The Love of the Stage

I love performing on stage. Not just the moment of performance, but everything surrounding it: the rehearsals, the working out of details, the practice at home, the dress rehearsal, the backstage, the different stages of waiting on the day of the performance itself, the performance itself. I love even those times when I think I don’t want to do it, when I can’t wait for it to be over, because that’s just one of the many moods along the way. I love the tension of performance, the relaxation too, the things that come out in the moment. This week I had the great joy of playing cello in the performance of Varga’s drama club (the Varga Diákszínpad) in the gala Ádámok és Évák show, which took place at Szolnok’s big theatre house, the Szigligeti Színház, and featured groups from many schools. This year’s theme was the poet Sándor Petőfi; the performances drew on his poetry and themes. Ours centered around the theme of love. The other musician was the Varga student Brigitta Szabados, who played with me in the Shakespeare festival too.

It was the drama teacher, my colleague Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, who invited me to be part of this. I had seen the Ádámok és Évák performances several times before and was excited to be in one. This meant many rehearsals close to the last minute (since they had put so much into the Shakespeare festival and now had to switch gears rather quickly). Brigi and I figured out the music between us; instead of playing as a duo, as we did in the Shakespeare performance, we traded back and forth. My parts were tiny—a few seconds at a time—but like the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski, they helped tie everything together.

Rehearsals and rehearsals: at the Verseghy Library, in the Drama room at Varga, and then at the Szigligeti Theatre, where the performance was to be. The piece, which told a story of the thrills, bitter disappointments, and ultimate promise of love, wove poetry, movement, and ingenious touches together. Streamers, roses, dances, punctuation of words and feet.

The day came. The final dress rehearsal. Then the waiting backstage, the actors getting ready, putting their makeup on. Announcements coming through the speakers, telling this group, then that group, to get ready. Then our turn came to get ready, then to go down near the stage. Another long wait. Then, at last, the stage. The rows and rows of faces in the audience, down below and up in the balcony.

The whole thing swam by, but it looked lovely out of the corner of my eye. I hit what I thought was a sour note toward the end (not out of tune, but slightly dry and squeaky), and felt bad about it, but it seems no one noticed, and in a recording I later heard, that note actually sounds fittingly fragile. It’s in the background, behind the two lovers who are coming together.

There will always be mistakes in performances—but, while no one wants to mess up, the tiny slips here and there can even give something to the show, if the performer stays focused and goes beyond them. The show was beautiful. Afterwards a student told me that he appreciated how I kept on going despite the mistakes. I thought he was referring to my mistakes, but no, he meant his own—and I hadn’t even noticed them.

After all the performances, there was an intermission, and then we all reassembled to hear the jury’s decisions. István Sasvári (in the red shirt, above and upper left corner below) won the award for male lead, and Varga Milla (who played opposite him) won a special prize. Other performances and schools won prizes as well. The prize for best overall performance was carried off by the Tiszaparti Roman Catholic school—but even at the level of awards, the Varga group held its own. Never mind that that’s just one level.

For a little while, I was still worrying: had I let them down with that sour note? But no, they hadn’t even noticed it; what’s more, it was accompaniment, and brief accompaniment at that. And they were so happy to have the cello and flute in their performance and to have pulled this off so well, with so much spirit and grace.

Today the Drama Club had a farewell celebration for its graduating seniors: gifts, refreshments, games, and a wonderful tradition of leaving handprints on the wall. I will leave off with that. We will be receiving a high-quality video of the performance; if it’s something that I can share here, I will add an update later.

Photo credits: The top photo was originally posted by Ferenc Szalay, the mayor of Szolnok. The other two I took.

Forms of Attention

Attention is so vast and varied, its forms may seem to have nothing in common. It can involve alertness or a lack of it, an inward focus, or a focus on something beyond the self. The object of attention may be single or multiple, or it may not be an object at all. That is, you can pay attention without knowing exactly what it is you are paying attention to. It could be something other than what you think. Attention can take you somewhere you didn’t expect to go.

If I had to explain the joy of going to hear Platon Karataev—the duo or the full band—in different settings, different cities, I would say that most of it can’t be explained; it goes far beyond what I can put words or ideas to. But it’s about as far from “groupiness” as you can get. It has to do with the music, the lyrics, the musicians, the attention that fills all the layers of their concerts. The attention within the songs, the attention they give each other, in the moment, the audience’s attention, their attention to the audience. It isn’t all about attention—there’s much more to it—but the attention at any of their concerts becomes part of my life. What I bring as an audience member, what each audience member brings, also takes part in the event and follows us, slightly or greatly changed, out the door.

Yesterday I went to the beautiful old city of Győr—for the first time—to hear the Platon Karataev duo play at the Protestant (Református) church, as part of the Öt Templom Fesztivál (Five Churches Festival), a week of concerts and other events at five of their religious sites: the Evangelical Old Church, the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, the Synagogue, and the Greek Catholic Church. I had decided to go only if I could get enough done beforehand: I am playing cello in a big citywide student theatre performance this week at the Szigligeti Szinház, and working on a new song, so I needed to practice; also, I needed to make enough headway with Folyosó that the spring issue could come out on Monday (tomorrow). I accomplished both of these and set out by train.

The concert was special: an absolutely hushed audience, not even any clapping except at the beginning and end. Beloved songs, new details that I heard in them, a new song too, warm, large lights that poured out slowly changing color, and an attention that began before the concert, grew and grew during it, and lingered long after its ending.

I took no pictures during the concert, but the picture above is of the keyhole, while I was still outside and they were doing a soundcheck. I was listening through the door for a minute or two and glimpsing the red light through the crack.

Getting there was simple enough: a train to the Budapest Keleti station, then a train to Győr from the same station. The return took a few more steps: a train to the Kelenföld station, a metro to Kálvin tér, a transfer to another metro line (amazingly, the M3 is now in full operation, after five years of repairs), a metro to the Nyugati station, and a slow train back to Szolnok. But it all worked out without a hitch, and I walked home from the Szolnok station and even stayed up a little longer afterward, past 2 a.m.

On the train to Győr, I was rereading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and came to the sentence (which repeats with variations in the novel), “They felt they were standing on a snow-covered plain, shivering with cold.” The Platon Karataev song “Atoms” (the title song of their second album) quotes it almost directly; I started hearing the song in the novel and vice versa. I thought about the genius of the translator and editor who did not make the mistake of deeming “shivering with cold” redundant and reducing it to just plain “shivering.” If it had been just “shivering,” would “Atoms” have come into existence? Or if it had, would it be anything like the song we know?

We can get caught up in foolishness: dogmatic, mechanical ideas about anything at all, including editing, including reduction. There’s a misconception that writing should be reduced, always, to the minimum words needed; if words seem to repeat each other’s meaning, then all but one should go, according to rigid dictates. But this is wrong; “shivering with cold” is not a redundancy, even after the mention of the snow-covered plain. It adds to the layers of cold; it also suggests that you could be shivering with something else. Also, it’s beautiful. When I listen to it, I know it must stay. It is the song that opened up this sentence to me.

Aristophanes plays with necessary redundancies (which are not redundancies, in fact) in Frogs: in the contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, Euripides chides Aeschylus for his repetitions, but both Aeschylus and Dionysos suggest that he has missed the point. (While the whole exchange is playful, I sense Aristophanes siding with Aeschylus just a little here.) Here is the passage (in the translation of B.B. Rogers):

DIO. Give him another: (to Eur.) you, look out for faults.

AESCH. Be thou my saviour and mine aid to-day, For here I come, and
hither I return

EUR. The same thing twice says clever Aeschylus.

DIO. How twice?

EUR. Why, just consider: I’ll explain. “I come,” says he; and “I
return,” says he: It’s the same thing, to “come” and to “return.”

DIO. Aye, just as if you said, “Good fellow, lend me
A kneading trough: likewise, a trough to knead in.”

AESCH. It is not so, you everlasting talker,
They’re not the same, the words are right enough.

DIO. How so? inform me how you use the words.

AESCH. A man, not banished from his home, may “come”
To any land, with no especial chance.
A home-bound exile both “returns” and “comes.”

DIO. O good, by Apollo! What do you say, Euripides, to that?

EUR. I say Orestes never did “return.” He came in secret: nobody
recalled him.

DIO. O good, by Hermes! (Aside.) I’ve not the least suspicion what he

EUR. Repeat another line.

DIO. Ay, Aeschylus, Repeat one instantly: you, mark what’s wrong.

AESCH. Now on this funeral mound I call my father To hear, to

EUR. There he is again. To “hear,” to “hearken”; the same thing,

DIO. Aye, but he’s speaking to the dead, you knave,
Who cannot hear us though we call them thrice.

AESCH. And how do you make your prologues?

EUR. You shall hear; And if you find one single thing said twice,
Or any useless padding, spit upon me.

“Useless padding” does exist and should be avoided; often, when you strip down a sentence, you make it much stronger and fresher than before. But not always. One must dare the distinctions. Aristophanes’ Euripides seems a bit obtuse in this regard.

This brings up the question of repetition: even very close echoes of a word or phrase can bring something new. So can a supposedly repeated experience, like a concert. You can feel the samenesses and differences mixing. Last night I thought I heard something new at the end of “Lassú madár,” which is sometimes my favorite of all the Platon Karataev songs. It was nothing added or taken away: just (in my ears) a different articulation just before the end, a minuscule pause before the final “gyorsabb az égboltnál.” A tiny detail in the midst of the larger magic.

And this was even with an imperfect sound system; something was crackling here and there in the wires, but this little crackle became beautiful, wrapped up in the whole.

Part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being has to do with misunderstood words, or words that people understand in different, sometimes contradictory ways. “Attention” could be one of these words. People’s different forms of attention can sometimes be confused with lack of attention. When people say, “You’re not listening!” or “You’re not paying attention!” they often mean, “You’re not paying attention in the way that I expect you to pay attention.” One of the most moving aspects of a Platon Karataev duo concert is the way Sebő and Gergő pay such close attention to each other, even while differing (somewhat) in their forms of attention. This could be said about many musicians who play well together, but here it takes a form and depth not quite like anything else.

I leave off with some pictures from the day. The first one was taken from the train window; if you zoom in, you can see a bird in the bare tree. The second was shortly after my arrival in Győr; the third, during my wandering around the old part of the city; the fourth and fifth, as I headed over to the concert (you can see the Platon Karataev duo mentioned on the billboard, and the synagogue in the background); the sixth, after the concert, on the way back to the train station, and the seventh, in Budapest, just before I boarded the train to Szolnok. Now back to the cello and Folyosó.

Update: Here are some photos of the concert, taken by someone other than me.

“North Maine Woods” (a few thoughts in fewer words)

Cz.K. Sebő’s new capsule boy song, “North Maine Woods,” came out just a few hours ago. (capsule boy is his electronic project.) This dreamy, veiled piece is (in part) a love song to the place in Maine where he worked one summer, years ago, and where he has never returned. The immediate feeling is recognizable: a place that you love and can never return to, because even if you do go back there one day, it will be different and so will you. A loss that can’t be taken away. But also a sense of being there forever, always carrying it. Both of these at the same time.

But then what the song does with this is so gentle and subtle that even the idea seems like a passageway into something else. I love the part in the middle where the keyboards sound like trees on fire. And the part where everything pares down, then slowly builds up, rises up again. The sound has many different textures wrapping and unwrapping slowly. Individual notes take me by surprise. It evokes some sort of memory or else creates it from scratch, sending me on a search.

It evokes other music too—I can’t figure out what. Maybe Brendan Perry’s 1999 solo album Eye of the Hunter, for instance, the song “Death Will Be My Bride.” Perry’s sound is different, though: more upfront and pristine. I don’t think I’ll figure out what this reminds me of, since it’s an indirect likeness. For that matter, it might be reminding me of itself, since I have heard it a couple times at concerts. This can happen with a song I love: it seems to bring up another song, but that other song is like the woods in Maine, lost but present.

I don’t know whether this or “Funeral Circular” is my favorite capsule boy song so far. Let them both be, in different ways.

Congratulations to Cz.K. Sebő for this song and to Fruzsina Balogh for the cover art.

That Was the Festival That Was

Looking back on yesterday as a whole, after a thick sleep, I would call it a big success. We had a day of inspired performances, workshops (with themes ranging from Renaissance dance to constructing the balcony of Romeo and Juliet), professional performances, a lecture, comments from the jury, and a closing ceremony with special awards and gifts. In the morning, there were a few technical glitches and glitches of space (in one case the technical setup didn’t succeed, and we didn’t have nearly enough seats for the audience), but we recognized the problems and worked them out as quickly as we could, to the extent possible. Even with that, our morning program fell only twenty minutes behind schedule, which meant we still had a substantial break between the morning and afternoon.

My students in Class 10.C gave a delightful Renaissance dance workshop that began with their performance of a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. For the performance, they were completely on point, and then the workshop part had the whole room dancing, or close.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the day was the way it brought people together: the library and Varga, the various visiting schools and performers (I hadn’t even realized that Gergő Karácsony and his group had come all the way from Szeged), and the audience members (the attendance was large in both parts of the day, and the grandmothers of two of my students were there together). After the festival was over, I enjoyed talking with members of the Híd Színhaz and others.

The Sárospatak group set out at four in the morning to get there on time; they arrived back home close to ten at night. The performance was one of the highlights of the day and was recognized with a special award; the video version, shown here below, won an award in a short film contest and festival held by Miskolc University. It’s a Romeo and Juliet tale of a boy and a girl who go to the same high school and both love to go to the library. They discover, in addition, that they both love Shakespeare. But what is it they love in his work? The Fool and many other characters bring this to life. (The video is in English, as was the performance yesterday.)

For my own relative tranquility, I might try to simplify my role in the festival in the future; it was a bit frazzling to be in so many roles at once: running the festival along with my colleagues at the library, performing in it, directing a part of it. Or at the very least, if directing a piece, I will try to work with a smaller group of students; my group of 33 had numerous requests and needs during the day, and we didn’t even have room for them in the audience in the morning (or the afternoon, for that matter). But they pulled off the scene and workshop with aplomb.

Next year, I hope we will find a larger venue, with a real auditorium and a built-in sound system and projector. We have some ideas. But this year’s festival brought joy and received a glowing review in I leave off with some pictures.

Disguises upon Disguises

One of the most fascinating and moving aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the employment of disguise. Hamlet suggests to his companions that he is going to affect an “antic disposition”; Juliet, advised by Friar Laurence, fakes her death; theg witches fool Macbeth with their elusive prophesies; Beatrice and Benedick pretend to abhor each other; and so on. Shakespeare understood what Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie would articulate centuries later: “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” (But in Shakespeare’s plays, the disguise can work both ways.)

Disguise is filled with irony too; Cordelia’s sincere words frame her as the ungrateful child. Iago’s treachery cloaks itself in the guises of honesty.

The plays may lead us to ask ourselves what disguises we are wearing, what layers of disguises. Even the performances involve disguises: not only masks and costumes, not only the assumption of roles, but other wrappings as well. For example, in the beginning, when we were just starting to prepare the scene from Romeo and Juliet, none of the boys wanted to be Romeo—partly, I think, because of all the lines involved, and partly because of his smittenness. So we broke the part in three: one Romeo notices Juliet at the ball, and then, when the silhouette part begins, a different Romeo says the lines while yet a third takes part in the silhouette. Also, we emphasized the dances in the scene, thus taking some of the pressure off of Romeo and Juliet both. They liked this solution and took to it enthusiastically. Capulet is the one who speaks the most—calling for more fire and light, urging the guests to dance, reminiscing with his cousin, and trying to calm Tybalt down. Although he is not in a mask, as host he wears many disguises, trying to tend to others, while also yearning for a successful party, which not only helps assure his daughter’s future but brings back memories of his youth.

All of this leads me to a beloved song in three versions (and possibly disguises): “Disguise” by Cz.K. Sebő. It has more in common with Shakespearean disguises than may seem on the surface, even though, to my knowledge, it is not directly influenced by Shakespeare’s work. The original version, solo acoustic guitar and voice, was released by Cz.K. Sebő in 2015, when he was in his early twenties; versions by Platon Karataev and capsule boy (Cz.K. Sebő’s electronic subproject) followed. The original Cz.K. Sebő song is my favorite of the three; the bareness, simplicity, and vulnerability come together. It comes close to breaking my heart (but doesn’t, because it soars, and also because I’ve been through so much like this). It brings to mind Hamlet’s “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

But the next two versions (disguises?) bring something out of it that might not be obvious in the original. The Platon Karataev version not only gives it a big sound, not only makes the guitar part richer, but also reveals a vastness that was there all along. This song is about all of us; we are all wearing disguises, all waiting and hoping that someone or other will talk to us and see us. The Platon version also makes me wonder: what is the “this” in “this is just a disguise”? Even the statement may be a disguise. We’re made of disguises upon disguises; what may seem our deepest, most honest revelation may actually be a mask or shroud, or someone else’s favorite clothes.

Then comes the capsule boy remix of the Platon Karataev version: a return to the origin, in a way (in that Cz.K. Sebő and capsule boy are the same person), but with changes. This electronic version brings out both the terror of the first part (“so please look at me… so please talk to me”) and the possibilities of the second part, which here become downright sweet and playful.

This song is beloved by many because it speaks to our yearning to show someone who we really are. But it also plays with this “really.” Do we know who the “real” self is? Is there one?

I believe that there is a real self, but (as hackneyed as this may sound), to find it we also have to lose it, and it is not discrete but porous, blurry, unbounded. One of my favorite moments of the song is “I am full of yellowness ’cause i was never enough.” The very word “yellowness” is a disguise, because the stress (on the “o”) is different from what I would expect in English. But I love that pronunciation and stress–it sounds like “lowness” and makes a connection between “yellow” and “low.”

I have felt throughout my life that “this is just a disguise,” not because I put on a front, but rather because attention is in short supply. The exceptions are times like now: in the preparations for the Shakespeare festival, it really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as something else is at stake involving many people. We will all be in disguises of many sorts, but through this, we will play ourselves. The disguises enable the release.

“Disguise” is not the most Shakespearean song in the Platon Karataev/Cz.K. Sebő repertoire, but it evokes Shakespeare for me and has been on my mind and in my ears. Platon songs with a more direct Shakespeare connection include “Lady Macbeth” and “Aphelion” (at times I hear “aphelion” as “Ophelia” in disguise; in any case, the song evokes Hamlet strongly) but there are others with subtle allusions and influences—for instance (I think), “Most magamba,” “Litmus Heart,” “Bitter Steps,” and “Light Trap.”

I am moved by my students’ dedication to the project; they have shown openness, excitement, and true attention. One of the challenges, early on, lay in slowing things down: having the opening processional and the later pavane dance be truly slow. Tempo is a disguise in its own right: fast things disguise themselves as slow, present as future, and vice versa. Hamlet says, “There is special providence in the fall of sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Speaking of Platon Karataev, Gergely Balla sent us a wonderful message about the festival:

“Shakespeare drámái az eddigi Platon Karataev szövegekre is hatottak és ez valószínűleg így lesz a jövőben is. Fontosnak tartom a szolnoki Varga Katalin Gimnázium, valamint a Verseghy Könyvtár közös kezdeményezését, mert újra és újra vizsgálnunk kell, hogy mit tudunk meríteni ezekből a művekből. Változatosnak és izgalmasnak ígérkezik a program, mely pont egybeesik két új Poket kiadással (Hamlet, Rómeó és Júlia). Szóval jó fesztivált kivánunk!”


“Shakespeare’s plays have influenced Platon Karataev’s lyrics up to this point and probably will continue to do so. I consider the joint initiative of Katalin Varga High School and the Verseghy Library important, because again and again we must consider what we can draw from these works. The program looks varied and exciting, and it coincides with two new Poket releases (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet). We wish you a good festival!

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

Shakespeare in the Air

Yesterday Shakespeare was all over the place: in song, dance, acting, reading, planning, and thoughts; in classrooms, the Drama room, the courtyard, Szolnok’s rose garden, the banks of the Tisza. The Shakespeare festival will be on Monday, and not only have we been preparing, but I have tried to expose all my classes to at least some Shakespeare, whether a song, or a scene from Hamlet, or a film. (One of my classes didn’t get any Shakespeare this week, but I’ll make it up to them.)

By no means is this coming from me alone, or anywhere close; the Drama Club has been practicing day after day, the Ferenc Verseghy librarians and staff have been working hard on preparations, and yesterday one of my students had to miss one of my rehearsals because he was also in a Drama Club rehearsal, also for the festival! The students have been dedicated and excited, colleagues have been stopping by to see the rehearsals, and the many flying details seem to have found a common orbital path.

In the video below, some students are skipping in a circle at the end of one outdoor rehearsal; the singing comes from a different group, with me leading. Yet another group sang the same song, and we walked outside to the rose garden and to the river to sing it again. I asked who would like to be in the group photo, and the girls and one of the boys promptly removed themselves, but the other boys proudly stayed. They are holding the lyrics to the song (“It was a lover and his lass,” from As You Like It).

That is all, because as usual, I have to run, and there will be much more to say after the festival on Monday!

A Documentary, a Full Weekend, and Many Thoughts

There are times when I wish I had a few more hours in a day to think about what happened in it. This afternoon, after getting a lot done (I wrote my Hungarian introduction to the Shakespeare festival, as well as a few words for the Renaissance dance workshop), I headed off to Budapest to see the premiere of Nyílnak befelé ablakok, a documentary directed by Zsófi Szász about Platon Karataev. The film presents the musicians in a human and profound way, with many beautiful moments. The artist Emőke Dobos—the inspiration for many of the songs, the creator of Platon Karataev art of many forms, and the wife of Gergely Balla—figures prominently in it too, as do other essential Platon colleagues (such as the sound engineer Ábel Zwickl). I don’t want to say more about it, because it will eventually be available online, with English subtitles.

But as I watched it, and as I listened to the discussion afterwards (the interviewer asked some superficial questions, which they answered thoughtfully and strongly), I realized once again why we were all there: first of all, for their music and their approach to it, second, to see this wonderful film. Beyond that, we have something in common with them and each other. As they themselves said in the interview, they aren’t sure why there would be a film about them in particular, or why their music in draws such large audiences (in contrast with, say, a superb jazz musician who might play for an audience of ten), but they are trying to give both the music and the situation their best. Their artistic directions and decisions are not for the sake of popularity; if people are drawn to their music, that means something to them, but they aren’t striving for big crowds and rave reviews. Nor do they lead glamorous lives; most of their work takes place behind the scenes, at home or in the studio, or in the long stretches of travel, or even when not much seems to be happening at all. Gergő spoke about how important fatherhood is for him; because of this, he would much rather go on several shorter tours than one or two long ones. The musicians shape their work according to what they hold dear and strive for, alone and together.

During this event, a joy wrapped me up, a new way of realizing (as I have realized many times, then somehow unrealized) that each life has its dignity, that each of us has something to do, and that it doesn’t matter how many people notice and applaud it. Yes, it is important to reach people, to have one’s work understood in some way—but this does not mean getting distracted by the numbers, the outward signs of success. The important thing is to make the work better and better, whatever it is—not only technically, though that too, but internally, in terms of what it is and where it goes. For this, our internal life has only our own secret flashlight shining on it, and sometimes not even that. Essential also are the daily habits and practices, which vary from person to person (some thrive with structure and discipline, while some need a little bit of laziness). Most important of all is to shut out unnecessary noise. Spiritual life (which sometimes we ourselves cannot see) lies at the center of it all, even for those who do not believe in God, because each of us has to contend at some point with the question: what is left when the things we take for granted are gone?

The previous day, I came to a concert that I loved: László Kollár-Klemencz with his band and an array of guest musicians spanning several generations. It was such a rich concert that it ran out of time, so unfortunately Gergely Balla (of Platon Karataev), the last guest musician, could only play one of the songs he had intended to play. That moment of disappointment was nothing more than that, but it brought up memories. I remember playing cello on a few songs at a beloved musician’s concert, in San Francisco—and at the last minute, she crossed one of the songs off the list. I too have had times where I had to shorten a list, or adjust a program. On the surface, it’s a trifling matter, everyone will survive it, there will be more concerts. But in the moment, the person making the decision, or someone affected by it, including an audience member, can feel dismay. There’s a sacrifice here, a tiny one, but a sacrifice all the same. Sacrifice is nothing to fear, though. Without it, life loses meaning.

A couple of weeks ago I brought my students William Faulkner’s Nobel Banquet speech. It turned out to be very important for them, particularly what he says about sacrifice:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Faulkner gave this speech in 1950, when the Cold War was underway, but today too we are beset by fears—not only of global warming, or world war, but of our own insignificance, of not being one of the “important” people. We are fed a daily propaganda that measures people in terms of their numbers, their following. Now, everyone who writes or creates in some way wants an audience. Even outside of creative work, people want to be recognized fairly. But start taking the numbers to heart, start letting them tell you your own worth, and you’re half dead. It’s a big distraction and delusion; it feels rotten. It takes time away from one of the most important things in the world: attention to someone or something beyond the self, which involves everything that Faulkner speaks of, even invisibly.

That will be all for now, because I have to rush off for a full day of school, including a Shakespeare rehearsal. The festival is a week away. May it be good.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, mostly for flow.

The Serious Fun of Galaxisok

When I go to shows, it isn’t primarily for “szórakozás” (“entertainment”); it’s for the absorption in the music and the chance to hear it at that particular place and time, in that particular way. But fun and seriousness often go together, though the combinations differ and the definitions shift. Last night I went to hear Galaxisok at Gólya, one of my favorite Budapest clubs, and had a great time in an excited room.

This was their long-awaited, sold-out record release show for Minket ne szeress! When I first started listening to this album, it seemed like a break from their previous work. But last night, with the audience singing along in full voice to almost every song, it had already become classic Galaxisok fare, however you might define that. They opened with “Nem tudom medvédeni magam,” and the rest of the show was filled with favorites old and new. There songs are full of musical play and subtlety, dreaminess, literary allusions and imagination, film-like qualities, and more, but at the shows you can feel joyous just seeing Benedek Szabó dance as he sings, seeing the whole band so committed to each beat of each song. One of my very favorites from the evening was “Láthatatlan lovak” (at times my favorite of all the Galaxisok songs); another was “Vissza a természetbe!” from the new album. And then there were the songs that make you dance willy-nilly, such as “Mondo Bizarro” and “Levelek máshonnan,” both of which have more to them than the fun alone. Sometimes I wished the audience weren’t singing so loudly, but I was part of the problem, and happily so.

The opening band, Denevér, drew us in right away: at first they struck me as a cross between Bruce Springsteen and My Bloody Valentine (driving, soulful pop rock and swirls of sound and rhythm), but as their set progressed, I lost those comparisons and enjoyed their uniqueness—the energy, beauty, idiosyncrasy. They are a duo (bassist and guitarist/singer) with a drum machine; the songs are in English and Spanish (and I think there were a couple in Hungarian, though I might be wrong—I couldn’t always hear the lyrics). Their latest release, “Estorbas,” came out just the day before yesterday. It was one of my favorites, so I include it here.

This concert was (and will be) my only trip out of Szolnok during our short spring break. I would have gone to Budapest in the morning to lead a service, but we learned the night before that Bálint Ház was closed that day, so we held it online—which worked out well in the end, and I headed off to Budapest late in the afternoon.

Speaking of shows, I have been meaning to mention how beautiful the Cappuccino projekt record release was, in the library of the Magyar Zene Háza on March 30. These reflective, tuneful, rocking songs, the gorgeous sound of the band (Dávid Korándi, Zita Csordás, Gallus Balogh, and Donát Kelecsényi), the story arc and mood of the album, the hushed, seated audience, all of this made the evening stand out in the moment and in my memory afterward. It was not an easy time for them: ailing cats, back pain, and other things were pressing on various band members. But the concert was able to absorb this and everything else going on, including my own happenings: tiredness, worries, work.

Back to fun and seriousness: they are misleading words, because the two have so much to do with each other. The word “fun” once referred to cheats and tricks, whereas “serious” originally meant “arranged in sequence, continuous.” But music, no matter what its mood or character, has both sequence and trickery. The sequential aspect needs no explanation; as for the trickery, a song may end before you expect it, or take an unexpected direction; its music may seem lighter than its lyrics or vice versa; it may break from one of its patterns along the way; it may hide a secret;and even when you know the song so well that you know where it’s going, the musician might change a word or a note, or add something to the ending, or play it a little slower or faster than you are used to hearing it. That’s part of the excitement of a live concert: you know and don’t know what you’re going to hear. The trickery may not even be intentional; it’s inherent in playing.

I have been pulling back a little from going to concerts, because there is so much else that I need to do, and the trips to Budapest and back are hard to mix with a busy schedule. These recent ones—Galaxisok and Denevér, Platon Karatev and The Devil’s Trade (in Prague), and Cappuccino Projekt (as well as a few others in March and before)—gave me much more than they took. This may still seem like a lot of concerts, but there were many I missed.

Spring break is running out, and Tuesday (the last day of it) will be busy, with errands in the morning (stores and businesses were closed Friday and today, and will be closed tomorrow too) and a drama/music rehearsal in the afternoon. I am nervous and excited about the Shakespeare festival on April 24 and want to pull it off well. I am one of the main organizers, along with colleagues at the Verseghy public library, and am also directing a large student group, who will be performing a scene from Romeo and Juliet and holding a Renaissance dance workshop. At the festival itself, I will welcome the various groups, give an introductory speech in Hungarian, play cello, direct the performance/workshop, and take part in the whole day. My students have been enthusiastic, patient, and trusting; I want to be sure to give them enough rehearsal time and enough help with the tiny details, so that they can enter this with confidence and enjoy the day. The program is at least as full as last year’s, with five student groups from four cities (Szolnok, Tiszafüred, Karcag, Sárospatak), several concurrent afternoon workshops, and a lecture.

Anyway, it’s 7:47 in the evening, the day has fled, and my cats are enjoying the sounds of birds through the window. Here’s a photo I took of the Gólya last night; I have taken pictures of this stairway before, but this one came out better than the others.

Afterthought: I have been trying to describe to myself the mood and emotion of the Cappuccino projekt album. Then this morning I read Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony.” To me it hints at something similar, even though the “exquisite music” of Cavafy’s poem (quoted in full below) seems to have little in common with the locust-ravaged world of Az utak kifürkészhetetlenül rögösek.

Constantinos P. Cavafy: “The God Abandons Antony”

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Translated by E.Keely & P.Sherrard

Following an Instinct, Going to Prague

If I had told anyone that I was going to Prague this weekend—by train, from Szolnok—to hear Platon Karataev and to visit the city for the first time, some would have instantly understood, whereas others would have thought it (and maybe me) a bit nuts. But I realized I could afford it (for one thing, a fee I will receive this month as a seminar guest speaker equals what I spent on travel and lodging, and for another, my birthday is coming up), and something told me that this was exactly the right thing to do this weekend. The trip itself showed me why. After you read this story, you will see why too. (The trip isn’t over; I still have the morning here.)

Platon Karataev is on a short tour of Warsaw, Kraków, Prague, and Vienna, with the band The Devil’s Trade (whom I heard for the first time last night in Prague and loved—soulful, exhilarating metal folk). The other three concerts were out of reach for me, because of my work schedule, but Prague was possible.

To get to Prague, I had to go to Budapest, then transfer to an international train. I found an inexpensive round-trip itinerary with a reserved window seat for the longer part of the trip. I would need to leave home at five on Saturday morning, catch the 5:25 train out of Szolnok, arrive in Budapest a little before seven, transfer, and depart for Prague at 7:29. This would bring me to Prague a little before three in the afternoon; there would be several hours for exploring before the concert, and then the next day I could explore all morning before heading back in the early afternoon, returning to Szolnok before eleven in the evening. I figured I could take work with me, though I didn’t know how comfortable it would be to work on the train. (By “work” I mean going over edits to my translations of Tomas Venclova’s poems for a new book in the works—and preparing for Pesach and next Shabbat.)

For lodging, I reserved a self-service apartment in the Mala Strana district, near Petrin Hill, which figures in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I could walk there (a long walk) from the train station—and from there it would supposedly be only half an hour’s walk to Klub 007 in the Strahov district, where the concert would be. Each walk contained something I wanted to see: the Metronome and Petrin Tower, respectively, as well as views of the city from various heights.

I left my apartment on time, got to the train station on time, got to Budapest by seven, had plenty of time for the transfer, and then found that my seat had a table and there was no one sitting beside or across for me—so I could set up the laptop and work without interruption. It proved restful and productive. I was only distracted by the views through the window and an intriguing situation across the aisle from me.

Two women, I quickly gleaned, were going to Prague as well and were very excited. They looked vaguely familiar; it started to dawn on me that they, too, might be going to hear Platon Karataev, or that this was part of their plan. (This was correct—more about that later.) One was wearing a long black dress; I too had brought a long black dress for the evening. I felt like a spy; at one point they went to the dining car, and a little while later, I went there too, but sat at a distance from them so as not to bother them. I had eggs and coffee and felt on top of the world.

The train ride itself was great fun—like being at my desk all day but with a big window and changing scenes in front of me. We passed through Visegrád (with the prominent castle on the hill), Bratislava (no views of the old city, but lots of highrises), Brno, and many smaller cities and towns. I could take in the Slovak, and later the Czech, countryside: hills, rivers, a field full of deer, forests upon forests. Because of a detour, the train took (I think) an industrial route, so I saw a train carrying loads of new cars, and another one churning what seemed to be cement or gravel. The skies were dramatic with changing clouds, passing rains, and bursts of sun; I had a feeling I would see a rainbow that day, but it didn’t happen during the train ride.

When we arrived in Prague, I bounded off the train and in the general direction of my apartment, through a vast, leafy park that opened up into a view of the city. After a while, I could see the Vltava river down below and the city gleaming on both sides of it, I wended my way south and westward and saw a group of people marching for peace. Immediately after that, I saw the Metronome.

Now comes one of the best parts of the trip. I walked along winding roads, trying to figure out how to get down to the part of the city. It started to rain, and then the sun burst out of the clouds. “Now for a rainbow!” I thought. I looked around and saw it! I started running toward it and pointing, trying to alert others to it. They ignored me and kept on walking. I did get some people to take a picture of me under it, though, and I got a few good shots of it myself.

Finally I made my way down to the city and was entranced by the stone streets, old buildings, and shops, particularly an English language bookstore and a marionette shop.

Once I got to the apartment (spacious and comfortable, on a quiet street), I hurried up, took a shower, and headed up Petrin Hill to the tower. The tower itself was closed for climbing (as of 6 p.m.), so I headed down the hill, toward the club, or at least I thought I was heading toward it. This was where the problems began. The compass on my phone did not always tell the truth, nor did Google Maps tell me my exact location. I asked people how to get to the Strahov district, but if they knew at all, they would point me in contradictory directions, with instructions like, “Follow that road all the way around the hill, around and around, and then turn left.” I would follow the directions only to find myself even farther from the destination. I had thought I would get to the club early, but now the show was about to start; I stopped in a little convenience store, and the woman showed me on her computer that I needed to go up the hill again and around, way around…. I ran with all my might, tried to flag down a car for a ride (was ignored), asked more people directions, got pointed this way and that, saw different times on the different clocks, walked and ran, walked and ran, tears starting to come down, and then, as I approached another winding road, ran into a family. Definitely Czech, definitely familiar with the city. I asked them, “Please tell me how to get to Strahov, I have been told so many different directions, and now I’m late.” The older man said with a grin, “You just follow that winding road, and you will be in Strahov!” He was right; winding and winding around, and then (as someone earlier had said) passing through an apartment complex, I found the place and arrived only a few minutes late (Platon Karataev was playing “Apbelion,” their third song that night).

The show was special to me because it was Platon Karataev, and because it was at a small club with all that goes along with that—a distinctive atmosphere, in this case a dedicated stage and sound crew, but also a sound system that gave a bit of distortion to the songs, bringing back memories of hearing favorite musicians in tiny clubs in San Francisco, the brilliance bursting through the gritty sound. In Hungary, you can no longer hear Platon Karataev in a small club; whether playing as a duo or as a full band, they are so highly respected and draw such a crowd that they get booked at the top venues with superb sound systems, which suit their music well because of its many tones and shades. Only once or twice have I heard them play when the sound system wasn’t up to par. But this little bit of grit in the sound last night was wonderfully bracing. Some of the highlights for me were “Halló mindenség / Aláírhatatlan történelem” (their Vágtázó Halottkémek cover), “Partért kiáltó,” “Nem felelhet,” and the “Ocean/Wolf Throats” finale. The small audience loved the show—and yes, the two women from the train were there! They explained to me afterward that this trip was their gift to each other for their birthdays, which had taken place in January.

I stayed for The Devil’s Trade, of course, not having to rush back to Szolnok for a change. They were amazing. The music was full-hearted and dark, with rich vocal cadences, rhythms, sound (yes, distorted too, but again, that only added to its beauty this time). I bought a CD from them and will be listening to them more. They too are from Hungary; their songs are in both Hungarian and English.

Afterwards I wound my way back around the hill, this time knowing where I was going. The city is both spooky and stunning at night. It wasn’t easy to take night pictures (the lights don’t come out very well), but I took a few.

And here I am after a thick sleep, wrapping this up so that I can spend a few hours walking in the old city, across the river. I’m taking it slow because I walked and ran so much yesterday and because this apartment is so peaceful—but I’ll head out shortly. There will be more to say about today (and more thoughts on yesterday)—but I will add that later, in a separate post. The trip has played out the lines from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó,” “Ezért a mondatért jöttem, ezert a mondatért, ezért az emberért jöttem, ezért az emberert….” (Translated liberally: “This is the sentence I came here for, this is the sentence here. This is the person I came here for, this is the person here.”) I don’t mean this in the more obvious sense—that I came out to hear them, though that also is true—but rather that there is an encounter that each of us will travel distances for. Maybe it’s an encounter with music. Maybe with a city. Maybe with a person. But in any case, it’s the same, because it’s singular, there’s nothing like it, and the moment it happens it’s gone. And as soon as it’s gone, it is there forever, somewhere in the air.

Right after The Devil’s Trade, Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin'” came over the loudspeakers. I lingered to listen to it. Without knowing it, I had come for that song, too.

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

The rhythm of Pilinszky’s “Keringő” (“Waltz”)

When I started setting Pilinszky’s six-line poem “Keringő” to music, I tried at first to make it waltz-like, but quickly found that the poem resisted this. So instead I followed the poem’s own rhythm, as I heard it. One line kept tripping me up, because it has a rhythm of its own: “szemközt a leáldozó nappal” (“across from the sacrificing sun”). I realized that I could make this a transition into a waltz, and from there a waltz rhythm would prevail. I don’t know how this sounds to a Hungarian ear, but to me this changing rhythm also works with the meaning of the poem. Only the last line of the poem really sounds like a waltz, but then the music keeps on going for a little while.

Pilinszky János, “Keringő”

A zongorát befutja a borostyán,
s a gyerekkori ház falát
szétmállasztja a naplemente.

És mégis, mégis szakadatlanúl
szemközt a leáldozó nappal
mindaz, mi elmúlt, halhatatlan.

In my rough translation, with some minor liberties:

János Pilinszky, “Waltz”

The piano is entangled by the vine
and the setting sun crumbles
the wall of the childhood house.

And yet, and yet, without fail,
across from the sacrificing sun,
all that is past is immortal.

I spent most of the day recording it, but it is still a draft. I now have seven musical renditions of Pilinszky and plan to re-record them all, maybe with a few others. My renditions of “Metronóm” and “A tengerpartra” are also on YouTube (in draft form); I think this is the best of the three, but all three will be better over time.

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

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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