Identical twins peak


DEAD-RINGERS: The guitar-playing Katona twins look alike, sound alike and play alike - but do they think alike? Arminta Wallace tries a bit of trickery to find out.

The Katona twins. No relation to Aphex Twin, no gimmicks, no smart stuff, just a pair of identical twins from Hungary who play classical guitar and play it, by all accounts, pretty damn well. Still. Look at the photograph. I mean, there's identical - and then there's eerie. And here they are, working together as a duo, travelling the world giving recitals on identical instruments; that's something you don't see, or indeed hear, every day. For a humble hack armed with separate phone numbers for the Katonas - Peter in London and Zoltán in Liverpool - the temptation to call them up one after the other and ask them exactly the same questions, to see whether they give the same answers, is, frankly, irresistible.

Question number one: why, despite being natives of Budapest, centre of a formidable and extremely venerable classical string-playing tradition, did they choose to study the guitar?

"I think we liked the sound of it," says Peter Katona. "And also we lived in a small flat, my mother and two brothers and myself, so we couldn't really have had, like, a piano, because the neighbours would have complained. Also, pianos are quite expensive. And then at that time we didn't like the sound of the violin, because when children start playing the violin it doesn't sound very nice - and we knew that from the other children in our class, many of whom played violin."

"At school, when we were 10, everyone had to pick an instrument," is how Zoltán remembers it. "And we picked the guitar because it was a popular instrument - but also the piano would have been too big and expensive for my mother. Also, we lived in a small flat and perhaps our neighbours wouldn't have been happy about it. And then at that time we didn't really like the violin because all of our classmates - or many of them - played it. And when you start to play the violin it doesn't sound too beautiful."

Question two: family members who work closely together often find they argue more than non-related work colleagues - is that a problem for the Katonas, or does being twins mean they never argue anyhow?

Peter: "I think we have good arguments. That's probably the difference between us and other chamber ensembles, because they are not used to arguments, whereas we are used to arguing from our childhood - like, normal arguments, not involving the guitar necessarily. Within the family, you just have to forget it, because there's no other way around it - so we learned how to forget these kind of things the next day.

"Whereas if people in a chamber music group have a fight - and it happens in every chamber music group - they might not want to talk to each other for, like, a month. Another good thing is that I don't really think about what I tell my brother. I just say what I think. I don't have to be too careful about it."

Zoltán's take on the subject is brief and to the point: "We do argue, but if we fight we just forget about it - unlike, you know, other people who play together. Because we are used to fighting. We fight just as much as other people - maybe more, I don't know. But next day, it's not a problem."

After the first couple of questions, this double-whammy process becomes dizzying and the temptation to abandon it overwhelming, so, happy to give in to temptation twice in a single assignment, I abandon it with alacrity. Besides, although the twins' voices sound very alike over the phone - they both speak quietly and both pronounce "oo" vowels with precisely the same intonation - as interviewees, they are actually quite different.

PETER comes across as serious, brisk, business-like; Zoltán sounds shyer and more hesitant. Yet it is Zoltán who confesses that the pair once played in a pop band with their elder brother (who now plays heavy metal). The shifting currents of similarity and difference between the twins obviously bring a special dimension to their music-making. But do they themselves feel that, being twins, they can commune in some sort of mystical non-verbal way?

Peter sighs and considers the question. Then he laughs. "I would like to lie and say yes," he says. "But actually I don't know. Perhaps there is something - but it's not that I would feel what he does, or what he feels, necessarily. We have to practise to play together, just as other chamber groups do, but we have known each other for much longer than most chamber groups, so I think that makes a big difference. And then again, we had the same teachers all the way along, so we have similar musical ideas and technique. Thanks to genetics, we also have very similar fingers! As for the mystical thing, I'm not sure. Although when we studied in Germany we had a teacher who said that, for us, it took much less time to achieve the same results with a piece than for him and his duo partner; we could do it instantly, where they would need to practice for a few days. So perhaps there is something."

One very concrete thing separates the Katona twins these days; their postal addresses. For almost three years Zoltán has been living in Liverpool with his scouse wife. For identical twins who had, literally, spent their whole lives together, did this radical change to their daily lives come as something of a shock?

"Yes," Zoltán says. "We were a bit afraid of it at the beginning, actually. But we do about 70 concerts a year, so we meet nearly every week - and then if we go on tour, we might be together for four weeks. So it hasn't caused any problems really. I think it was good, in many ways. It can be difficult if you work and live together - and being twins, probably we were too close to each other. Now when we come together and play together, it brings a sort of freshness."

The pair will see quite a bit of each other, and of Ireland, when they embark on a tour which will see them bring a dynamic, exciting programme ranging from Rodrigo to tango, with a bit of baroque and even a transcription of a Rossini overture thrown in.

"It's not the easiest piece to play on two guitars," says Zoltán of the latter, with commendable understatement. "But it's fun."

The Music Network tour by the Katona begins at the Heritage Centre, Bangor, on Thursday, February 14th, moving to the Market Place, Armagh (15th), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (16th), Church of Ireland, Clifden (17th), Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar (18th), Magee Campus, Derry (19th), Town Hall, Balleymoney (20th), Kells Heritage Centre, Meath (21st), Tinahely Courthouse (22nd), The Courthouse, New Ross (23rd), St Patrick's College, Carlow (24th), Glór Irish Music Centre, Ennis (26th) and the Coach House, Dublin Castle (28th)