. Finally published in 2015, In The Mooncage is a document of the transformation of the post-punk/new wave underground into the alternative rock of the 90s. Keyboards and synthesizers dominate the sound, but guitar, bass and percussion also play significant roles. The voices (of Ladik and Milan Mladinović, leader of the new wave band Ekatarina Velika) are also treated as instruments, complementing the folk singing.

During that period Ladik also recorded a series of poetic sound actions that were used in two projects, and of which recordings exist. The first is Víziangyal [Water Angel], where she recites fragments of her own lyrics mixed with parts from James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. It’s a kind of sonic-textual collage, stemming from the same sessions as Aki Darazsakról Álmodik – one can also hear Biszák and Fischer, as well as Király playing his zitherphone. The first part of Víziangyal was used as a starting point for Három Árva [Three Orphans] – another composition juxtaposing electronically modified voice with recordings of folk songs – this time Hungarian. It’s a kind of “adaptation of a Hungarian folk ballad”, utilising recordings gathered by Radio Novi Sad. The sound engineer for the project was Boris Kovač, an artist from the same generation as Subotić, also fascinated with traditional music; Ladik performed on his two first records: Ritual Nova (symposion records, 1986) and Ritual Nova 2 (Points East, 1988). Kovač himself, clearly interested in the combination of traditional music and “contemporary classical” as mass music for our times28, is of less interest to us, but his work on the “adaptation of a Hungarian folk ballad” is exceptional.


14.10.2016 – Budapest

An evening at the Kassák Museum. The band Spiritus Noister is playing on the occasion of the centenary of Dada. The line-up consists of Katalin Ladik, László Lenkes, Zsolt Sőrés and Endre Szkárosi. Ladik and Szkárosi simultaneously read texts and progress into rhythmic onomatopoeias or vocal experiments; Lenkes plays guitar, sometimes accompanying the vocalists, and sometimes building walls of noise; Sőrés plays violin and operates the electronics. All wear paper hats. Despite the fairly advanced age of the performers, the concert sounds unexpectedly fresh – and Ladik’s voice is no exception. Perhaps today real radicalism means Dadaist performances by performers with older bodies.

Ladik joined the band formed by Sőrés, Szkárosi and Zsolt Kovács in 1996 when they released the cassette Nemzeti zajzárványok / National Noise-Inclusions (Bahia Music, 1996). They don’t perform very often, but in 2003 they released their interpretation of Ursonate (Kurt Schwitters, Spiritus Noister Ursonate for 2 Voices and Musical Environment, Hungaroton Classic, 2003). The “Musical Environment” created by Sőrés and Kovács for the voices of Ladik and Szkárosi contains a wide array of guitar sounds and timbres – from post-punk rumbles and blares, through noise squeals and screeches of audio feedback, up to differing cracks and crackles – as well as electronic hums, the sounds of violin and various percussion instruments, radio static and plunderphonically used fragments of recordings from different vinyl records. All of the sound sources are used sparingly, to leave the space for the vocalists and give a distinctive character to each track.

After the Balkan Wars broke out Ladik moved to Budapest, and is nowadays primarily connected to the circles of veterans of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde. Each year she spends a few months on the Croatian island of Hvar; sometimes she performs in the former Yugoslavian countries. In 2010 she had a retrospective in Novi Sad; in recent years she has also participated in some collective exhibitions. She’s still an alien body, “apparently present” within the art history of Hungary, and only now being inserted back into the post-Yugoslavian states’ fragmented cultural histories so far, predominantly in the history of the performing arts.

I think about two of her collage-scores from 1971, both entitled Yugoslavian Hymn. They consist of stamps glued on staves – almost all of the stamps are the same, although some of them have different colours. Four stamps on the first work correspond with the four official languages of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and Macedonian29. Six stamps on the second correspond with the six republics of the country. In 1975, during a collective exhibition in Vienna, Ladik performed an action called Identifikacija [Identification]. She made two photographs with a large Yugoslavian flag hanging from the balcony above the entrance to the Academy of Fine Arts. The first shows her in front of the flag, playing with the idea of representing the country. In the second she stands behind it – it covers her face, taking away her individual identity.

It’s hard not to think about her art – full of border-crossings and expanding boundaries, connecting communities and languages – as the art of a past era, overwhelmed and burdened by the catastrophe of the 90s. She lived in Novi Sad for almost half a century. And then to the long list of her identities she added another that of an emigrant.

Antoni Michnik


Paper issue contains polish version of the essay. This is a revised translation made by the autor. All of the translations within text (quotes etc.) were made by the author, unless stated differently. 

  1. Further reading: Jean Martin, Peter Strickland’s Film Soundtracks, Glissando no. 26/2015, pp. 161-167  

  2.  The character voicing the “goblin” in the movie is played by Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg – another great practitioner of expanded vocal techniques. He and Ladik even perform together sometimes.  

  3. Hendrik Folkerts, Keeping Score: Notation, Embodiment, and Liveness,  

  4.  David Crowley, Daniel Muzyczuk, Dźwięki Elektrycznego Ciała. Eksperymenty w sztuce i muzyce w Europie Wschodniej 1957-1984 / Sounding the Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957-1984, Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź 2012, p. 123.  

  5.  Ibid.  

  6. See Magdalena Radomska, Polityka kierunków neoawangardy węgierskiej (1966-1980), Universitas, Kraków 2013, pp. 207-236. 

  7.  Polityka kierunków neoawangardy węgierskiej (1966-1980), Universitas, Kraków 2013, p. 38.  

  8. Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule 1956-1989, Tauris, London – New York 2014, pp. 114-115.  

  9.  They were translated into Serbo-Croatian from the 70s. See Miško Šuvaković [ed.], Moć žene: Katalin Ladik. Retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 / The Power of a Woman: Katalin Ladik. Retrospective 1962 – 2010, Muzej Savremene Umetnosti Vojwodine, Novi Sad 2010, pp. 11-13.  

  10.  See Jacques Donguy, transl. Magdalena Madej, Poezja Eksperymentalna. Epoka cyfrowa (1953-2007), słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2014, pp. 218-219.  

  11.  Ibid., p. 281.  

  12.  Jacques Donguy, op. cit., p. 133.  

  13.  See Zsuzsa László, Tamás St.Turba [eds.], Happening Budapest 1966. The Lunch (In Memoriam Batu Khan),, Budapest 2011.  

  14.  Opasne igre razgrađivanja (beleške uz poeziju Ladik Katalin), Polja no. 128 / May 1969, p. 2, transl. Miško Šuvaković, op. cit., p. 109.  

  15.  For more on the festival see, for example, Željko Luketić, Genre film festival (GEFF) 1963.-1969.: Propuštena obljetnica / Genre Film Festival (GEFF) 1963-1969: Missed Anniversary,  

  16.  Years later, Ladik remarked that her performances caused much greater outrage and controversy in Hungary. See Beata Hock, Women Artists’ Trajectories and Networks within the Hungarian Underground Art Scene and Beyond, in: Jérôme Bazin, Pascal Dubourg Glatigny, Piotr Piotrowski [eds.], Art Beyond Borders. Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe [1945-1989], Central European University Press, Budapest – New York 2016, pp. 121-122. However, that only applies to artistic circles. The introduction of nudity to the Yugoslavian mass media caused a much bigger scandal. Documentation of Ladik’s performances was published in various magazines in Yugoslavia, including – and causing a particular scandal – a magazine named Start, sometimes referred to as the “Yugoslavian Playboy”. In 1975 Ladik was excluded from the party organisation for misconduct that would “degrade the reputation of the League of Communists, undermine its unity or debase its capacity for action”, Miško Šuvaković, Moć žene… p. 85.  

  17.  Endre Szkárosi, The Spatial Expansion of Language in Sound Poetry of Western and Eastern Europe, in: Yael Kaduri [ed.], The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Western Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford – New York 2016, p. 440.  

  18.  Katalin Ladik, A Négidymenziós Ablak. Válogatott versek (1962-1996), Mikes International, Hága 2004,;  

  19.  Ladik never declared herself a representative of feminist art but – especially during that period – she often underlined her position as a woman within the system of new music, as well as within the visual and performing arts in Yugoslavia.  

  20.  Endre Szkárosi, op. cit., p. 442.  

  21.  Jacques Donguy, op. cit., p. 133.  

  22.  WOW, special issue of noviny Galerija SC, Novi Sad 27.10.1975,  

  23.  Detonijeve upute za izvedbe / Detoni’s Instructions for the Performances, in: Raul Knežević [ed.], Ansambl ACEZANTEZ od 1970 / Ensemble ACEZANTEZ since 1970, Muzički informacioni centar Koncertne direkcije, Zagreb 1999, pp.144-145. Translated by the author on the basis of Miško Šuvaković, Moć žene… p. 151 and Mirjana Veselinović-Hofman, Problems and Paradoxes of Yugoslav Avant-garde Music (Outlines for a Reinterpretation), in: Dubravka Durić, Miško Šuvaković [eds.], Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia 1918-1989, MIT Press, Cambridge – London 2003, p. 435.  

  24.  Mirjana Veselinović-Hofman, ibid.  

  25.  More about the instruments: Anna Szwajgier, Muzyka Centrum – działalność i repertuar jako odzwierciedlenie głównych nurtów muzyki 2. połowy XX wieku oraz przemian dokonujących się w formach jej prezentacji,, pp. 91-92.  

  26.  Melita Milin, Serbian Music of the Second Half of the 20th Century: From Socialist Realism to Postmodernism, in: Katy Romanou [ed.], Serbian and Greek Art Music. A Patch to Western Music History, Intellect, Bristol – Chicago 2009, pp. 86-87.  

  27.  Bora Ćosić, Mixed Media, self-published, Beograd 1970.  

  28.  In the late 90s he formed LaDaABa Orchest (La Danza Apocalyptica Balcanica), a band that would play “ballroom dance music” combining various traditions of Balkan music with “contemporary classical” to exorcise the madness of the Balkan Wars.  

  29.  There were de facto two types of Serbo-Croatian; however, they could also be counted as one, with the Albanian language – the de facto second official language in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo – counted as the fourth language.