“Such Things Do Happen in the World”: The Story of a Nose

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An extraordinarily strange thing happened in St. Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Avenue (his surname has got lost and all that his shop-front signboard shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the inscription ‘We alse let blood’), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread. As he sat up in bed he saw his wife, who was a quite respectable lady and a great coffee-drinker, taking some freshly baked rolls out of the oven.

–Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” tr. Ronald Wilks

Long ago, in September 1992, I got myself a bass and joined a band, the Dogsmen. I was studying Russian literature in grad school at Yale, but this particular year I was on leave, since I had received a fellowship to teach Russian part-time at Trinity College in Hartford. I had written some songs previously for guitar and voice, but my newer songs began with a bass line. The first of these was “The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s story, one of my favorite stories in the world. I wrote the song one afternoon, recorded it with a boombox, and sent the tape to the Breeders, a band I loved and still love. I explained in my letter that the song was a tribute to them.

What was it about the Breeders? I was thinking today about how rock bands tend toward one of two attitudes: “Rock is God” and “Rock is all of us.” Most have a mixture of the two, but you can usually sense a leaning. The “Rock is God” musicians create music that is larger than life–big, dramatic, overpowering. They wear makeup, have stage effects, jump from heights. The “Rock is all of us” musicians may also believe that rock is God, but they understate the matter. They perform in everyday clothes, sing about everyday things (with a twist or two), and hint that you could do this too–after all, they themselves just learned to play last week.

All of this requires illusion. Rock isn’t God; rock musicians are not priests of God. They’re extremely fallible and often messed up. Nor is rock all of us; the understated musicians are still doing something that few others could do. So it was with the Breeders. There was something tantalizingly close about their music, dangling there just barely out of reach. It touched my soul in a down-to-earth and just-over-the-buildings way. Also, while their music seems technically simple, it’s ridiculously hard to emulate. Kim Deal and her bandmates know what sound they are going for and how to achieve it. It is not easy to create that sound. That, and their songs have a wonderful mix of sarcasm and sweetness, sanity and weirdness, tune and distortion, tightness and mess, all-out joy and pain.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of this when I wrote “The Nose.” I thought of it as a tribute not because it sounded like them, not because the lyrics were at all like theirs, but because it expressed in some way how I understood them. I also thought they’d appreciate Gogol’s story; at one point I gave them the book.

The song translates Gogol’s story into a few frames, and the frames into simple, silly music. The lyrics go (I have omitted most of the repetitions here),

Verse 1
“You’re my nose, you belong right on my face, so don’t be such a such a such a fake!”

Verse 2
“You’ve got it wrong”–he said right back to me. “I’m not your nose”–he said it so smugly. “I’m on my own, and in good company, so get out of this church and let me pray!”

Verse 3 (the Nose speaking)
“I can’t go on in this hostile city, I need a home, your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on, and live there comfortably, and shake and shake and shake and shake all day….”

Coda (the Narrator speaking)
“Who knows who knows you might be someone’s nose….”

One of the song’s greatest glories came when my band performed a full show at my mom and Stan’s place, during a family reunion (in November 1992, I think). For this song, my sister, Jenna, my aunts Norma (R.I.P.) and Jeanne, and my cousins Ruth and Ben joined as backup singers and dancers. Thanks to my uncle Dan for the video. The Dogsmen were Jon Holland (vocals, guitar), Fabian Esponda (drums), and me (vocals, bass).

Some months later (in December 1993, I think), I was visiting my mother and Stan. I checked my New Haven messages remotely (we used answering machines back then) and heard, to my astonishment, a message from Kelley Deal of the Breeders. She said she had a very important question for me. I didn’t have her number, so I rerecorded my answering machine message with the number where I could be reached, hoping she would try again. She heard the message and called me at my mom’s.

It turned out that they had really liked my song; their bassist, Josephine Wiggs, especially liked it and wanted to use some of the lyrics in a song of her own (that they would record and perform). Kelley wanted to know if I gave permission for this; if so, the record company’s legal representative would send me forms to sign. They would credit me and everything. (They were true to their word; I received and signed the forms, the EP has the credit, and they announced it at lots of shows as well.)

How Nose-like is that? In Gogol’s story, a nose appears in Ivan Yakovlevich’s breakfast roll (and disappears from Major Kovalev’s face); here, a few lyrics migrated from “The Nose” to the Breeders’ song “Head to Toe.” Specifically, some of the words from the third verse, “Your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on [and live there] comfortably” became the refrain of “Head to Toe.” And what a song!

Josephine Wiggs’s own version is hauntingly lovely.

Gogol’s story ends (in Ronald Wilks’s translation):

But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It’s just…no, no, I don’t understand it at all! Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever; secondly, it’s no use…I simply don’t know what one can make of it…However, when all is said and done, one can concede this point or the other and perhaps you can even find…well then you won’t find much that isn’t on the absurd side, will you?

And yet, if you stop to think for a moment, there’s a grain of truth in it. Whatever you may say, these things do happen—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.

I would translate the last sentence as “Whatever anyone may say, such things do happen in the world–rarely, but they happen.”

Yes, they happen! They’re staggeringly unlikely, yet they makes sense. The worlds of a Russian lit grad student and a rock band came together through a song, a story, and a few words that hit home. And the nose ran off and turned up again. And I reread the story many, many times, and eventually finished my Ph.D. dissertation, which was on Gogol.

But if you think this was the end of it, no, the nose keeps coming back. Years later, Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” was performed at the Met, and my mom gave me a ticket for my birthday. I loved the performance and bought a little souvenir, a nose pencil sharpener. This was my favorite desk adornment when I taught at Columbia Secondary School.

But one day that nose went missing, along with an “art eraser.” A fitting occurrence–another nose-flight–but I determined, like Kovalev, to track my nose down. I sent out an email to students, asking whether they had seen these valuable items. I got a reply from a parent. I didn’t save it, but it read approximately, “Incredibly, we happen to have a nose pencil sharpener. Will you accept it from us?” This nose (unlike mine) was slightly caked with some gunky stuff; I decided to keep it that way, for the memory. I even brought it to Hungary. In case it has any plans to run away again, I reminded it sternly just now, “You’re my nose!”

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The quotes from Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” are courtesy of Gogol, Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks (New York: Penguin, 1987).

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

“And he said….” (pause)

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Jewish life in Budapest is evolving in exciting ways. The two Reform congregations, Szim Salom and Bét Orim, are working out a schedule of joint services, which officially began this Shabbat. It isn’t clear exactly what shape this will take in the future, but it’s off to a good start. Because of this change, at least for now I will no longer lead services on Friday evenings; instead, I will focus on Saturday mornings (on alternate Shabbatot). That means I don’t stay overnight in Budapest on Friday night; instead, I take the train in on Saturday morning. It worked well; I like this new arrangement because it gives me just a little more time to practice my leyning, and because I can sleep at home. Also, it reminds me of the BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) days in some ways; in New York City I was a Saturday morning regular, but I only occasionally went to services on Friday evenings. It was important to me to have some quiet time at home. For me, Saturday was when it all came together: the beautiful liturgy, the Torah reading, the Haftarah, and everything else. Yesterday was like that. In addition, Szim Salom has a shiur, a Torah study, after the Shacharit service on Saturday; I always stay for that and enjoy being part of it.

As I discussed in a recent post, the Mazsihisz’s (Federation of Jewish Communities) has deliberated over the possibility of recognizing the Reform communities. So far, the Mazsihisz has voted against this, but the discussions are ongoing.

But I came here to bring up something interesting from the Torah reading and leyning. Israel (Jacob) is on his deathbed, and he tells Jacob that he wishes to be buried not in Egypt, but where his forefathers are buried. And Joseph answers that he will do as his father has said. This is in the second half of Genesis 47:30: וַיֹּאמַר, אָנֹכִי אֶעֱשֶׂה כִדְבָרֶךָ. “And he said: ‘I will do as thou hast said.'”

The word “vayomar” (“and he said”) is in pausal form (the regular form is “vayomer”). The cantillation phrase is a zakef gadol, which typically accompanies a word that constitutes a phrase on its own. It is a medium-level disjunctive; there is a slight pause after it.

Just a few verses later, in Genesis 48:2, there’s another zakef gadol, but this time with “vayomer” instead of “vayomar.” וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב–וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. “And one told Jacob, and said: ‘Behold, thy son Joseph cometh unto thee.’ And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” Why is “vayomer” in the non-pausal form here, when it seems to have an equivalent place grammatically to the previous one?

Then, a few verses later, in Genesis 48:9, there’s a zakef gadol again, this time with “vayomar” again! וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-אָבִיו, בָּנַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה; וַיֹּאמַר, קָחֶם-נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרְכֵם. “And Joseph said unto his father: ‘They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.’ And he said: ‘Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.'”

What is the difference between the two instances of “vayomar” and the one instance of “vayomer,” given that they have the same cantillation phrase and therefore (more or less) the same grammatical and syntactic function? I looked all over for answers but found nothing specific. I see two possibilities here. First, both instances of “vayomar” indicate a response to another person: Joseph responding to Jacob, and Jacob responding to Joseph. The word is separated from what precedes it as well as what follows it. In both cases, the cantillation phrase that precedes it is an etnachta, which separates the two halves of the verse.  “Vayomer,” in contrast, continues the idea of “vayaged,” “told.” It isn’t separated as strongly from what precedes it (melodically, a zakef katon).

Another (related) possibility is that both instances of “vayomar” are moments of great emotion: Joseph promising to bury Jacob with his forefathers, and Joseph asking to see his grandsons. The instance of “vayomer” is not as emotionally charged. This is connected with the previous points in that the emotion is a response to what was said before. I can imagine a pause both before and after “vayomar”–slightly longer than the pause before and after “vayomer.” Pauses in cantillation can be extremely subtle; only the most advanced readers know just how long to pause.

The difference in sound between “vayomar” and “vayomer” is not just that of one vowel; in “vayomar,” the last syllable is stressed, whereas in “vayomer,” it’s the second syllable. I don’t know how often “vayomar” occurs in Torah with a zakef gadol, but there’s something arresting about it. For these verses, you can hear the first “vayomar” here, the “vayomer” here, and the second “vayomar” here. (These recordings are by Hazzan Robert Menes, former cantor of Beth Shalom in Kansas City.)

These fine distinctions–who notices them? Some people spot them right away; when I was in New York City last summer and read Torah at B’nai Jeshurun, Sharon Anstey, a fellow congregant and Torah reader (and an extraordinarily dedicated BJ member) noticed the special trop (cantillation melody), the karne parah, which occurs only once in the Torah. She even mentioned it in a beautiful piece she wrote.

But people at other levels of knowledge pick up on the trop as well. I remember when I first heard a shalshelet and had no idea what it was. After the service, I ran up to Shoshi, then the cantorial intern, and asked, “What was that I heard?” She told me, and added that the young woman who had read that Torah portion loved the shalshelet so much that she had a pendant in its shape (it looks like a zigzag, a lightning bolt). Later I wrote to a cantor about this experience, and he sent me an article about the shalshelet.

And even without that kind of awareness, even without knowledge of Hebrew or cantillation, we pick up on the phrasings and cadences that we hear. It is possible to be moved by a text without even understanding the words–not because the reader chanted it with emotion, though that might also be true, but because the very rhythms and cadences of the words convey something. Over time, meanings start to come through, then more, then more.

 

The photo shows a kiosk with a video advertisement for an upcoming one-woman operatic production of Anne Frank naplója (Anne Frank’s Diary), to be performed at the Budapesti Operettszínház in February.

 

 

Caroling with Pizzazz

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On Friday, Class 11C (the eleventh-grade Hungarian-English bilingual class) gave spirited caroling performances all day long, visiting one class after another–and, in the long break, treating us to a special performance in the teachers’ room. I had trouble deciding which pictures to include here, but many others took pictures and videos, so anything I post here will be supplemented or superseded elsewhere.

The show was long in the making (they rehearsed weekly for over a month, and then more frequently as the day approached). Three teachers–Anikó Bánhegyesi, Mariann Banczik, and I–worked with them. First, we decided which songs they would like to sing. I taught them a few, and they suggested a few and made the final selection. Then we worked out the underlying story, which was refined over the weeks: There would be a fake Santa and a real Santa; the impostor would tell everyone that they weren’t getting any gifts, and then the real Santa would defeat the fake Santa with Rudolph’s help (but then let him rejoin the group). Then the “Christmas presents” would be brought in.

Then came the choreography, which the students worked out to the last detail. By the time the last few rehearsals rolled around, things were looking and sounding pretty good. Still a few glitches, a few things to figure out, a few things to remember not to forget.

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But I didn’t realize how much thought and care they were putting into their costumes. Everything lit up and came into color on Friday.

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And then the performances began–energetic, beautiful, funny, and full of joy. People enjoyed them so much. There were many ovations, Hungarian style (with the audience clapping in rhythm).

The teachers’ room was one of the highlights. Another was the gym. Each room had its own character and shape; the performers figured out immediately how to make the most of each space.

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Here are a few more photos, for the fun of it. Congratulations to the 11C Carolers!

 

Blasts from the Present and Past

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I have a lot to say in a short time, since tomorrow morning I leave for Germany, and then a few days later for the Netherlands. Then I come back on January 1, bring my cat to the animal hospital for surgery on January 2, and work on some translations over the weekend before returning to school. But three blog posts are on my mind; I hope to write at least two of them today. First up: last night’s concert.

Yesterday evening, after Shabbat in Budapest, I went to hear 1LIFE open for Kiscsillag in Törökszentmiklós. They had actually played in Budapest on Friday evening, at the famed Akvárium Klub, but I couldn’t go, since the Friday night Szim Salom service (including the kiddush and meal) didn’t end until after 9, well after their concert was over. So I was determined to make it to this one; to get there in time, I had to leave Budapest on the 4:28 train. I had bought the concert ticket in advance and had reserved a room at a guesthouse (the Almásy Vendégház, a lovely inexpensive place), since there are no late-night trains back to Szolnok. It was more than worth it; 1LIFE played a terrific show, the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ is one of my favorite venues, and I enjoyed Kiscsillag too. I was left thinking about the differences between the two bands.

Kiscsillag–a famous Hungarian alternative rock band with witty lyrics, zesty musicianship, and many musical influences–drew a crowd of excited, enthusiastic fans who danced, jumped, laughed, sang along, interacted with the band members, and rollicked all around. The atmosphere brought back strong memories of Dieselhed shows in San Franciso. The music wasn’t really similar–if anything, Kiscsillag reminds me of Cake, though with more melodic vocals and a more driving sound–but the overall feel in the room was just like what I remember. Twenty years ago, I loved going to hear Dieselhed; I went whenever I could. Their songs had a mix of silliness and melancholy, their music would stay in and on your mind. Lyrically and antically, the band members wielded irony; the audience had a sense of “getting it,” of being part of the show. By irony I mean (in this case) looking askance at the world, putting a wedge between the music and yourself, so that the audience takes it as entertainment.

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Brilliant as it can be, I am not as drawn to that kind of irony as I used to be (and even back then, I had my limits–I never liked Gogol Bordello, for instance). I can enjoy it a lot–and believe I will enjoy Kiscsillag lyrics when I take some time with them–but when it goes overboard, it loses me. One reason I like 1LIFE’s songs and performances so much is that they don’t put a barrier between themselves and the music. They are fully in it. Granted, they are performing; their songs are art, not direct speech, and they play them with gusto and  superbly crafted sound. They’re serious when performing but also have lots of fun. Some of their songs are lighter than others–and sometimes the heaviness of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the music, or vice versa. The lyrics mix forthrightness with enigmas of various kinds; you come to understand them in different ways over time. There’s irony in them sometimes too. But the band doesn’t lean on irony, and I find that compelling and refreshing. They let themselves say what they want to say, through their songs and performance. Last night they seemed relaxed and revved up, still filled with the experience of the previous night’s concert (which, I gather, was fantastic). They played some of my favorites (with some slight changes and variations) and some of the less familiar ones; several of the highlights were “Sötét van,” “Kopog a szív,” and a song whose name I don’t know but that has a refrain of “Ná–ná ná ná…”

The Kiscsillag show had lots of beauty, probably more than I caught. My favorite song was the one sung by the keyboardist, Dávid Szesztay, “Ott ahol akarod.” I want to get to know their music better; I need time to learn what’s in it. My point here is that different bands (like writers, actors, and others) have profoundly different understandings of what music does, what it is for, and what is most important in it. As a listener, you come to know yourself gradually; over time, you get a clearer sense of what you are seeking out and hearing. It’s good to stay open, to avoid writing off any particular kind of music. No matter what the type, there’s something good to be found in it, maybe even a surprise or revelation. But it’s also good to find your way, even if others don’t understand or agree with it. Irony in music (or its absence, or something in between) is not just a matter of style or taste; it holds a worldview, a rhythm, a language.

All in all, it was a great evening–my first time going to a nighttime rock show in Hungary, and a comfortable adventure at that. There were people of many ages there, from kids to grandparents. The house music playing through the speakers was fantastic–one ear-catching song after another, such as David Gilmour’s “Faces of Stone.” I had a conversation with a young man from Törökszentmiklós who, as soon as I told him I was a teacher, addressed me as “Tanárnő” (literally, “woman teacher,” a respectful form of address) and tried to treat me to a beer (I insisted on a Coke instead). We had a short conversation; he had never heard 1LIFE, but he told me Kiscsillag would be the better of the two. I found that amusing; I told him that I had come expressly to hear 1LIFE but would stay for the later band as well. Then, in between the bands, a grandmother of one of the 1LIFE members (whom I have met many times before) approached me and gave me Christmas cookies! She had brought them for me, knowing I would be there. I was delighted and touched. A few minutes before the end of the Kiscsillag show, I left and went back to the guesthouse. At the crack of dawn, I took the train back to Szolnok.

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I made a few minor changes and added two photos to this piece after posting it.

Goodbye to a Friend

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It had been a while since I had heard from my friend Johnny Strike (John Bassett), so this morning I googled him and found out that he died of cancer in September 2018. I then started reading tributes to him–by people who knew him, people who admired his music and writing, people who remembered him sharply, or all three.

We were initially colleagues in San Francisco, where we worked as counselors. He had been a legendary rock musician back in the 1970s–the frontman of Crime–but by now he had accrued a stately, slightly professorial quality (with a chuckle and a hint of dark wisdom). He, our mutual friends, and I loved to make fun of bureaucracies and buzzwords. We formed a band at work that did just that. Then I joined him in another band (Biff, Johnny, and me, as pictured above, and, in reverse order, below) that he created mostly for recording purposes. We recorded a demo.

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As the bassist, I was definitely not good enough for his band, I lacked the technique and texture, but he never said this; he seemed glad to have me there, and when I left San Francisco, he found someone else. The band came out with a recording and later morphed into a new lineup of Crime.

Once or twice, when I came back to visit, we met up for brunch. In Brooklyn, in 2002, I started a literary journal, Si Señor; not only did he contribute, but he connected me with artists and writers who became part of the journal as well. For the first issue, he submitted a piece on literary rejection. We agreed that it would be funny if I “rejected” it and publish it as a rejected piece, with a satirical editorial comment. So it turned into a combo: his piece on rejection combined with my bombastic rejection of the piece. I will post it here one day after I retrieve a copy from the U.S. (I have them in storage in NYC).

He wrote four novels and a collection of stories. I edited one of them (Name of the Stranger) and briefly reviewed another (Ports of Hell). Many of his tales came out of his long travels; he would go off to Thailand, Mexico, Morocco, and other places for months. I enjoyed his crisp, morbid, funny narration, his imagination, and his way of creating characters that you could hear in the dark.

I miss him as a friend, acquaintance, colleague, and accomplice–someone I could listen to, talk with, and joke with. The last time I went to San Francisco–in November 2016, for 20 Minute Loop’s record release–Johnny said he wasn’t sure he could get together with me, since he was having health troubles. He wrote a few times after that; the last time was a group email, in August 2018, a month before his death. It contained just a link: “Make a Suggestion–Berkeley Public Library.” (The link is broken now.)

I will. But an earlier email contained another link–to his essay “Sunrise Tangier,” which I read too quickly at the time and reread more slowly just now. I am sorry that our correspondence dwindled down to links and silence and that I didn’t understand what was happening. Even less did I know how much was in those links and silences. Now I am catching up, slowly, on my own.

Dancing Into the Dance

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This was my third year attending our school’s annual Kati Day (on Friday) and ball (last night). On “Kati Day” (the saint day for Katalin, and the culmination of a week of serious silliness at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium), the ninth-graders compete against each other in performance (after a week of campaigning with costumes, stunts, games, and acts) and then are “initiated” into the school in a humorous ceremony. At the twelfth-graders’ ball, members of the eleventh grade officiate; the principal gives an address, the seniors get pinned with ribbons (symbolizing a step toward graduation and adulthood); and they (the seniors) perform ballroom and modern dances for their peers, families. There’s dinner too, and time to get hungry for it.

It was a special year for me, since I am the “vice form teacher” for Class 9C (who won first place) and teach students from every twelfth-grade class (A, B, C, and D). Also, knowing students better and being more familiar with these traditions, I could see, more clearly than in previous years, that not every student felt comfortable participating in them. What do you do if you’re asked to do something that you feel awkward or even pained doing? When everyone else seems to be having a great time? To me, that’s one of the most important aspects of these traditions. They teach you how to dance into the dance. As I see it, that is part of the meaning of these days: that they have room even for people who don’t feel fully part of them.

In life we often come up against things that we don’t want to do. We have several choices. We can walk away, say “sorry, that’s not for me,” and go on with life. We can try to change our feelings about them. Or we can walk into them as we are, finding a way to participate without giving ourselves up. This third way offers flexibility; without it, the choices would be grim. Walking away may be necessary at times, but if it’s the only choice you perceive, you can end up isolating yourself and ignoring real possibilities. Trying to make yourself enjoy things may occasionally work, but often it will just lead to more stress. Finding your own way into it requires imagination, and that’s part of the beauty of it too.

The headmaster gave a speech about entering adulthood. If I understood correctly, he said that adulthood requires two things (among others): the ability to concentrate and the ability to exercise fantasy. The second isn’t commonly associated with adulthood; to the contrary, people think of adulthood as the end of fantasy. But it’s precisely in adulthood when fantasy becomes necessary: for raising children, imagining possibilities in life, and seeing a situation from different angles. In this sense, finding your way into the dance requires fantasy too (and the ability to concentrate, for that matter).

Even teachers have to find their own way to participate. A few don’t attend–maybe they can’t, or maybe once in a while they opt out. A few cheer for every act and take dozens of pictures. A few relax, talk with their colleagues, and enjoy what there is to enjoy. A few are fully involved as form teachers–leading the students during the pinning ceremony, and maybe even dancing too. A few take this time to say hello to former students who come back to visit.

I was a mixture of the second, third, and fifth of these. I was thoroughly enjoying it, and also had a chance to talk a little with colleagues and say hello to former students. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be rude to leave at 8:45, since I had a ticket to go hear Krisztián Grecsó and Róbert Hrutka in concert at the Tisza Mozi at 9. As it happened, people were just starting to leave at 8:45, so I left too, walked quickly to the Tiszavirág bridge, clattered over it in my semi-high heels, arrived at the concert just on time (in a packed hall–it is good that I got the ticket in advance), and got absorbed in the music and readings. Grecsó read stories, a poem, and novel excerpts in between the songs, which were sometimes duos and sometimes Hrutka’s solos. They also joked quite a bit and had the audience laughing, but there were sad parts too. It was a gorgeous performance. This video, from a different performance, gives a sense of what it was like. One of my favorite songs that they played starts at 2:14 (the video gives just an excerpt, though, in two parts). I look forward to hearing Grecsó read from his new novel, Vera, when he returns to Szolnok on October 12. (He will give readings at both Varga and the library.)

So it is possible–not always, but often–to find your way into something, to participate as yourself. There’s something profoundly rewarding about doing so. As an editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE once said, “It took a lot of time, but I think we finally saw the cake.”

Image credits: I took all the photos; they are all of last night’s ball, except for the three at the bottom, which are of Kati Week and Kati Day. The video was filmed and posted by OrosCafé (camera by József Dancsó, editing by Ádám Patakfalvi).

Singing in Class

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Songs are not a frill or luxury, in a language class or anywhere else; they are part of what we live for. A language class without song–entirely without song–is incomplete, since songs not only help with language, but make language learning more worthwhile than it would otherwise be. A song takes a place in your life; you can sing it, hum it, play it in your mind, listen to it–at least one of these, whenever you want.

We learn more language from songs than we realize. Song lyrics are full of the grammar and words we use every day, but slowed down (or sped up), reshaped, cast in melody. But it isn’t just for their utility that we learn them. They are ends in themselves, or some combination of ends and means. They stay with us. We remember them years later. They connect, unexpectedly, with other things.

The evening before my first session of the year with one of my tenth-grade classes (with whom I meet just once a week), I received a message from one of the students in the class: “Look at what I found🙄 maybe an idea for a warm-up exercise for tomorrow.” He had attached a photo of his own copy of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which we had sung last year. I agreed that we would sing it. When we did, I could see how much the students were enjoying the return: the song itself and the remembering of it. What it brought back, and what it was right then. I then taught it to the ninth-graders (pictured above).

The third week into the school year, I was in for a surprise. Yesterday I was filling in for another teacher (during the ninth graders’ math lesson), so I decided to do a combination of math and poetry. First I challenged them with Thales’s theorem, which they figured out with a little help, and which one student then explained eloquently from start to finish (in English). Then I taught them Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” First I recited it, then took them through it bit by bit, and then asked them to find a contradiction in the poem. They recognized it: on the one hand the two roads are “really about the same”; on the other, the speaker imagines a time far in the future when he will be “telling this tale with a sigh” and saying “I took the one less traveled by.” I asked them: Is this about the tricks memory plays on us, or the way we fool ourselves with our stories? Or is there a way that both of these things can be true: that the two roads are, at the outset, both equally untraveled, and yet, by the end, the speaker has taken “the one less traveled by”? We considered “how way leads on to way” and how, as time goes on, the sequence and combination of paths that the speaker takes must grow more and more singular. Not at the outset, but over time, not on that initial road, but on the long stretch of roads, forks, and turns, the speaker takes “the one less traveled by,” since the probability of anyone else taking that precise combination of roads grows smaller and smaller. That is just one way of hearing the poem, but it holds up and brings the many parts together.

Before this discussion began, a student made everyone laugh by singing the poem. But when I listened more closely, I recognized he was doing something serious, although it sounded comical. He wasn’t simply setting it to a random melody. He was chanting it; each line followed the same melodic pattern, which brought out the poem’s cadence and rhythm. I told the class that ancient poetry was often chanted in this way–that this was a natural thing to do with poems. And then the student said something that made me curious. “I see something similar between this poem and ‘This Land Is Your Land.'” At the end of our discussion we returned to his comment.

He then explained. “It isn’t that the two are similar, but they come out of a similar feeling. Of homesickness.”

Neither “The Road Not Taken” nor “This Land Is Your Land” mentions homesickness, but you can feel it in both of them. I stood stunned for a few seconds, hearing both of them in a new way.

But that’s the point: hearing. It’s when you hear the poems and songs that you understand them, that you go below the surface.  Singing and hearing go together; this is part of why I love leyning Torah, chanting liturgy, memorizing poems in different languages, listening to songs over and over again. This is why singing belongs in language classes–why it is not a frill, not an extra, but one of the necessities that you bring along.

 

I took the photo in class (in the first week of school) and am posting it with the students’ permission.

 

Unhyped

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In Hungary I am relieved of the pressures of hype. Here, by and large (with exceptions and shadings), people care more about the quality of a thing than about the publicity surrounding it. It is more important to write a good book, song, or play than to “succeed” in terms of sales and numbers.

Not that this is always true here, or always false in America. Here in Hungary, artists have to promote their work just to keep on going; to make a living off of it, they have to win a large audience. Conversely, in the United States, people are not always impressed with big publicity; especially with music, they look beyond the fame.

But often, in the United States, you are judged by your external success. If you want to be considered–yes, even considered–by a major publisher, you must find a literary agent. To persuade a literary agent to represent you, you must usually show that you have a “platform”–that is, a built-in audience that will guarantee sales. Or you must have connections with the big media outlets. Or else your idea must look like a big hit–something that will sweep the country and the world. Once the book (or other work) is out, you are judged by the splash that it makes–even though that splash, in many cases, has been pre-engineered. “Everyone’s talking about such-and-such”–people forget that sometimes the strongest reaction to a book is silence.

Beyond all of that, in the United States there is a fantasy of “making it”–of hitting upon something that makes you famous and rich and that tells the world that you matter after all. Many people believe that if they make it, they are legitimate human beings, and if they don’t, they aren’t. I know musicians who were profoundly and widely appreciated and who still believed they hadn’t made it. Some quit out of discouragement. Some shifted their attention to other things. Some switched to other kinds of music, where the “scene” didn’t matter any more. (Granted, this wasn’t always out of discouragement; sometimes they just wanted to take a new direction.)

In Hungary, from what I have seen, people recognize that life is difficult and bounded, that external success involves a lot of luck (and sometimes privilege too), and that you are better off focusing on your work itself than on the attention it is or isn’t receiving. Every writer or artist wants an audience that grows over time; audiences are necessary. Everyone wants recognition–awards, positive reviews, and so forth. But a small audience is not taken as a judgment against the work or its creator. Or maybe it is sometimes, in some places, but not everywhere.

Also, in Hungary there is intense emphasis on quality, sometimes to a fault. People readily criticize their own and others’ work, not always to put it down, but to point out how it can be better. The adjective “good” is a serious compliment, not freely given. People do not often laud creativity in the abstract; that is, they do not respect it as much as they respect a created thing, if it comes out well, and its creator. This has a negative side: judgments can be harsh, inaccurate, and overly self-assured. But in the best circumstances they can encourage discernment.

Take, for instance, the band contest in Törökszentmiklós. I had never seen anything like this before. The bands were being judged by a jury on the quality of their musicianship, lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture. The results made sense. Contests abound in Hungary–academic, artistic, athletic contests of talent and accomplishment. These contests have limitations and imperfections, but they can bring out the good. In the U.S., there are contests aplenty, but one contest reigns supreme: the “buzz” tournament, the challenge to produce something that everyone will be talking about for months to come. As though talk were a measure of anything.

This topic could be the subject of a book, but it wouldn’t be easy to write. I would have to go much farther into the essence of the matter. Right now I am dissatisfied, knowing I have barely touched the surface. Much remains to be asked, considered, probed, rethought. We shall see.

I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it.

Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

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Twenty years ago, I could have named my ten favorite songs. They would probably have been songs of Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, Sonny Smith, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities (or maybe 100 Watt Smile), the Breeders, Dieselhed, 20 Minute Loop, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, and Kristin Hersh. Today I love those same songs but have a harder time naming favorites. Knowing this, I can enjoy the task. Maybe my choices will change over time. Maybe they’re narrow. Maybe they’re too far flung. But these are songs that I come back to again and again. For the sake of brevity, I will name not ten but four. Not in order of preference–at this level there’s no order–but just as they come to mind. I am not even sure that they are my favorite songs in all the world; many others circle around them. But I will go ahead and name them.

The first is Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I heard them play it live in San Francisco. There was a time when I played it over and over again. But even after that, it kept coming back to mind. I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build.

The second is 1LIFE’s “Maradok ember.” I have written about the song, covered it on cello (in Szolnok and Dallas), heard it performed live, and returned to it again and again. It crosses boundaries of language, culture, age, musical style, and more. When they played it in Törökszentmiklós in August, I realized how radical and raw it is. I hope that it will eventually be heard all over the world.

The third is Cesaria Evora’s “Petit Pays.” This song comes close to reminding me of when I was a baby in Brazil. She is from Cabo Verde, not Brazil, but her voice, the language, and the music bring back memories, not in any explicable way, but in a way I can’t shake off either. Maybe that’s what a good song does: take on the quality of an old, old memory. But besides that, I love the rhythm and Cesaria Evora’s deep, knowing voice. This video is beautiful, too.

The fourth is Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee.” It is majestic, with a voice that lilts and cries, a melody with a Jewish or Middle Eastern feel, a violin weaving in and out of sound, and gorgeous backing vocals by Emmylou Harris–not really “backing,” but side by side with Dylan’s. It’s understated; it ends before I know it, and I want to hear it again. There’s an imperfection to it, also, that I love; the violin slightly (and pleasantly) out of tune in places, Dylan and Harris sometimes blending together, sometimes sounding like two strong and separate souls.

There are at least twenty other songs I could have included here. Maybe even fifty. But there’s something to be said for choosing a few.

I made some changes to this piece after posting it; in particular, I changed the fourth selection.

Image: Bradford J. Salamon, KLH Turntable, oil. Featured in Southwest Art Magazine, March 2016.

To read all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

Catching Up

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I have some things to say, many more things on my mind, but so much going on right now that it’s hard to catch up. Really enjoying the school year so far–the new classes and the familiar ones, the overall feeling of teaching at Varga for the third year. Now I enter the whirl: on top of the teaching, preparations for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and two trips to the U.S. for literary events (in Worcester and Dallas). Even so, I managed to spend some time at the Szolnok Goulash Festival yesterday. Some of my students were staffing a Russian booth there, so I talked with them for a while. Just when I was leaving and crossing the Mayfly Bridge, I saw a folksong group approaching. I had to stay just a little longer to listen to them.

In addition, I saw two beautiful films this past week, Curtiz and A létezés eufóriája (The Euphoria of Being), both of which I recommend to all. Both, in different ways, have to do with the Holocaust; both are about art (film and dance) and life; both have a way of unraveling you. I intend to watch them again. Curtiz is coming back to Szolnok soon–I will see it at least one of those times–and in November I will get to see the dance performance around which A létezés eufóriája revolves. I want to say more about these films but will have to wait for a later time.

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On a different subject, I had promised to explain what it means to be a “vice form teacher,” one of my many roles this year. Against appearances and sounds, it is nothing like the role of the Sub-Sub-Librarian in Moby-Dick. In Hungarian high schools, the official form teacher (osztályfőnök) is the homeroom teacher for a particular class from ninth grade through graduation. He or she meets with them regularly, keeps track of their individual situations, grades, and so forth, maintains contact with their parents, gives them support and advice, and then, at graduation time, participates in ceremonies with them and handles their final diplomas and grades. Visiting teachers from abroad (like me) are not eligible for this role–but they can be “vice form teachers”–which means being there to help out. I am honored to be vice form teacher for the new bilingual ninth grade class, working alongside my colleague Marianna Fekete, the official form teacher.

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This is not nearly all that I wanted to say, but I have some more things to do before I sleep. More at a slightly slower time.

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I took three of these pictures: the first at the Goulash Festival, the second in Buda after the film A létezés eufóriája (The Euphoria of Being), and the fourth this morning, outside my apartment here in Szolnok. The third (in the schoolyard) was taken by my colleague Krisztián Berecz, who teaches geography and biology and photographs the school’s official events.