What Are Years?

I celebrate three New Years annually: the Jewish New Year, the academic new year, and the Gregorian New Year, which begins tomorrow. They are all different kinds of beginnings. This last one has both the least and the greatest effect on my sense of time: the least because it doesn’t really affect my life rhythm, except that it occurs during our winter break and heralds certain deadlines and beginnings, and the greatest because the it is recognized, marked, and fêted worldwide. I suppose birthdays are a kind of new year too, in which case I celebrate many more than three.

But in all cases, the “year” has to do with the motion of the earth around the sun (or vice versa, as it was perceived in ancient times). Seasons and growth cycles have been part of our conception of time since the earliest antiquity known to us.

New Year’s resolutions may be silly at times, but our sense of starting afresh is not. It’s physical, possible, and good. A person doesn’t even have to wait a year to do this. I often do it from one day to the next, or even during the course of a day. For instance, if I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped, I start over, right then and there, and either get something done or not. Or I do enough of something that I know it will be easy to continue or finish the next day. Being able to “start over” can do, if not wonders, at least more than nothing. Or it can make the “nothing” worthwhile. At times it can simply mean getting a good night’s sleep.

But yes, this year stands out from other years, and the desire for a new start is a bit more urgent than usual, all around the world. Those spared by Covid itself have been hit by Covid fatigue and anxiety. The arts have taken a terrible hit. Travel, events, gatherings are up in the air.

But it’s still possible to read, write, listen to music, watch movies, laugh. So I leave off with just a few recommendations:

The Autumn 2020 issue of my students’ online journal, Folyosó:

Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő” (released in July):

A live video of Dávid Szesztay and his band playing his song “Elindul” (maybe my favorite of his songs):

A brutally funny satirical piece by Dan Geddes, published 19 years ago in The Satirist: “In Memoriam: Dr. Claire Hoyt: ‘Shrink to the Stars’“;

Lara Allen’s art work Fried Liver Attack, whose description begins, “‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ These words, spoken by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, are the tabula rasa for this work. This punch might be a beginning or an end. It’s supposed that we make art that is about something, or that reflects something, or interrogates something.”

Ishion Hutchinson’s magnificent poem “Little Music,” published in the January 2021 issue of Harper’s;

Martha Hollander’s quietly stunning poem “Friday Harbor,” published in Issue 12:3 of Literary Matters;

And, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” from which this post’s title comes. It is one of my favorite poems, and it brings back memories of John Hollander’s classes. Since it now appears in various places online, I will copy it below (from the Madison Public Library website). I read it aloud this evening, against a backdrop of rain; here is the recording.

A Happy New Year to all!

What Are Years?

Marianne Moore

        What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
        naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
        encourages others
        and in its defeat, stirs

        the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who 
        accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
        in its surrendering
        finds its continuing. 

        So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
        grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
        This is mortality,
        this is eternity.

“I Still Love Christmas….”

Cultural differences surprise me over time. It seems that with all our international media, such differences are disappearing or blurring, but this is not so. At Christmastime especially, I notice the differences between the U.S. and Hungary–or, rather, coastal U.S. and Hungary. Many people I know in the U.S. (particularly in New York, Boston, and San Francisco) say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”; there’s a certain discomfort with saying “Merry Christmas,” since the addressee might be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or of another faith; or nonreligious, or otherwise non-Christmas-celebrating.

Yet this Christmas-nonmentioning custom seems fairly recent; I grew up with Christmas and Merry Christmas, albeit of a secular sort. We had a Christmas tree every year and decorated it with cookies shaped like birds. On Christmas morning my sister and I found presents under the tree. When we lived in the Netherlands, we celebrated Sinkerklaas. In high school I sang Christmas songs and sacred music. One of my favorite works was Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols; I still remember the sound of Louisa Burnham singing the solo of “Balulalow.” Looking back, I wonder what it was like for my Jewish classmates to sing Christmas songs year after year. I was barely aware of being Jewish myself, and had no idea, until later, that there could be a conflict. Today I don’t think there has to be one–it’s possible to celebrate or recognize Christmas, in some way, no matter who you are, or what your origins or beliefs–but I understand its sources.

But in the U.S., Christmas also means a lot of stress: rushing around for presents, worrying about what to buy and what you might or might not get, bearing with loud workplace parties and Secret Santa rituals, surviving tense family gatherings, etc. This remains unchanged even under the “Happy Holidays” banner. Many people understandably object to the way the holiday has been commercialized over the decades. Yet we also love the Christmas displays in storefronts and on the streets. Gaudy and ungreen as they may be, they still bring cheer and nostalgia. I have happy memories of going with friends to see the Macy’s displays–and why? because they are so pretty, because we enjoy the Christmas spirit and its electric manifestations.

That is one of myriad reasons why “I Still Love Christmas” by my friend Hannah Marcus is one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. It’s so funny and sweet, with one zinger after another, and such beautiful performance; on top of that, it captures the ambivalence that so many of us feel: the uneasy love of Christmas, the quasi-guilty, defiant delight in its rituals. This, I think, is foreign to many Hungarians; here Christmas is celebrated (whether religiously or secularly) with no guilt or misgivings whatsoever, except by those who feel pressured into or constrained by it, who may be more numerous than I realize.

And I still love Christmas, with misgivings that are culturally untranslatable. “You can’t take that from me, no siree….” I would have a tree this year, except that the cats would definitely pounce on it and bring it down. So my tree this year is double: a lovely illuminated wreath-hanging that a friend gave me yesterday, and a dried floral wreath given to me by another friend a few weeks ago, just before Hanukkah.

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate, enjoy, or “still love” it, and Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings to all.

I took the top photo outside the Szolnok Airplane Museum and the bottom photo at home.

Looking Ahead

During this delightfully restful and productive holiday break–in which I have been finishing the translation manuscript, writing stories, rereading Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind, reading Samuel Beckett’s trilogy for the first time, watching some films, working on the 1984 project and Folyosó, and going running–I have still had time to think ahead a little. As many of you know, I am in the process of applying for permanent residency here in Hungary. At present I must renew my residency permit every year; a permanent residency permit is up for renewal every five years (a simple procedure, once you have it). A lot went into the application; I am just waiting for a couple of documents from the U.S. If permanent residency is granted, then my plan will be to teach for ten more years and then retire. That’s neither early nor late; it’s normal retirement age, and it seems just right to me. Retirement won’t be the end of my work, just a shift in priorities. I will write, teach individual courses, translate, give readings, and more. And before then, I look forward to a full decade of teaching (and projects too).

Upon retirement, I will be eligible for U.S. social security, which I can receive here. In the U.S., the monthly checks would cover only a fraction of my living costs, but here they should be enough to live on. So then I can spend my time on projects, and tutor, if I wish, for extra income. Travel to the U.S. and elsewhere won’t be difficult, assuming normal travel has resumed by then.

Nothing can be known with precision in advance; all sorts of things can come up unexpectedly, situations can mutate, and plans can fall through. But this overall plan appeals to me and makes lots of sense. It’s also fair to everyone involved; I am not taking anything unfairly from either the U.S. or Hungary, but instead reaping earned benefits and continuing to give what I can. I won’t be eligible for a Hungarian pension here, but I won’t need it. My health care, on the other hand, will be covered.

Three years here went by in an instant. Ten years is just three of those instants and a little more. If I were to become a homeroom teacher (osztályfőnök) in a year or two, I would have time to see two cohorts through from ninth grade to graduation. That is a dream of mine, and well within reach. The osztályfőnök not only sees the students all the way through, but participates in all their ceremonies, helps them with difficulties, oversees their grades, holds meetings with the parents at the beginning and end of each year, and more. For the second consecutive year now, I am a “pótosztályfőnök” (“vice homeroom teacher”), which allows me to see how it works. I am almost ready to take something like this on; I just need a bit more familiarity with the procedural language, so that I can communicate all necessary information to parents. So, another year or two, and it will be time, if the opportunity arises.

Three years ago, we had a concert in the Református Templom here in Szolnok; a group of teachers, directed by music teacher Andrea Barnané Bende, sang “Hymne à la nuit“; I was given the solo, which I loved singing, though I had a slight cold. It was a beautiful welcome into the life of the school; little did I know how much more would be coming, and how much after that would still stretch ahead.

A Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and peaceful, healthy winter!

The Week in Pictures

Yesterday the winners of the first Folyosó contest received their certificates (in the hallway, the “folyosó,” outside the teachers’ room, in the long break after the second lesson of the day). Their pieces will appear in the autumn issue of Folyosó, to be published on November 2. For this contest, I had invited four colleagues to be on the jury with me, and they happily agreed. It was exciting to read and reread the pieces and make our final choices. Congratulations to all!

The week had lots of rain, which meant that there were lots of umbrellas at school, which meant photos of umbrellas. At one point, when stopping to take a photo (in a rush on my way to class), I dropped everything, including a piece of chalk, which broke into many bits. A student kindly stopped and helped me pick everything up again–and I took that picture. The one below was taken a little later.

It’s hard to go out on weeknights, especially this year, when I am working on the translations and have so much to do from day to day. But on Tuesday there was no way that I could resist. I first went to an art opening by Gábor Homolya at the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which has ongoing exhibits, concerts, and more, in addition to films). My friend Éva from Budapest had told me about it. She took me and a few others on a detailed tour of the pieces. It was the third time I had seen his work up close; these ones were filled with allusions to literature, music, and film. Here is “1984.”

With the art opening, the 2020 Alexandre Trauner Art/Film Festival began. After a an introductory speech about Mr. Homolya, and after people had some time to look at the works, we all headed together across the courtyard to the synagogue (gallery) to hear the Bartók Béla Kamarakórus, one of Szolnok’s musical treasures and the only professional women’s choir in Hungary. After that, there were words of welcome, followed by the presentation of the Szignál-film awards.

We then walked back to the Tisza Mozi to see the film of the evening: Éden, directed by Ágnes Kocsis. It was an eerie, moving work that cannot (or should not) be described in terms of its plot. Afterwards Zsolt Bajnai conducted a discussion with the director and two others.

Between that, Folyosó, and regular classes and things, it was a fantastic week, topped off by bike rides along the Tisza.

Masks, Music, Acting

For International Music Day, the music teacher planned, along with her students, to play music through the loudspeakers in the breaks between lessons. Here are two students dancing to the music in the hallway.

Yes, we are trying our best to celebrate things, to keep the arts going in some way, to listen when we can’t sing. (Singing is not allowed in school at this point, since it is hard to do so safely.) At this point, the rules are: wear masks in the hallways and in common areas; in classrooms, wear masks when it is impossible to keep the required social distance. As of October 1, we must also have our temperature taken as we enter the school; those with a temperature above a certain level will not be allowed in.

Three students have tested positive for the coronavirus; they are all at home right now. In one case, the whole class stayed home for ten days, then returned (except for the one who tested positive). I imagine that there will be more known cases, especially now that the thermometer requirement is in place. Those setting local policy respond to each case individually, taking into consideration when the student was last in school and other factors.

With all of that, the year is still proceeding somewhat normally, with joys along the way. One of my favorite parts of the week is when I go with the tenth-graders into the spacious drama room (shown above and below) to read and act out A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the beginning of the year, the drama teacher told me she wanted to share the room with me and asked me to choose the times I would like.

The school has also found ways to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The director, László Molnár, organized the publishing of commemorative book, edited by Dr. Ilona Mrenáné Szakálos, with interviews and biographies of selected teachers from 1930 to the present. I was surprised and honored to be included in the book, with Zsolt Bajnai’s interview of me, from exactly one year ago today, reprinted in the pages. But beyond that, the book says a lot about the school. I know of no other school that would release a commemorative book that focused entirely on the teachers from the beginning to the present. At Varga, the school’s history is cherished, and the teachers are its stronghold. The teacher biographies–written by colleagues, students, and others–are full of respect, affection, and humor. Putting out this book during the pandemic was no easy feat, but it was worth it, and no matter what happens this year, the book will stay.

So I look forward to each day of bicycling along the Tisza to school, having lively classes, working with my colleagues, preparing the fall issue of Folyosó (which will appear in the beginning of November), and being part of Varga, where I have taught for three years now. What’s coming this year in terms of coronavirus developments, no one knows. But I am glad for these days we have had.

The Synagogue Concert in Mátészalka

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Yesterday I was right up against the line. To get to Mátészalka in time for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concert, I would have to catch the 1:38 train, transfer in Debrecen, and arrive there at 5. The concert started at 6 and was supposed to last about an hour. So if it ended at 7, I might be able to make it back to the train station by 7:15 and catch the last train that would get me back to Szolnok before midnight (the following train, in fact, would get me back at 4 a.m.). The whole thing was so unlikely that I thought, close to the last minute, “Maybe I should just stay home.” But then I headed out the door (on the late side), pedaled with all my might to the train station, locked up my bike, and caught the train. (I caught the return train too.)

Sometimes you know that something is important and that you need to be there. Sometimes you don’t. In this case I knew. But I didn’t know why, except that I hadn’t been able to attend a synagogue concert in a year. Last fall, they were all too far away; by “too far” I mean that I would have had no way of getting out there or of returning to work on time the following day. Last spring, they were cancelled because of the pandemic. But there was more to it than the long wait. I love this synagogue concert series, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra started in 2014 with the goal of playing in every synagogue in Hungary–for free, for the local communities. Shortly before moving to Hungary, in September 2017, I attended the concerts in Albertirsa and Baja. After moving here, I attended the ones in Szeged, Békés, and Gyula. This was to be my sixth.

As you ride from Debrecen to Mátészalka (the farthest east I have ever traveled in Hungary), you start to enter a different Hungary. Thick forests, sequestered towns, a large Roma population. Once I arrived in Mátészalka, the walk to the synagogue was easy: one road for a stretch, than another. And then I saw the synagogue itself and gasped.

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The sun was hitting the building in dapples, through the trees. People stood outside, waiting for the concert. Kids zipped up and down the quiet street on their bicycles and scooters. And nearby was the Szatmári Museum, two churches, and other elegant buildings. You can imagine a time when Jews and Christians lived, worked, and worshipped side by side; the street preserves the feeling. That in turn reveals a Hungarian wound. Even before going inside, I was close to tears.

The audience members wore masks. (The hall filled up much more than the early picture at the top suggests.) The concert, in terms of program, followed a familiar format: an introduction, a piece, a short presentation by a rabbi, the rest of the official part of the program, and the encores. A local community leader would also speak about the town.

All of this took place. The official program consisted of Jean Françaix‘s Wind Quartet and the second movement of Max Bruch’s string octet in B. Then there were two klezmer pieces at the end–a slower piece that evokes a familiar “Nishmat” melody, and a livelier piece with clarinet at the center.

But this concert was different from all the others that I have attended so far, maybe because so much was familiar that I could notice other things. The light was like threads of gold. The sound rested in the air. I saw that the musicians were playing out of love and out of the knowledge that this had to be done. Like my traveling out there, in a way.

Most of the musicians I have heard before, in previous synagogue concerts and other concerts. Rita Sovány’s cello, Ákos Ács’s clarinet had a joy to them. You don’t even touch a thing like that. What do you say about it? My words fall this way and that.

The music ended at 7. There was another short speech, but I slipped out and ran as fast as I could for the station. I stopped for a split second to take a picture of the town hall.

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I made it to the train station just in time, got on the train, and took a picture through the window somewhere along the way, as the sun folded past the ground.

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Here are some beautiful pictures of the three most recent synagogue concerts.

With Fondness and Respect

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Yesterday we had an outdoor faculty meeting in preparation for the school year, which begins on September 1. The principal began by welcoming us back “with fondness and respect” (“szeretettel és tisztelettel”). This common Hungarian phrase has no equivalent in English; it set a nice tone for the morning. The head of the school district said a few words, a number of teachers were recognized for excellent work in the previous year, we discussed some aspects of the school year (more meetings are ahead), and we went over fire and other emergency procedures.

Today I went in for a meeting with the arts faculty. Since I include drama and music in my teaching and have two big drama projects lined up for this year, I was welcomed into the “munkaközösség,” a faculty working group. It was great to be part of the discussion and hear about plans, concerns, needs, and so on. The arts at Varga are rich, and now the school’s second building, Building B, will be devoted to the arts. The drama room will have a stage; it will become a little auditorium!

IMG_3123I am essentially entering my fourth year at Varga (and my fourteenth full year of teaching), hard as that is to believe. I say “essentially” because I started at the beginning of November 2017–so it has been three years minus two months. But still, given that I jumped right in, it’s fair to say that this is my fourth year. So my students who were in ninth grade when I arrived will be graduating this year.

We will have classes in person but will take certain precautions and prepare to adjust plans if necessary. The country will respond locally to the situation–so if one part of the country is harder hit, it will have stricter regulations than areas with few coronavirus cases. It will be a while before life in Budapest returns to normal, it seems, though small events are happening again, and university students are returning for hybrid instruction. Here in Szolnok, in contrast, the situation seems stable and safe right now.

I have missed Varga, classes, students, and colleagues. It is a wonderful place to teach–a dream school, as far as I am concerned–and I have been thinking about why. I will say more about that another time. This afternoon I am about to take the train out to Mátészalka for one of the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concerts. I wasn’t able to attend any last fall, because they were all too far away; the last of their synagogue concerts that I attended was in Gyula, in September 2018. This one’s a bit far too, but feasible, if I head out in the next few minutes.

Song Series #10: Song Endings

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One of the most important parts of a song is its ending. There are many ways to end a song, and the ending matters. It gives something to the song; it is also really hard to do well. Many artists rely on the fade-out, which is fine for some songs, but lazy as a general approach–unless you truly believe that your songs shouldn’t end. Today I am going to bring up a few favorite song endings–all from songs by California musicians (or musicians who lived at some point in California), since I am watching the news of the terrible wildfires and thinking of friends and others who are suffering right now. I made a token donation to the Wildfire Relief Fund, but I wish I could do much more.

One way to end a song is simply to stop, maybe with a few percussion beats at the end, maybe without. A brilliant example of this is “Borders” by Granfaloon Bus (from their album Good Funeral Weather), which has to do with the borders of many kinds–inside people, between people, and in time, in the course of life. The refrain has a beautiful cadence that alternates between the “you” and the “I”: “You’re payin’, while I run, you’re still crying, well I’m all done.” The song ends with “done” and a few quiet drumbeats that come to a stop.

You can hear a similar kind of ending in a very different kind of song: 20 Minute Loop’s brooding, increasingly frantic “Everybody Out,” where the repeating chorus or culmination is “If it don’t stop, if it don’t stop,” and then it just stops with that! This video is from a 2008 performance at Bottom of the Hill.

Another way of ending is by going into a new mode, often instrumental, that comes to its own conclusion. A favorite example is from one of my favorite songs, “Green Glass” by Carrie Bradley, performed and recorded by her band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. Watch the whole video–it begins with a historic mishap where the one string on Dan’s butterfly bass breaks. The song is intense with words–they go fast and urgently, leaving you chasing after the strands as they fly by: “In the belly of a bar, on a back street, there’s a couple of people I’d tell you about if I weren’t in the habit of just thinking out loud…” Wow. That’s just the beginning. “Small bar, back street, mostly residential, nothing to worry about, nothing much to do. A blue neon sign in the window says Burgies on Beacon, and the street lights brood. The blue light features bugs, floating around, like craters, like something in your eye, like astronauts, like black holes, like black stars….” A man and a woman meet, and they get each other’s jokes, there’s something there, and eventually the woman says, “Isn’t there something between talk and sex, is there a place between obsession and apathy?” and he says, “I know a place like that, it’s, uh, 216 Center Street, Apartment D12, it’s up to you,” and she says, “I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about green glass in a junkyard, I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about ordinary flies in a blue light,” and then the song lyrics end, “and he says, ‘I know that, it’s up to you,’ and he left.” So you have this moment where the thing that they both understand is hanging there in the air, about to happen, and the music takes it over.

Where even to go from here? How about Dieselhed’s silly, majestic, iconic “B A Band,” about how some day they won’t be a band? And indeed, they are no longer a band together; long ago continued on to other musical projects. At the shows, the lighters came out for that song–they waved in the air, like the phone lights last night in Budapest when Idea played “Sötét van.” This song–which features Jonathan Segel on violin–combines two kinds of endings: the crescendo (a common and effective way of ending a song: building up to a wild intensity and then–in some cases, but not here–crashing into the final note) and the coda, which in this case goes forward in time: “Now I’m just sitting here on my barstool / bragging to the barman about a show we once had in Fort Bragg / if my stories seem a little bit thin / I’ve got something brewin’ deep within.”

I haven’t even gotten to other kinds of endings, like returns to the beginning, or switches to a cappella singing (as in Platon Karataev’s “Elevator“), but this sure was fun. If you have favorite song endings, or ways of ending a song, please mention them in the comments. And let us hope the fires end soon.

For earlier posts in the song series, go here.

This and That

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A beautiful, long vacation is coming to a close. I don’t remember when I last had such a stretch of time. It was a long time ago.

Yesterday I finished reading Sándor Márai’s novel Kassai őrjárat (Košice Patrol) in Hungarian. It’s the second novel I have read in Hungarian; the first was Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, which took much longer. Kassai őrjárat, Márai’s meditation on his return to Košice a few weeks after the German invasion of Paris in 1940 (and a few months before Hungary joined the Axis powers), is both beautiful and perplexing, both prophetic and off the mark. It is clear that at this time he did not know what Germany was doing; he believed, or his narrator believed, that if writers and other artists lived up to their responsibility, and if European nations could both work together and retain their individual identity, Europe might enter a new and glorious phase. He saw the writers of his generation shrinking away from their importance; he saw pseudo-writers, concerned mostly with fame and career, filling the gap. He saw the decline of the book from a sacred object to a saleable item. But he did not see what was coming–or, probably, much of what was going on right then and there–in the war.

But even with the blind spots, it is an absorbing, moving book. Maybe the blind spots made it even more so. None of us sees everything that is going on at a particular time. At best, one of us might offer new information, perspectives, or synthesis. But anything any of us observes or reports is incomplete. The imagination fills in the rest, for better, for worse, or for a mixture.

Besides reading, writing, and translating, I have gone on many bike rides and evening runs. When I moved to Hungary in October 2017 (almost three years ago), I looked forward to getting on the bike and going wherever I wanted–on a long or short trip, on bike paths, regular roads, or other routes. In this I have not been disappointed. Today I biked out to Millér and then followed a dirt road for a long time. It was my first time on that particular dirt road.

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Another beautiful part of this summer has had to do with Shabbat. My own synagogue, Szim Salom, has been online throughout the pandemic; members have been taking turns leading services, and only twice a month have the rabbi and I led. But these occasions have been sweet and strong, even with all the technical difficulties. And I have attended B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel online services as well. The time difference makes that a bit strange but no less lovely; on Friday I tuned in to B’nai Jeshurun at midnight (6 p.m. in NYC).

My Hungarian is still far from fluent (in the true sense of the word), but it made some leaps this summer. I think back to a year ago; the progress has been substantial. At that time, I understood a lot but could express myself only slowly and haltingly, with limited vocabulary. Now, in more and more situations, I can express myself and respond to others without hesitation.

The summer has also been filled with music; I listen to a lot at home and went to two concerts: one by two members of Platon Karataev, and the other, last Friday, by Marcell Bajnai. This Saturday evening I intend to go hear Marcell’s band Idea (formerly 1LIFE) in Budapest.

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There is much more to say about the summer and other things, more than I can bring up right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dominó and Sziszi, who have brought so much to these days. See them below. And now the season is turning, and I look forward to returning to school and picking up the tempo a bit.

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Song Series #9: Breaking Through Time

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It is common, when listening to a song or album that you haven’t heard in a long time, to find that it brings back an era of your life, maybe an era of history. It can be fun to listen to old favorites for this reason. But there are songs that also transcend their era (or the era when we first listened to them) while also capturing something of it. Over time, they show their newness, which does not go away.

What do such songs have in common? They are bold and beautiful at once, and there’s nothing quite like them. The boldness may be quiet or brash, but you can feel it. It becomes part of you as you listen.

An obvious example is “We Will Rock You” by Queen. It appeared on their 1977 album News of the World. It needs no explanation. The foot stomping and the a cappella voices, the anger and the promise, the irresistible melody and beat–all of this made it a song that I heard again and again without even owning the album. I probably heard it in high school first, without knowing what it was. In college it got played at parties and dances. Bands covered it. People started singing it out of the blue. Many years later, in 2008, when I was teaching at an elementary school way out in East New York, Brooklyn, my students struck up their own version of it on the bus ride back from a field trip. I can still hear them singing the chorus (which consisted of the name of one of the students, who was the fifth grade class president, I think, and who was well liked and respected).

The next song, in a very different mood, is the Smiths’ “Half a Person.” Originally released in 1987 as the B-side of the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” it is also included on their compilation album Louder Than Bombs. I first heard it at the Daily Caffé in New Haven (where I heard a lot of music for the first time). I bought Louder Than Bombs and listened to it over and over–the song and the whole album. “Half a Person” is so beautifully melancholic and semi-young. It seems to be about a teenager’s confusion and wandering, but it feels older, probably because of the reminiscence in it. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail….” It’s perverse and poignant at the same time. And even today, when the narrator of the song would be quickly written off as a stalker, the song gives a glimpse of the person’s soul and circumstances. “That’s the story of my life….”

Since I seem to be proceeding decade-wise, I’ll continue with Beck, whose genius I didn’t appreciate at first. When “Loser” was all over the place, and then when Odelay came out, there was so much talk about Beck that I couldn’t listen to him. Later, with his Mutations and Sea Change, I started to listen, and now I am listening to those albums I missed early on, as well as later ones. What is it about Beck? It isn’t just his versatility, his ability to take different directions in his music. It isn’t only his craft either, though he knows how to compose a song that you will want to ride all the way through, anticipating each shift and break. There’s more to it than that, something I want to get to know.

His song “Where It’s At” (from Odelay) was all around me for years before I knew that Beck wrote it.  I think it was on many an mp3 playlist at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater–it got played there in intermissions, dance parties, etc. But that’s not the song I want to include here. The song I have chosen is “Girl,” from his 2005 album Guero, because it so messed up and perfect at once. I love how the first “Hey” comes a split second after the “try” of “nothing that I wouldn’t try.” I love the attitude of the song–downcast, dorky, disturbing, mischievously wry, and, towards the end, celebratory. The video stands out too, with its series of fold-in scenes, a tribute to MAD Magazine.

The last one I’ll mention today is Sonny Smith, whom I first heard in San Francisco in 2000 (when he had been around for a few years, putting out tapes). During the break, I ran up to Carrie Bradley, who was headlining the show that night, and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left; Sonny was sitting next to her and I hadn’t even noticed. I was so flustered that I couldn’t say anything. Later we became good acquaintances; I edited some of his stories, many of which I published in my literary journal, Si Señor; he played at two of the Si Señor celebrations. Over the years I got to listen to his music as he formed Sonny and the Sunsets, toured the world, put out album after album, wrote a musical (The Dangerous Stranger), pulled off the 100 Records project, started a record label (Rocks in Your Head Records), and did so much more that I lost track. What Sonny has in common with Beck is a relentlessness, a desire to try new things, and a knack for a darn good song. What’s different is all the difference between them (a lot). It is difficult to choose a song to feature here. But I’ll choose “Pretend You Love me” from Sonny and the Sunsets’ 2012 album Longtime Companion. Why? Because it’s so sad, yet it lifts up as it goes–in a way that is not tied to time and place, even though it brings back various memories at once. (For contrast, and for another Sonny great, listen to “Well but Strangely Hung Man.”)

That will be all for this post, since I soon head into Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev acoustic duo!

This is the ninth post in my Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.