What makes a good concert?

A confluence of things. The music, the performance, the venue, the sound, the occasion, the time of day or night, the audience, the state of mind of a particular listener, the way the music might strike the performers or listeners at a given moment, the effect of these things on each other, the eccentricities that make this concert different from any other like it, the samenesses that we look forward to.

The way children love to hear stories, poems, songs again and again, so do adults, but unfortunately we have to justify it to ourselves. Do I have time? Can I afford it? Of the many events I could attend tonight or this week, is this the right choice?

This time, my only question was about time, since I am pressing to put out the autumn issue of Folyosó and still have a lot of editing to do. The editing takes many hours because there’s so much basic correction and formatting involved. When editing, you can wear out your eyes and still miss some little thing—but then, there are pieces that make it worthwhile, again and again. There are students who take writing seriously—and playfully—and are grateful to find their way to readers.

But I figured that I could take my laptop on the train and work there—not always a given, since the train can be noisy and crowded, but worth a try. As it turned out, I had a quiet ride both ways and was able to get a lot done.

The concert (part of a fundraiser for the Waldorfeszt, an independent music festival that may or may not survive) was peculiarly moving, even within the Platon Karataev duo context, where that tends to be the case. One song that I didn’t remember hearing before became a new favorite. Other songs came to me in new ways, maybe because of how they were played, maybe because of what I heard in them this time.

I was not alone. The people around me were rapt, and I talked briefly with two fellow audience members afterwards (whom I have met before, at a recent concert). That’s another part of these concerts: whether you talk with others or not, you know you have something in common with them: this music you have been given, the coming out to hear it, and things you can’t define.

Thoughts on Religion and Return

Any true religion is poetry translated into bodily action. That is, religion approximates—and can only approximate—a level of life that cannot be expressed in words. Wars between religions result from taking these approximations too proudly and literally, treating them as flat truth rather than path.

I do not believe Judaism has an edge over Christianity or vice versa. That Judaism is now my form of religious expression does not mean that I believe much of it literally at all. And yet I believe that it points at something, and that its rituals and texts have centuries, sometimes millennia, of practice and wisdom behind them. The conflict between the concept of a single God and that of a Trinity can be (partially, tangentially) resolved if we consider how far God lies beyond our comprehension in the first place. That is one of the central tenets of Judaism: that God is far greater, far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Even the Shechina (the manifestation of God in the world) is barely at the edge of our perception; God’s other levels are so deep and immense that at most we can apprehend the existence of the vastness.

Christianity ritualized and championed the concept of conversion; while Judaism has had converts here and there all along, Christianity made conversion its central premise. Any Christian is (supposedly) a convert, since to be a Christian, you must willingly turn yourself over to Christ. There’s a beautiful openness to this, but also a temptation toward condescension: toward the view that those who have not converted are, at best, poor lost souls.

I do not see a necessary conflict between Judaism and Christianity (within an individual). I know that the two religions are historically and theologically incompatible, and painfully so. I know that not only the Catholic Church, but also Protestant churches have traditionally portrayed the Jews as the killers of Christ—which evades what I see as the true sources of the crucifixion: human nature, tragic misunderstanding in all directions, and political expedience. (Not to mention that Jesus the historical figure probably came across as a bit of a gadfly.) But I have room for internal reconciliation, not only between the religions themselves, but between what they have been for me. I have no desire to be a Jewish Christian. I have an aversion to movements such as “Jews for Jesus” that claim a Jewish identity while proclaiming Christ. I reject insinuations that Christianity is superior to Judaism and other religions. But it isn’t for nothing that the trope of Christ has moved people around the world and inspired astounding art. Treating people kindly, no matter what their status, feeding and healing them, encouraging them to lay their sins aside and start over, and speaking in parables that point to our own deepest contradictions and deceptions—that’s profoundly compelling and confounding. To me it’s no surprise that this man was described as the “son of God”—but that term has led to all kinds of grief.

Judaism, for its part, can overemphasize the tribe and tribal identity; while many congregations are moving away from this and trying to welcome people of different backgrounds, you can still feel distinctly left out if you do not know the many codes of Jewish life. Yet Judaism is not self-enclosed; tikkun olam (roughly, helping to repair the world), hesed (lovingkindness, charity), and welcoming the stranger are among its central practices.

In my late teens and early twenties (starting toward the end of high school, and then at Yale) I attended church and was baptized and confirmed (by turns Episcopalean, Lutheran, Catholic). But my life was in upheaval; my family was breaking up, I was asserting early independence, and trying to figure out who I was in myriad ways. I lacked even basic self-confidence. Being Jewish wasn’t even in my consciousness; I knew only vaguely that I was Jewish according to Jewish law, and knew close to nothing about what that could mean. Once, with a friend, I attended several Jewish services at Yale, but the more traditional services seemed remote from me, and the Reform service seemed like summer camp. Christianity, in contrast, was open-armed and engaging, up to a point. I say “up to a point” because I never felt comfortable with churchiness, with the idea of being a “good Christian.” To me, the point of religion, or part of it, was never to become pat and staid.

Much of my searching took place at Dwight Hall, and in Dwight Chapel itself: not only services, but late evenings when I would sit there alone and listen to the organ, At Dwight Hall (Yale’s center for social service and social justice), I took part in many activities—service, political advocacy, Cabinet meetings, support groups, get-togethers, events and discussions—and endured a few heartbreaking crushes. I was mixed up and unmoored, so badly in need of company that I neglected my studies, and so unsure of myself that I made friendships difficult if not impossible. But I met remarkable people and have rich memories of that time.

Two and a half years into my studies and extracurriculars, I took time off from Yale and worked at Sterling Memorial Library for several years; the work kept me in contact with the university and brought regularity and responsibility into my life. When I returned to Yale as an undergraduate, it was with clear focus; I did well in my studies, graduated with distinction in the (Russian) major, and went on to graduate school there (where I ultimately earned a Ph.D., with a dissertation on Gogol, and translated a volume of Tomas Venclova’s poems). I had distanced myself from religious practice; from the age of twenty-four or so, I no longer went to church. It took another twenty-five years before I would start going to synagogue and learning Jewish liturgy and cantillation.

My entry into Jewish life was different from my earlier explorations, though not entirely. For one thing, I had solid footing; for another, the impulse came not only from an internal yearning, but from a perception of history. A series of events brought me to my first encounters with Hebrew and Jewish liturgy: in particular, a recording of the “Blessing Before Haftarah,” which had a strong resonance for me, a memory of something I didn’t remember. I found meaning in those very syllables and melodies; because of this beginning, and because of the richness of the learning over time, I have been a practicing Jew for almost ten years, and serving as Szim Salom’s cantor here in Hungary for five. This way of life is for the long term, with increasing responsibilities, so now I have room to look back and pull things together. It is essential for me to do so; I have changed and learned a lot over the years, but everyone has a unity between past and present, and I am ready to face my own.

When we visited Dwight Chapel with the Hungarian group in October (during the ALSCW conference at Yale), when Sebő and Gergő (the Platon Karataev duo) played a few of their songs there, old memories started to come up for me, but the music in the room was far more important to me right then. Still, it was only because of this past, my readiness to return to it in some way, and the helpfulness of the Dwight Hall staff that we were able to be there at all. Also, maybe the possibility wouldn’t have occurred to me if we hadn’t had to cancel the concerts, and if Gergő and Sebő hadn’t been so willing to play this unofficial, informal session for its own sake. On top of that, if Tim and Jenn hadn’t been able to lend their guitars in time for this, there would have been no music, though we might still have stopped inside. The songs themselves, or many of them, have to do with internality, searching, intuition, self-loss, but are not religious per se—so there was no statement here, no pressure to believe this or that. All of these conditions together allowed for this beautiful occasion, and now it too has joined the layers of life.

I made a few edits to this piece (for clarity) after posting it.

Preparing for a Ten-Minute Concert

During the long break this morning, we held a little performance in the hallway, outside the teachers’ room. Two groups of students sang four American and British folk songs; I accompanied them on cello. The singing was full of spirit (and in tune and on time). The audience’s enjoyment came through, both then and throughout the day.

Because of the coordination involved, it took weeks to prepare this ten-minute concert; the participating students were from different classes, and we had only one rehearsal all together. Also, my cello playing was dismally out of shape even a week ago; I had to coax it back. But coax it back I did.

This morning, to take the bus to school, I needed to be out the door by 6:30. I managed this and got to school before 7. I went to the drama room and warmed up for about half an hour.

The cello playing barely figured in the concert, though. I played introductions to three of the songs, then accompanied the students with pizzicato. They hardly needed the accompaniment; they held their own and sang with full voice.

This was the fourth short concert that my students and I had held at Varga during a long morning break. The first was in 2018, with class 9.A; the second, in the spring of 2019; the third, the following December, and the fourth today. There was a stretch in 2020-2021 when, because of Covid, we were not supposed to sing at school at all. So it was good to sing again and know that we could.

I have a lot to do in the next week—particularly editing and putting out the autumn issue of Folyosó. Once it is published, I can give attention to writing and translation again—and music too, but played on my own.

This little concert reminded me indirectly of Keith Vincent’s lecture on “Haiku and the Japanese Novel” at the ALSCW Conference: about the novelist Natsume Sōseki, who initially was a haiku poet, and how the haiku prepared him for the longer forms. This concert was the haiku: demanding intense concentration in itself, and part of something larger. Many people, hearing about a ten-minute concert with students, would say, “Oh, that’s so nice,” or “How lovely,” but there’s more to it than the “nice” and the “lovely.” It’s a way of approaching the larger projects as well.

I am weary of all the opinion pieces about how “we” have given up the madness of around-the-clock work culture, how, after Covid, “we” have started to demand something saner. I gave up that kind of work culture long ago. Anyone who knows me knows that I work hard—but at the things I have chosen, not at jobs where I am at someone else’s beck and call. Over the years I have turned down or ignored jobs and opportunities that would have paid more but put me at the company’s mercy. Yes, a teacher has to fulfill requirements, but at the school where I am now, they are not too onerous; there’s room for music and literature in addition to the standard material. The salary is dismal, but I can manage with it here. People may think I’m independently wealthy, with a lot in the bank, but that is not the case; I have very little. Rather, I can live simply, and why not do so? The greatest challenge right now is exhaustion in the evenings—not exhaustion, but simply falling asleep. Another challenge is affording travel when I need it; a trip to the U.S. costs me a lot, relative to what I have.

So a ten-minute concert is also a possibility, among many others, and in that light, something worth doing more often. When you lift up the possibilities, they change what can be found in the minutes of a day.

I was sorry not to go hear Grand Bleu last night, but by the time I realized there was a concert, it was too late to go out to Budapest and get to the concert on time, and besides, I needed to rest and catch up with things. I have been meaning to mention that I heard them and Gábor Molnár in a wonderful concert at Sejribizli, shortly after returning to Hungary from the big trip. I was still a bit jetlagged but loved the music and atmosphere; the audience included many Turks and Indians as well as Hungarians and others, and there was a great cheer to it all. I leave off with a picture from that concert and a link to “Emlékszem még,” one of my favorites of their songs.

“Time drives the flocks from field to fold….”

Thinking back on the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar, I hear Alyse O’Hara’s song rendition of Sir Walter Ralegh’s poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” which in turn responds to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Today I noticed the pacing and time she gives to the line “Time drives the flocks from field to fold.” You can listen to the song here.

The song’s major key makes room for melancholy. At the seminar, someone brought up the elasticity and capaciousness of music; this seemed like a good example. The melody might be considered “happy” in another context, but here it sounds wistful, with a twist of pain. To me, the repetitions (e.g. “to live, to live, to live with thee, and be, and be, and be thy love”) have a kind of weary knowledge to them. The nymph sees all too well what it would be like to trust the shepherd’s promises and take part in a dying eternity.

In Marlowe’s poem, the shepherd makes promises like the following:

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

In Ralegh’s poem, the nymph responds, detail by detail:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

O’Hara’s song seens true to the poem and to life; you can imagine the nymph down by the water, on the rocks, reflecting on the shepherd’s words and seeing through them. The last verse, in which she imagines what it would be like if things were otherwise (“But could youth last, and love still breed, / Had joys no date, nor age no need….”), has pauses between the utterances, and you can hear so much in those pauses.

Many of the presenters gave me permission to post at least some of their materials; we now have a web page dedicated to the seminar.

In terms of music alone, much has happened since my return: a brilliant Galaxisok concert at the A38 Hajó (with the opening band Laiho, whom I loved); Kolibri’s new song “Gleccser“; Cz.K. Sebő’s “Értelmet“; a video of “Záporozó” by Henri Gonzo és a Papírsárkányok; and more.

Keeping up with the music is less important than taking time with it. Two different relationships to time: both important, neither one perfectible. You can never keep up with the music, nor can you take as much time with it as it deserves. So you find your pace, mixture, limitations, and whimsy. In that imbalance of things, it’s fine to fall behind for the sake of a song.

There is more to say. Another time or times. (But I added a bit to thie piece after posting it.)

Returning to Hesse’s Demian

My painted dream-bird was on its way in search of my friend. In what seemed a miraculous fashion a reply had reached me.

—Hermann Hesse, Demian, tr. W.J. Strachan

When I was twelve or thirteen, reading one Hesse novel after another, adults used to tell me, “You’ll outgrow Hesse when you get older.” Not only did this not happen—I have returned to Hesse’s work repeatedly over the years—but I now see that both they and I misunderstood his writing in different ways. I will focus here on Demian. (If you have not read it but intend to, please hold off on reading this post.)

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” This quote from the fifth chapter, which often also appears at the beginning of the book, has a complex meaning. The adults probably saw the concept of self-searching as immature; for my part, I probably took the characters of Demian and Eva, and the magic of the book as a whole, too literally. On my last reading, completed today, I understood much more.

In 2017 or 2018, when I had not been living in Hungary for long, I purchased a copy of Demian in Hungarian translation. Because of my beginner-level Hungarian, it was slow going (even with such a familiar text), so I set it aside for another time.

That time came last week, when the Poket edition came out—with a wonderful preface by Gergely Balla, who was to be interviewed and play his music at a Poket event in Budapest, on November 10. I wanted badly to attend the event but had to supervise a physics competition from 6 to 7 p.m. So, in the afternoon before my supervision duty, and during the hour itself (I just had to be in the room keeping an eye on things), I read the first three chapters from the Poket edition. Today I finished the book. It took a while for the Hungarian to resonate with me; my memories were bound to the English phrases and rhythms. But by the fifth chapter or so, the text was singing in my mind. Here, though, I am quoting from several English editions and translations.

The adults in my teenage years probably thought that “self-searching” loses importance when you grow up and have to take care of others. But Emil Sinclair’s self-searching in Demian is not solipsistic or narcissistic. The book’s philosophical refrains play against the changing, moving life of a young man in the world, so that with each repetition (about breaking out of the egg, or differing from the herd, or bearing a sign on your forehead), a new nuance is added. Moreover, the book moves continually through paradox. Seeking your true self requires the recognition that this is impossible; that there is something inside you that moves, acts, and knows but that does not reach the rational mind. It is through painting that Sinclair starts to find out who he is—but it is not only himself that he finds there.

Early on, through a conversation with Max Demian and through his own thoughts, he discovers that he must leave falsity behind: false oppositions (between “good” and “bad,” for instance), false morals, false education, false company, false occupations—or, in contrast, to accept them all as true, insofar as they accompany him a part of the way.

But Sinclair’s struggle goes farther and deeper. He asks Demian, and later his mentor Pistorius, whether following your fate means you are allowed (and even obligated) to kill people whenever you feel the urge to do so. Neither one gives a full answer, but both suggest that this is not the case. Being true to the self does not mean following every urge or feeling. Pistorius suggests that when you feel an urge to kill a person, it’s actually the person’s mask that you want to kill, because the human below the mask is like you. But even this thought remains unfinished, for Sinclair to work out on his own.

As a teenager, I misconstrued Demian himself. (He is an intense, reflective boy, a few years Sinclair’s elder, who befriends Sinclair and shares with him what seems like uncanny, otherworldly wisdom.) I took him too literally; I thought I would find a Demian in my own life and was disappointed when it turned out that no one, no matter how exceptional or caring, could live up to the role. Today I see Demian as a metaphor, or maybe a perfection and elongation of certain encounters that do happen.

In contrast, Pistorius, the organist and mystic, seems to be of flesh and bone. His relationship with Sinclair reminds me of many I have had in my life (whether I was the mentor or the one being mentored). My favorite passage in the book is where Sinclair breaks with him without meaning to, by saying a word that hurts him. The passage is tender and vivid—but also a metaphor in its own way, since our lives are filled with teachers and students, formal and informal, with whom we must make a break at some point, or who must break with us. In fact, this may be the essence of education itself: reaching the point where you break away.

For a long time we stayed in front of the dying fire, in which each glowing shape, each writing twig reminded me of our rich hours and increased the guilty awarness of my indebtedness to Pistorius. Finally I could bear it no longer. I got up and left. I stood a long time in front of the door to his room, a long time on the dark stairway, and even longer outside his house waiting to hear if he would follow me. Then I turned to go and walked for hours through the town: its suburbs, parks, and woods, until evening. During that walk I felt for the first time the mark of Cain on my forehead.

(Tr. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck.)

This time, rereading the book, I took in every detail of Sinclair’s relationship with Pistorius: the way it begins (with Sinclair secretly listening to Pistorius playing the organ, first from outside, then from within the church), the things they talk about, the idea of Abraxas, the break with its guilt and acceptance, the memories of Pistorius long afterward.

What sets Sinclair apart, even from Demian, are not only the breaks he has to make with others, but his hesitations, pauses, misgivings along the way. Profoundly attracted to Eva, Demian’s beautiful, hauntingly androgynous mother, he does not know what to do with his desire, but it finds its own form, which has to do with the tender respect between them, his dreams at night, his painting, and the changes in the world that will soon force him to go his own way. Eva, like Demian, seems more god than human, but also part of Sinclair himself, even before he meets her.

The world itself does not stay still in Demian. At the end, a war is breaking out; a sadness and worry sets over things. Demian speaks at length about the dark times ahead. Sinclair has to say goodbye to Demian and Eva (but also learns how to find them) and give himself over to a duty that troubles and heartens him at the same time. The possible optimism (thoughts of a new world coming into being) are offset by the painful last kiss and Sinclair’s statement that everything since then has hurt.

But back to the search for self: Hesse may be hinting, throughout Demian, that while each person has a singular fate, unlike anyone else’s and not governable by social morals and rules, the self is not discrete but instead bound up with others; that we call out to others, even in silence, and they answer. In this sense and others, self-knowledge and self-loss may join together. This unity requires courage and brings loneliness and uncertainty. As Eva tells Sinclair, there are no everlasting dreams; one dream replaces another, and we can’t cling to a single one. If we could, though, would paintings, music, and literature exist? Would we? Don’t we depend on dreams’ coming and going?

Tossing a Bad Idea

Shortly upon returning to Hungary, I started looking at possible grants for the future. Surely there was a grant, in Hungary or the U.S., that would fund one of my projects or reimburse me for a trip. I found something with an imminent deadline—a book grant—and began feverishly assembling materials. (I won’t go into details, since I hope to apply for this grant in the future and don’t like to talk about projects before they take shape.) After spending some twenty hours on it, I realized that my proposal had some problems that could not be worked out in a week or two. The grant is awarded annually, so why not take a year to put together an outstanding proposal? Reviewers have specific goals for the grant money and take care to award it appropriately. Beyond that, I myself wasn’t convinced by the premise of my project.

There’s some relief in abandoning a flawed idea: not just deciding that it is flawed (which can happen within minutes of coming up with it) but seeing exactly where it goes wrong. For one thing, no one is obligated to take on an independent project that one does not believe in. Let it go, and there’s time for other things. For another, the insight helps in all sorts of ways. Third, the motives for cobbling together something may be questionable in the first place. In this case, I wanted to apply for the grant. That is still possible—but only over time, and with an idea and proposal that I can stand behind.

Also, this impulse came out of leftover momentum. I still need time to absorb the conference and trip; there hasn’t been time to rest, since things are so busy at school and elsewhere and I am a bit under the weather (not with Covid, just with a mild bug of some sort). Many people coming back from a trip or project find a kind of estrangement: what for months was one of the most important things in their lives is now a memory, and what’s more, most people don’t care about it. Some students and colleagues (as well as a few friends and fans of the Hungarian group) have asked about the trip, but overall people have their own preoccupations, which is understandable. No one can be expected to understand what this was for me and others. Nor can I be expected to explain, beyond giving basic summaries. Instead, those days will find their way into the folds of everyday life. Things are different because of them.

But even that takes time to get to know. It requires rest and reflection, listening and reading, leisurely attention to daily things. No one has to jump from one project to the next or immediately take a given accomplishment “to the next level” (a particularly American concept that I have discussed with my students in Civilization class). At times (and when possible) it is good to hold back from the next thing. That will be the subject of a future blog piece.

(Speaking of the conference, some of the papers and other materials from the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar can be found here. More may be added later.)

Art credit: Timothy Jones, The Quiet Muse (oil on panel).

A Few Days at Yale: ALSCW Conference Memories, Part 2

These three posts—the one about the trip and the two about the conference—barely graze the surface of all that happened. But it’s important to say something while the memories are fresh. The slower, more private reflections can take their time and probably won’t take the form of prose. So here we go: Saturday, October 22.

In the morning I attended the Shakespeare plenary session, which I loved. (My summaries might be slightly inaccurate, since I was holding a lot in my head at once and the day was so full.) Rebecca Rush spoke about the different kinds (and meanings) of rhyme in Shakespeare’s plays, with particular attention to Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In particular, she examined how rhyme can express traditional doctrine and mores on the one hand and spontaneous desire on the other. Robert Stagg spoke about the unfortunate tendency to smooth Shakespeare’s verse into perfectly regular iambic pentameter; he made an argument for honoring Shakespeare’s syllables. Then Lee Oser gave a lecture titled “Providential Groping in Hamlet,” which considered, among other things, the possible unity of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy and the “providence” monologue—and with that, the unity of the play as a whole. (There was much more to it than that.)

After that, I skipped out for coffee with Martha. I came back for lunch. Then came the second session of the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar.

If I were to do one thing differently, I would have asked the presenters to send me any slides, recordings, etc. a week in advance, so that they would all be on my laptop, ready to go. (But then, that probably wouldn’t have worked; people often have last-minute revisions or prefer to use their own devices.) There were a few small glitches with people connecting and reconnecting their devices—and for Lara Allen’s piece, I initially opened the wrong file. None of this really distracted from the session, though; it was all promptly resolved. It just meant that we had a little less time for discussion at the end.

The session opened with Lara performing an excerpt from her interdisciplinary performance piece The Hairy Eyeball and then speaking about Harry Partch’s music and its influence on the piece. Except for the glitch that I caused, it was riveting. (You can see more of her work on her website.)

One of the great highlights of the conference for me was the presentation by Fruzsina Balogh and Panna Kocsis, on the artist Lajos Kassák and the composer Béla Bartók, and artistic responses to their work by students of MOME (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design), where both Panna and Fruzsina are studying. It looked at how the arts can translate into one another; in this sense it tied in with all the others and evoked many responses later.

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly’s presentation on two ways of setting Pilinszky’s poems to music (accompaniment and song) brought us back into the realm of the seminar topic. He spoke of the many definitions of poem and song, the close relationship between them, and how he had set two Pilinszky poems (in the English translation of Géza Simon) to music. He played both pieces; it was moving to listen to them again, there in that room. He also talked about the personal nature of the act of setting poetry to music: how it comes from a deep response to the poem, a sense of recognition and shock. He spoke of his experience setting Csenger Kertai’s “Balaton” to music, and about the wordless, intuitive nature of the encounter between poem and music.

I am not going to be doing any justice to the other presentations; there’s much to say about each of them, but I don’t want to weigh this down. Piotr Gwiazda’s presentation on Grzegorz Wróblewski—and the musical-visual setting of two of his poems on YouTube—stood out for its attention to the other presentations and papers (he referred to many of them as he went along). Many strands and sounds came together as he spoke. I enjoyed the fearless straightforwardness (and complexity) of the presentation, as well as the video itself. He brought up the idea—central to several of the presentations and to the seminar’s theme—that you can listen to a poem in a language entirely unknown to you and grasp something of its essence. Here is one of the videos (©Archiwum Literackie 2014).

Mary Maxwell then spoke of the challenges involved in setting the Roman woman poet Sulpicia to music. She brought up an idea that contrasted with what had been said before: that of standing outside the writer and judging her in a way, but doing so in order to understand and portray her better (the way many actors study a role). Ultimately she sought to convey the humanness of Sulpicia’s poems. (This notion of “judging” requires nuanced explanation; she discussed it in more detail during the discussion.)

Next, the poet Jennifer Davis Michael and the composer Nathan Davis spoke of their work “Bell of Silence,” in which the former’s poem was set to music by the latter, as a piece for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and handbells. During the presentation, Nathan Davis sounded a bell; we listened to its long fade into silence. It was still dimly ringing, very dimly, when he muted it. You can listen to the piece here.

Kimberly Soby then spoke about the Korean-American composer Earl Kim and his musical setting of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Listen to it rain” (“Écoute s’il pleut écoute s’il pleut”) in his 1983 work Where Grief Slumbers. There was a fascinating visual aspect to this: the text of Apollinaire’s poem runs vertically, like falling rain, and the melodic lines, too, convey a sense of falling. Soby explained how it worked musically, with the sparseness, instruments, and pitch intervals. (You can listen to it here.)

We were unfortunately running very low on time when Iris Zheng gave her presentation on musical settings of Tennyson. She brought the seminar together into a unity; her presentation brought back memories of Emily Grace’s from the day before, but also spoke, as others had in different terms, of the role of the composer as critic, one who delves into the poem and comes back with an unexpected insight.

The discussion afterward was brief but exciting, since people had so much to say and ask in response to each other.

I then headed to the neighboring auditorium, along with others, for the plenary session on Japanese literature, which got better and better as it went along, culminating in a talk by Keith Vincent on “Haiku and the Novel”—about the novelist Natsume Sōseki, who initially was a haiku poet, and about the relation between the shortest of poetic forms and the much longer form of the novel. He suggested that for Sōseki, haiku writing was excellent preparation for novel writing, since the novel, like the haiku, demands intensity of compression (a point that in turn brought Gergely Balla’s presentation to mind).

And then the banquet! We walked up to the Divinity School, where it was held, found our way in, and arrived just shortly before the feast began. It was delicious and celebratory. There were remarks by David Bromwich, the outgoing president, and David Mikics, the vice president and incoming president (each conference has a new president). Then Rosanna Warren introduced Ishion Hutchinson, who gave the much-anticipated poetry reading. Then Lee Oser, immediate past president, gave closing remarks.

I will close with a recommendation: Read Ishion Hutchinson’s “The Mud Sermon” (which he read, among other poems, at the banquet), “Little Music,” and “Reading ‘The Tempest’“—and then take your own road through his work (to the extent that any road can be anyone’s own, and to the extent that it actually is a road).

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

A Few Days at Yale: ALSCW Conference Memories, Part 1

Of all the ALSCW conferences in which I have taken part, this one was my favorite, not only because of its setting (Yale University, my undergraduate and graduate alma mater), not only because of the Hungarian group (I traveled to the conference with seven Hungarian adults and a baby; six of them presented in my “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar), not only because of the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar itself, not only because of the many occasions for meeting and conversing with others (receptions, outdoor lunches, and the banquet), not only because of the excellent lineup of panels, seminars, and readings, not only because of the glorious October weather and foliage, not only because we had waited three years for this conference, but because it leaves me now with so much to think about and return to. The conference took place in the Humanities Quadrangle (formerly the Hall of Graduate Studies); its large windows and luminous corridors arrested me several times when I was rushing somewhere or other.

Those days were so thick with detail that time constantly overlapped; at any moment, I was thinking about what was, is, and will be, but in concrete terms (is the laptop hookup working? Will we have time to receive the guitar?). So, unlike yesterday’s post, which gave a rundown of the whole trip, this one will focus on a few highights.

All along, what I have loved about ALSCW conferences is their high quality and their unabashed devotion to literature. The people who attend these conferences love literature and participate in it as writers, critics, readers, scholars, students. The seminars present attendees with difficult choices: Do I go listen to a discussion of Proust or on literary portraiture? Literature and science or Muriel Spark? For me, these choices were mostly absent, because my seminar had two sessions, I was presenting in yet another seminar, and I skipped the Saturday morning seminar block to have coffee with a friend (who had come up to the conference in part to see a few people, including me).

The conference began with a reception (appetizers upon appetizers, and a generous assortment of vegetables), followed, in an auditorium downstairs, by readings by Meringoff Prize winners and a plenary reading by Vivian Gornick. The readings were terrific and ended with”Rubythroat” by Hope Coulter.

Vivian Gornick then spoke about the art of personal narrative: the distinction between situation and story, and the stringent requirements of the latter. To write a good story about your own life, she said, you have to keep yourself somewhat out of it—that is, you need a keen ear for the false note, the pretense. Strip all that pretense away, and you end up with something different from what you might originally have planned to tell. She brought up the example of Natalia Ginzburg, whose experience of devastation leads her to ask others for help and to offer help too, actions which carry the understanding that (in Ginzburg’s words) “we could look at our neighbor with a gaze that would always be just and free, not the timid or contemptuous gaze of someone who whenever he is with his neighbor always asks himself if he is his master or his servant.” This revelation is hard-earned, not glib; to attain it, Ginzburg had to face her capacity for cruelty. Gornick spoke, for her part, with the authority that comes from looking directly at yourself at the times when it is most difficult to do so.

The next day (Friday, October 21) began with a panel on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I listened with absorption and later reread the poem, which I have not read in years. This rereading is just a step, I hope, to many slow returns.

Then came the first round of seminars, including the first session of “Setting Poetry to Music.” Both sessions had eight presenters, most of whom used the technology in the room to play recordings or show images. (One presenter had to miss the conference, but I presented briefly in her stead.) So between the presentations and technology switches, we were left with little time for discussion—but what we had was lively and intriguing.

Gergely Balla gave a commanding opening as the first presenter; he spoke about the Platon Karataev song “Nem felelhet” (“It Cannot Answer”), which draws on nine poems by Sándor Csoóri. He introduced Platon Karataev, then Csoóri; he discussed the subjectivity of definitions of poem, and proposed his own definition: “a poem begins where, at the level of words, the fabric of the language cannot be woven any denser than the word phrase, line, or stanza that is being composed.” He then took us into the song itself and played aloud an unreleased recording—not the final version. (I believe the song will be released later this year.)

Then came Claudia Gary, who spoke on “Song as Conversation,” giving a thoughtful overview and a personal perspective on the questions involved in setting poetry to music. She was followed by Emily Grace, who contrasted two very different musical settings—by Benjamin Britten and John Adams—of John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”

The fourth presenter was Todd Hearon, who spoke about his poem “Caliban in After-Life” and its musical setting by Gregory Brown (who was present in the audience) as a monodrama for soprano, violin, and piano. His essay takes the form of a dialogue between him and Brown. In the video below, Mary Hubbell performs the piece with Joel Pitchon and Judith Gordon.

Kata Heller then spoke about the Hungarian rapper Holi and his long work Roadmovie (Sírok és nevetek). She first asked whether rap can be considered poetry (and arrived at the affirmative). She then explored, from a linguistic perspective, whether it is verbs of motion that create the roadmovie atmosphere of the song, or whether it is something else. She concluded that the song does convey motion, but not primarily through the verbs.

In Anna Maria Hong’s stead, I read aloud her poem “Patisserie du Monde” and played a recording of its transformation into the aria “Cloudberry Pie” in the experimental chamber opera H&G, a great and terrible story, a collaboration between the poet (Hong) and the composer Allen Shawn. (The libretto is based mostly on her novella H&G, which tells the story of Hansel and Gretel from the perspective of different characters.)

Csenger Kertai then spoke of the essential oppositions and their resolution in Attila József’s poem “Tudod, hogy nincs bocsánat” (“Mercy Denied Forever”) and its musical setting by Kaláka. In particular, he explored how the instrumental part of the song reflects a breakdown of the “I” (which in some ways reminds me of Vivian Gornick’s talk).

Alyse O’Hara’s presentation on her song rendition of Sir Walter Ralegh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd“—brought the first part of the session to a thoughtful and moving close. You can listen to the song here.

Discussion followed. The audience members had all sorts of questions: about different kinds of repetitions, about tonality, about collaboration, and much more. We passed around the microphone for a multi-part dialogue and fugue. I was delighted to hear the presenters refer to each other’s presentations and respond in different ways to the questions. I only wish we had had an additional hour to talk.

I will tell about the second session in the next post! The two differed from each other in focus and scope. This first session stayed more or less within the topic of setting poetry to music; the second session branched out a bit into visual renditions, theatre, and more (while also staying with the original theme and questions).

From here, we had lunch in the courtyard. Then, in the afternoon, I presented in Ernest Suarez and David Bromwich’s seminar on “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture”—in which we examined what happens to education when a common culture is waning or absent—and what questions arise when educators endeavor to build something common. Questions of curriculum, canon, allusion, ideals, “we,” student response, institutional integrity, and more came into play. I spoke about the problems with the very concept of “liking” a work: how “liking” has become superficial, and why it is important for students to grapple with works that they do not necessarily like at first. (I also argued for a counterbalance to this: students also need room and time to read for pure fun, or out of their own interest.)

Then came the Dwight Chapel session, which I described yesterday, and the pizza dinner. As for the Friday evening readings, I wish I could say something about them, but as I mentioned yesterday, I fell asleep in the auditorium—which was no comment on the readings, as I would have fallen asleep anywhere at that point. The combination of jet lag, excitement, pressure, joy, and numerous details all coalesced to knock me out. An incredible day! To be followed.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

We did it! (A short summary of the trip)

Most of us are back in Hungary now. It will take a long time to assemble thoughts about this extraordinary trip—to Yale for the ALSCW conference, and to NYC for music, sightseeing, and visits—but it happened and was beautiful.

A brief rundown: We went to the U.S. primarily for the literature conference but also for a few days in NYC. (This trip had been in the planning since March.) Several members of the group arrived in NYC a few days before the rest of us. (The group consisted of seven Hungarian adults, a baby, and me; six of them presented in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.”) We all met at Grand Central Station on October 19, had dinner there, and took the train together to New Haven. I walked with them to their AirBnB apartment—a spacious, sunlit first floor of a house near Wooster Square—and headed off to my own lodgings. The next morning, I came by for breakfast, and then we headed off to campus to look around. We visited the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library with its translucent marble walls and its map exhibit.

Then we took different directions for a while (I had lunch with my friend Ron) and met later outside the Humanities Quadrangle, where the conference was to take place. An old friend of mine, Jenn, came by to lend Gergő and Sebő her husband’s guitar. Another friend would lend a second guitar the next day. The Platon Karataev duo concerts we had scheduled in New Haven and NYC had to be cancelled, because they are not permitted under a tourist visa or ESTA waiver, but we had scheduled a private session at Yale’s Dwight Chapel, and they were also to record in a studio in Brooklyn. We then entered the quadrangle for a genial, flavorful reception and an evening of fine readings. (More about all of this later.) Afterwards I went with my friend Claudia (from Dallas) to the former Viva Zapata, now VivaZ Cantina.

The next morning, I attended a panel on Eliot’s The Waste Land, then headed into our seminar room to set up for the first session of “Setting Poetry to Music.” We had a fairly large audience (for a seminar), an inspiring round of presentations, and a lively, too-short discussion. (Again, more about this later.) Then we headed out to the courtyard for lunch. During our lunch, Tim came by with his guitar and cheer. In the afternoon, I presented in the seminar on “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.” Then darted out the door and rushed to Dwight Chapel.

About a week before our trip, I had written to the Yale chaplain, Sharon Kugler, to ask whether we could visit the chapel, which holds many memories for me, and whether Gergő and Sebő could play music there. She not only welcomed us but put us in touch with Dwight Hall staff to work out the details. This was an unannounced, informal, unofficial session, completely acoustic, with only the group members and a few others in the audience. The sound filled the space but was also crisp; you could hear every guitar note.

The video I shot (of them playing “Ki viszi?” is visually grainy, with a few clumsy filming moments (particularly when I was walking backward), but the sound approximates what this was like. Many, many thanks to Chaplain Sharon Kugler, the Dwight Hall staff (especially Debra Rohr and Alexine Casanova), Tim, Jenn, and Tony, and of course Sebő and Gergő.

In the evening we had dinner at a pizzeria of well-earned fame (which offered vegan pizza, among other delights). We were joined by my friend Lara Allen, who would be presenting the following day in the second session of “Setting Poetry to Music.” Delicious pizza, lively conversation and laughter. After an hour or so, I left the group to attend the ALSCW readings—but was so tired that I fell asleep in the auditorium and woke up only when the readings were all over.

The next day was packed again: an outstanding Shakespeare panel, coffee with Martha, lunch in the courtyard, the second “Setting Poetry to Music” session, a panel on Japanese literature, and then an elegant, rousing banquet in the dining hall of the Yale Divinity School. To top off the night, some of us went to hear the Algerian band Imarhan at Cafe Nine. They were fanatastic; the room swayed and danced.

The next morning, I took part in the ALSCW Council meeting, then met up with the group at the train station.

Before I forget, I should say that the foliage was almost peaking. October is my favorite New England season, especially in New Haven. I love it not only for the leaves, but for the tones of light.

The New York part of the trip was just as momentous and moment-filled, but since it was more personal in nature, I’ll tell, just briefly, about my own part. We all stayed, for different lengths of time (some for one night, some for two, some for four) on the top floor of a legendary old stone home in Queens (known as “The Castle”). On October 24, Sebő and Gergő recorded at Leesta Vall Sound Recordings; I had the joy of listening to the session. Then I brought the guitars back to New Haven (my first chance in days to sit back and let my thoughts roam) and returned them to Tim and Jenn. In the evening some of us got together at an Irish pub with good music playing through the speakers. Long conversations, both jovial and serious—the kind I treasure. Then we more or less went our different ways, except that a few of us stayed at the “Castle” until Thursday, and I took a walk with them on Wednesday.

On Tuesday I saw my friend Tara, who came down from Troy (New York) to see me. On Wednesday I walked around a lot and had coffee with my friend Lizzie. On Thursday I moved to an apartment in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn; I also saw Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle) at Film Forum and had dinner with my friend Sharon (who was my freshman-year roommate at Yale and plays violin in the New York Philharmonic). On Friday I did laundry in the morning (I miss laundromats, of all things), then had lunch in Chinatown with a former colleague. In the afternoon I headed up to my storage space in Washington Heights and managed, in just two hours, to move my things into a smaller and cheaper unit. From there I headed to Queens for a lovely gathering at my friend Liz’s. On Saturday morning I attended the Shabbat service at B’nai Jeshurun. This was a joyous but extremely brief return—I got to talk with Jenny during kiddush lunch, with Harriet briefly, and with others just barely, but the service itself had a boundless quality. Then I bounded off to Williamsburg, where I heard Hannah Marcus (also an friend of many years) play and sing in her Cajun band The Red Aces. A delightful end to the trip. From there I sped back to the place in Flatbush, gathered my things, and took a cab to the airport. The plane took off close to midnight.

Such a stretch of time in NYC is an unpaid luxury for me. It happened because I originally assumed we would have autumn break in the last week of October, as we usually do. In addition, I originally wanted to leave some room for a possible literary/musical event that we would hold in NYC. (The event didn’t come together, which is just as well, given that it might have led to visa problems for members of the group. But it is an idea and possibility for the future.)

Then it turned out that our fall break would be in the first week of November, beginning on October 31. It seemed that I could leave NYC no sooner than October 26, arriving in Szolnok on the 27th—so I figured, why not call it a week and stay a few more days, insto the fall break? But even that changed; it was later decided that we would have no autumn break at all, just a long weekend—so I changed my return flight and came back a few days earlier than previously planned, just so that I wouldn’t be absent an additional Wednesday, which is my longest teaching day of the week. Still, these extra days gave the whole trip a sense of time and lingering, even though it all went by fast. I have much more in my memories than I have laid out here. Also, the friends I saw, both in New Haven and NYC, are some of my dearest friends anywhere, so there was a fullness to it all.

Next time I will describe the content of the conference itself. For now, a few more pictures—and a special thanks to Zalán and Marianna, who took care of Sziszi and Dominó while I was away.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

“See, there’s magic hiding in every departure…”

That is a loose translation of a line from Platon Karataev’s “Lombkoronaszint,” “lásd, hogy varázs rejlik minden indulásban.”* Most of the traveling group is now on route to the U.S.; the rest of us will join them on Wednesday. Over the past six months, we all have been planning and preparing, adjusting to circumstances, changing certain plans, preparing the conference papers and presentations (I am presenting too, in a different seminar), scheduling concerts, canceling them, handling vaccinations, lodging, passports, visas, gathering everything together, packing—and now here we are, right at the bundle of moments.

We had to cancel the two concerts in New Haven and NYC because, as we learned, foreign musicians traveling to the U.S. need a special artist visa to perform in any capacity, even for free. Even if we had known about this long in advance, Sebő and Gergő might not have been able to get the visas in time, since they require many steps and extensive documentation (and cost a fortune too). So there will be no Platon Karataev duo concerts at all, but the trip itself and the conference remain intact. (At the 2022 ALSCW conference at Yale, I am leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” in which six members of the Hungarian group and twelve composers, writers, and scholars from the U.S. will be presenting.) In some ways it’s even better this way, since we will have more time to enjoy the trip, with less rush from one event to the next.

The concerts leading up to this trip have been some of my favorites in all my five years in Hungary. On Friday night, Cz.K. Sebő, Gábor Molnár, and Grand Bleu held a concert at the cozy Borpatika, the first in a series of concerts intended to help Budapest’s tiny clubs and pubs survive. I think Sebő—and maybe the others who performed that night—created the series. The idea is not only to hold concerts in little pubs, but to give them a personal and relaxed atmosphere. The musicians talk with the audience, tell stories between songs, welcome requests, etc. It was so beautiful and genuine that I had a weird attack of happiness.

In more ways than one, I was not alone. One person invited me to join her and her friends at a table; another treated me to a glass of wine and told me he liked my blog (this one here). These are people I have seen at various concerts and online but never met before. I stayed almost until the end of the concert, then took the latest train back to Szolnok and got home around 2:00 a.m. I didn’t even feel the lack of sleep the next day, which was a work day for us, but an easy one: the “Katalin Day” celebration (an annual tradition: a humorous competition and induction for the ninth graders, along with the equally traditional and legendary skit in which students from Class 11B parody the teachers).

After the celebration, I went home for a few hours and then headed out to Budapest again, visited a favorite Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and then set out for the Táncszínház, where Platon Karataev gave a rich, charged performance, just hours before Gergő, Sebő, and the others would head out to the airport. It had been a few months since I had last heard the whole band (the last time was at Fishing on Orfű). This time I heard new textures in the songs, or combinations of textures. Some of the high points for me were “Most magamban,” “Wide Eyes,” “Lassú madár,” “Elmerül,” “Tágul,” the cover of VHK’s “Halló mindenség,” and “Elevator.” But I was so excited about the trip that even sitting there in the hall was a high point: magic hiding in a departure, and a departure hiding in the act of sitting still.

Art credit: Andrew Walaszek, Departure (1989). Platon Karataev concert photo credit: sinco. I took the three pictures in the middle of the post: (1) of the entrance to the Borpatika, (2) of Cz.K. Sebő and Gábor Molnár, and (3) of Grand Bleu.

*Update: I later learned that the line from Lombkoronaszint is a quotation from Hermann Hesse’s poem “Stufen” (“Stages”), “Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne, / Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.”

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    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.


    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.


    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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