Different Kinds of Depth

The phrase “a deep person” makes me wary. Everyone is infinitely deep. Some people choose to escape from it, while others look it right in the face. Some keep it to themselves, while some share it with others. Some find their way to it through music and other art; others pound their feet on it when running long distance. Some find it when life socks them in the stomach. Some find it through jokes. Some don’t find it at all but are found with it somehow.

There is no point in judging oneself or others as “deep” or “shallow.” Such judgments usually break down. We don’t know what’s going on in another person, and are in no position to measure it. As for ourselves, who are we to call ourselves “deep,” when we have no basis for comparison? Deep in relation to what? What we think we see in others? What we see and what’s going on are two different things, or maybe three or more.

Still, depth does exist, and it takes different forms. There is music that plunges right away, and music that starts out on the lighter side but takes you deeper and deeper. And music that stays near the surface or flies upward.

Beginning with Atoms—their first album, For Her, is a little different in this regard—Platon Karataev’s music starts out deep with “Ex Nihilo” and goes deeper and deeper from there (if there’s such a thing as deeper than nothing). I can’t wait to hear the whole Partért kiáltó album, which will be coming out soon. Listening to the title song many times, I realize that the best way to approach it is on its own terms: not to squeeze it into existing frames and thoughts, but to take it as it is. It speaks as water, it speaks a language of water, all the layers moving and sparkling and darkening.

Cz.K. Sebő’s music, in contrast, sometimes starts out on the lighter side but then surprises and disarms you as it continues. For instance, “Someday” begins like a casual, melancholic conversation or letter, but each repetition of the sentence “you’ll be alone someday” changes and tilts the tone and sense slightly, until the listener receives these words directly and has to confront their meaning. That each of us will be alone someday, no matter how lucky or unlucky we are, no matter what we do.

One of my favorite songs by Galaxisok, “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” seems entirely lighthearted until you suddenly hear what is going on. It’s a dreamy song about falling asleep at Ikea, and waking up when it’s already dark, and running into an old girlfriend, Diána, who also, as it happens, fell asleep at Ikea. And they walk and talk together, and bring up memories of how one summer, when they were taking a make-up math exam, Peti broke his arm and had to wear a cast the whole time. Later that same summer he learns of another accident, and realizes Diána was in it, but then rejoins, “de felejtsd el, inkább hagyjuk ezt” (“but forget it, let’s drop this”). And then, “Én nem leszek fiatalabb, / te nem leszel öregebb,” “I’m not getting any younger, / You’re not getting any older,” which tells you, when it hits you, that Diána is dead and this dream took place after her death. But the music is so gentle and playful-sounding that you might miss this the first time around. (I missed it the first few times, but I think that’s because I am not a native speaker of Hungarian.) This is only a brief summary of the song; it has beautifully murky and surreal motions and images, such as crawling under the leaves of the indoor palms in the plant department.

No one has to be deep all the time; it can’t be forced. Depth happens when we let ourselves go into something. We know better than anyone else does when this happens and when it doesn’t. But sometimes, in the moment, the word “deep” doesn’t even come to mind. The thing itself draws us in, and only afterwards, in memory or reflection, does it seem profound. At other times, the profundity jumps out at us right away.

Going deep can be important as a practice, for those who want better self-knowledge, or who want to reckon with their actions, or who want to create something. But such practice often takes place in private, through meditation, prayer, or quiet thought. Sometimes it can happen in a long conversation, the kind where the conversants forget the time. Sometimes it can happen when doing something with others: for instance, playing music. But I don’t think it’s social, for the most part.

This does not mean that introversion is necessarily deeper than extraversion; introversion and extraversion can take all sorts of forms. There are people who like to spend evenings alone at home browsing random YouTube videos. There are people who go out in the world and strike up conversations with people out of genuine desire to know them better. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Language, after all, takes you deeper into meanings, if you pay attention to it; there are many ways, quiet and lively, to do so. Yesterday I came upon a poem by Dezső Kosztolányi, “Szeptemberi áhítat” (“September Piety”) that I realized was one of the most beautiful poems I had read in Hungarian. But what does it mean to read it? I have read it silently and out loud; I have listened to the recording of János Pilinszky reading it. But this is just the beginning; I need to take much more time with it, maybe memorize it, maybe translate it (George Szirtes’s translation is good, but I want to go about it differently), maybe even set it to music, with cello. And then come back to reading it in silence, reciting it in my mind.

So where is all of this going? Depth is not something to claim as a title; it can be found through practice, but it also comes to you by surprise, and it’s open to all. Of all the ways we have of judging and writing off others, this is one of the worst; calling someone “deep” or “shallow” is just lying, because we are always undulating and trembling between levels, and have no idea where others (or even we ourselves) will go next.

On (Not) Taking Pictures at Concerts

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I attended a concert without taking any pictures. (It was Cz.K. Sebő with his band—a good though short show.) While I still expect to take pictures at concerts now and then, it was a relief this time not to do so. I didn’t have to worry about anything; I could just listen.

Pictures taken at concerts don’t always come out well. That’s why bands and venues have their own photographers, who go up close, shoot from different angles, etc. In contrast, if you’re in the audience, you want the photo-taking to be as brief and unobtrusive as possible, so you take out the camera (phone), shoot a few, and then put it away again. It’s a bit of a gamble.

Beyond that, when taking a picture, you’re trying to freeze or capture something that isn’t supposed to be captured. One reason for going to concerts is to hear a performance that will never be repeated in that exact same way. The moments are going by, you know they will never come back, and you want to meet them as they pass. A photograph can bring back a memory of a concert, but it can’t bring back the concert itself, and if it could, the concert would lose its meaning.

That touches on another problem: the distraction. Even if you take just one picture during a show, you’re distracting yourself slightly, and maybe others too. Never mind videos. When people hold their phones up in the air to get a video of their favorite song in the set, or just to get a video, period, they block others’ view and insert tiny screens into the picture.

And what about privacy? Yes, a concert counts as a public event, but even public events have a private aspect. Musicians don’t necessarily want their every move to be captured on phones, even on stage. It’s unnerving. And offstage they shouldn’t be subject to unsolicited photo shoots at all. But once people are in photo-clicking mode, they often clickity-clack into the night without restraint.

Last night a woman (in her forties or fifties) was taking repeated pictures of the Platon Karataev members as they talked with each other after the show. (Everyone from Platon Karataev was there.) She might have been a family member, in which case it’s understandable. But I thought she was a stranger, and my blood started to pound. Why couldn’t she leave them alone in their downtime?

Oh, but in this era of ubiquitous photo-clicking, there is no downtime, not even for audience members. Someone included me in a video last night. At many events, people have pointed their cameras my way, and I have seen the not-so-flattering results online a day or two later. You can’t attend an event anonymously any more. Your presence and reactions get recorded. And when people bring their phones and take pictures too, they make this more acceptable, when it shouldn’t be. Granted, sometimes the photos come out well, and sometimes it’s nice to have them. But I am uneasy with the trend.

The picture above (taken on Thursday evening) has nothing to do with this post except for the anonymity of the figures in it. It’s one of the best pictures I have ever taken; I had arrived at the Keleti station in Budapest and saw the shadows and light. So I quickly shot a photo. It has more people than most of my photos do, but no one would be able to identify them except perhaps the woman on the right. I find the silhouettes and shadows soothing.

What would it be like to have no picture- or video-shooting at concerts at all, except by designated photographers? It’s not going to happen, probably—but it would change the atmosphere for the better. In the absence of such a rule or agreement, it’s on each person to consider whether this incessant shooting really brings anything to the occasion. I will probably continue to take pictures here and there, but will keep the phone stowed away for the most part. I have some beautiful photos and don’t need that many more. And how great it is to attend a concert with full spirit and walk away with just the sounds and images in my mind, no token, no souvenir.

On the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness

I remember coming upon Lucky Curtains, the last of Granfaloon Bus’s albums, in a record store and seizing it in its gleaming wrapping. I purchased it, took it home, and for weeks listened to nothing else. It opened up something raw; my editing job (at a company that published career guides) went against who I was, and I knew it was time for a change. It was around then that I decided to become a teacher, and it took another year to make this happen. The music, this album, was part of the catalyst. Why? It’s hard to define and delimit these things, especially after all these years. But listening to the songs now, I hear not only the sadness that hit me then, but a happiness mixed in too, a kind of tentative, mitigated hope or at least ease.

Any mood, any emotion, is more than one thing at once; we are under pressure to name it one thing or another, to give it one emoticon or another, but it usually comes along with its opposite. Often when I am angry, I also see past the anger; often when worried I feel calm. Likewise, happiness and sadness go together so strongly that to separate them means to lose both.

On the Lucky Curtains album, the song “House” has all kinds of emotions together: happiness and sadness, security and tentativeness, expansiveness and enclosedness. Not only opposites, but gradations and hints, something outside of the polarities.

Whenever I mention being sad, there are those who jump in and try to fix it. Don’t! It is part of the happiness; it makes happiness possible. The dreariest thing on earth is one-sidedness. No one has to fall for it.

There are specific, obvious things to be sad about (climate change, the spreading Delta variant, hurricanes and floods, the disaster in Afghanistan, personal losses), but beyond that, sadness is a current in life; loss of some kind is always present. In János Pilinszky’s poetry I find an exceptional compression of happiness and sadness: a seemingly tranquil scene can contain endless grief. An example is his poem “Kegyelem” (“Grace”):

Bogarak szántják a sötétet
és csillagok az éjszakát.
Van időnk hosszan üldögélni
az asztalon pihenő lámpafényben.
Megadatott a kegyelem:
miközben minden áll és hallgat,
egyedül az öröklét működik.

In rough translation:

(Beetles plow through the dark
and stars the night.
We have time for long lingering
at the table in leisurely lamplight.
Grace has become possible:
while everything stops and listens,
eternity works all alone.)

The pivotal word here is “megadatott,” which is not the same as “megadott” (“it is given”). “Megadatott” expresses a tentative possibility. Grace is not certain; it just becomes possible in these still moments, which themselves are rare. The poem holds this rarity.

Last night I was listening again to Cz.K. Sebő’s “kétezerhúsz” (“2020”), a truly sad song. But if there’s a happiness in it, it has to do with being able to sing the sadness as it is, being at peace with it in some way. I think that is a kind of happiness, but not a cheery kind. I understand much more of the song than I did before; not just the literal meaning of the lyrics, but their tones too.

It’s hard to explain that happiness and sadness go together; lots of people know and understand this, but our current vocabulary doesn’t make much room for it. There’s so much pressure to be on the up-and-up, always doing better, feeling better. But literature and music (and other arts) make room for something else.

What is the mood of Dávid Szesztay’s “Késő” (“Late”), for instance? It starts out mournful, but then it lifts up into a kind of exhilaration. The word “but” here is misleading; the one mood follows from the other.

It isn’t just that different moods coexist. Rather, there’s something more important than mood. We (around the world, but particularly in the U.S.) place too much emphasis on being happy, being fulfilled, as though such a thing could be attained and frozen in place, and as though it were more important than the things we do and receive. I don’t mean that mood is unimportant, but it’s a background color, changing and blending and fading, a wash of sky.

“Classical” Music and Other Kinds

I grew up with so-called classical music. That term is misleading, because it refers to many different kinds and eras of music at once, but people know more or less what it means. It doesn’t mean Bob Dylan or Thelonious Monk (though jazz and classical have close relations at times, as do classical and folk). It does mean Bach, Beethoven, Pärt, Schnittke, and others. It is usually in relatively long form (not three-minute pieces), played with acoustic instruments at a high level of proficiency or virtuosity, and performed in somewhat formal settings. All of this is just a start, though, and it doesn’t touch on the exceptions, the breaks, and the many connections with other kinds of music.

Most of the music in our record collection was not just classical, but Baroque. Except for a few albums of children’s songs, and some cantatas and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (which I loved), there were hardly any songs to be found. That’s partly why I fell in love with songs later; I didn’t know at first how brilliant they could be. Popular music was written off as “junk”; I had no idea that, within so-called popular music, there were musicians breaking with the norms and seeking the music that came closest to what they heard in their souls and minds.

But even in childhood I liked to listen to favorite albums again and again, just as I do now, and I love those favorites still. One of my very favorites (and a standout item in the family collection) was Beethoven’s piano trio Opus 1, no. 3, as performed by Casals, Végh, and Horszowski. I have never heard a recording of this piece that I love as much as this one. It is feverish and subtle and restrained. Listening to it now, I anticipate those favorite turns and runs, the instruments’ intertwinings, the silences between the notes (one of my favorite parts is around 9:53, right near the end of the first movement, but you have to hear everything leading up to it). I played the first movement in an informal trio too, in my first year of college. I think we might have performed it once, but again, informally.

I listen to music in a similar way today, playing favorites over and over (often in my head), with full or almost-full focus, and slowly adding more. The love for certain classical pieces has not gone away, nor has my desire to hear more within that vast category, but there are so many directions to take in music, each one with its brilliances and darknesses.

At some point in adulthood I became somewhat resistant to classical music because of all the adult approval that had gone along with it in my childhood. (Approval, beyond a certain point, overemphasizes the feelings and preferences of the approver.) Classical music was approved, other kinds disapproved or completely discredited. Right now, I don’t really care, because those were limited judgments anyway, and there’s so much more music, of all kinds, than I will get to hear in my life. Music is one area where, within basic limitations, you get to do whatever you want, especially as a listener. Who can turn down that invitation?

In the photo at the top, I am ten years old; we are on the Russian (Soviet) ship the Mikhail Lermontov, on our way to the Netherlands, where we would spend a year. Here the passenger chorus is singing “Kalinka.”

Update: For a beautiful example of the intersections between classical and folk/popular music, see Lázár tesók’s recent live session, which opens with “Csak mi,” one of my favorites of their songs.

On Missing Concerts

There are times in life when a person is unable to attend a particular concert, despite wanting badly to do so. This is well known to most people, and not a surprise. Going to any concert that you love is a special occasion, not an everyday matter. The musicians, in contrast, might be playing every day, or close, because that’s what they do (at the risk of exhaustion and more). Audience members have to choose; sometimes the choice is made for them. Some will go to more concerts than others, but everyone has a day when they can’t.

“Can’t” is relative; there are ways to break through the impossible into possibility. But that isn’t always a good idea. Also, not being able to go, once in a while, makes the next occasion all the more meaningful. Moreover, life deserves attention, not neglect. It is our daily lives that open us up to music in the first place; we don’t live in total abstraction. I also need unstructured time when I am not rushing off anywhere but can think, write, listen to music, sing, play cello.

And the very existence of the concert is much more important than one person’s attendance or non-attendance. Those who are there will get to hear it; that is the great thing. Since the Covid era begyn, this stopped being something to take for granted.

Musicians have to take care of themselves too; this can pose challenges. It’s good to perform often, but at some point, it gets to be too much. It’s hard to judge that point or adjust to it, because until then, more seems better, not only for the thrill of playing for different audiences, not only for the exposure, but for the art itself. But the art also needs withdrawal and quiet; it can’t survive on constant activity. Different musicians need different proportions, but the proportions must exist.

The musicians’ responsibilities are different from the audience’s. If they cancel a show, many people, including those running the venue, will be disappointed, whereas if an audience member can’t make it, others still can—and it is good for the audiences to vary. That said, it’s hard, even knowing this, to turn a long-awaited concert down.

Yesterday I went to Buda for the Óbudai Nyár, to hear Marcell Bajnai and the Pandóra Projekt. It was fantastic: probably my favorite of Marcell’s solo concerts so far, and the first time I heard the Pandóra Project live. Marcell played solo songs (that is, songs he does not play with his band, Idea), including some favorites and at least one I hadn’t heard before; some songs that he plays with the band but that originated in his room, and some fantastic covers, including “Zöld-sárga” (which I plan to learn), “Lámpát ha gyújtok” (a Quimby cover), and Gábor Presser’s classic “Te majd kézenfogsz.”

As for the Pandóra Projekt, it is astounding what the two women (Janka Zsuzsanna Végh and Dorci Major) do with their voices and a ukulele. The harmonies and rhythms, the textures, the humor and pathos, the Hungarian folk feel mixed with blues, all of those are just words; you have to hear them to know what their music is like. Here’s one of their songs, “csirkefogó.” In this recording, they have other musicians playing with them, but it’s even more exciting to hear them as a duo, because of the way the sound fills the air, and the twists and turns it takes.

I had a ticket to go hear Esti Kornél (for the first time) right nearby, in the evening, but I was exhausted and had to come back home. I had also wanted to hear Platon Karataev play in the town of Zsámbék (it had to be one of those concerts or the other), but there was no way to get out there without having to spend the night there too. So I came home happy and a little bit woozy, too tired to do anything. I went to sleep. The cats seemed perturbed that I was going to bed so early, but they accepted it eventually.

I have to miss the next two Platon Karataev concerts too, or the next two that I know about right now. One of them is today, but it isn’t a good idea for me to go back to Budapest, after Orfű and yesterday; I have to catch up with translating and prepare for the new teaching year. The next one—and this chips at my heart a little—is their concert on September 16 at Müpa Budapest. I would have gone if there was any way; I bought a ticket as soon as it was announced. But it starts at the very tail end of Yom Kippur, at the time of breaking the fast, and as the cantor, I can’t just skip out at that moment (or earlier, to get to the concert on time). It wouldn’t be right; it would mean breaking my responsibility during the most solemn Jewish holiday of the year, and it would be wrong at other levels too. (Update: A friend found someone, her mother in fact, to take my ticket; I am so happy that the seat won’t be empty and that someone will get to enjoy the show instead of me. The concert is completely sold out now.)

There is even something beautiful about attending a concert when you truly and fully can, instead of trying to twist heaven and earth to make it possible. It becomes less of a theft and more of a gift. Yes, sometimes it’s great to find a way through all sorts of obstacles. But not all the time.

I made some additions to (and subtractions from) this blog piece after posting it.

Fishing on Orfű: Highlights and Other Lights

I had been dreaming of this for a while: to go to the Fishing on Orfű festival for a day (I had schedule constraints and couldn’t go for longer), hear Platon Karataev on the water stage, then go hear Dávid Szesztay and, in the remainder of the time, walk around and hear other musicians I happened to come upon. It worked out just like that, only better.

I had gone to one day of the Mini-Fishing on Orfű in June. As soon as I found out that there was going to be a full-length festival, I ordered a ticket. It’s a great place to be. The music is anywhere from good to outstanding, the friendly crowd spans several generations, and the scenery takes you up in its arms. It’s around you, all the time; if you like, you can take a quiet walk by the lake in the morning, when only the birds and fish are making sounds. Fish making sounds? Yes, I saw and heard a few leap out of the water, including a big one. They come back down with a splash, sending the rings ripping.

I left home on Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. to catch the 7:56 train to Budapest. From there I transfered to a train that went to Pécs. On the train, I was sitting across from a talkative elderly woman, who had the ear of the young woman sitting beside her. She talked and talked about her family, about religion, about anything that came to mind; eventually I was included in the conversation too. She offered to sell me one of the necklaces she made—she carried them around in a box—but I didn’t think I could afford the cash. So she just gave me one as a gift, and gave another to the young woman, whose name was Izabell. (In the photo below, I am wearing the necklace, along with one that I already had.) Then the necklace-giving woman got off one stop before Pécs, or maybe two, and Izabell and I continued talking, this time about music. We exchanged recommendations, lots of them. She was also going to Fishing on Orfű to hear Platon Karataev and a few others.

We both intended to take the bus from Pécs to Orfű, but I sensed that she had her own plans, so when we got there, we said goodbye and went in opposite directions. Unsure where to catch the bus, I ended up taking a cab—a bit of a splurge, but worthwhile in terms of getting me to the festival in time. The cab driver was jovial and full of stories. He told me about a Roman bust of Marcus Aurelius that had been found in the area. The ride went over hill and dale, and soon I was there.

I set up the tent and headed down to the water.

The water stage is actually on the water, not beside it. The musicians arrive by boat, and the sound man stays nearby in a boat during the show. The audience either sits on the edge of the lake or goes into the water, near the stage. When I arrived, Carson Coma was in the middle of their set. I enjoyed what I heard; I had heard them briefly at Kolorádó, but this acoustic version caught my ear. Lots of people were in the water, thigh-deep or so, singing along; I made my way into the crowd.

Just a few days earlier, I had learned that the Platon Karataev concert was going to be the acoustic duo, not the full band (the band played at the festival the previous night, after midnight, to a huge audience). That made it all the more wonderful, because it was low-key and quiet and attentive. You could take in the songs and feel the water and air. I don’t know if I will ever get to hear “Partért kiáltó” in the water again, or “Orange Nights,” or any of their songs. But maybe yes. Maybe they’ll play the water stage again next summer. Either way, it was a gift. They played a series of songs from the upcoming album, and some older songs too.

After that, I headed up the hill to see and hear what was going on before Dávid Szesztay. I heard a solo musician I immediately liked, Hunor Ipolyi-Gáts. I stayed to hear the rest of his set. Then I stopped for a few minutes to hear a band playing on the largest stage—it might have been a rehearsal, since it wasn’t listed in the schedule—then walked way up the hill and found myself listening to Dante, an lively folk-rock band with horns, traditional recorder-like instruments, and more. I eventually realized that they were on the very stage where Dávid Szesztay would be playing, so I stayed put (after leaving anxiously for a few minutes to check a map and make sure I was in the right place).

This was my fourth time hearing Szesztay live, whether solo or with his band, but this time he had a new band, a trio, whom I hadn’t heard befor and who were fantastic. One of them plays bass ukulele (I think); the other, drums (and Szesztay alternates between keyboard and guitar). The sound was rich and deep, with all sorts of rhythms; I heard familiar songs in new ways. My favorites of the evening were “Késő,” “Hullámzás,” and “Szólj.” Granted, those are some of my favorites anyway, but they had a different texture this evening.

After that, I heard Ivan & the Parazol (fun, with lots of people singing along and dancing), and then most of the HS7 (Heaven Street Seven) show. I knew nothing about them but realized pretty quickly that they were legends. This was their only festival performance in 2021, and the crowd seemed to be relishing every bit of it. I enjoyed what I heard but was a bit overwhelmed after the whole day; I will return to their music on my own to see if it catches on with me.

And that was enough. I went back down to the tent and tried to sleep, but didn’t really succeed. It rained for a good part of the night, and the music went on and on, but I rather enjoyed that. Then, around five in the morning, everything settled into quiet, and I packed up the tent and got ready to go. Before leaving, I walked around the grounds a little. The Amondó stage was glowing and deserted. (This is where Platon Karataev played in June, at Mini-Fishing on Orfű; this is also where they played on Wednesday night.)

I took a walk down by the lake and saw the water stage at daybreak.

As I mentioned, there were fish jumping out of the water; in a video I shot, you can hear one (along with many birds).

The trip back required good timing, which I fortunately had; I took a 6:30 bus back to Pécs, took a 7:30 train (or thereabouts) to Budapest-Kelenföld, took another train to Kőbánya-Kispest, and then changed from there to the train that took me to Szolnok, where I arrived at 11:37. Just before arriving in Szolnok, I took a video from the back of the train.

That was the day at Fishing on Orfű. Now I am listening to the rain and the leaves here in Szolnok, and it feels like a continuation and rupture at the same time. Orfű isn’t transportable, but it is still with me in some way, even as I turn my mind to other things.

New Poem: “The Silver Stairs”

The Silver Stairs

Diana Senechal

When I staggered up the last of the silver stairs,
I barely registered their tarnishes.
I wanted to return a book to Frank before nightfall.
Four books in one. The Alexandria Quartet.
Then I saw you on the indoor stairs, surprised,
maybe angry to see me. I learned later
that Frank was throwing a party for you that night
and I had not been invited. You may have thought

that I showed up to spite you, but such acts
were even less on my mind than silver stairs
or their yellowing. I was thinking of the book itself,
of Justine and Clea and the way the story goes
through so many turnings. You don’t really know
who anyone is until the end, and then even less.
So don’t assume you knew why I had come.
My errand done, I left at once; isn’t that proof

enough for your accusing soul? But why
these hurlings anyway? I am no worse than those
silverish few you want to be seen around,
the ones whose names you listed and handed over
to Frank, who diligently made the calls, adding
in tarnished tones, “Don’t tell anyone about this.”
Secrets come loose at last, but most are vain.
Had I been invited, I probably would have dared

little more than a hello. I would have stood
with a beer in the corner, looking and thinking
on the room’s glow and shadow, the swift eyebrows,
the stories I didn’t know but could pick up,
the way we sing along with an unknown song,
our lips predicting the next shape of syllable,
our bodies figuring the beat to come.
In other words, it wouldn’t have been so bad

to open the doors. But even those left out
had a chance to walk the fifty silver stairs.
Those are for anyone. Worn down by daily feet
in common time, they keep their ancient promise.
“No one can keep you from us, least of all us.
We are for all who find us, all who climb
even a step or two, even by chance,
even just to return a book to someone—

Just? There’s no ‘just’ about something like that.
No chance, either. Whatever your purpose was,
it melts into our history, so silver
now pours into your act, and all your motions
will bear our shimmer, but you will not know.”
That was what happened when I brought the book,
and saw you glaring on the stairs inside,
and turned around, confused, and went back down.

Image: Canaletto, A capriccio with a monumental staircase (drawing, c. 1755 – c. 1760).

I changed two words in this poem after posting it. I like this poem, even if no one else does. It has a rather unreliable narrator, who is making up stuff about the person she criticizes for (supposedly) doing the same about her. But still, even in that unreliability, there is some truth.

Running, Radio, and Rest

A busy summer vacation filled with translation, travel, and concerts has come to an end, though the translation and concerts continue. We have a faculty meeting tomorrow morning and will then be officially back on board, though the week is fairly light for some of us. The following week, September 1, is when classes start. I am assuming that nothing will prevent me from going to Fishing on Orfű this Thursday, though that could change. I’m going only for a night, since I have to be back before Friday evening to lead an online Szim Salom service. I will arrive at the festival in time to pitch my tent and then hear the Platon Karataev acoustic duo (Gergő and Sebő) play on the water stage. Then I will find my way to the Fonó Borfalu to hear Dávid Szesztay; I will probably stay there to hear Szeder (for the first time), and then walk around and explore. But to do this, it won’t be possible to bring the bike, unfortunately; it turns out that there are no available bike spaces on the trains from Budapest to Pécs. Instead, I will take the train to Pécs (from Szolnok, via Budapest, without a bike), then take a public bus from Pécs to Orfű. That will also allow me to get back home earlier on Friday.

I am looking forward to the school year; I have lots of plans for my classes, and this year, if we are lucky, we (the public library and the school) will actually be able to hold a Shakespeare festival.

But on to the subjects of this post: running, radio, and rest.

Running is my favorite form of exercise after bicycling, when I am relatively in shape. Recently I have been running a mile almost every day, which isn’t much compared to what I used to do at my peak (five miles twice a week or so), but still an improvement over the recent years. I think I could work back up to five miles, but I have to do it carefully. Anyway, running takes off the excess energy, elongates the body, and just feels great. So much for that.

Now, radio. For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a radio listener. It wasn’t on at home when I was growing up, and while my first encounters with radio were enchanting (I still remember the songs that played the day that I stayed home with a fever and listened), I usually couldn’t take that endless stream of Top 40 hits. Only later did I become aware of independent radio, and even then, I preferred to choose what to listen to. But over time, I came to realize how great a well-run radio show can be. If it’s a good show, it introduces you to music you will want to hear again, maybe music you would never have encountered on your own. The DJ not only knows a lot of music and has an enormous repertoire to select from, but also enjoys selecting and commenting on things.

It takes some dedication to listen to the radio. I don’t work with music in the background—I have to focus on the music, if it’s on—so I pick one radio show a week and stay for the whole thing if possible. Most recently, this show has been WFMU’s Continental Subway, with DJ David Dichelle. It’s a fantastic show. He plays music from all around the world, and knows how to pronounce the names and titles. In the third hour, the “Random Road,” he focuses on one country in particular, a surprise location (because he never tells us in advance). Last Thursday it was Bhutan. The music was dreamy. You can go listen to it in the archives if you are curious.

One of the real gifts of the internet is that it allows people to listen to a radio show from around the world and to type comments. So there are regulars from many different places, and short text conversations take place. Also, David welcomes us to write with suggestions. He is very interested in Hungarian bands, and has played some of my suggestions already: the Pandóra Projekt, Felső Tízezer, and the Sebő-együttes, as well as some Hungarian music that was new to me. It is really fun to have my suggestion played, and even more fun to hear music I don’t already know, and kinds of music I don’t usually listen to. I otherwise like to listen to my favorites over and over again, so this is a good contrast.

That leads to the last topic: rest. It is a good thing. But it has many dimensions. Rest isn’t just the absence of work, or the increase of sleep. It also has to do with the redirection of thought. We have many things that we are used to thinking about; turning the attention somewhere else, even for a little while, can be greatly restorative. That’s part of what happens at the end of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” (one of my favorite stories in the world). The encounter with the baker shocks the bereaved couple out of their train of thought. There is something restful and luminous about the ending.

All of these are luxuries—running, radio, and rest—but luxuries that can be found and built, to some degree, with minimal money. They do take money, but not a lot. That is one thing I love about living in Hungary, where I moved almost four years ago: it is possible to build so much out of a simple life. I don’t have much money at all; my total financial assets, beyond my apartment, would probably get me through one year in the U.S. (if I were careful), and my teaching job pays me the equivalent of thirteen thousand dollars a year, more or less. But not only is it possible to live on very little here, but there’s so much to learn, create, and support. It’s hard to convey this to others, but it’s true: some material possessions are important, but not many. All depends on what one wants to do with them. For me, the apartment, the bike, the books, the musical instruments, the laptop are quite enough, not only in themselves, but in the projects they make possible. So, back to translating for a while.

“siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél….”

Platon Karataev’s song “Partért kiáltó” (“Crying for the Coast,” or “Shouting for Shore”), the title song from their forthcoming album, can be heard in so many ways that anything I say about it is just a temporary thought, different from what others hear in it, and different from what I might hear in it next time. I wrote recently about the silences in it, and that was just a fragment of a beginning.

One line, “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél” was puzzling me in terms of grammar alone. The words mean, in sequence, “hurries who is faster than the forest,” but I realized it had to be a special construction. I first thought it might be something like “fut ki merre lát” (“people are running every which way,” “people are running for their lives”). In that case, it would mean, approximately, “everyone is hurrying faster than the forest.” But instead, I think the “ki” is equivalent to “aki,” in which case this would mean, “he/she hurries, who is faster than the forest,” or “whoever is faster than the forest, hurries.”

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

(but stay, if you came all the way here,
whoever is faster than the forest, hurries)

The other possibility that occurred to me is a kind of poetic inversion of word order: that this might mean the same as “ki siet gyorsabb az erdőnél,” or “who hurries faster than the forest.” In that case, it would refer back to “te.”

but stay, if you came all the way here,
you who hurry faster than the forest

But I have never seen an inversion like that, so for now I will stay with “whoever is faster than the forest, hurries.” That could mean something like “stay still, there is no rush,” or “time has a different scale here.” It has the ring of a saying or proverb.

These lines begin to unlock the song. At one level it seems to be about a relationship. The speaker, the water, addresses someone who has come to him out of love maybe, someone to whom he feels he has nothing to give. But this person came the distance for him, and is invited to stay here, in this space and time that are different from the world’s. No one else is there, not even rain: just the sea and the one who came to the sea.

Because that’s how it is in both solitude and love. No one else is there. Just the one or the two.

The song, as I hear it right now, has something to do with the hopelessness and hope of love: the human condition of pain and restlessness and infinity, but also the hope and change that can come from another’s presence. The final words could be coming from the water, from the other person, or from both, like a dialogue:

ezért a mondatért jöttem
ezért a mondatért
ezért a emberért jöttem
ezért a emberért

I came for this sentence
for this sentence
I came for this person
for this person

But even with that interpretation, it doesn’t stay still; different parts stand out at different times, taking on new tones, and I am not sure that it’s about a relationship at all, or about what we usually call relationship. The lyrics are absolutely beautiful and carry the beauty of the Hungarian language with them. The music carries its own dimensions of meaning; just as with the lyrics, you can listen to it in many ways, over and over, to each instrument and to the whole. I think Platon Karataev has reached a new level with this song.

In a distant way, the song reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” which similarly has to do with an infinity of pain, an inability to love, but then a turn toward some kind of hope, if only the hope of longing. But Cohen’s lyrics are more bitter, at least until the last two verses. “Partért kiáltó” has all of the pain, or some memory or echo of pain, but none of the bitterness. But now I am not sure that “pain” is what’s going on in it. There’s something else.

Even as I write this, I start hearing the song in different ways. It could also be a call to the listener, a kind of “invitation au voyage,” except that here the voyage consists in staying still and listening, letting the song go down into you. But that understanding, too, will change, and others will hear the song in still different ways, so I will leave off here.

I made a few additions and changes to this piece after posting it, most recently on September 3. I won’t keep on revising it, though, because there will always be more to the song than I can put down here, and this was meant just as a start.

P.S. When the full album Partért kiáltó comes out, the lyrics booklet will include English translations. But since translation is what I do (or a big part of it), and since I moved to Hungary in large part for the language, I like to ponder these things.

P.P.S. Thanks to David Dichelle, the DJ of WFMU’s Continental Subway, for including the song in his show on September 2.

New Poem: “The God of More”

The God of More

Diana Senechal


I once worshiped the god of more,
the robot drum chopping the night,
not programmed to stop for breath,
the wave roaring over your name
with ebbless, pelagic will,
the hand taking hold of a shoulder,
numb to the pulling away,
the cry that spills on your shoes,
then calls for another beer.

There is a pause
that lets music rustle itself
gently into its clothes.

There is a love
that lives by not having to have.

But no, this is not a sermon.
Things come to an end anyway.
Come, look at the dwindling gold.

  • “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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