Listen Up: Galaxisok

I have been looking forward to this post—the sixth in my Listen Up series—for a while, with some trepidation: What do I say about Galaxisok? Their music is serious fun, with catchy rhythms and melodies, subtle textures and chords, and some heartbreak and worries mixed in. The songs evoke pictures, films, states of mind, eras, stages of life; they tell stories, ponder dilemmas, and crack wry jokes. They sink into you, so that when you remember them, they are already classics for you. But what is the music like? Their own description (at least I think it’s theirs) offers more questions than answers. All I can do is bring up a few songs. But another problem with Galaxisok is that they have so many good songs, it’s hard to pick just a few. On the other hand, it’s hard to go wrong.

The band members — Benedek Szabó, László Sallai, Ákos Günsberger, and Soma Bradák — have substantial and multifarious musical knowledge (and knowledge of other arts), unusual views of the world, and a knack for a good hook. They bring their own different perspectives and influences together into that undefinable entity that is Galaxisok. There’s something about that tuneful, beatful music, the surreal world-weariness, that not only pulls me to the albums and songs but suggests that there will be many more. The songwriter and lead singer, Benedek Szabó, who grew up in Baja (one of my favorite cities in Hungary), has more stories to tell, more moods to draw and paint, more questions to raise.

At the Müpa concert this coming Wednesday, they will be playing their favorite songs from across their repertoire. So let me bring up some of my own favorites here. I bet there will be a little overlap.

I have to begin with “Galaxisok,” which appears on the first Galaxisok LP, Kapuzárási Piknik, which is basically a Benedek Szabó solo album, with Péter Futó on keyboards on five of the songs. The album title’s literal translation is “Gate-closing picnic,” but it’s a play on “kapuzárási pánik,” “closing gate panic,” or Torschlusspanik in German: the psychological state of terror over getting older, and the behavior that accompanies such panic: trying to act like you’re younger, doing things that younger people do, going out with younger people, etc. The title song sings of a point in life where you wonder if you’ve already lived more than you will live, and other questions and worries that come with that. As for the picnic aspect, there are lots of ways to understand it; I will leave that to you!

The album was released on Szabó’s 26th birthday (March 14, 2013) and was heralded with a wonderful write-up in Recorder.hu. At this point Szabó was already well known as the lead singer and songwriter of the dream-punk band Zombie Girlfriend, whose songs are in English. Kapuzárási Piknik is Szabó’s first album in Hungarian. I have no idea whether the idea was already in place for a band named Galaxisok, but I suspect the song came first, and then the band was named after it. The music is strongly reminiscent of the legendary ensemble Kaláka, but the lyrics take a different direction.

Wait, but now I have to digress, because this Zombie Girlfriend song “Stories of You and Me” (recorded in 2011, a full eleven years ago) is so good. I don’t know who else is playing on this song, but later the lineup included László Sallai, Eszter Kádár (about whom I know nothing), and, on a few of the songs, Dávid Korándi (Felső Tízezer, Cappuccino Projekt).

And now for the “Galaxisok” song! I will translate it, since I think that will help things. I take a few liberties with the translation, to preserve the rhyme, the rhythm, and the couplets. With the syllables placed correctly, this translation could be sung to the melody.


nedves a szemed, száraz a szád
spirálkarokkal ölelnek át
a galaxisok, a kertben a fák
az ablakod alatt ringatják
a lombjaikat, de te nem szereted
se az égieket, se a földieket

viszket a bőröd, a kezed remeg
könnyűnek lenni a legnehezebb
két hete folyton fáj a fejed
az orrodban apró kis hajszálerek
kárörvendően pattannak el
nézed a véred és nem érdekel
wet are your eyes, dry is your mouth
the galaxies hug you and spin you about
with spiral arms, in the garden the trees
under your window rustle their leaves
but you have no love for those in the skies
or those on earth below your eyes

your skin is itchy, your hands trembling
being light is the heaviest thing
for two whole weeks your head has ached,
two capillaries within your nose break,
snapping for good, no chance of repair,
you look at your blood and don’t even care

This song has the mixture of lightness, world-jadedness, and slightly grotesque beauty that I hear in other Galaxisok songs. Its quasi-abstract anxiety seems to flow out of the preceding song, “Huszonöt” (“Twenty-five”), which is about being twenty-five and still not knowing what you want in life but finding it harder to do the youthful things; being too old to rebel and too young to acquiesce; not knowing if you have a place in life at all. “Huszonöt” has a slow, dark texture, with a hint of Bowie, I think.

Their second album, A legszebb éveink (Our Loveliest Years, 2015), now has László Sallai on bass and vocals (in addition to Szabó and Futó). It has beautiful piano, keyboards, organ, and other instruments. You can listen to it and love it without understanding a word. In the interest of time, I’ll just bring up the first song, “A teljesség felé” (Towards wholeness), whose lyrics contain the album title. Interestingly, the video features not only Szabó, but Ákos Günsberger and Soma Bradák, who were soon to form Galaxisok along with Szabó and Sallai. Or probably, by the time of the video, they already had. The song, which begins, “esküszöm, hogy nem fogok hányni” – mondtam a taxisnak az astorián” (“I swear I’m not going to vomit,” I told the taxi driver at Astoria) has to do with solitude, feeling ill-adjusted to life, yet realizing that these are our loveliest years, years of getting up, going to work, getting drunk, lying down, and getting up again.

Their next album, their masterpiece Focipályákon sétálsz át éjszaka (You Walk Across the Football Field at Night, 2017), is the first album with the full band (at the time known as Szabó Benedek és a Galaxisok, later Galaxisok). If you like this kind of music and listen to this album enough, it could easily become one of your favorite albums in the world. It has become one of mine. Brooding, rocking nocturnal songs, with titles like “Boldoggá akarlak tenni (de nem tudom, hogy kell)” (I Want to Make You Happy but Don’t Know How,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal” (Easter Breakfast with Satan), etc. “Éjfél” (Midnight), my favorite song on the album, has Domokos Lázár (of Esti Kornél and Lázár tesók) on “angel vocals.” But I am going to talk about another favorite, “Innen El” (Away from Here), because of its brilliant simplicity.

The guitar melody reminds me of other songs by other musicians, the vocal melody of other Galaxisok songs, yet this song stands out with its contemplative tempo, the sparseness of its syllables, its filmlike feel. It is at once a pop song and as far as you can get from a pop song. The lyrics are too sad and cryptic for pop, the arrangement too sparse, the pace too slow; that is precisely the song’s beauty. I love the drum/bass syncopation, the chords just before the chorus, and the slow ascending scale in the break. The song has to do with the dream of taking someone away from here but realizing that that would only be a trap, because the person would have to start all over again with a half-alien. In the song, distance exists not only in space, but in the mind, and in both cases, there is no way to go away; the faraway place exists in the imagination only. The chorus goes (I took slight liberties with the translation, to convey the cadences),

Én már csak képzeletben viszlek innen el.
Csak akkor figyellek, ha senki nem figyel.
Messziről nézni úgyis sokkal biztosabb,
mindig távolról voltam boldogabb.
I whisk you away from here only in my mind.
I watch you only when the world pays you no mind.
Gazing from far away is trustier by far,
I have always been happier from afar.

This album deserves attention to every song. But let’s go on to their 2018 album, Lehet, hogy rólad álmodtam (I might have dreamt about you), and in particular to the second song, “Láthatatlan lovak” (Invisible Horses), which I am pretty sure Szabó played in his solo concert in 2021. This song is important to the Galaxisok repertoire, not only because of the role that a dream plays in it (dreams and half-dreams figure largely in their songs overall) but because of the musical details. Here’s a wonderful video of Szabó commenting on the song and playing parts of it on piano.

This time, for the sake of space (this is already the second-to-last song that I will bring up in this post), I will just give a prose translation of the lyrics. You can listen to the song and read the original lyrics at the link below.

Prose translation, without the verse breaks that exist in the original:

In my dream it was summer again. In the mid-nineties, beside our old house, we wandered in the woods, you and I. Invisible horses were neighing in the garden, in the sky thousands of planes moved in a special pattern. We were waiting for piano class, but it’s also possible it was over. One of my friends’ brother found an old video. It was made on a residential block — lush trees and a playground, it’s evening, but still light. I know you lived there long ago. And you’re really in the picture, your semi-long hair is blurred. We don’t know each other yet, but you look happy from here. I was standing in the water in a suit, throwing frogs ashore. I got lost around our house when we headed back. In my dream it was summer again. We went up to the castle, but it was higher than I thought. For hours we were walking down.

And now I have to do the unthinkable and choose just one song from their most recent two albums, both released in 2020, Cím nélküli ötödik lemez (Untitled Fifth Album) and Történetek mások életéből (Stories from the Lives of Others). I have brought up a couple of songs from the latter on this blog, so I am going to cheat and choose a song on neither of the albums: their most recent single, “Ez a nyár” (This Summer). It has a punk feel, a mood of anger and anxiety, a rich sound, a terrific video (filmed in their practice space), and a particular chord that I love (at “egyhamar”). “Ohh, ez a nyár más mint a többi, ohh, ez a nyár nem múlik el egyhamar….” (Ohh, this summer is different from the others, ohh, this summer isn’t ending any time soon….). You can read more about it in Hungarian on the KERET blog.


Before wrapping up, I should mention Szabó and Sallai’s tradition of releasing a two-song Christmas EP together, with a song by each. There are three of these (from 2018, 2019, and 2020), as far as I know. There are also demos, live recordings, and other rarities. This is just a brief introduction to Galaxisok, but I hope someone will come upon this piece, listen to a few of the songs, and then go listen to more. I am lucky that the music is so close by, not just here in my room, but at concerts that I can attend. May this be the case for years and years.

The next Listen Up piece will be devoted to Sonny Smith / Sonny & the Sunsets, whose music I have listened to for over two decades. I hear some kind of affinity between them and Galaxisok. I keep dreaming that one day they will play a show together, in San Francisco, Budapest, or both. Who knows; it might happen. But whether or not it does, they will be neighbors in this series.

Photo credit: A still from the official video of Galaxisok at Fishing on Orfű, 2019. See also this wonderful video of them on the water stage at Fishing on Orfű in 2021.

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

For more pieces in the Listen Up series, go here.

Update: The Müpa concert was so good that I forgot to pick up my backpack at the coat check afterwards! Playing and speaking about their own favorites, they gave us a thrilling long concert that included a few songs mentioned here and many others too—some of them already beloved in my ears, others still on my periphery. I can’t wait to go back to the albums this weekend (and will also go back to the Müpa for my bag).

Listen Up: Dávid Szesztay

For a while I had been wondering whom to feature next in the Listen Up series. The first four artists (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő, Art of Flying, and Hannah Marcus) set a high standard. I wanted to continue in that spirit: to present bands or musicians whose music holds up when other things come and go.

The composer and songwriter Dávid Szesztay came to mind early on. The only problem was that I didn’t think I could translate the lyrics of his songs. They are dreamy, intuitive, impressionistic. They tell stories, but through pictures, broken sentences, incantations. I wasn’t even sure that I understood them correctly. But now I understand them better and can translate them imperfectly, at least.

While he has composed for theatre, film, and other media, I will focus on his songs, which are in a style of their own. I haven’t heard any songs quite like them; they remind me a tiny bit of João Gilberto, but that’s it. They are slow, contemplative, melancholic, with transformations. They have elements of classical, jazz, folk, and electronica, but they don’t seem hybrid at all; Szesztay brings all of this together into gradual sweeps of sound. I love the subtlety of the chord changes. You barely notice the shifts at times.

I found out about him in an unlikely way. In December 2019, I went to Törökszentmiklós to hear 1LIFE (now Idea), who was opening for Kiscsillag, an uproarious, funky alternative rock band led by András Lovasi. During the Kiscsillag set, I was feeling a little out of sorts, but a slower song, sung by the keyboardist/bassist, took me in. Afterwards I found out his name: Dávid Szesztay.Then I found his solo music and started listening to it online, then went to hear him in Szeged (in February 2020), where I bought a copy of his first LP, Dalok bentre. Two years later, he has one more solo LP and an EP, and I heard him tonight for the fifth time, in a concert with Cz.K. Sebő in Pécs. (It was their first time playing a show together—each of them solo—and I hope they do it again. You can read about the concert here.)

Besides having a solo project and playing in Kiscsillag , Szesztay plays in a trio, Santa Diver, with his wife, the violinist Luca Kézdy, and the drummer Dávid Szegő. I think this is a good place to begin, since it has no words and gives a sense of his musicianship (though his solo music is more pared down and less jazz-like). Santa Diver is phenomenal. You can sink into the music and rise with it.

A good song to start with, from Szesztay’s Dalok bentre album, might be “Jóbarát,” which means “good friend,” “true friend.” The refrain goes, “jó barát a táj, hű barát a táj.” The word “táj” means “natural surroundings, scenery, landscape”—so much contained in that one syllable. For brevity’s sake, I will translate it as “land,” though that isn’t quite accurate: “The land is a good friend, the land is a faithful friend.”

As for the other lyrics, the one word that gives me trouble here is “nő,” which usually means “woman.” Here, though, it might be used in a more archaic sense, where it means a female animal, often a bird. If that is correct, then the verse translates roughly as follows:

The earth, the sky, the bird (woman) calls,
the song surrounds the fire.
In quiet you sit, desire
won’t send you flying now

On spacious ground the road
you walk is infinite.
It’s good with you, it’s good with you,
there’s peace.

This is not an artistic translation; it’s meant just to convey some of the basic meaning.

Then comes the refrain, which returns later, though there is no second verse. The song has several musical motifs, each one leading into the next. The first is the verse melody, accompanied by expansive acoustic guitar arpeggios and a subtle effect. Then the refrain melody, where piano enters, ever so slightly behind the voice. (That little lag is one of the most beautiful details in the song.) Then comes an aching wordless melody, with piano too. Then the refrain returns. Then a change of rhythm and a final meditative ending by the guitar.

Here’s his performance of the song at Fishing on Orfű in 2017. This version doesn’t have piano (even though a piano appears in the video), so I recommend listening to the album version as well.

I can’t write this piece without bringing up “Elindul,” a magnificent song and a terrifically difficult one to translate. The lyrics are by András Lovasi. The difficulty here is that many of the phrases have at least a double meaning: one meaning if considered on their own, and another meaning if taken with the following phrase. The song as a whole conveys abandonment, bewilderment, being out alone in the freezing rain and wind and finding no answers. The sound is dark, with piano, drums, and effects (maybe from guitar). If you listen closely to the piano, you will be amazed by the chords, yet they go along so simply, as though almost nothing were happening.

I won’t translate all of the lyrics, since that, with explanations, would take too long; I think the refrain will be enough.

A szél bebokszol egyet
Az eső szembe vág
Nekem ne magyarázd meg, hogy miért nem
Nekem ne magyarázd meg, hogy miért

Translated:

The wind boxes me one (gives me a punch)
The rain cuts into my eyes,
Don’t explain to me why it doesn’t
Don’t explain why it does

The grammar in Hungarian has a special ambiguity and irresolution to it. The lines “Don’t explain to me why it doesn’t / Don’t explain why it does” are commands. A more literal translation would be “Don’t explain to me why not / Don’t explain to me why.” Taken by themselves, these phrases paint a mood. But on their second occurrence, I think they are meant to link to what follows, “Elindul, és csak hull, hull” (“It leaves/takes off, and just falls”). Together, they would be heard to mean, “Don’t explain to me why it doesn’t, don’t explain to me why it…. takes off, and just falls, falls.” So “elindul” itself has a double meaning: “departs” or “starts.” The rain is not going away, but it starts up again and again, and falls and falls.

I love this live performance of the song:

There are so many more songs that I would like to bring up, but I’ll choose just two more, from his second LP, Iderejtem a ház kulcsát. The first is “A szoba” (The Room). The music conveys the meaning even if you don’t understand the lyrics. It’s turbulent and yet seems to roll in toward a silence, as though you were spinning and spinning into a tunnel. The lyrics have to do with dying and aloneness and maybe a panic of sorts. It begins:

Képzelted, hogy egyedül fekszel
Képzelted, hogy sohasem kelsz fel
Képzelted, hogy ez a szép ajtó
Sohasem nyílik, sohasem hajszol

Benned senki soha sem hív fel
Soha nem kérdi minek és miért nem
Képzelted, hogy egyedül fekszel
Egyedül ébredsz, egyedül kelsz fel

Körbevett a szoba levegője beszív
Így szól, így szól
Pohár leszel és én leszek benned a víz
Így szól, így szól
Körbevett a szoba levegője beszív
Így szól, így szól

And a working translation:

You imagined that you would lie down alone,
you imagined you would never get up,
you imagined that this lovely door
would never open, would never slam behind you

Inside you, no one calls you,
no one asks why and why not,
you imagined that you would lie down alone,
wake up alone, get up alone,

The room’s trapped air sucks you in,
this is what it says, this is what it says,
you will be dust and I will be the water inside you,
this is what it says, this is what it says,
The room’s trapped air sucks you in,
this is what it says, this is what it says…..

I love the song for its exhilaration and darkness, the richness of the sound, the way it sucks you in like the air of the lyrics.

The last song for this piece is the appropriately titled “Késő” (“Late”), the last song on Idejrejtem a ház kulcsát. I have brought it up before. To me it captures what Szesztay’s music is about, as I understand it right now. I hear the song as an ode to the artistic imagination, the ability of music to rise up out of sorrow and create color and light. From the entreaty “Gyere ülj a fűz alá, a szomorú fűz alá” (“Come sit under the willow, the sorrowful willow”) to the ecstatic later part, “De valamit érzek a vállamon éppen elég / hogy befogad újra a képzelet színű vidék” (“But I feel something on my shoulder, just enough for the imagination-colored countryside to take me in”), you can feel the music take you from one place inside you to another.

And that will be all for this piece. For other pieces in the “Listen Up” series, go here.

Listen Up: Hannah Marcus

This “Listen Up” piece, the fourth in the series, is long overdue; I dedicate it to the wonderful Hannah Marcus, who has released album after album over the years, in a changing style of her own, and who collaborates with many musicians across genres. People love Hannah’s songs not only for their dark tones and themes, not only for their musical imagination, but also for their humor, curiosity, and generosity, which I hope to touch upon today. This is a short piece, partly because not all of her songs are available online. But I hope it’ll introduce her music to a few people.

I first met her music in a curious way. A friend and bandmate of mine, no longer alive, pulled Hannah’s song “Demerol” out of his closet one evening. “This song is you,” he said, and put it on. It was a stunning song and equation; afterwards I tried to remember the songwriter’s name—which was fitting, because the song begins, “What is your name? Tell me, child of grace, what is your name? What a thing for an R.N. to say, what is your name? Here’s some Demerol to ease the pain, can you tell me what occurred today?….” She starts out slowly, gently, in alto notes, then soars up with “today” into the celestial part.

A few years later, another friend asked me, out of the blue, “Have you heard Hannah Marcus’s music?” She told me where to find some of the albums, and I was off to the record store. It turned out that Hannah was living in San Francisco now (where I was too), so I attended a couple of her shows, and we started to become acquainted. Over time, a friendship formed, which continues to this day.

Another favorite early-ish song, from her 1997 Faith Burns album, is “Face in the Moon.” Like “Demerol,” it rises slowly. A friend told me he got all choked up over the word “joy” (when it first comes up, on a high note). So do I, returning to the song now. It is a song to ride along with, to sink into, to rise up through. “If there is such a thing as joy in this life, let it rise, illuminated, into life.”

The songs have complex qualities and moods; there’s a subtle chuckle even in the saddest of them. One of my favorites on her Black Hole Heaven album is “Los Alamos,” which describes personal abandonment in an eerily changing world, a world marked by fires, genetic experimentation, and mythology. The wry lyrics are punctuated with samples of Richard Burton’s Hamlet (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of innnnfinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams”). The phrases “innnfinite space” and “bad dreams” recur throughout the song.

Another long-time favorite, which I brought up in my “Song Series” piece on American epic sadness, is “Hairdresser in Taos,” from her Desert Farmers album. Like “Los Alamos,” it moves from personal crisis or loss into a view of something vaster, in this case a confusion and lostness going far beyond the self, into a cry that becomes hymnal, “Lord if only I could find a road, I’d take it.” The song is sadly comic too, especially the part about the hairdresser in Taos who “stuck my head in the sink and put red dye all over my hair…” and then “I ran out of the house with the red dye still on, I even left him my only copy of Blonde on Blonde…:” with the piano mounting and dancing.

After Desert Farmers, Hannah Marcus’s music took all sorts of directions. The Wingfield Community Singers was (and I hope still is) a happy convergence: the composer David Grubbs, the writer Rick Moody, Hannah Marcus, and other members along the way. I loved the concerts and treasure the songs. Listening to this band is like having your random impulses and thoughts poured into sculpture (that then begins to dance around the room). On the solemn side, one of my favorites is “Night, Sleep, Death, and the Stars,” whose lyrics combine two Walt Whitman poems. Another favorite is “Blue Daisy.”

During this time, Hannah was also learning fiddle, specifically bluegrass, and attending bluegrass festivals and conferences. (I went with her once to a bluegrass conference in the Catskills; it was quite an experience.) She has now plays fiddle/violin (as well as her other instruments) on numerous projects, in a range of genres. On Matana Roberts’s 2019 album Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, she plays electric guitar, nylon string guitar, fiddle, and accordion, and sings backing vocals. This is another side of her musicianship: her support of other musicians, her admiration of their talent, her love of playing with others and continuing to learn new things: new instruments, new styles, new ways of thinking about music, new things about people.

In some ways, music can only come out of an individual, in private and in quiet. That’s why there are solo musicians, or leaders of bands and ensembles: the individual has something so powerful and different to bring. Music would not exist if it had to be entirely communal. But the wisest musicians recognize that it doesn’t begin or end with them, that music stretches far beyond them, and all they can do is play within that expanse. And that’s the joy of it: when it’s not about you, but about the music itself, wherever you find yourself in it. I admire Hannah for finding it in so many places and for playing on and on.

I made a few small changes to this piece after posting it. For other pieces in the “Listen Up” series, go here.

Update (December 23): Oh, joy: Hannah Marcus’s song “Pain Isn’t Real” on the 2021 Holiday Recording Party album!

Update (February 10): I came upon this gorgeous video, directed by Jason Bogdaneris, of Hannah Marcus’s “Ain’t No Way to Love Me.”

Listen Up: Art of Flying

Photo: Doctor Foxglove. Make-Out Room, San Francisco, 2013.

I have been listening to Art of Flying for more than fifteen years. Their songs seem ancient and modern at once: as though plucked from the sky and rolled in our world. I listen to An Eye Full of Lamp (2000), their first full-length album, and have a hard time selecting particular songs from it, since they form a piece. Many are tightly and beautifully crafted, with attention to each instrument, each part; others are exploratory, a little like driving late at night and taking a different road from the usual, which takes you through forests and fields and stars and scares you just a little, though you want to be there. Listen to the whole album, and all of their albums, and you learn what it means to live in music, to make each note, sound, and word matter; to catch a song’s drift, that thing that makes us want to play it again and again.

At its core, Art of Flying is the duo of David Costanza and Anne Speroni. They have been playing music together for several decades, with other musicians coming and going for short, long, and recurring intervals: first as the Whitefronts (named after a local grocery store), then as Lords of Howling, and then, since the late 1990s, as Art of Flying, which has recorded nine full-length albums, if my count is correct, and several shorter releases. For years they recorded their albums in their own studio, the legendary Barn (in Questa, New Mexico); eventually they had to give up the Barn, but the music continues and changes. While delighted to be on the radio, to receive even brief messages from listeners, to play concerts around the world, they have never let publicity distract them from the music. A big record label might have pressured them to make their songs more packageable; they have no interest in that. They are here to make music the way they hear and imagine it. Their influences range from the Minutemen to Nick Drake; their songs are filled with surprises and treasures. Their listeners respond enthusiastically. The Italian magazine BLOW-UP has called them “the best-kept secret in American music of the new century”; the secret has been spilling slowly. They have been played over the years on independent radio stations such as WFMU and KALX, and received vigorous praise, such as in Lynne Robinson’s article in TaoStyle and J. Simpson’s in Divide and Conquer. Nonetheless, discovering their music is a private experience, since it is best done with full attention and a little stretch of time.

Let’s start with one of my favorites of all their songs, “Born to Follow,” from their 2005 album asifyouwerethesea.* It gives me the shivers, about sixteen years since I first heard it.

arise arise yr work is done
the fields are buried with the dead
how sweet it looks like no one won
some dreams awaken some dreams are dead

and under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow.

It was hard to choose one song from this album; I also wanted to bring up the opening song, “What the Magpie Said,” as well as “Song for Coins Tossed,” “The Sailor’s Song,” “Song for Orion,” “Butterfly Song,” and, well, the whole album.

But I have to do this in some kind of sequence, so let’s go back to An Eye Full of Lamp and take a few minutes with “Island Song,” whose flugelhorn, played by David, and whose singing, by Anne, sound like they’re coming out of a late-night street in the memory of years ago. I want that horn to come back in the song with the same melody, and the first time it does, but then at the end it doesn’t, and I love that it doesn’t: “But all we wanted was to be together” leads not to the original melody, but to “fireflies and flame-throwers.”

Now let’s turn to Garden of Earthly Delights (2002), the first Art of Flying album I ever heard, thanks to my friend Cory, who sent me a copy, thinking it just might be up my alley. To say that I was blown away is apt here, since the second song is “Blow Away.” This album rolls from one gorgeous and evocative song into the next, from the words “& now yr great & mighty king has got no clothes / & neither does the queen” to the album’s closing lyrics, “& THOUGH I will die without yr kiss / there is more to love than this / in a garden of earthly delight.” Each song feels as if I had remembered it from years and years ago, although I had never heard them before the first listen. This is the album I have given away to people as a gift; this is the one I would still most likely give, along with Escort Mission and a couple of others.

The fifth song, “Tomorrow,” is about as perfect as a song can get in terms of poetry, tune, and harmonies, the alternation between words and “la, la, la,” and the sounds of guitar, piano, tuba, and trumpet. This is a song I could imagine in a classic songbook of some kind, to be sung by future generations.

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

Another favorite from this favorite album is “Goodbye Too Soon.” I love the slow dance of its rhythm, the evocation of lullaby, the joining of heartbreak and perspective.

There is a humility throughout the albums: a knowledge that we do not live long, that greatness is not given to most of us, that we can lose anything at any time, and that it’s still possible, to find beauty, or maybe possible only when we know, somewhere down their in our souls, that we don’t possess it. We still try and hope to possess it in some way or another; that doesn’t go away, but we also know better, and learn better, and fail again. There are no pat realizations here; it’s difficult no matter how you go about it, and just when you start coming to terms with it, mortality socks you in the stomach. But music will be there, even then.

I had promised, in the piece about animals in songs, to bring up “The Jaguar Song” here (from their 2014 album I’m Already Crying), and I wouldn’t leave it out anyway. It starts out with a William Blake-like feeling:

the jaguar in his forrest bright,
a river made of tears,
tangled through the longest night
’til stars flew everywhere.

But then it moves into something else:

i watched them from the ferris-wheel
mesmerized by all the lights
the strange things we must see as real
as black & white

and then the chorus, full of sound and spirit, with that wonderful chromatic progression leading in:

they cannot steal our story
they cannot steal our love
they cannot steal the heavens dancing way up above
they say i don’t remember well…
i don’t need to
when i’m holding you

What is this jaguar? So many possibilities come to mind, but to me it is something like music itself, weaving its way through heartbreak, shedding stars as it goes, but taking something from you too, the way he “sets his eyes ablaze /
and licks the lips right off my face.” Both of these things are happening at once: something being taken away, something being untakable.

I will finish with “Hang Around the Water,” the first song from their most recent album, Escort Mission, a sonic masterpiece. (I brought up “Song for Iris” in another piece recently.) I don’t even know what to say except: listen to the album from start to finish, then repeat! Then maybe set it aside briefly, and return to it with the songs now familiar. No matter when it kicks in for you, each listen will bring something new.

Oh, no, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning “ThOUGH the LIGHT Seem SMALL,” on which I had the honor of playing cello (in the recording itself, at the Barn). I love the slightly archaic subjunctive (“seem” instead of “seems”), which by itself does so much for the song. I also love the rhythmic change, between verse and chorus, from a slow 4/4 to a 3/4 (or similar), and the change of texture that goes with this. And the lyrics, which begin:

When the bright unspoken light of Winter takes the world
Gathering each solitary day,
All the pages written you won’t need them anymore
Winter comes & Winds us all away
& Winds us all away!

I hope this piece has introduced a few people to the music of Art of Flying. I’ll just finish with a little story of meeting them for the first time. I think it was in the summer of 2005, just a few months after asifyouwerethesea came out. Or else 2006. I know I had heard that album many times before going there. They (and the wonderfully enthusiastic and talented Larry Yes) encouraged me to come out for SuanFest, and I was excited about doing so, but also nervous, since it isn’t easy to show up at an intimate music fest hosted by musicians you admire. But yes, I flew out Colorado, and then drove southward to Taos in a rental car. They were playing a show in a little club in Taos that evening, and I wanted badly to make it on time. I took a road that led me up steep hills and through pine forests, winding this way and that, and then the sky darkened, and torrents started coming down, the kind of torrents where you really can’t see through the window any more, and I was going along slowly, since there wasn’t even anywhere to stop, and wondering if I would get there at all, never mind on time. But then, as happens in those parts in the late afternoon, the rain suddenly cleared, the sun poured gold onto everything, and I continued on my way, driving through the gold, and got to Taos after sunset, and then to the club, and there they were, and I met them and relaxed into an evening, and then a full weekend, of glorious music. That first night, I stayed in someone’s friend’s house, on Blueberry Hill, which brought to mind Hannah Marcus’s song “Hairdresser in Taos“; at SuanFest itself I stayed outdoors in a tent, like most of the others.

Sixteen years have gone by since then. And their music has gone on and on, growing more and more beautiful, not only with the newer albums, but with the returns to the older ones. Thank you, Art of Flying, for all of this. Oh, and one more song (is it possible to finish, really?), “Butterfly Song” from asifyouwerethesea, with Sare Rane’s lovely and fitting video below.

wings like a butterfly
mouth full of june
I ignored all warnings & flew to the moon
the knife & the fork & the spoon were all there
we cut up the king & we braided the air

peace…where could you be?
held in a dream…more real to me
than all of these magic powers gone

And that’s the end of this beginning.

*For the main songs mentioned here, I embedded Bandcamp audio. If you like them, you can go to Bandcamp, listen to more, and purchase the songs or albums. Bandcamp lets you listen to the music for free, without advertisements; if you do decide to buy it, Bandcamp takes 15% and pays the rest to the musicians.

Also, while Art of Flying often put their album and song titles in lowercase, I usually capitalized them here, so that they would stand out visually.

This is the third piece in my “Listen Up” series. Each installment focuses on a particular artist or band whose music I love. Your comments are welcome.

Listen Up: Cz.K. Sebő

Cz.K. Sebő (Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén). Photo credit: hvg.hu.

When was the last time you discovered new music and couldn’t stop listening to it? One piece, one song after another draws you in; you play your favorites over and over, and then find another, and wait, what, another! Another song goes straight to some part of you that had been sleeping or sloppy until now. An experience that you know to the bones but also have never known before. You want the whole world to know about this, you want to take these songs and hold them up to the light somehow. Except that they can only speak for themselves. Words about music are a little bit like helmets worn as gloves. Still, you have to give it a try. The first piece in my “Listen Up” series was dedicated to the Hungarian band Platon Karataev; the second one, right now, to one of their founding members, Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén (solo name: Cz.K. Sebő), who has released four EPs since 2014, as well as some singles, and is now recording his first full-length album.

If you are drawn to music in this vein—music along the general, disparate lines of R.E.M., Pavement, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, The Smiths, the Breeders, Damien Jurado, Sonny Smith, Granfaloon Bus, Grandaddy, Red House Painters, Nick Drake, Art of Flying, Kid Dakota, Rufus Wainwright, Hannah Marcus, or other folk or indie rock with a special relationship between lyrics and music, a disciplined dreaminess of word and sound—then Cz.K. Sebő’s songs will likely hit home. And even if you listen to a different kind of music entirely, you will find something beautiful here.

I plan to introduce just five of his songs, four of which are in English, and one, his most recent recording, in Hungarian. To hear more, you can go to Bandcamp and YouTube. I recommend listening to the entire albums; in each one, the songs form something together, and it’s hard to leave any of them out.

Cz.K. Sebő is about 27 years old. When I first fell in love with this general kind of music and started listening to it all the time, when I first played (clumsily) in a band, he wasn’t born yet. His songs evoke music that has long been part of my life, sometimes filling it, sometimes just being there with me, yet there’s something “sajátos” (particular, individual) about them. The best way to understand this is to jump right in. So, after all these preludes, let’s go.

The first one will be “Out of Pressure” from his second (2015) EP The masked undressed. I love its combination of dreariness and soaring. Like many of the songs, it steals up on you. Also, the lyrics (in American English) are both natural and unusual: the song seems at home in the language and outside it at the same time.

It begins,

Out of pressure Sunday morning
Feeling nothing but this soaring
I’m alone here in this gray room
With a thought of a beer, but drinking coffee.

The way the voice soars on “gray room” gives you the whole picture: there is a kind of bleakness mixed with glorious solitude. It isn’t unhappy.

I’ll skip the next verse so as not to overanalyze this and to get to the chorus, which to me holds the brilliance.

Another morning after a boring night with you
Why are you falling into the see of society
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony

The words are so simple, but when they culminate in “What I seek is harmony,” they give infinite meaning to “seek” and “harmony.” The seeking is that longing and striving and working and waiting, all of those things together and more, and “harmony” here is so much more than a few notes that sound pleasant together. It’s something you pursue and yearn for all your life long. The second “seeeeeeek” brings the whole song together. And as the word is elongated, the chord progression continues beneath it, so that without realizing it, you have been brought back to the beginning.

The second one is “Disguise,” from the same EP and from an even earlier release, Fugitive Feelings (2014). (There’s a passionate Platon Karataev version too, on the Atoms album, but I love this early version even more.) In an interview somewhere, he named it as his favorite of his solo songs; I don’t know whether that’s still true. I can see why it was, or is, his favorite. It’s sometimes my favorite too. I will just let it speak for itself.

I won’t bring up “Light as the Breeze” here (from his EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze), since I mentioned it in a recent blog post, and there’s so much to mention. Along with “Hart,” it might be my favorite of them all. I’ll just say that it changed my outlook on life and on music, slightly but strongly. Songs don’t teach us how to live, but they give us inklings of something. Those hints can’t be translated directly into life, but they become part of it, something we carry with us. “Light as the Breeze” is a song that I carry with me, even without an audio device; I hear it in my head at various times in the day.

I will go on to “Hart,” from his 2017 EP Junction. I originally included “Sham Melancholy” instead, and it’s a tough call, since I love both songs. But I realized that “Hart” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and I can’t leave it out. It carries you slowly from the contemplative beginning to the expansive, night-filled middle to the quiet end, all of this in three minutes and three seconds. It builds without your knowing it, in a short time; it starts with simple strumming, then the chords and single notes catch your attention, and then the voice comes in slower, with its own rhythm that rises and rises and then sweeps the guitar along with it. There’s so much motion now, everything is moving, but it’s motion in stillness, a falling and sitting, a wounded but joyous arrival. And then the stillness takes over.

Look at me now my friend, I’m on the ground and sitting
Look at me now my friend
Look at me now my friend

Now I’m falling, but I’m sitting here arrived
In the same time I found the road I was searching for so long

Many of these songs have to do with solitude, which is part of why I am drawn to them. Another favorite, in a different mood, is “Chamomile.” It’s the most humorous of his songs that I know so far. It has subtle self-mockery and mockery of the world, but without cynicism. The guitar is so understated and catchy; it takes you in right away, but grows on you too. The storyline seems somewhat as follows: the narrator has been working on songs, just finished one, and now it’s time to rest, but his apartment (or his mind?) is filled with people. So he tries to join the strange, dreamlike party for a little bit, but realizes he would rather be by himself. This song will be on his full-length album.

Not only do I relate to the story, but I enjoy the melodic phrase that elongates specific words, “written,” “season,” “name here,” “solo.” It’s as though they were set in musical italics, but more than italics. They the song a kind of wryness, an amusement with the whole situation, an affable antisociability. The song’s structure allows you to anticipate favorite moments, such as “fingers / linger,” “festival season,” the break (the “Oh my mind, oh my mind, oh my mind is on fire” part) and the ending. In general, his endings are superb. And the video is brilliantly done, with all sorts of subtle details, capturing, as he said in an interview, “that state where a person doesn’t know if they are awake or asleep.” (My favorite moment is the look on his face when he sees Soma Bradák drumming in the bathtub.)

And now we arrive at the last of the songs that I am including here, “kétezerhúsz” (2020), whose video appeared just last Friday. The song is (perhaps) about this Covid era that we have been living in for a year now; the video was shot at Coney Island, which he visited in winter. In an interview with KERET Blog, he said,

Sok lassú dalomra mondom, hogy boldog, de nem tagadom, ez egy szomorú dal. Körülbelül a mögöttünk álló egy évről szól. A szorongásokról, bizonytalanságról. Viszont van itt egyszer egy trükk: ezt a dalt 2019 végén írtam, amikor még nem a Covidtól féltem, hanem inkább a klímapánik jeleit éreztem magamon. Nagyon érdekes, hogy mégis mennyire megtalálta saját magát ez a dal 2020-ban, számomra mindig ezt a mögöttünk álló (- és sajnos most is aktuális) időszakot fogja felidézni.

Rough translation: I say of many of my slow songs that they are happy, but I don’t deny it: this is a sad song. It’s about the year behind us, more or less. Of the anxiety, uncertainty. Yet there’s also a catch here: I wrote this song at the end of 2019, when I wasn’t yet afraid of Covid, but rather feeling symptoms of climate panic. It is interesting to what extent this song found itself in 2020; for me it will always evoke this time that we have been through (and which unfortunately is still going on).

What’s interesting is that this song steps into a slightly different musical zone; with the lyrics in Hungarian, the music reminds me slightly of songs I have heard here: for instance, Gábor Presser’s “Te majd kézenfogsz.” It proceeds gently through the sadness, verse by verse. I won’t translate it all here, since that would just distort it. But here’s one of my favorite verses:

Ha panaszkodni akarsz,
akkor légyszi menj el
Nekem már betelt a füzetem ezzel
mégsem lettem könnyebb.

(If you want to complain,
do me a favor and leave
My notebook is already filled up with this
and I didn’t get any relief.)

And then, not obviously in the song, but in the author’s commentary, there’s a bit of humor, three verses later:

Talán boldog is vagyok
Ez a keserűség éltet
Keserű nélkül nincs is édes,
Mint só nélkül sincs étel
((a szerző itt megkérdőjelezi improvizációs készségeit))

(Maybe I’m happy too
This bitterness vitalizes me
Without the bitter, nothing is sweet,
As without salt, there is no food
((here the author questions his improvisational skills)))

That last line is Cz.K. Sebő’s comment on what he just wrote. Yes, the analogy just before it seems slightly off. But it also works beautifully: “éltet” (vitalizes) off-rhymes with “édes” (sweet) and “étel” (food); there’s also an alliteration between “keserű” (bitter) and “só” (salt). And the parallel syntax makes this all come together, even if we aren’t sure at the end whether it entirely makes sense. But it does, it does! If you think about it, salt can be compared to bitter taste, and food to life, and through this, the larger meaning comes through. Yet it does so as an afterthought, an improvisation, a grappling for some kind of meaning. The uncertainty leads into the very end, “I wait for tomorrow”:

Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot

which could seem hopeful, but which sounds like sleep, waiting, and a long stretch of uncertainty.

And the Coney Island footage, so slow and peaceful, so beautiful, but also sad, because of the desolation, the soapy sea. It brings up my own memories of Coney Island, of the time I rode the Cyclone (with whom? I don’t even remember).

Well, I think that’s a start, and that’s all it can be at this point; I have only recently begun listening to this music and look forward to much more. There’s much more that I could have said about these songs. But that’s the way it is with music, and with this music in particular. Thanks to everyone who helped to bring it out to the world.

P.S. A few updates and afterthoughts:

Cz.K. Sebő is pronounced “cé ká sebő” (very roughly, if this were French, “tsé ka chèbeu,” with an elongated “eu”). As for his full name, you can hear his Platon Karataev bandmate Gergő Balla introduce him at the beginning of this interview. In Hungarian, the surname is said or written first, then the given name; Sebestyén (Sebő for short) is his given name. You can hear many more of Sebő’s songs on Bandcamp and in videos of his wonderful concerts at the A38 Hajó: one in 2018 and one in 2020.

When I started this “Listen Up” series, I hadn’t listened to “Hart” yet, but I realized later that the words “listen up” are in the lyrics of the song. So let the series title be in honor of “Hart.” The next piece in this series will feature Art of Flying.

I made various revisions, additions, and edits to this piece after posting it, but the basics are unchanged.

Listen Up: Platon Karataev

platon karataev

Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev (Gergő Balla, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Soma Bradák, and László Sallai). I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms, released just last month, whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

Most of their songs are in English (but this will change with their next album). Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on Atoms):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be sung to Ophelia by Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic lostness. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the opening song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon. Months after posting this, I replaced the “Aphelion” and “Ex Nihilo” videos with the Live at Gólya versions, so that you can see and hear these incredible performances. Also, here’s a wonderful interview in English with Platon Karataev’s Gergő Balla.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to. Next up: Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly of Platon Karataev). When I started this series, I didn’t realize this, but Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Hart,” one of my favorite songs in the world, has the words “listen up” in the lyrics. So let “Hart” be the origin in retrospect.

Update: I made a few changes to this piece after posting it, but kept it mostly intact, since these were my thoughts at the time. Their music grows and grows. I can’t wait for the new album, Partért kiáltó (Crying for the Coast).

Another update: here’s a classic 2017 video of them playing live and speaking about their music.

  • “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

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • 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 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.

  • 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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