A Listening Dream Come True and Beyond

Back in February 2021, when Platon Karataev announced their fundraising campaign for the third album, they included an “album listening party with the band” as one of the perks. Those who selected this perk (in return for a modest donation) would be invited to listen to their third album about a month before its release. There were other perks too, but this was the one I wanted most, besides the album itself, which I was going to purchase anyway. Still, I was terrified of the idea, and it took me a few more months to bring myself to select it. Why? I think that when you listen to music, you show something of yourself. At a show or concert, no one really sees you; you’re facing forward, and the musicians themselves only rarely see the audience (they might close their eyes, look down, face each other, or gaze outward without seeing specific faces). Even in a big crowd, you can feel private and enclosed. But when you’re in a room with others, listening to music together, the barriers come down. Never mind that I would be in a room with the very creators of the music.

I used to listen to music with others, usually just one other person; we would put on an album and listen from it from start to finish without talking. I miss that so much. This album listening event brought all of that back but took it somewhere else. The album is disarming and dazzling. We all listened silently. There was no chatter while it was playing (except for a conversation upstairs, which seeped through amusingly here and there). The atmosphere was warm and friendly in the silence, in Gergő Balla’s introductory and closing words, and the conversations before and afterward. Afterwards I couldn’t say anything, but I wasn’t alone; my friends Zsuzsanna and Mesi were also speechless, and we gave each other hugs. And even though I didn’t say a word to the band except for hello and goodbye, I know that we had this listening together. I lingered for a little while and then headed back to Szolnok wrapped in joy. But joy isn’t even the right word, since so much was mixed in with it, things that words don’t land on.

The weekend was full of listening. I had come in to Budapest on Friday afternoon, since I was going to lead the online Szim Salom services on Friday night and Saturday morning, and would not have been able to make it to the listening party afterward unless I were already in Budapest. So I stepped out of the Keleti train station and saw colors rolling in the sky and people rushing every which way.

I stayed at a lovely apartment hotel near Batthyány tér. If I were to live in Budapest, that neighborhood would be one of my choices. In the spacious, dreamy room, I easily set up shop for the Zoom services (with laptop, external microphone, siddurs, tallit, candles, and all). On Friday evening, the service was combined with a Hanukkah party, which two others joyously led. So I got to listen as well as sing.

On Saturday morning, we had a number of guests: a few students from a Protestant (Református) university program who were interested in learning about a Jewish service, and a dear friend in Berlin, along with a friend of hers who was visiting her. Both she and her friend are deaf but can read lips and sense music.

Neither of them knows Hebrew or Hungarian. But as I led the service, I saw them intently, intensely listening; I saw one of them nod along to melodies she recognized, and the other responding with her eyes. It seemed to me that they were listening in ways unknown to the hearing crowd, or maybe known but rarely touched upon. I don’t mean to trivialize the difficulties of being deaf. It is difficult in more ways than I can know. But it does not mean the end of listening; for some it might take listening to another level.

As I saw them listening, I had a new sense of what I was doing and what we were there for. There was something being communicated, not through language alone but through something else too. This came back later in a different form at the album listening event.

In Hungarian, “hallgatás” means both “silence” and “listening to something” (in addition to a few other things, such as taking a course and keeping a secret). The word suggests a relation between silence and listening. Yes, even to listen to yourself, you have to be silent in a certain way. There is a place where listening and silence are one and the same, not even dependent on each other, but identical: a meeting point where the two meanings dissolve into one. I think this is the case in Pilinszky’s “Amiként kezdtem“:

Amiként kezdtem, végig az maradtam.
Ahogyan kezdtem, mindvégig azt csinálom.
Mint a fegyenc, ki visszatérve
falujába, továbbra is csak hallgat,
szótlanul űl pohár bora előtt.

Here is my translation (in which I take a few liberties on purpose):

As I began, I have remained to the end.
The way I began, I keep all the way.
Like the convict who, returning
to his village, keeps silent, listening.
Wordless he sits before a glass of wine.

After the album listening, I came back to the hotel, picked up my packed bags, and headed off to the train. The sun had set. Some twenty-seven hours had gone by since I set out from Szolnok. And what happened in those twenty-seven hours will unfold over the rest of my life.

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  • “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.”

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    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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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.

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