More on Cellos

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I am dreamy over my new cello. It plays easily and richly; it has a deep tone and lovely balance. But the old cello is not forgotten; it will have its day again too. The old bow, on the other hand, I will never play again; it lost its tension long ago. For years I was trying to make it work, getting it repaired, etc. But it was ultimately irreparable.

The old cello–the first good cello I ever had, and my only cello from then until now–went through a series of misfortunes. First of all, I now suspect that my parents bought it (from a violin and cello maker in the Black Forest in Germany, after our year in Moscow) when it was just a little too new. The varnish hadn’t hardened completely. But the bigger mistake was to bring it to the U.S. in a soft case. When we arrived and I opened it, I found that the cello’s fingerboard had come off. That was just the beginning of the troubles.

We then got a hard case, but the fuzz on the lining started to stick to the cello’s varnish (maybe because the varnish hadn’t hardened). So I had to wrap the cello in silk before putting it in the case. Then the strap that held the bow in place kept coming off, so the bow would knock around inside the case. Just why we didn’t get a new case immediately, I don’t know–but the expense probably had something to do with it. We were not rich; the cello itself was a big expense, and we didn’t realize how many accompanying costs there would be. I have since learned this about many purchases: consider not only the item itself, but also the upkeep.

Then there were other accidents, including ceiling leaks. Whenever a drop of water hit the cello–and this happened several times–it would take some of the varnish off. We took the cello to someone who restores instruments, but all she could do was patch up the varnish.

The little mishaps continued. I tend to bump into things; this meant that the cello bumped too. I was supposed to change the bridge twice a year–and to adjust the bridge every time it started to warp–but with my astigmatism I don’t have a good eye for that, so I had to take it into a shop. Over time I did this less frequently. I sometimes had to change the strings–and probably threw off the balance just a little each time.

Then, much later, when I was recording songs and playing in or with bands, I made the mistake of using a pickup microphone that attached with adhesive to the tailpiece. I have since removed it, but I would not again attach anything with adhesive. There are other ways to attach a microphone (and it is a wonderful thing sometimes).

But an instrument can be restored–and when looking up the person who made that particular cello, I came upon his grandson’s website. The grandson restores string instruments and has his workshop in Vienna, a short train ride from Budapest. So, when the time comes, I will bring the cello over from the U.S., make an appointment with him, and see what a restoration would involve. I may or may not decide to undertake it–but there could be no better person in the world to advise me on this than he.

Why did it take me so long to do any of this? For years I had a complex relationship with the cello. It seemed to carry so many expectations from others. They didn’t want me to become a professional cellist–that was too hard a life, and it would take extra effort for me to succeed, since I was behind technically–but they always associated the cello with me, wherever I went and whatever I did. They also associated it with classical music; I could see the sharp drop in approval when I started playing other kinds. This question of “approval” plagued me for years; I was showered with it as a teenager, then broke away from it, and then, over time, learned to accept it without letting it define or control me.

I don’t think I’m alone in this ambivalent relationship to the cello; I have met other cello players and professional cellists who went through something similar. Part of this has to do with the cello’s size. It’s an imposing instrument; it takes space and can be difficult to carry around (unless you have a lightweight hard case). It makes big sound, too–great in performance, if you play well, but not so great when you are playing scales and arpeggios or learning a new and difficult piece. People often say, “I love the cello,” but they understandably don’t love the sound of practicing. You start feeling like an imposition. A default apology, or preparation for apology, sets in. There are exceptions, though. When I was living in Brooklyn, I had a downstairs neighbor who, unbeknownst to me, was very ill. (He has since died.) One day I ran into him in the hallway. “I am very angry with you,” he said. Startled, I asked him why. “I haven’t heard you practicing the cello lately,” he replied. He told me that the sound lifted his spirits.

Often I was the one who didn’t like the sound of my playing. Choosing, somewhat by default, not to become a professional musician, I got stuck in an in-betweenness that I could not accept. I hate “sort of” playing; I want to play seriously or not at all. But playing seriously does not mean the same thing to me that it means to others; I like to play many styles of music and create my own too. I love and admire classical music–certain pieces are essential to me, and I continue to encounter and treasure more–but I do not consider it the only worthy music. I love good songs; I consider songwriting as worthy an art as composing a symphony. It may not be as complex musically, but it is full of subtlety. Nor is “classical” music absolutely definable; many compositions cross categories.

Nor do I think that you have to play incessantly to play well. I took pride, as a teenager, in practicing four hours a day, but I doubt that all of those hours were productive. They may have even hurt; I developed serious tension that interfered with the playing. I have since learned the importance of taking a few breaks and staying relaxed in posture. You can accomplish a lot in two hours if you go about it the right way.

Having my own cello, one I bought for myself, carries symbolic and practical meaning: I can now play it on my own terms, having learned from past mistakes and taken the matter (wood, strings, and all) into my hands. I look forward to the new sounds, even with their imperfections.

Image credit: Zhana Viel, Geel Cello.

Why Bring a Cello to English Class?

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I have brought my cello to various classes over the years, and I remember these occasions. But today was one of the happiest of them all. In one of my ninth-grade classes, the students have been practicing songs from The Wizard of Oz for a possible short performance: not a full play, but a little concert of songs.

I promised them that I would bring the cello this week. In between the promise and the fact, I purchased it. It is the first time that I have bought one for myself; my other cello, now in storage in New York City, was purchased by my parents when I was 14. I got a good case to go with it: a hard but lightweight one with backstraps. Never before has it been so easy to carry.

I have been out of practice, so it will take me a few weeks to get back into shape. But that isn’t the point. The sound of a musical instrument changes things in a classroom. Everyone starts to listen in a different way; the room becomes quiet and relaxed. I wouldn’t bring it to every class every day; we have many other things to do, and the lessons are short. But there are times for this. We sang, and then I invited them try the instrument (no one had tried to play a cello before), and then we sang some more.

 

In the afternoon, I brought it to one of my twelfth-grade classes. In the last ten minutes of class, we sang (or I played, or both) “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and then, at their request, I played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

But that wasn’t all. Before the twelfth-grade class, I had a free period, and it occurred to me to find an empty room (in the annex) and play for a while. It has been years since I was able to practice without worrying about bothering the neighbors. That’s essential for a musician, even an amateur;  you need a place where you can play without worrying at all: where you can sound bad if you have to, repeat passages again and again if you have to, and find your way into the music.

 

No Ordinary Song

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The Hungarian band 1LIFE released their debut CD, Nincsen Kérdés (“There Is No Question”), in February 2019. Here are some thoughts on one of their songs, “Maradok ember” (“I will stay human”).* My translations and interpretations are imperfect; fortunately you can listen to the song itself.

 

As with their other songs (such as “Kapcsolj ki“), the words and music go together well.  Here the lilting, descending melody, simple and repeating, makes room for the musical changes–the pauses, drum patterns, bass octaves, textures–and the wistful, cryptic lyrics. But the lyrics also follow the music, keeping to its rhythm and form. The song begins,

lehetnék hajó, te meg
lehetnél a folyó
úgysem engednéd, hogy benned
elmerüljek én

This translates approximately as

I could be a ship, and you
you could be the river
you would not at all allow
me to be submerged in you

It is as if the lyrics were the ship, and the music the river. But all of this is to occur in the future. The first word of the song, “lehetnék” (“I could be”) is the first person conditional of the verb “lesz” (“to become” or future “to be”) with the potential suffix “-het”: lesz + -het + nék = lehetnék. The song’s fifth word, “lehetnél” (“you could be”) is the second person singular. Both suggest the possibility of becoming something. Also, the ship is not preceded by a definite article (or any article at all), but the river is. Thus the first image of the pair is not specified–it’s a ship, any ship, or a generic ship–but the second thing is specific, existing in relation to the first. This pattern–of verbs and definite article–persists through the subsequent three pairs of images in the first verse. (But part of the initial pattern gets broken too: the “úgysem” segment occurs only twice. I like this about the band’s songs in general: that patterns are detectable but not overdone, and that they change at just the right time.)

At first the images and even the action seem common: just as people hold each other up, the river will not let the ship sink. I think I have heard this metaphor before. But there’s an ambivalence: is the river protecting the ship from danger and disaster, or keeping it from what it wants to do? Is there some kind of danger and loss in the protection itself? The next stanza extends the puzzle:

lehetnék felhő, te meg
lehetnél as eső
úgysem engedném, hogy végül
zápor legyünk

I could be a cloud, and you
you could be the rain
in the end I would never let us
turn into a shower

It seems, at first glance, that the cloud is holding things together, preventing the downpour from happening–but the rain is already falling, and so the cloud could be holding back from the action, refusing to join in, refusing to become “us,” even though it is made of the same matter as the rain. There might be some separation, some breakage, in this restraint.

Even here, the meanings have not been revealed; we don’t know what the ship and river, cloud and rain are, except that they express relations of some kind. Things take a turn with the next stanza, where living beings (as opposed to inanimate matter) come into play:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és igérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

This picture seems peaceful, except for the suggestion of a threat: that the bird needs to hide from those pursuing it. It’s idyllic and fragile at the same time. But then the next stanza casts new meaning on what has occurred up to now (or the possibilities that have been suggested):

lehetnék bolond, te meg
lehetnél a király
mondd csak, minek is játszanék, hisz itt
mindenki bánt

I could be a fool, and you
you could be the king
tell me what part I should play, since here
everybody hurts

Now it seems that all of the images from before–ship and river, cloud and rain, bird and forest–are roles being played, like the fool (or jester) and king, and that no matter what part you play, you do not escape the basic pain and your own ability to hurt others. As I understand it, “bánt” is transitive, so the hurting is inflicted as well as suffered.

But then comes the chorus, which seems joyous, almost:

nem leszek több, mint aminek látsz
nem leszek jobb, mint amire vágysz
maradok csendben, maradok ember
nem leszek szebb, mint ez a világ
nem leszek bölcsebb mint az apám
maradok csendben, maradok ember

I will not be more than what you see
I will not be better than what you desire
I will stay quiet, I will stay human
I will not be lovelier than this world
I will not be wiser than my father
I will stay quiet, I will stay human

Is this the true victory: staying human, staying quiet, not succumbing to the pressures toward extremes? If so, this song seems to stand up against the hyperbole of our times, the pressure to be the best, the first, the loudest, the fastest. Or maybe it is not protest, but an admission, a promise, or a hope. (“Maradok csendben, maradok ember” could also be speaking of the present: “I remain quiet, I remain human.”)

The second verse–only half as long as the first–gives a new dimension to the puzzle. It returns to the first two pairs of images, but not the second two. Now, instead of looking ahead at possibilities, it looks back on what has happened.

te voltál a folyó, és látod
én voltam a hajó
vigyáztam de te mégis
partra vetettél

You were the river, and you see
I was the ship
I was careful but all the same
you threw [me] onto the shore

te voltál az eső, és látod
én voltam a felhő
azt mondtad, hogy minden rendben végül
viharrá lettél

you were the rain, and you see
I was the cloud
You said everything was fine in the end
you turned into a storm

All the cautions and protections come to nothing: the ship is tossed ashore, and the rain turns into a storm. Also, the becoming has come to an end; the primary verb is now “voltál”/”voltam,” the past tense of “van.” The phrase “viharrá lettél” caught my attention: “vihar” (“storm, tempest”) is of Slavic origin, and it appears here in the translative case, “viharrá,” which gives a sense of transformation (“into a storm”). From what I gather, the translative case has a slightly archaic or poetic feel. And then there’s “lettél,” the second-person singular past form of “lesz,” the verb I brought up in the beginning. It’s a past future of sorts: in the past, you became.

The forest and bird, fool and king, do not return, but they do not have to; we can decide for ourselves how they end up–how we end up, since we are they. How far do we hide? What and whom do we play? At what cost? To what end?

Then comes the chorus again, several times, along with interjections of “és látod” (“and you see”) and “és hát” (“and well”), and changes of musical texture. What does it mean, staying human? What does it consist of? Maybe being human has to do with two opposite things: protecting each other and yet failing to fully protect or be protected. Or maybe we play parts, well or poorly, while human pain and joy take their own course. Or we lighten our lives and mend the breaks with interjections (“well, you see”).

These words, patterns, melodies, and layers make “Maradok ember” no ordinary song. I sense that these musicians have much more coming, but right now they deserve to be heard.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Enchanted Forest (1945).

*I originally wrote the piece to support the band in an online poll. The winner will open for the Grenma at the Dürer Kert in Budapest on April 27. The band didn’t win the poll, but they did well, and the music transcends this stuff anyway. Also, they have an exciting show coming up: on March 23, when I will be on a bike trip to Szeged, they will open for Belmondo in Törökszentmiklós.

Full disclosure: Two of the band members attend the school where I teach in Szolnok, and one of them is in one of my weekly classes (through April). A colleague told me about their CD, and I purchased it, listened to it, and then listened more. I write about this song because it (along with the rest of the album) has had an effect on me and because I would like others, particularly English speakers, to know about it.

 

A Similar Gaze

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Yesterday I received a letter from a stranger (copied here with permission):

Dear Ms. Senechal,

I fortuitously discovered your work and simply adore your thinking, your whole orientation towards education, your perceptions about culture could not be more nuanced, intelligent, and deeply inspiring! I am writing to thank you for your work and also to ask you if you could offer some sort of reading list that might help a reader develop a similar gaze. I love your counter-culture thinking, but it is not dismissive and hostile, but rather critical and informed. You tight-rope walk a very subtle line, and I really appreciate it. Most academic writing is AWFUL to read—-horrid prose, jargons, and not very impressive ideas. Your work is a breath of fresh air, and I would love to read others like you and those who have shaped your thinking.

I thought of writing a response here, because this gives me a chance to recognize some of the writers who have influenced my thinking. But when I started assemble it in my mind, I became overwhelmed by the task. First of all, my thinking is continually changing; I expect the next book to differ from my latest one, and I rethink things day by day.

I suppose the letter-writer was referring to nonfiction, but my greatest influences have been poetry, music, and certain kinds of fiction–as well as nonfiction that has been influenced by these. I am drawn to those writers who have an ear for language–who hear the overtones and undertones of words, who know how to set words to rhythm, who set and break patterns. I love Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Psalms and Koheleth–but if I start listing names, I won’t end.

Nikolai Gogol: perhaps the writer who influenced me the most overall. His sentences are works of art: building up and breaking down, toying with sounds and meanings, and bursting with comedy and sadness.

I grew up on classical music but love rock too, and folk, and other kinds; music can take the humblest of forms and still shake a life. It depends on subtle things.

Of essayists, I am drawn toward the ruminative and the keen (in combination): Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, David Bromwich, to name just three.

But as long as I can remember, some of my greatest influences have been the people around me every day: colleagues, students, friends, family, acquaintances. Some of them I admire for their work, character, or both; some challenge me in everyday conversation by putting things in a way that I hadn’t considered before. That’s one reason why I hope to continue teaching as long as I can give it full mind and strength.

I don’t think I have fully answered the question, though. The person who wrote to me found something in my writing that differed from the usual jargon. This difference is still building, but even in its elementary versions, it has come with some risk and pain. It isn’t just that I read particular writers, although I do. It isn’t just that I am inspired by those around me, although I am. It is that I took my own way, more than once, and learned what was there. For instance, in the middle of graduate school I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia–that is, to become a professor. I left graduate school, moved to San Francisco, finished my dissertation a few years later, for its own sake, and received my degree. Many people were initially upset that I had turned away from academia, but I don’t regret the decision; teaching high school gives me a full intellectual life, with freedom to move between subjects (philosophy, literature, language, drama, etc.). I don’t have life answers; I wouldn’t advise anyone to take or avoid my path. Each person faces different dilemmas and conundrums, so any advice must be tentative.

Nor have I attained the writing that I am after. Even with blog posts, I keep looking for the right word, rhythm, or mixture. When I finish writing something more substantial, such as a book, I outgrow it it a little; the mind keeps going past the final draft, and I start tinkering with ideas for the next work, whatever it may be. This is not a “process” (dreary word) but a pursuit of something I can barely see and hear.

Back to the question of things to read: I recommend Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Bromwich’s Moral Imagination. Each of these will lift the thinking; if you take them in slowly, they may exhilarate too. I choose them because I return to them again and again.

 

I revised this piece a few times after posting it. The photo shows part of my bookshelf (and just a fraction of my books, since I was able to bring only a few to Hungary); the record cover at the top is of Art of Flying’s Escort Mission.

 

To Perceive Brightly

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This question has been on my mind, off and on, since childhood: Is it good to tell writers, musicians, artists, actors, dancers, mathematicians, historians, carpenters, etc., that you admire their work? Or is it better to keep this to yourself? I have done a range of both and have heard arguments both ways.

Those who favor speaking up will say that these things should be said, that artists often do not know how much their work is appreciated, and that there is nothing lost in the gesture. Those on the other side say that you demean yourself by adulating, that praises get cheapened when spoken out loud, and that true fans don’t dare approach their idols.

All of these points are both true and false. There should be no shame in admiring things openly and ardently. Why cast stigma on this? If everyone went silent, art would wither. But if such admiration carries an expectation or demand, that’s a different matter. Fans may seek approval, even love, from those they admire; this leads to all sorts of problems.

Silence is not inherently superior; sometimes people stay silent not out of respect, but out of a desire to be cool. Sometimes they don’t have anything to say. Sometimes they aren’t even sure they like the art. Ideally, though, silence allows one to take something in without reacting to it immediately or putting it into words.

One thing I can say with confidence: to admire someone’s work out loud is not to disrespect it. To the contrary: good art can stir up courage.

But the word “can” suggests the uncertainty of it all. There is no one right answer. There are times for praising, and times for holding back praise. Not only that, but even mistakes have a role.

I do not regret any of the times I loved someone’s work out loud. I do regret times that I tried to forge a bond with the artist on account of the art, but even this was not always wrong and sometimes opened up into friendship. The reverse happened too: that some people who admired my work became my friends.  But this is not owed and cannot be forced; it happens on its own if the conditions are right.

Two opposite actions (or non-actions) tend to be valued in popular culture: standing aloof on the one hand, and flinging oneself at celebrities’ feet on the other. Neither of these, in my view, expresses anything. Admiration is not the same as adulation or aloofness. To admire is to perceive brightly, whether in words or not, and such perception, spoken or unspoken, adds to the world.

So my advice would be: say what you wish to say (if anything), if you can do it without clinging to your words, propping yourself up, demanding anything of the other, or worrying too much. Above all, do not worry too much! And to those on the other end: accept the gesture.

I made a few additions to this piece (and changed its title) after posting it.

On Appreciation

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Often teachers don’t know how much they are appreciated; often students don’t either. Regarding teachers, students have often told me about a teacher who has influenced them, taught them something important, opened them to a subject, inspired them, or shown them kindness; I doubt that many have said these words directly to the teacher. There is a lot of gratitude in the air, but people don’t always know it.

But the same is true for students; they probably have little idea how much they give to a lesson, or to their classmates, or to a teacher’s day, or to a school.

It made my day yesterday (a “szombati munkanap,” or official, government-mandated Saturday working day, one of six in 2018), when I saw this on the board:

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I meet with this class only once a week; I look forward to each time. They bring such cheer and willingness to each lesson. They are learning quickly. Some who said, at the beginning of the year, that they didn’t speak any English are now participating eagerly; others are becoming more expressive and precise.

I remember one day when we had a schedule change; it was the first or second week in the school year. I had thought, incorrectly, that the change would take effect the following week, so I was sitting and working at my desk. There was a knock on the door of the teachers’ room. I opened the door to see two of the students from this class. “We are waiting for you,” they said. I came downstairs and found the students eager to get started. They understood my mistake, and we jumped right into the lesson.

One day in October I taught them “Frère Jacques” in French and English (they already knew it in Hungarian). Here they are singing it in all three languages. (It is posted with the students’ permission. I set it to “unlisted” so that it will be available only to those who have the link.)

 

 

Is the “lesson” from all of this that we should tell people more often that we appreciate them? Yes and no; as I will bring up in another post, I become less and less sure about what the lesson of any situation is. There may be four, five, ten lessons, some contradicting each other. Yes, it is good to tell people good things directly, without fear, but maybe there is an inevitable part that we keep to ourselves. In a school, there is some formality; we do not say everything. Still, there is no harm in saying a good word, if you are strong in it. It brings not only cheer but clarity too. There is lots of muddle in the world, many voices telling us to dismiss or disparage the good. Say a good word, and a quiet rises up around it. The chaos backs away.

Repetition and Refrain

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On Monday we celebrated music at school, thanks to the music teacher and other colleagues. I had various thoughts on what to do but settled on a particular idea: I would teach “Frère Jacques,” which students knew in Hungarian but perhaps not in French and English. We would sing it in all three languages; then we would listen to the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. We listened to a recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur.

The singing of “Frère Jacques” was lovely. I realized afterward that bells sound different in different languages; if I were to do it again, I would perfect the vowel sounds. But for the occasion, it went well. Listening to the Mahler was a little more difficult, since the speakers weren’t powerful enough for the hushed instruments; all the same, we could hear the “Frère Jacques” theme at its quietest. (You can listen to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, here; the third movement begins at 24:56.)

The music didn’t end there or that day; today one of my ninth-grade classes (class 9C, group 2) returned to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which last week led to a lively discussion of the relation between liberty and property (both public and private). Here is the recording of today’s singing.

I find with these songs (and with many other things) that the repetition opens up understanding. Repetition is inherent in music and theatre, not only within the pieces themselves, but in rehearsals and other preparations. As for literature, my favorite works are those that I want to read many times; the first reading makes way for more. Repetition works well with teaching, too; it allows teachers and students to see the subject in more than one way.

Speaking of that, I am excited to be participating in a seminar on rereading in November, at the ALSCW Conference in Nashville; I will present a paper on rereading Chekhov’s “Duel.” In the Poetic Verse seminar, I will present a paper on music and ellipsis in Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” (two of my favorite songs for years and years).

I suppose that’s part of what I enjoy about living in Szolnok: bicycling down the same streets, in rain and sun and wind, and sometimes different ones too.

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I took both photos today in Szolnok.

Update: For “This Land Is Your Land,” the first upload attempts didn’t work; it seems that the file was too large. I shortened it; now the link works. Another time (not tonight) I will try again to upload the whole song.

On Beginnerhood (Reprise)

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Fall is here at last! Goodbye, for now, to the heat and pounding rays; a hearty welcome to the chill and vigor. I love walking and biking around in the fall: listening to the leaves, watching the trees sway, taking in the pale colors. I also just completed one of the greatest challenges of my life: leading services for the High Holy Days, along with the rabbi. (I led the musical parts; she led the spoken parts.) I spent weeks preparing daily; it went beautifully, and I learned profoundly.

I was so tired afterward, and so overwhelmed with upcoming projects and deadlines, that I thought I would have to give up one of two events this weekend. I had planned to go to a Budapest Festival Orchestra concert on Friday–a Baltic program, featuring works by Čiurlionis, Pärt, and Vasks–and then to the Season Opening Gala, a benefit event for the orchestra’s “Choose Your Instrument” program, which gives children around Hungary the opportunity to do just that. I thought I would have to give up the gala–but then, with a little encouragement, I decided to go.

The Friday night concert was beyond anything I had expected, since Arvo Pärt himself was there! I was first introduced to his work in my senior year of college; at the time, I listened to Tabula Rasa over and over. I slowly became acquainted with some of his other compositions, including Te Deum, which the BFO performed Friday night. His music is so otherworldly that I didn’t initially imagine flesh-and-bones mortals playing it, let alone composing it–so it was astonishing to see everyone together, composer and musicians, in the hall. In this photo, he appears all the way to the left, with a bouquet of flowers; at this point, we had been applauding for so long that he signaled that it was time for sleep.

The concert program consisted of Te Deum (the final piece), Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis’s Miške (In the Forest), Pärt’s Como cierva sedienta,  and Pēteris Vasks’s Epifonia. (The soprano Sylvia Schwartz was the soloist for Como cierva sedienta; the Cantemus Mixed Choir sang Te Deum.)

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I stayed overnight in Budapest, went back to Szolnok in the morning, and then returned to Budapest two hours later for the Gala event. I also had to return to my previous hotel to pick up a book of poetry I had left there. (It was intact.) So now I start to wend my way into the topic at hand: beginnerhood, about which I have written before.

During the reception before dinner, we were all invited to try out instruments; members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and several children demonstrated the instruments and allowed people to give them a try. (I tried the tuba, horn, flute, and violin; later, during the dinner, I tried another horn and the harp as well.) It was thrilling to be a beginner: to have no expectations except for that starting point, the first note or few notes, however they might sound. But there was more to it than that. As Iván Fischer explained to us later that evening, not everyone is suited to every instrument. Different instruments make different demands of a person; some require an earlier start than others, some favor particular physiques, some have particular logistical requirements, and some get fallen in love with. When children understand this, they have a better chance of selecting an instrument that is right for them.

When you choose an instrument, you do not necessarily sign on for life. I spoke with BFO members who had started with one instrument and then switched to another, who had taken breaks from playing, who had not begun their instrument until their teenage years, or who had studied something else at the university. The paths to musicianship–even toward the highest levels–are not as standardized as people may assume, but no matter when and where these musicians began, they have been devoted to their instruments for years. This cannot be shortchanged. Trying an instrument, you grasp all over again what it would take to learn to play it well. But basic proficiency is just another layer of beginning, amid more layers and layers.

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In that sense, beginnerhood and mastery do not cancel each other out; a master still has chances, at any moment, to play a familiar piece in a fresh way, to play in new situations and formats, and to treat the bare beginners kindly. The evening was full of generosity: musicians giving encouragement and suggestions as guests tried to play clear notes (or any at all), sounds ringing out all over the room, lively and lovely performances over the course of the evening, good fundraising, and conversation in many languages.

In speaking of a spirit of beginnerhood, I do not mean that “everyone is a beginner” or that freshness is everything. Years of practice and repetition allow one to inhabit music, language, or another field; without such dedication over time, a person would stay trapped within the “sort of” (which to me is a sort of hell). But repetition and habit are only part of the work, though an unforsakeable part; musicians, writers, artists, actors must also meet the art anew and anew, with everything they have, with empty hands.

Speaking of that, I have some work that is barely begun, with rapidly approaching deadlines–so it is time to buckle down and overcome this particular beginnerhood, knowing that others and other kinds will follow.

I made a few minor chances to this piece after posting it.

A Concert in Gyula

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I first learned about the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concert series before I even knew about the possibility of teaching in Hungary. I wanted to support it and hoped one day to attend one of these concerts. Yesterday I made it to my fifth–but just barely!

To get to the concert in Gyula (a town in southeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border), I needed to take the 3:34 train out of Szolnok. The next train would get me there too late. My last class ended at 3:20, and I would need another minute or two to get out the door and on the bike; biking fast, I could possibly make it to the station in ten minutes, but much depended on the timing of the traffic lights. Just one long red light, and I would miss the train.

In addition, there was no way to return to Szolnok that night; I would need to stay in Gyula and return the next morning on the earliest train, the one that departed at 4:59. (The next one would get me to school too late.) So I reserved a hotel room in advance, not knowing whether I would make it to the concert in the first place.

After my last class on Wednesday, I rushed out the door, got on my bike, and pedaled with everything in me. I cut one corner: on bike, you are not supposed to cross Szapáry Street right at Kossuth Lajos Street but are instead directed to cross halfway up the next block. That would have taken too long, so I crossed right there, along with the traffic, then re-entered the bike path and sped onwards. I got to the train just in time; it left about a minute after I boarded with the bike. The transfer in Békéscsaba went without a hitch, and I arrived in Gyula exactly on time, at 5:07. (The concert started at 5:30.)

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I had a basic idea of how to get there but wasn’t completely sure I was doing it right. I passed through a park where some teenagers were sitting and smoking. They saw me pass by and immediately sensed that I was looking for something; when I explained, three of them came to my aid and explained the directions, telling me to turn left and cross a bridge. I turned left but saw no bridge; I asked a woman on a bike how to get there, and she said she was going in the same direction and would show me. Soon we crossed that bridge and were there: at the Ferenc Erkel Music School, formerly a synagogue. I entered and took my seat early.

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The program was new for me (until the encores): Max Bruch’s string octet in B-flat major and Claude-Paul Taffanel’s wind quintet in G minor. The Bruch allowed me to delight in Rita Sovány’s cello playing and the conversation of all the instruments.

The Taffanel was full of Bach influence, but with Romantic dreaminess and flute (played gloriously by Anett Jóföldi). In its evocation and transformation of a past, it suggested some of the meaning of the evening, as did the Bruch. I was caught up in it from start to finish.

There was a triple klezmer encore, with the full ensemble; two of the pieces I knew from previous concerts, and one was new to me. We the audience listened with hush and clapped with noise.

The full hall, the sounds that seize, the traditions coming together, the musicians’ gifts, the audience’s warmth, and my own joy in being there made this an evening not only of beauty but of urgency. The evening does not translate into a political message; that is part of the point. All the same, it “asks a little of us here.”

The magnificent clarinetist Ákos Ács–who leads the synagogue series–spoke at several points, clarinet and microphone in hand. A delightful rabbi–whom I heard speak once before, at the concert in Szeged last June–spoke about Jewish synagogues. Hungarian is not his native language; I enjoyed the sense of searching in his speech. Another man spoke at length about the history of Jews in Gyula, and then the head of the music school said some concluding words.

The audience seemed profoundly involved; afterward, people lingered and left slowly.

Then came the clouds and downpour. I made it to the hotel without confusion; I just began riding and found it. I took this picture right at the corner.

The hotel had a restaurant, so I had some delicious fish soup and then went to sleep. I left at 4:40 in the morning and got to the train station five minutes later.

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I hope to visit this town again for a longer stretch. But this quick trip was so full and unlikely that it continues onward in my mind.

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You can read my posts about the synagogue concerts in Albertirsa, Baja, Szeged, and Békés here, here, and here.

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

“Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.”

revolt of job 0The 1983 Hungarian film The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása) begins with mist, an indoor swimming pool, boys jumping, splashing, and shrieking, boys upon boys. Adult figures emerge in the background; one of them, a man with greying beard, begins inspecting a few boys (for possible adoption) while his wife and the orphanage managers comment on the selections. Then a melody can be heard in the background, just for a few seconds, just the stark opening phrase, one note at a time, as though played with one finger hitting the piano keys. It is the Hungarian Jewish song “Szól a kakas már,” which comes and goes several times throughout the film.

According to legend, the first Kaliver Rebbe, Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1751-1821), learned and purchased this song from a shepherd, who, after teaching it to him, forgot it completely. Beloved by Hungarian Jews, it has come to be associated with the Shoah because of its Messianic longing, but it also evokes a longer history. The film itself is filled with longing; Imre Gyöngyössy, who directed it along with Barna Kabay, was himself adopted by Jewish parents who disappeared in the Holocaust. In an interview he told Seth Mydans, “Until now, in all my work the heredity of my adoptive father is working. Until now it is I who am running after the Messiah, after eternal liberation. I am running until now in all my films. I am running as my father told me.” (Please see Mydans’s superb article for more about the film, its background, and its making.)

Here by the swimming pool, we soon learn why the husband and wife (Jób and Róza, played by Ferenc Zenthe and Hédi Temessy) are “purchasing” a boy–in fact, exchanging him for two calves: Jób, who has lost seven sons, wants a Christian son to whom he can leave everything once they are gone. It is 1943; Christians have better odds of survival than Jews. The manager warns the wife not to be too choosy; as it is, he will have to back-date the papers to 1938 (when Jews were still allowed to adopt).

Having rejected several possibilities, Jób looks out into the pool again and sees a boy dunking underwater to hide. The boy pops up, looks at him, and goes under again. This is the one, Jób decides; Lackó (Gábor Fehér) gets carried out kicking and screaming, gets a haircut, and gets taken home in the horse-drawn cart, with the sheep in the back. (A dog running alongside the cart gets adopted too; there is some mayhem, but they make it home.) Over the next eight months or so–the film begins before Rosh Hashanah and ends about a month after Passover–Lackó comes to love his adoptive parents and become beloved by them. They accomplish what they set out to do: raise a son, even in such a short time, to carry on their tradition and memory. This is the “revolt” of Jób (the father’s name); rather than give up all heritage, he has decided to go out and find it, breaking custom, meeting with some disapproval, but listening to what he knows he has to do.

Part of this film’s magnificence lies in its sense of time. At the poolside we learn that it is 1943; after that, as far as I remember, no specific dates are mentioned again. All time is conveyed through nature (day and night, rain and sun) and the Jewish holidays (Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach). We find little Lackó gazing through the window at his adoptive mother lighting the Shabbat candles. Jób joins her and wishes her “gut Yontiv.” This suggests that the date is Friday, October 1, 1943–the very end of Rosh Hashanah–or perhaps one week earlier. The next time Lackó peers through the window, it is Kol Nidre; he sees a man carrying the Torah scroll and chanting “Or zarua latzadik…”; he hears Kol Nidre; he hears a rabbi give the D’var Torah.

Jób does not try to convert Lackó to Judaism; he tells Lackó about God but asks a Swabian friar to instruct him too. In one of the conversations, at the village market–where some of the townspeople and the Deputy Town Clerk are singing “Let’s hit the Jews with a stick,” and where a man is squirting water at two mating dogs who are stuck together–Lackó learns from his father that God–the word he teaches is “Shechinah,” a Hebrew word for an aspect of God, often understood as the manifestation–is “in the acts of love in the pastures”; that he gives light, like a glow-worm. Lackó asks whether God is in frogs too; Jób replies that he is, since frogs croak nicely. (At the end of the film, during the closing credits, we  hear “Szól a kakas már” again, slower than any other time, with frogs croaking in the background. The sound reminded me of the frogs I heard when bicycling to Sárospatak at night last April.

When Lackó and his best friend–a little girl from the village–capture frogs as a surprise for his father, they see militia coming through the marshes to hunt down deserters. The two tell a soldier that they have seen no one pass through. Thus the film is not only of love and sweetness; contrary to what Janet Maslin wrote, it holds both the cruel and the sweet. Nor is the sweetness overdone; it may be hard for the cynical among us to believe, but that is part of the point. The sweetness has something to do with time; even Lackó senses the treasure of these few days. Or maybe he knows it through memory; it is a story of memory, of trying to find what has been lost.

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To me the most moving scene is during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, when Jób is praying in the sukkah. (It may be specifically the holiday Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot, since that is the day when we pray for rain.) The sukkah itself symbolizes transience and fragility; in Leviticus 23:40-43, God commands Moses:

מ  וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים, וַעֲנַף עֵץ-עָבֹת, וְעַרְבֵי-נָחַל; וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–שִׁבְעַת יָמִים. 40 And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
מא  וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּחֹגּוּ אֹתוֹ. 41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute for ever in your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month.
מב  בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. 42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths;
מג  לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. 43 that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

 
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Jób knows that he is not only praying in a booth, but living in one, that his time will soon end; he prays in an undertone (maybe reading from the book before him, maybe praying from memory, maybe praying from his heart), but he prays without pause. Lackó sees him from the outside and comes in, but Jób motions to be left alone, and he leaves: first telling the dog that his father has either gone mad or been attacked by love, then spying on the servant couple in bed, then crawling in bed with his mother. The rain starts to pour down, into the sukkah; Jób gives thanks for the rain, saying Hallelujah, praying, “Just as You sent the rain this night, so raise this boy.” Lackó, hearing the rain, realizes that his father must be getting wet; he rushes back to the sukkah, with Róza close behind. Jób takes him up on his lap, lifts him up, laughs with joy torn open, saying Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Much more happens in this gentle film; they make it to Pesach and a little beyond, but Jób and Róza cannot protect Lackó from his grief and confusion when they are carted away. That will be part of his inheritance, along with the love, the traditions, the gifts, and the nighttime sounds.

I have watched the film four times on a big screen–in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I teach each July. It is part of the curriculum for the course in the Epic, which takes place in the even-numbered years. Each time I have watched the film, I have understood much more than the previous times–not only because of the returns, but because of my own learning. In 2012, I had not yet begun going to synagogue or learning Hebrew. In 2014, I had been doing both for a little over a year, so I could understand some of the words and references. In 2016, I understood still more; in 2018, I had been living in Hungary for eight months, could understand some of the Hungarian (and more of the Jewish meaning), and recognized the countryside, although I do not think I have been to the particular places of this film. Now I see that there is still more to understand, much more. This film resembles a poem, where the rhythm, language, shape, argument, sounds, images, and allusions all take part in the whole, and where the truth dazzles gradually, in all too short a time.

The images are screenshots of Jób lázadása, which you can find in DVD format (with optional English subtitles) or watch online (without subtitles). The verses from Leviticus are courtesy of Mechon Mamre; the phrase “dazzles gradually” alludes to Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Update: I just learned that the film will be on Hungarian television (channel M5) on Friday, August 17, at 9:15 p.m.