From Rain to Shine: Dávid Szesztay’s Concert

When you’ve waited months and months for a concert like this to happen, and then it gets scheduled and cancelled because of the rain, and then gets rescheduled and takes place, on a sunny evening in Buda, and when you find yourself enjoying it with an audience that is fully involved in the music, swaying to it, thrilling in the songs, well, then, you (I) go home a bit richer.

This was only the second time that I had heard Dávid Szesztay play in concert, and the first time I had heard him play solo. The other concert was in Szeged, in February 2020, just before the coronavirus restrictions set in. His subsequent concert, which I had hoped to attend, was cancelled, and there were many months of no concerts for anyone. This must have been his first Budapest concert since early 2020 (solo or with his own band, that is; he also plays in Santa Diver and Kiscsillag).

For those unfamiliar with Budapest, there’s a big difference between Buda and Pest. Buda is older, hilly in parts, more elegant, more residential; Pest is flat, buzzing, touristy. You can love both parts of the city, but you don’t know Budapest until you have spent time in Buda: on its terraces (like this concert), in its side streets, up in its hills. And for all its beauty, it’s remarkably untouristy on this side of the Danube; wherever you go, people are leading their everyday lives.

On May 19th I had come out here, to Széntlélek tér in Buda, for the concert, but as I mentioned, it was rained out. Last night it took place right here, at the same venue where the other one was to be, at the Esernyős terrace of the Obuda cultural center. Here’s how Szentlélek tér looked on the two days:

This somehow related to the music too. Dávid Szesztay’s music is dreamy, subtle, turbulent: the songs take you through many different colors and moods. It was great to hear him play solo, to hear the bare versions of the songs. He played songs from the new album, Iderejtem a ház kulcsát (I am Hiding the House Key Here) and several others (from Dalok Bentre and Határtalan). One of my favorites was “Gyertyaláng” (“Candle Flame”), from the new album; it was amazing to hear it right there in the moment.

Another favorite, one of my favorites of all his songs, was “Késő,” which I have mentioned here before. There were others too, too many to mention here.

There was a dog in the audience who got excited and started barking along during two of the songs.

At the end of the concert, we gave him a hearty ovation, and he played an encore. (I think it was “Szabadon”; I’m not sure now.) Then I lingered on the square for a little bit, and then headed home with songs in my head.

The Immunization Card

Around the world we are entering a strange era where you need an immunization card to enjoy indoor events, some outdoor events, gatherings, public places, and so on. To those who reply, “Just get your shots!” I would reply that even for those who have gotten their shots (including me), there are lots of ethical and practical questions here. The ethical: is it really right to separate those with shots from those without, when the message all along has been that getting vaccinated is optional? The practical: it’s one thing to get a shot, and another to obtain the card, which for many has involved numerous visits to offices, phone calls, and more.

Here in Hungary, most Hungarians who were vaccinated got their cards within a few days of the first shot. (The date of the first shot shows on the card; when you scan the QR code, you are supposed to see all shots to date.) But most foreigners received no card; as it turned out, the workers at the vaccination sites had not entered them as foreigners, so they didn’t show up in the system at all. For me, it took three appointments (two at a government office, one at a vaccination site) to get this sorted out, and then it was a long wait until the card actually arrived (yesterday). But when I scanned the QR code, I saw only the date of the first shot in the system, so I have to get that fixed immediately.

On Monday, when I went on a field trip to Tiszafüred with Class 10.C and my colleague Marianna, I found out what it meant not to have a card yet. The whole day’s program was to take place at the city’s ecocenter, which has an aquarium, 3D films, boat rides, and more. Although I had paper verification of my shots, I was told that I couldn’t go in, not even for the open-air part of the program. So Marianna and the students went in without me, and I walked around Tiszafüred for about four hours. It was disappointing but not terrible; at the end of the day we were all together again, and we went to the Korona Cukrászda for an ice cream. But the worst part was the stress in the beginning; Marianna called the principal of Varga, who tried to help, and I tried my best to persuade the staff to let me in. But it was all to no avail: no card, no go, even though I had proof of both shots. And just a day later, the situation would have been different (well, two days, since I would have needed to receive the card first).

So there are all kinds of inconsistencies, and that’s only the beginning. I understand the reasons for these policies (which are not particular to Hungary), but also see many levels of problems with them. System glitches aside, this puts pressure on people to get any shot that is available and approved, even if it’s not the one they want. What if it is approved in one country and not another? The complications are going to unfold over the coming months. (I think I will be fine with my Pfizer shots, but it would be a rude surprise to find out that your particular type of vaccine is an obstacle to travel.)

An ethical problem with this requirement is that it puts us in a position of getting a card to do what we want to do. I want my card, because I want to lead my life. I don’t want any of my plans to go awry because I didn’t get my card. The process of getting a card and the ways of using it encourage this way of thinking. And once I have a card, I get to do what I want. I’m not sure what the alternatives are, but it’s worth thinking about.

I took this picture in Tiszafüred.

Blogging, “Winky,” and More

Blogging is a kind of mental relaxation for me, and a way to start working with ideas that may take a different form later. I have just started to realize how old-school it is. Not that many people blog any more, or when they do, it’s partly to make money. I make no money off of this blog; I pay a little each year to keep adds off of it. I do make money from other forms of writing, but this is a place where I can say what I want, on my own terms and timing, and that’s how I want to keep it.

I have gotten weary of the new economy of punditry. So many people are competing to be pundits, to make ponderous pronouncements about the state of the world, pronouncements aimed at winning followers and subscriptions. Very few of these pronouncements have any lasting quality. The whole thing feels vain to me, and boring. But then, I have my vanities too.

My students (that is, one of my tenth-grade sections) read George Saunders’s “Winky” last week. The other section didn’t read it because we had too few classes left in the year—that is, just one. We have been reading a lot of stories this spring: Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Alice Walker’s “The Welcome Table,” and now “Winky.” They are so lively and thoughtful in discussion that my planning only goes so far; things come up that hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s hard to talk about “Winky” without giving spoilers. But I’ll try. The story begins at a strange motivational seminar, in which a tacky modern version of a medieval morality tale is playing out on the stage. One of the characters, “You,” is trying to reach “Inner Peace,” but then a number of other actors, including “Whiny,” “Self-Absorbed,” and “Blames Her Fat on Others” get in the way. Finally a GoldHat appears and drags these obstacles into jail. The crowd then bursts into the familiar mantra: “Now Is the Time for Me to Win!”

Then Tom Rodgers, the founder of the Seminars reveals himself and begins telling the audience about how he learned to stop letting people crap in his oatmeal. (This becomes the bizarre ruling metaphor of the session.) Then the participants line up for the Personal Change Centers. Neil Yaniky finally finds himself face to face with Rodgers, who helps him identify the main obstacle in his life—his sister, Winky—and the main problem: “Needs her own place.” Yaniky resolves to go home at the end of the session and tell Winky precisely this.

In our discussion, the students quickly saw through the Seminars and the message they were broadcasting. You can’t just treat people as obstacles in your life, especially people close to you; you can’t solve life problems by cutting people out of your life, sending them away, etc. But they saw this even more when we were taken into the world of Winky.

Winky is unsummarizable. A little bit out there, in her own world, Christian, full of happy fantasies, but also with her shair of pain from being taunted and lonely. We see her catching herself in the middle of daydreaming and realizing she had to get ready for Neil-Neil’s return home at the end of the day. She rushes up the stairs “with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.”

The students saw that Winky adores Neil-Neil, that he is at the center of her world, and that she also takes care of him, cleans for him, cooks for him. One student was very upset by Winky’s Christian faith, her belief that she really should turn the other cheek when people abused her. “How can you let other people bully you and not fight back?” she asked. We talked about this for a while. In the story, it’s complex, because we’re supposed to see Winky’s naiveté, but we also see that she’s happy in her own way.

Neil-Neil has fantasies of his own, as we learn on his way home. A beautiful wife, a Jaguar, a feeling of power wherever he went. But he’s short and bald, and Bev, whom he apparently dated for a little while, left him, so the fantasies are far, far out of reach, except in his mind. But he doesn’t think so as he walks home; he thinks he’s on the verge of winning. The seminar has pumped him up.

And he gets home, and things don’t work out as he planned. But he doesn’t have an epiphany either. I can’t give away the ending. It’s wonderfully mundane and disturbing. I asked the students, why does the story end this way? Why doesn’t it end with him realizing that he was wrong and that he loves his sister?

“This isn’t Disney,” one of them offered.

“That wouldn’t be Neil-Neil,” another said, explaining that he clearly has limitations, and it would be too much out of character for him to have that much insight at once.

Then another student spoke. “I think we all have a little bit of Neil-Neil in us,” he said. We talked about that until the end of class.

And now is it clear why I love teaching at Varga?

We didn’t have time, but I wanted to bring my students an article, in The Economist, about how young adults in the U.S. are increasingly cutting off contact with their parents. At one point the article points to one of the causes (or at least contributing factors): “Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word ‘toxic’ in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.”

In my book Mind over Memes I devote a chapter to the word “toxic” and the damage it can do when overapplied. (I bring up “Winky” in the chapter too.) Surely some situations are toxic in some way. But to call people toxic, without first trying to understand what is actually going on, can lead to more harm than the so-called toxicity itself. There are situations in life where you do need to cut someone off, and that may even be a family member. But there are many more cases where you actually don’t—where, through learning to say “yes” and “no,” and through learning more about the situation, you can find a way to relate to each other. It can have limits, it can be imperfect, but it’s still a relationship of some kind.

The fad of cutting off relationships, and justifying it blithely, is nothing short of monstrous.

But “Winky” does much more than teach a lesson, and it leaves a lot unresolved. (The story is not punditry, thank God!) The students were able to take this.

The title of this blog piece promised “more,” but that will have to wait until next time.

Saying “Yes” and “No”

One of the most difficult and important skills in life, if it can even be called a skill (maybe it’s a burst of brilliance, or maybe a muscle), is knowing when to say yes or no to things, and doing either one with confidence and grace. Usually when people bring up “saying ‘no,'” they are referring to romantic or sexual relationships, but I have a broader context in mind. In life, there will be people who want various things from you, or at least hope for various things. No one can meet every demand; most people don’t even want to. Yet they often fear to say “no”; instead, they might hedge, or half-promise, or say nothing at all.

I just took on a new translation project, and a big one, and am glad that I did. (More about it when the time is right!) I had to think about it for a few days, because I knew the daily commitment involved, and knew that this would mean saying no to other things. I agreed to do it, and once I started into it, I caught the “bug of immersion”—that is, I wanted to keep on going and going. It’s a fantastic project, and I can’t wait to continue with it day by day.

So, in other words, the “yes” is only possible as a result of various “nos.” A person who says yes to everyone and everything, even to internal urges, will never find a way to focus. Even with concerts, I need to be selective, because so many are happening right now, and each one involves a commitment (getting there, being present for it, listening to it fully, going home, remembering it later).

People often avoid saying no, maybe because it seems negative (which it is, inherently), rude (in some cultures, it is considered very rude), or hurtful, or maybe too strong. But “no” can bring clarity and relief to both parties. The other person stops waiting for an answer, but you yourself, the one saying no, also learn something from doing so. The “no” carves out the contours, shows you what you are actually doing. A “no” doesn’t have to be absolute or all-encompassing; it doesn’t have to take the form of, “no, and I never want to hear anything from you again.” To the contrary, a “no” can keep relationships intact, as it keeps people from being overwhelmed by each other, and it sets the necessary limits.

I have heard people say that women have a hard time saying no. But men do too; it just shows in different ways. Women may try to sound obliging (“I’ll see what I can do”), whereas men might avoid the whole issue by saying nothing at all. (And there are variations and exceptions.) Both men and women could use a bit of no-cultivation.

The Puerto Rican statesman and poet José de Diego wrote about the liberating power and roaring sound of “no” (in his brilliant essay “No“):

In political evolution, in the struggle for freedom, the affirmative adverb is almost always useless and always disastrous, so soft in all languages, so sweet in the Romance tongues, superior in this sense to the mother Latin tongue. Certe, quidem do not have the brevity and the harmony of the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese si and the French si, when the latter substitutes for oui in the most expressive sentences; si in singing, a musical note (B), an arpeggio of the flute, a bird’s trill, noble and good for melody, for rhythm, for dreaming, for love: more for the protest and impetus, for the paroxysm, for wrath, for anathema, for dry fulminating hate, like the scratching of a ray of light, the no is far better, the rude, bitter O vast, like a roar, round and ardent like a chaos producer of life through the conflagration of all the forces of the abyss.

Even in the day-to-day, “no” brings not just liberation, but concreteness, because only then, when you have said “no,” can you take on the rest, the things you have chosen to do.

But yes, there is a roar to it indeed, a foam, a froth, a cosmic mess. Without its counterpart “yes,” it would seem like the ultimate negation, the door to complete cacophony. But “yes,” too, takes strength, when truly meant, and if it weren’t for “no,” “yes” would lose all muscle; it would come to mean “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” or any combination of these. And then, as often happens in the world, you wouldn’t know what the speaker was saying. You would either wonder and wonder, or shrug your shoulders. Indifference would finally win. “Yes” and “no” are the bulwarks against indifference, because when said with full intent, they mean different things.

Painting credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes (1860, Walters collection).

Music and Age

Last night I went to hear the extraordinary Lázár brothers (Lázár tesók), accompanied on piano and xylophone by Márk Csernovszky, who played so subtly, you wanted to catch every note. The Lázár brothers, Ágoston and Domokos, are members of the renowned band Esti Kornél, which began in 2006 in Mezőtúr (not far from Szolnok), where they grew up. I have just begun to listen to Esti Kornél, but I can say that the Lázár duo (and trio, and quintet when they have cellos) are worth hearing at any possible opportunity. They sing beautiful sparse songs where every word and note matters—about life and death, memories, the passage of time, happiness, places. I could hear and understand almost every word; putting all the meaning together is a different matter, but that’s part of what relistening and albums are for. In between the songs, they joked easily with each other and the audience and retuned their guitars quickly (some of the songs had alternate tunings). One of my favorites was “Szabadon él”:

Another favorite from the concert was “Keringő”:

This is music for all ages; on the one hand the musicians are relatively young (in their thirties, maybe?), with a youthful presence; on the other hand, they sing, in part, about losses, illuminations, getting older, things that the grey-haired listeners understand all too well. The music itself is too beautiful to be trapped in one age or another. The audience reflected this; the ages ranged, I think, from about fifteen to seventy, with just about every age in between. That was partly thanks to the venue, the beloved Tisza Mozi, which has a way of bringing people of different ages together. But it was mostly thanks to the music itself.

This is how it should be. But there’s also great pressure on musicians to have a youthful following (not that musicians themselves would complain about a young crowd). That’s what looks good, that’s what gives the impression of something up and coming. Venues, videos, all sorts of marketing devices aim at a younger set. I was once at a show where some enthusiastic middle-aged women were dancing and having a great time. The band’s photographers then recruited teenagers in the audience (most of whom had stayed close to the wall) to come forward so that they could be photographed dancing to the music. That, I suppose, is what looks good on a website or Facebook page. It wasn’t a bad thing; I think the teenagers were happy to have an excuse to come out and dance. But there was a purpose beyond increasing their enjoyment.

This may not even be a “Sailing to Byzantium” situation. The music may not be commending “whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” But so many messages, not from the musicians themselves, say, “The more young people, the better.”

So if you are older, you (or at least I) have a double consciousness about it all. I know that I am welcome in the music. From that perspective, I belong in any audience where I want to be. That belonging is unbreakable. It exists no matter what anyone says. On the other hand, not last night, but at other times, I feel acutely that I am not of the wanted age, that too many of me would be a disappointment.

This happens to musicians too, and across all genres of music. Some time ago a violinist friend was telling me about how orchestras subtly inform their older members that they are replaceable, that younger musicians would be a better fit. It must be terribly hard to play in an orchestra for decades and then to start feeling that you aren’t really wanted in it any more.

Granted, youth has a lot going for it: energy and talent finding their way to form; attractiveness; a sense that the peak is still far ahead. There are plenty of reasons to support and nurture youth. Teachers know this! In addition, some kinds, aspects, phases of music really are youthful, and that is fine. The young get to be young and to have other young people around them.

But I admire those musicians, and those venues, who can break through that a little, who can make and host music that cuts through time. Where anyone who listens with full heart can be at home.

Photo credit: Lázár tesók (from their Facebook page).

Reputation

This Saturday, in addition to leading the Szim Salom service along with our rabbi, I will chant Torah, as I do at all our Saturday morning services. Over time, preparation has become much quicker and easier than it used to be. I remember, back in New York, spending hours an evening over the verses, learning the sounds and meanings, bringing them into myself, and pondering them. That was, for me, the most important aspect of Jewish life: immersing myself in the ancient language, texts, and melodies, learning the system of cantillation, learning liturgy. The more recent ease means less time spent on the verses each evening, which means more time for other things (and I’m glad of that), but less time hearing the texts from the inside. And time makes a difference.

So this week, when I found myself pondering Saturday’s reading (from Numbers 14), it reminded me a bit of the old days. Moses has sent spies out to the land of Canaan, to see what the land was like. They have come back with a grim report; the people there are giants, and they (the spies) were like grasshoppers in their own sight and that of the Caananites. Then the children of Israel begin to wail: would that we had died in Egypt! Or here, in the desert! Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, speak out and say that the land is in fact good; in response, the people call for their stoning.

God then loses all patience and asks Moses: “How long will these people despise me?” He declares that he will smite and kill them all, and make of Moses a greater nation.

Moses’s response is (at one level) one of the most peculiar passages I have read in the Torah. He essentially reminds God: If the Egyptians knew that you killed the very people that you brought up from Egypt, they would tell other people that You, who have been in the midst of Your people, going before them “in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night,” have killed them because you could not able to fulfill your promise to them. The Hebrew syntax of these verses is complex, as are the various referents, but the gist seems to be, “What will happen, God, to your reputation?”

There is so much to say and think about Moses’s argument (which ultimately persuades God not to kill all the people, just the older generation)—thousands of commentaries have been written about it—but the question that bothered me was, why would God care what the Egyptians and others say?

The most direct answer is that God would not be able to replace the children of Israel easily, if he damaged his own reputation in this way. Everyone would have heard about his failure and would be reluctant to accept him. So this is Moses’s way of reminding God, “Do not take us for granted, even with all our faults.”

But at a deeper level this suggests that the relationship between humans and God has to be reciprocal. Reputation here is not just gossip and babbling; it can lead to—or stand in the way of—encounter. A God who fulfills his promises and stays faithful to his people will already mean something to the outside world. Even if they believe in other gods, they will keep, in the back of their mind, this image of presence, glory, and mercy. (Verse 18 repeats most of the “thirteen attributes” associated with God.)

In our own lives, reputation has a form analogous to what is suggested here. It isn’t good to get caught up in worrying about what others think of you, but if you keep your promises, fulfill your projects, and treat others kindly, your reputation (in the best sense of the word) will open up the world for you. This kind of reputation is an early rumbling of relationship. So in other words, sometimes it does matter what other people say, when this is a reflection of what you actually have done.

This makes sense in our immediate world. It’s somewhat baffling that this would also be the case with God, but it’s an important bafflement. We get to wrestle with the idea that God is somewhat vulnerable and has something to lose, and that the words of humans matter not only in our sphere, but beyond. Maybe liturgy itself is a way of carrying reputation. The verb שמע (to hear, listen), along with the related שֵׁמַע (hearing, report), which in turn is suggestive of שֵׁם (name), has an essential role in these verses, and in liturgy too: hearing, and hearing the name, and listening closely, all have to do with building a relationship with God.

I say all of this, by the way, as someone who does not always believe in God. Sometimes I clearly do; sometimes I am not so sure. It is great to be able to stay with these texts and to chant them in Hebrew, no matter how my own thoughts and feelings fluctuate. That is what I have been learning, as I serve as Szim Salom’s primary cantor (now for three and a half years, going strong). I don’t always feel religious, or observant, or sure of what I am doing. But I love the role and Szim Salom itself, and have found so much good in staying with the responsibilities and finally owning them. For a long time I was shy about calling myself a cantor, since the word has such grand associations for me. But cantors come in great variety, and this is good. I give what I can, and I learn as I go along. I am always seeking to do better.

Here is a picture of the rabbi and me outside the Methodist church in Buda where we used to hold services back in 2017 and early 2018. (Before we moved to Bálint Ház, we had no place, so the very kind minister, Gábor Iványi, and his congregation offered us the space on Shabbatot.) It is no wonder that he has a reputation as a holy man.

The image of the Hebrew text and translation, from Numbers 14, is courtesy of Mechon Mamre.

Painting: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam.

As usual, I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Sliding Love (a new Hungarian film)

Even before the film started last night, you could feel the emotion in the room: the excitement of being back at the Tisza Mozi for a a special film event: this time a pre-screening of Viktor Oszkár Nagy’s film Becsúszó szerelem (Sliding Love), followed by a discussion, led by Zsolt Bajnai, with the director, the lead actress (Viola Lotti Gombó), and another cast member (Ádám László Piller). István Demeter, the owner of the Tisza Mozi, welcomed us heartily.

I loved the film and understood about 95% of it, the most I have understood so far when watching a Hungarian film without subtitles. It’s a somewhat eccentric, melancholic romantic comedy about a couple that wants to have a baby but can’t conceive because the husband, a football “ultra,” is sterile. At an adoption orientation that they attend, prospective adoptive parents are asked what they would hope for in a child. The husband says, “A Hungarian,” and makes clear that he does not want to adopt a Gypsy; this and a few other missteps more or less kill their prospects. Then one day the wife brings home a pregnant Roma (Gypsy) girl, Lüszi, with the idea that they will adopt her child. Things take unexpected turns from there.

The film explores the football (soccer) fan subculture: the rough-and-ready groups of buddies who follow their favorite team all over the place and keep getting into fights and scrapes. It takes on Hungarian racism against Roma people. And it shows a vulnerable, spunky young Roma woman who, over the course of the story, shows and finds out who she truly is. It has heaps of satire too: of various self-help groups, of the justice system, and of the lives of petty thugs.

The lead actors were the ones who enchanted me: András Ötvös as Gyula, and Viola Lotti Gombó as Lüszi. Viola Lotti Gombó has extraordinary range and grace: in the beginning, she plays crass and bored, annoyed with everything; slowly, as the film develops, she lets Lüszi unravel into beauty. I am eager to see what she does in the future.

There’s that moment, at the Tisza Mozi’s special screening, when the film is over, the credits are still playing, and the lights start coming back on, signaling that the discussion will shortly begin. The photo below is from that very moment. “Hang” means “sound”; that was the sound credit, and you can see the light shining onto the chairs below the screen.

During the discussion, Zsolt Bajnai asked the director about the origins of this film, about how it differs from his previous work, about how he learned about the football fan subculture, and about the casting. The football fan subculture part was particularly interesting; he said that he had made contact with various people, friends of friends, and visited some of the games to see and experience this world, and the world of football-hooligans too. Mr. Bajnai asked Viola Lotti Gombó a few questions too. From her responses, you could see how much she loved this role and what it meant to her to be in the film. There were a couple of questions from the audience. Then István Demeter thanked everyone for coming and brought the evening to a close.

On my way out, I had a chance to say hi to the Bajnais, whom I haven’t seen in person for months, and then I zipped home on the bike, happy and full of thoughts.

My first song in Hungarian: Időköz (first draft)

Writing a song in a language other than your own is no easy matter. You want to take risks, instead of just staying with phrases you’ve heard over and over, yet you don’t know how far you can take it before it really sounds strange to a native speaker. Also, there are all kinds of questions of rhythm, intonation, pacing, the way the melody and lyrics interact.

But all of this opens up possibilities, too, in the music and in language. I definitely use expressions here that I would not use in everyday speech. I am going to talk about the song with Gyula and maybe others, and possibly revise it later. But the revision will probably be an entirely (or substantially) different song. So here is this first draft, a first step. You can see the lyrics below.

The vocals were the hardest part to record (in terms of getting the right timbre and consistency). That’s partly because of the limitations of my equipment; I need a real vocal mic, and I need a way to monitor the sound as I am recording it. (Through the headphones, I can hear the other tracks, but not the one I am recording.) But overall, my recent recordings sound much better than the ones I made years ago in San Francisco—even better than the studio recordings in some ways—and I am still getting my bearings.

I would not say that this music is at all similar to what I’ve been listening to recently. But it is slightly influenced. Especially after Cz.K. Sebő’s concert on Friday, I thought that I would try to find the simplicity in the song and work from there. Most of the recording came easily as a result of this. The lyrics may be just a little bit too busy in places, so in addition to fixing the parts that sound off, I might want to prune them a bit. But again, that will be a new song.

Időköz

Diana Senechal

Éjjel hallgatom
a kétségek mozgását,
én is mozdulok mintha velük táncolnék.

A szíved udvarán
táboroztam.
Végre az idő fölvett és elvitt.

Nem ismerem és nem fogom
ismerni az időközt
amit együtt töltöttünk.

Az ilyen idő idegen,
mégis mélyen megéltük
órafigyelés nélkül.

Reggel hallgatom
a pihenés légzését.
Én is lélegzem, mintha vele aludnék.

A szíved portása
régen kirúgott.
a gőgöm mégis elidőzött tovább.

Az első lépés rémisztő,
mint egylábú keringő
minden hegedű nélkül.

De itt az élet kezdődik,
az időköz túloldalán,
a reggel üres csendjében.

And a rough English translation:

Interval

Diana Senechal

At night I listen to
the movement of doubts
I move too, as if dancing with them.

I have been camping
in the courtyard of your heart;
finally time lifted me and took me out.

I don’t know and will not
know the interval
that we spent together.

This time is foreign,
yet we lived it deeply,
without watching the time/clock.

In the morning I listen to
the breathing of repose;
I breathe too, as though sleeping with it.

The porter of your heart
kicked me out long ago,
still my pride kept hanging around.

The first step is terrifying,
like a one-legged waltz
without any violin.

But here life begins,
on the other side of the interval,
in the morning’s empty silence.

Gyula Jenei’s “Always Different” can be pre-ordered!

It is really coming! The publication date is still about eight months away (February 15, 2022), but Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Always Different—my English translation of his 2018 volume Mindig máscan already be pre-ordered. The book is that much closer to existence, and the listing comes with a great collection of endorsements:

“One of the great masters of Hungarian free verse.” ―Éva Bánki

“What are we looking for in our childhood when we take stock of such and such events, sins, tragedies?… A silent poet whose every word I hear.” ―Darvasi Lászó

“Real lyrical ingenuity.” ―Simon Ferenc

“One afternoon I read through Gyula Jenei’s Always Different, more than a hundred pages of poetry, and after the first poems I said to myself that yes, this is my world.” ―Fekete Vince

“The culmination of a lyrical material with a rich past.” ―Adam Sebestyén

“One of the most striking registers of Hungarian poetry of the 2000s… So naturally embraces the pulse of the Hungarian language that every memory that is expressed in them thus suddenly emerges from insignificant mundaneness and finds itself confronted with eternity.” ―Balázs Fűzfa

I got strangely emotional when I read this, because I still remember the day when I spoke to Gyula for the first time, at Varga, where we both teach. This was in September 2018, I think, or thereabouts. I had been in Hungary for almost a year at that point. I walked up to him, told him that I had memorized his poem “Belefárad,” and proceeded to recite it in what must have been quite awkward Hungarian. Around the same time, I started talking a lot with his wife, Marianna Fekete, and upon perusing their writings, I saw that I wanted to translate them both. It wasn’t just that I wanted to; it had to be done. I translated Marianna’s essay about Béla Markó’s haiku poems, and began translating Gyula’s poems from his 2018 collection Mindig más, one after another. I remember the long stretches with these poems: how I would write the first draft of the translation by hand, in a notebook, and then type out the revision. Then, after I had translated a few, Gyula, Marianna, and I would go over them.

Everything took shape from there. Literary Matters published Marianna’s essay and five of Gyula’s poems (in my translation, along with the originals); The Massachusetts Review accepted another (“Scissors,” appearing this summer); we were invited to Dallas, to be the featured guests of the Cowan Center’s 2019 Education Forum; we met Will Evans, the founder of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing the book; I worked intensively on the manuscript and submitted it in February (nearly four months ago); and now publication is underway. There’s still a lot to be done—final edits and proofreading, publicity, preparations for readings, and more—but the book is coming, and I believe it will reach many people.

“Oh come meet me there”: Cz.K. Sebő at the TRIP Terasz

This concert—by Cz.K. Sebő on the Trip Terasz on Friday night—stands out among all the concerts I remember in my life. It left me sad, but in an uplifting way. It opened something up, taught me something, and filled my mind with music that stayed and played onward.

I arrived a little before 4 (the concert started at 7, but the venue had encouraged people to arrive early) and walked around until it was possible to go in. I thought maybe I had arrived much too early, but just minutes later, more people came, and then more and more. So it was wise, not to mention tranquil, to spend a late afternoon on the deck of a stationary ship on the Danube, listening to the sound of water, wind, and traffic. I read Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen from cover to cover, starting at the end, and spent time with particular poems, including “Az elhagyatottságról,” “Dokkolás,” and “A helytartó és a rabszolga.” Now comes the slow reading with the dictionary, but at least I got a feel for the rhythms and some of the meaning.

I was then joined at the table by two friendly people, Zsuzsanna and Timi Mesi, who recognized me from various online comments and who love Sebő’s music. As it happened, Zsuzsanna had her own copy of the Kertai collection with her! Soon Zsuzsanna’s husband joined us too. Now we were a lively table, until the music started and we hushed.

Sebő’s music starts with simplicity and humility, but those are complicated words and can only be part of a complicated reality. Nobody is completely simple or humble. What I mean is that he doesn’t show off, doesn’t rush to the peaks of the songs. He starts playing and lets the songs build on their own. And then when they build, it’s so true that it can break you open. This simplicity can take years to find; you have to play the instrument well and know your voice. Even more than that, you have to be willing to let the music show itself, unforced, both when you write it and when you perform it.

The humility has to do with his admiration of others’ music. This is part of the Platon Karataev foundation too: the knowledge that there’s music greater than their own, but the willingness to give what they have and to keep on searching. The second part of the concert was all covers—carefully chosen and played, and beautiful to the bones. Not for a second does he imitate the author of the original; he sings it as himself. But more about that in a moment.

The place had filled up, and he started out with a thrilling performance of “Eternal Home” (one of the bonus tracks from his Junction EP). Then came “Fear from passing,” then (I think) “Disguise,” then “Junction.” After that, I lose track of the order, but I know two new songs were in there, including “Someday” and one with a Pilinszky poem for the lyrics, in English translation (I believe the poem was “A pokol hetedik kőre,” but I might be wrong). He played “Chamomile,” “Wide Eyes,” “Hart” (which blurred my sight for a while there), “On a fine day,” “Out of Words,” and “The Fox in the Holt,” and there we were, with the sun going down, the water lapping, standing kayakers rowing by, the breeze getting chillier, and these favorite songs living themselves out as they never would again, not in that exact way. The cold was getting a bit stiff; in the break between sets, someone gave him a blanket.

For the second part, he had so much planned, but didn’t get to all of it because the air got still colder. Still, he played at least ten gorgeous covers: first “Purple Rain” (which opened up the song for me, it was so relaxed and genuine), then “In a Year of 13 Moons” by Current Joys, then “Carry on” by Willy Mason, then again I lose track of the order, but one of my favorites was “Rejtelmek” by the Sebő Együttes, whose lyrics are an Attila József poem, and which Sebő had heard many times in his childhood. Another favorite was “The Immigrant Lad” by Eric Burdon and the Animals. He played Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” one faster song whose name I don’t know, another song I don’t know (Damien Jurado must have been in there somewhere, but I don’t know where), and then, to finish things off, a Platon Karataev song in Hungarian, one that I have not heard before unless they played it at Budapest Park in August. (In the beginning, the guitar reminds me of “Fear from passing,” but then it takes a different direction.) You could hear, throughout the set, that these songs had guided his own music in one way or another.

I am grateful that he told us what the songs were. (I missed a few titles when he said them, but he said them.) There was no attitude of “You should know what song this is, and if you don’t, you’re dumb.” The audience didn’t have to prove anything. Being there and listening was enough. I think that’s another part of the humility: being willing to accept your listeners as they are, whoever they are, provided they are listening. Young, old, friends, strangers, cool, awkward, lively, quiet, a great musician can allow for them all, and so can the music.

I think a lot of us felt the greatness of this music and this concert. At my table, that was definitely the case. It’s greatness that comes, in part, from not having to be great, not needing to force or feign.

He mentioned that he was going to be playing solo less and less, since future concerts would include a drummer and a bassist. I would wish for both kinds of concerts; a solo concert is unadorned and direct, but I can understand that when other musicians play with you, you have more possibilities of sound and timing.

After the concert ended, I stayed around for a few minutes, but then left so that I could catch the 9:50 train back to Szolnok, a slow local train that gave me time to think back on the concert and hear the songs in my mind, and all the things they were evoking.

I will end this with the concert’s beginning, “Eternal Home,” which led me to start listening to Blaze Foley. Here’s the second verse and chorus:


Whatever is around me
Whatever makes me blind
Balance and composure sleeps inside
And it’s not so hard to find

When I’m walking in the city
And I’m to lose my mind
I’m listening to some Blaze Foley songs
And leave this world behind

Oh come meet me there,
Let’s jump into that blunted head,
Your home is eternal there
Go deep and shut the world out.

That is what happens at a concert like this, if there is any concert like this. You find your eternal home, and you know you can find it again.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it. The most recent edits were on June 1.

Update: Watch and listen to this video of Sebő playing his new song “Someday” in a session for the Faded Sun, and read the accompanying interview (in Hungarian).

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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