Born into Novi Sad, Vojvodina, Yugoslavia's Hungarian community on April 7, 1963, composer/multi-instrumentalist Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer immigrated to France in 1991, at almost the exact moment when the Yugoslav Wars began. Tickmayer has undertaken a diverse and eclectic music career crossing various genre and stylistic boundaries, in a sense reflecting both his multicultural roots and the displacement he has experienced pursuing a creative life outside his birth country, which, as Tickmayer has described, "cancelled itself and ceased to exist." But well before the tumultuous and violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Tickmayer was exploring music that pulled in two directions: one agitated, complex, and dissonant; the other ruminative and calming. And in his liner essay for the 1993 Tickmayer Formatio album Wilhelm Dances MCMXCII, Tickmayer discusses his personal approach to resolving another form of "schizophrenic split," which arose from his experience in jazz and creative improvisation on the one hand and his immersion in the world of modern composition on the other.
Growing up in an ethnically tolerant and musically rich family, Tickmayer began piano studies at the age of seven but several years later abandoned a formal music education, although his interests in music -- boogie-woogie, jazz, and rock in addition to classical -- persisted, and he ultimately returned to formal studies, attending music school and focusing on the double bass for six years. His interests expanded to include modern composition, minimalism, and conceptual art, and he also absorbed influences from myriad cutting-edge jazz artists who performed at Novi Sad's international jazz festival during the late '70s.
Tickmayer played double bass in his first serious group, the Novi Sad-based Ritual Nova trio, led by saxophonist Boris Kovac and also featuring guitarist Daniel Stari. The group performed a unique blend of Eastern European folk, chamber music, jazz, rock, minimalism, and freewheeling experimentation -- all combined into an aesthetic decidedly outside the prevailing currents of contemporary music in Western Europe and the Americas. Tickmayer also gained his first meaningful experience in engineering and mixing at Kovac's private recording studio.
During the mid-'80s, while working toward his degree in composition at the University of Novi Sad Academy of Arts, Tickmayer founded the Tickmayer Formatio ensemble, which ranged in size from two to 15 musicians and continued intermittently until finally disbanding in 2001. Tickmayer initially formed the ensemble as a vehicle for blending composition with improvisation, and various guest musicians from the Budapest improvised music scene participated in the group's endeavors. The mid- to late '80s also found Tickmayer composing and performing solo piano works and directing other projects, notably his Intellectual Cabaret chamber orchestra, for which he composed "Resume 84-86" and won a composition award at the 1986 Yugoslav Contemporary Music Festival.
"Resume 84-86" appeared on the LP accompanying the periodical ReR Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2 in the autumn of 1987; it was Tickmayer's first appearance on the Chris Cutler/Nick Hobbes-founded ReR label, an association that would later bring him some of his widest international exposure. Tickmayer would appear as both leader and collaborator on various other ReR recordings after his exile from Vojvodina, but meanwhile, the late '80s would find him still based in Novi Sad while traveling outside Yugoslavia to work with artists in Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands (where he continued his formal education, including postgraduate studies with Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague), and -- upon the invitation of choreographer Josef Nadj -- France.
It was the connection with the France-based Nadj -- like Tickmayer a Vojvodina-born ethnic Hungarian -- that proved most helpful upon the unraveling of Yugoslavia (a flash point being the fall of the Vojvodina provincial government at Novi Sad in October 1988 and the installation of leaders loyal to Slobodan Milosevic). Tickmayer was invited to participate in an Austrian festival and was in that country on June 27, 1991 when war broke out between the Yugoslav People's Army and armed forces of Slovenia following the latter's declaration of independence; unable to return to Novi Sad as the conflict began, Tickmayer instead flew to Paris and, taking up residence in France, composed for Nadj's dance company for most of the '90s. In 1993 ReR released the aforementioned Tickmayer Formatio album Wilhelm Dances MCMXCII, featuring rhythmic, sometimes Stravinsky-esque chamber music composed for the Nadj dance piece Les Échelles d’Orphé and recorded the previous year by a version of the ensemble comprising bassoon, cello, clarinet, flute, trombone, and trumpet, as well as (performed by Tickmayer) piano, harmonium, and drums.
Working with Nadj and having connected with Cutler through ReR, in 1996 Tickmayer invited Cutler -- a noted avant rock drummer since joining Henry Cow in 1971 -- to accompany him performing music for the Nadj dance piece L'Anatomie du Fauve and, as it turned out, Cutler had his own project in mind that would involve Tickmayer: the Science Group, a full-on foray into experimental avant-prog. With music penned by Tickmayer and texts by Cutler, the Science Group's debut A Mere Coincidence was recorded over a nearly two-year period by engineer/producer/mixer Bob Drake at his Studio Midi-Pyrénées in Chalabre, France; released by ReR in 1999, the album featured Fred Frith on guitars; Cutler on drums and electronics; Drake on bass, vocals, guitar, and drums; Amy Denio on vocals; Claudio Puntin on clarinets; and Tickmayer on piano, keyboards, zither, violin, and guitar (as well as samples).
Tickmayer rearranged some of his previously composed material for A Mere Coincidence, and later concluded that the extracts he had selected sounded better in the Science Group's complex rock setting than they ever had before. It would probably come as no surprise, then, that the composer would maintain his interest in the project, and between 2002 and 2003 the Science Group -- reduced to a quartet featuring Tickmayer on keyboards and sampler, Drake on bass (and occasional guitar and keyboards), Cutler on acoustic/electric drums, and Thinking Plague's Mike Johnson on guitar -- recorded their sophomore outing, Spoors, laying down tracks from Tickmayer's home in France, Johnson's home in Colorado, and Drake's studio. The album of hyper-knotty yet driving (and entirely instrumental, without Denio's participation this time) avant-prog was released by ReR in 2003.
Tickmayer's next project for ReR would be the first issued under his name alone, and it took avant-prog rock into almost unprecedented levels of complexity. Released in 2005 and with the compositions and "complete production" credited to Tickmayer, the somehow appropriately named Repetitive Selective Removal of One Protecting Group featured 21 tracks ranging from 30 seconds to five minutes in length, seguing from atmospheric orchestral textures to impossibly dense yet crisp constructs of brief instrumental motifs in a dizzying array of electronic, acoustic, and sampled timbres. Not letting up on the complexity and frenetic juggling of energized themes and acoustic/electronic voicings, Tickmayer next issued Cold Peace Counterpoints on ReR in 2008. The album's three multi-part suites found Tickmayer drawing on Drake, Cutler, and violinist Pedja Milosavljevic for occasional contributions (and also incorporating samples of late drummer Djordje Delibasic, to whom one of the suites was dedicated), but a lion's share of the wildly inventive sonic cornucopia was provided by Tickmayer playing acoustic, processed, and prepared piano; harmonium; keyboards and sampler; electric guitar; double bass; and more.
While Tickmayer's ReR output thus far was informed by -- and occasionally lunged full-force into -- avant rock, the classical side of his artistic persona was not neglected, and the 21st century has seen him gain continuing recognition as a composer of contemporary works primarily for various chamber configurations. Tickmayer has composed music recorded by Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer and the ensemble Kremerata Baltica -- his Eight Hymns in Memoriam Andrei Tarkovsky appears on the 2010 ECM release Hymns and Prayers and his transcription of Bach's Lasset Uns den Nicht Zerteilen appears on De Profundis, released by Nonesuch that same year -- and Kremerata Baltica premiered Tickmayer works at their namesake festival in Sigulda, Latvia in 2009. Other Tickmayer chamber works have premiered at the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival (founded by Kremer) in Lockenhaus, Austria and in such far-flung locations as Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Budapest, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Basel, and Turin.
At the 2012 Újbuda Jazz Festival in Budapest, Tickmayer made his first live appearance with Trio Kontraszt, a creative improvising group featuring Tickmayer on piano, saxophonist Grencsó István, and drummer Gëroly Tamás; the trio released its eponymous debut album on the Budapest-based BMC Records label in 2014. Also in 2014, Tickmayer appeared on Someone Killed the Swan: Laments on South-Eastern Europe, the Leo Records debut of the Ultima Armonia quartet, featuring Tickmayer on piano and his early colleague Boris Kovac on soprano sax joined by double bassist Milos Matic and drummer Lav Kovac in a melancholic improvisational outing drawing upon traditional music of the Balkan and Carpathian Mountain regions.
Early the following year Tickmayer was back with a new album under his own name on ReR. Gaps, Absences: To the Memory of László Kerekes (1954-2011) featured ten new pieces either performed unaccompanied by the composer on piano and prepared piano or with his additional multi-tracked double bass, zither, violin, alto clarinet, melodica, harmonium, harmonica, drums, and bowed cymbals in a deeply atmospheric meld revealing little if any evidence of his self-described "schizophrenic split" between composed and improvised musical forms. The album release came several months after Tickmayer's October 2014 return to the now Serbian city of Novi Sad to perform Gaps, Absences at the Vojvodina Institute for Culture. ~ Dave Lynch