UCSD music professor exhibits his digital art

It’s not every day you get to see a cutting-edge art exhibit by a world-famous violinist. But János Negyesy is not an everyday sort of person.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1938, he never knew his father, who was taken away by the Nazis when he was less than a year old. He started playing the violin at age 4, and his first public “concert” at kindergarten graduation changed his life.

“Everyone started applauding before I even started playing,” he said. “I played a little one-minute piece, and then they applauded even more. I thought: ‘This is it!’ ”

With a combination of good luck and cheerful determination, he managed to outwit the secret police in Soviet-occupied Hungary and take advantage of an offer to study with a renowned music teacher in Germany — despite having his passport confiscated and leaving home with less than $5 to cover the trip.

After years of “softly listening to Schoenberg behind closed curtains” in Budapest, where the work of “new music” composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky was banned, he was free to embrace the avant-garde in Germany, and added experimental pieces to his classical repertoire.

His studies and talent paid off, and in 1970, he became concertmaster of the Radio Berlin Orchestra, under famed conductor Loren Maazel. He performed with Pierre Boulez and John Cage in Paris, began building an international reputation, and was invited to come to UCSD as a visiting associate professor in 1979.

He turned down the offer.

“I told them I didn’t want to teach,” he said, “but they called me every day for 10 days. The weather was terrible in Paris that fall, raining cats and dogs. I found an old U.S. travel guide I had from 1931 and looked up San Diego and it said: ‘Best climate. Hotels $1 a night.’ So I came, I thought, for a year, and they gave me a place on Coast Boulevard. It turned out to be a long, beautiful year.”

In fact, the year never ended. Negyesy is one of the longest-term faculty members in UCSD’s history, and he still lives in La Jolla, though he now lives closer to the campus with his wife, Finnish violinist Päivikki Nykter, a former student of his. They’ve been making beautiful music together — classical and experimental — since 1993.

An innovative musician, most recently with computer-processed music that he performs on an electric violin, Negyesy has an impressive following on campus and in the community. There’s always a full house for the quarterly “Soirees for Music Lovers” that he has presented since 1987, featuring classical music played by “Negyesy & Friends.”

And then there’s his art, the silent counterpoint to his music. He’s been painting on a computer for the last 20 years.

“I start with a blank canvas — a screen,” he said. “I work just like a painter, except I have clean fingers. The big difference is: I can undo without leaving a trace.”

For a long time, he said, he was deaf to his paintings — an interesting confession for a musician. “You have to learn to listen to your pictures when they say: ‘Shut up! I’m done!’ At the beginning, I ruined many pictures by not stopping soon enough.”

Clearly, Negyesy has learned to listen to his pictures. Each piece features bold, fluid strokes of color, with no pointless extras, so his playful personality comes shining through. And each is created in one sitting — he doesn’t get up until it’s done.

Negyesy’s show at the new Suture Gallery in East Village is the first public, off-campus exhibition of his work. See it, enjoy it, and before going, check out his “unofficial” Web site, an artwork in itself, that includes some of his short, quirky poems — just another creative outlet for this modern-day Renaissance man.

If you go

  • ‘Recursivities,’ a selection of János Negyesy’s digital art prints, runs through May 1 at Suture Gallery, 655 10th Ave., San Diego. (619) 236-0862.
  • ‘Soiree for Music Lovers,’ 8 p.m. April 17 at UCSD’s Conrad Prebys Hall. (858) 534-3229.

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