Learning from Covering a Song

Covering a song you love is a way to go farther into it, to find out what it is about. For a while I have had a thought of covering Platon Karataev’s “Lombkoronaszint” (“Canopy Layer”) and a few ideas of how I would do it. About a week ago I set down the underlying track. Then yesterday I recorded the rest. The recording is far from perfect, but I learned a lot about the song while making it. Here it is (available only in this post; I am not turning it into a video or sharing it elsewhere).


When you first listen to “Lombkoronaszint,” it might seem very simple to play: a melody repeating over and over, a refrain that slowly takes over. But then when you try to play it, you find a hidden intricacy: the pattern varies, the syllables match differently with the beats of the measure. It takes intense concentration to get it right (and I still only got it right up to a point). As I worked on it, I was taken into a different level of the song, and I think that comes through.

The lyrics can be translated roughly as follows (I might edit or correct this later):

now the boat left behind
for the last one
floats entirely on its own,
look, we have crossed over,
the tired capillary
slowly pushes
my blood forth;
all the water
has reached the other shore.

you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
in a shivering child.

see, how magic hides in each setting forth,
the slow water sets you on your way,
let’s row back all over again.

you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
in an opening flower,
on the canopy layer,
you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
you ask where god is?

Here, below, is a beautiful live recording and video of Gergő and Sebő playing the song. And you can hear the album version here.

Update: I re-recorded the later part of the vocals and uploaded the new version here.

Festivals, Audiences, and Such

Fishing on Orfű, the one music festival I plan to attend this summer (along with its August coda, Kispál on Orfű), has people scrambling, even begging, for a place to stay, even a place to pitch a tent. I don’t know why this is. All the cabins and tent spots were sold out early on—I bought a ticket to the festival as soon as they went on sale, and already the huts and camping spaces were gone. The only place left was a camping area near the lake (which gets very hot during the day and can get soaked by rain at night, and where you don’t have a reserved spot but have to take your chances—and even this is sold out now). The hotels and bed-and-breakfast places are all filled; there’s even an online Facebook page for festival attendees looking for places, and as soon as anything comes up, it’s gone in seconds. With so many people looking for a place to stay, why aren’t there more options? I love Fishing, but people who come so far to hear the music should have a place to lie down. Those who buy a ticket to the full festival should be offered a camping spot, a cabin, or something else, even if they have to pay a little extra for it.

Last year, I pitched my tent where I wanted. At the Mini-Fishing, it wasn’t a problem; I think you were allowed to do just that. At the main Fishing, I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed, and there were people knocking (!) on my tent late that night to tell me that others had reserved that spot. (Fortunately those others hadn’t arrived yet, or else they took another open spot; since I was there only for the night, I packed up and left before dawn.) This time, I have a ticket to the open camping area near the lake. We’ll see how it goes.

And yet I can’t wait for Fishing. On the 29th, I will get to hear Cz.K. Sebő, Lázár Tesók, Felső Tízezer, and Sasa Lele; on the 30th, Felső Tízezer (on the water stage), Anna Szalai and Gergő Dorozsmai, and who knows who else; on July 1st, Noémi Barkóczi, Kaláka, Esti Kornél, and Platon Karataev, and on Saturday, Jazzékiel, Galaxisok, and maybe the tail end of Elefánt. That’s in addition to others I will stumble upon or find my way to. And then there will be the walks around the lake, late at night and early in the morning; the serendipitous experiences, and maybe bike rides too, if I bring the bike.

But I am starting to have mixed feelings about it (not Fishing in particular, but the whole concept). I think some musicians do too. For them, the festival season can be grueling: one festival, one show after another, big crowds (unless they are one of the lesser-known bands, in which case there might be just a few people listening), people surrounding you, tight schedules, no place to unwind, think, or work on the music itself. And never mind the politics of scheduling: who gets booked and who doesn’t, who gets to play which dates and which stages, and who gets invited and then dropped. I have read some stories, not about Fishing, but about other festivals. I imagine that up to a point, performing at the festivals is great fun and professionally important, and then it gets exhausting.

For an audience member, there’s the whole challenge of staying there, which is usually necessary, at least for one night, and can also be fun (for one night). On the other hand, there’s an inequality to it all; you travel hours to get there, you pay to be there, you rough it out in a tent, but you’re “just” an audience member, “just” a fan, interchangeable, disposable. No one really cares if you are there or not. Which is great, in a way; the anonymity is part of the thrill. Just being able to go listen to the music, without having to explain yourself. And if you want, you can leave, and no one will even notice. But the nobodyness is an illusion; the audience is as important as the performers and as worthy of regard. The inequality is partly false. I say “partly” because it is also circumstantially true; the performers are on stage for a reason. They have audiences for a reason.

The inequality is also exacerbated by money. The reason musicians have such a dense schedule in festival season is that they need to make as much money as possible, to give them a little bit of a financial buffer for the rest of the year. The reason festivals pack in more audience members than they can house is, again, money. So then the question becomes: is this worth the money?

With regard to Fishing on Orfű: yes and no. To hear the musicians, yes. To be in the hills, in the woods, by a lake, among other eager listeners, yes. But to travel more than five hours each way (four and a half hours from Szolnok to Pécs, and then the bus or bike ride), only to have to fend for a place to sleep, which might end up unsleepable in a big downpour (it tends to rain there, because of the microclimate), and to be there for four days—I wonder not only if it’s worth it, but if I want to be in that position any more. If I were going with friends, it would be another matter. With friends, you can laugh, figure out solutions, enjoy each other’s company. But the only people I know who go to Fishing have their own plans. I am past the age where many of my friends do this kind of thing; I don’t mind being different, and enjoy doing things alone, but something about this is starting to feel too much, not just physically, but otherwise: I’m getting a little bit ruffled up dignity-wise. So I think I will go just for one night, and then again in August. Or else find a way to stay in Pécs and commute back and forth from the festival, which also means missing a few shows. It will be good, it will be enough, and at home I can listen to the other musicians’ albums.

Update: An inexpensive, conveniently located Pécs hotel ended up being the best solution; it takes about 50 minutes to go by bus from Pécs to Orfű, and the return buses run until around 11:30 at night. I am probably going to camp at Orfű on the last night, so as not to have to rush out before the end of the Galaxisok show (and to be able to attend Jazzékiel as well). So, a bit of commuting, but otherwise three days of comfort and all the music I had been hoping to hear (except for Platon Karataev, which I’ll have to miss), and then one night under the skies.

Listen Up: Galaxisok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you miss about the U.S.?

I get asked this question from time to time. People are surprised that I don’t miss the U.S. more. Well, I do miss it, sometimes a lot, but life here has been good to me, and it keeps getting better, even with ups and downs.

Well, first of all I miss people. I don’t want to go into that, because it would feel bad to mention some and leave out others. But yes, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, former students, former clients, people whose work I love and admire, people I run into on the street, people I have never met but sense around me. This, however, could be true anywhere. There are people I miss in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, the Netherlands, France, Argentina, and elsewhere. People I have known for years, and people I have met only briefly.

Then come the places. San Francisco, Tucson, Taos, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville (where I have been just twice), Philadelphia, Ithaca, New York, New Haven, and then many places in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine. The coast of Maine with its jagged rocks and snails. That, and the long stretches in between these places, the long road trips I used to take. Driving along the Salmon River in Idaho. Visiting a friend in Montana.

Then the works. Of literature, music, art, theater, architecture, and more. Not only the famous and long-resonating works, not only Whitman, Faulkner, O’Connor, Morrison, Dylan, the gold of many colors, but the burgeoning projects, the college singing groups, the open mic poets (even the unbearable ones), the newly-formed bands, the scribbled notebooks.

Then the ideas. The idea that it is not only permissible, but even good to criticize your government. (Granted, this can be taken to ridiculous and dangerous extremes, but the principle is dear to me.) The idea (also taken to extremes) that if you want to do something, and have enough determination and smarts, you can pull it off. The raw enthusiasm of the American character. The belief in freedom, even though we have not always honored it by a long shot and don’t fully know what it is.

Then the institutions, form the elegant universities, libraries, concert halls to the hole-in-the wall clubs, shoestring-budget theaters, independent film houses, ephemeral literary journals.

The comedy groups. Improv. SNL. Really good standup. The whimsy, the daring of comedy. The knowledge, contained in every comedian (just ask them who their favorite bands are) that life serves up generous portions of sadness.

Then the religions. The vast variety within each religion. The plethora of synagogues, for instance, ranging in terms of observance, emphasis, atmosphere, congregants. I don’t know that any other country has or could have a synagogue like B’nai Jeshurun, with such an combination of halachic seriousness, responsiveness to the world, and music.

Then the sounds of everyday life. The whisk of the A train in Manhattan as it speeds from 59th to 125th Street. The crunch of bicycle wheels heading up a San Francisco hill on a rainy day. Someone playing an accordion in the Mission. Coffee brewing in the kitchen early in the morning. The sound of waves, the sound of a stream running over rocks. The movement of animals in the woods. The long, droning cry of rush-hour traffic. The many languages, many tones of voice on the street, arguing, joking, questioning, proclaiming.

Then the personal lives, with all their triumphs and troubles. Because how could any of this have existed, except for the troubles? Troubles that wake you up and show you a bit of the way. Not the crippling troubles—there’s nothing redeeming about them—but the ones that jolt you momentarily out of your dream.

Then the broken dream. Because the darndest thing is, the Great American Dream has failed everyone at some point. “Things have a way of turning out so badly,” says Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. But for some reason, even after the losses and deaths, people get up and start dreaming all over again. Maybe a little differently, but radiantly. And that is one of the things I miss but also brought with me here.

I think of the end of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” one of the most beautiful poems of all time:

And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.

Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.


I took the photo in Fort Tryon Park in May 2017.

Update: I added a paragraph to this piece after posting it. Also, see Veronika Kisfalvi’s comment.

Thoughts on “Fázom, ha nézel” by capsule boy (Cz.K. Sebő)

First, listen to the song. Watch the video, if you like, or leave that for later and listen with your eyes closed (or open). Listen a few times. If you read Hungarian, read the KERET Blog interview with the song’s author, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly. Then, if you like, come back and read these comments.

There’s no doubt that I like the song, but even now, after listening to it about ten times (in addition to a few times at concerts), there’s something more important to me than liking. Liking implies some kind of comfort, but this song gives me an exhilarating discomfort, but not just discomfort: many things over the course of its two and a half minutes. It is a love song and a happy song, but as Sebő says in the interview, it’s possible to come to it from different angles; the title line itself can suggest different meanings. He describes the song as a bridge between the classic (folk) Cz.K. Sebő and the capsule boy electronic subproject. I hear some of the songs on How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? as bridges too (and the album as a whole), but maybe they go elsewhere. In any case, it is a bridge to spend some time on. It’s the song’s angles that make it so beautiful, I think.

The melody is not his own; he does not know the origin. He was shopping online for guitars and came across a video in which a boy was trying out a guitar and strumming a melody (which was similar to this one, if not the same). He loved it and tried to find out what it was, but no one knew. It took a long time to find the right lyrics for the song; they took shape along with his life. They can be translated, very roughly, as follows. (This translation is meant only as a bare approximation of the meaning; it doesn’t convey the rhythms, the sound repetitions, the nuances of the words, not to mention the silences and ellipses.)

Fázom, ha nézel,
mert a testem nélkül nézel
Szeretlek, mert nem hagysz bennem űrt

Szólok, mert látlak,
de nem a két szememmel látlak.
Végtelen, ami bennünk elterül

Mindenhol látlak,
de sohasem magyarázlak.
Szeretlek, mert nem hagysz egyedül

Szólok, hogy érzek,
Már a testem nélkül élek
Mint prizmafény, egymásban szétesünk.
I freeze if you look (at me),
because you look without my body.
I love you because you don’t leave a void in me

I speak because I see you,
but without my eyes I see you.
Endless the thing unfolding inside us.

Everywhere I see you,
but never do I explain you.
I love you because you don’t leave me all alone.

I say how I feel,
I’m now living without my body.
Like prism light, we fall apart in each other.

The melody catches the ear right away and has a way of playing over and over in the mind. It has a syncopated rhythm and an overall descent, then partial ascent; it hits every note in the C major scale except for the fourth, the F. After a pared-down keyboard introduction, it repeats many times, with changes in sound, counterpoint, texture; and with lyrics that take you from freezing into motion (unfurling, disintegrating) and from there into an infinity of light and color.

I hear the song, in a way, as a counterpoint to one of my favorite passages in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and like me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved–those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.

This song, though, is not about the loss of a loved one, but about that person’s presence, with the inner universe right there.

The music does so much in a simple, short space, swelling up and thinning down, with lingering, bending keyboard sounds that change texture; acoustic guitar; something almost xylophone-like; a few layers of vocals; a passage that sounds a little like a baroque organ piece and gives way to a folk tone, and something like wind or sea at the end. All of this naturally, intuitively, the sounds not adding on to the song but turning and forming at its center.

And then the video—it’s a little hard for me to watch, because right now I just want to listen to the song. But its colors, images, and storyline draw me in anyway; the moment with the empty hangers (pictured at the top) is strangely moving. My students have been reading The Great Gatsby with me, and we spent a long time on the following passage:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

There’s a loneliness to that full closet, in Gatsby’s case (and maybe here too). In this video, though, as the young man gets dressed, putting on layer after layer, the closet empties. Everything he has been storing up, he is now taking into the world, to a particular person (and then takes off most of his layers again before ringing the doorbell). The song has nothing to do with Gatsby, but the contrast between the two states still brings something up. That empty closet with the bare hangers makes me cry with joy.

I think a song can take you to a new place in life, all by itself; that has happened to me with several of Sebő’s songs, including “Light as the Breeze,” “Hart,” “Felzizeg,” and this one. I don’t know exactly what that place is, but that’s what I mean about discomfort. Any good song gets me to hear life in a slightly new way, but this is very new, in ways that are hard to explain but wonderful.

I think I’ll end here. Congratulations to Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy and to everyone who helped with or created the recording, video, and cover art: Bence Csontos, Ábel Zwickl, Ákos Székely, Sámuel Tompa Lukács, Fruzsina Balogh, and anyone I might have missed. I am looking forward to the capsule boy LP, which will come out at the end of the year.


Image credits: The picture at the top is a still from the video (by Ákos Székely and Sámuel Tompa Lukács.). The picture at the bottom is the cover art by Fruzsina Balogh.

I made a few edits to this piece (including the song translation) in several stages after posting it.

Update: Michelle Sowey commented on Facebook: “This reminds me of another cryptic love song with an infinitely repeating melodic loop and endlessly changing textures: Oração, by ‘A Banda Mais Bonita da Cidade’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QW0i1U4u0KE (P.S. I love that passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, too.)

Remembering Concerts

I don’t want to go to so many concerts and literary events that they start blending into each other or twisting into oblivion, but so far that hasn’t been a danger. Each one has stood out in a particular way. A few details can bring the whole evening back. Last night’s event (pictured to the left) at the MITZI café was one of my favorites here in Hungary so far. Hosted by the Anna Juhász Literary Salon, it focused on the Partért kiáltó lyrics book but took this in many directions. Anna Juhász related it to Pilinszky (and led the discussion overall); Ákos Győrffy and Csaba Szendrői gave their thoughts, both about the book and music and about questions of language, creation, and more; Gyöngyi Hegedűs, Gergő’s mother, spoke about being a poet, doctor, and mother, and read one of her poems; and Gergely Balla played three songs and spoke about his music, influences, quests.

One of the most interesting ideas for me was the distinction between passzió (strong enthusiasm) and passió (holy passion, which is bound up in suffering). Another was Gergő’s story about how someone had said, after Partért kiáltó was released, that he didn’t think Gergő had quite found his voice yet. Gergő’s response was that he had no interest in finding his voice; to the contrary, he has been reaching for something beyond the “I.” Still another favorite part was when Ákos Győrffy told the story about how some of the lyrics of Partért kiáltó described exactly a dream that he had had, and Gergő read aloud Győrffy’s description of the dream. And Gyöngyi Hegedűs’s comments, humor, and poem. And Gergő’s exceptional humility toward the others: for instance, his deeply appreciative praise of Elefánt (Csaba Szendrői’s band). And Anna Juhász’s comment on the shortest song on the Partért kiáltó album, “Fagyott csontok,” and how its lyrics have the true density of poetry. There was much more that came up—and the music itself at the beginning and end said what the discussion could not. All of this took place in front of a hushed and densely seated audience. I had lots to think about on the train ride back home.

As for other recent concerts: Just last week, though it seems longer ago than that, I went to a terrific Cataflamingo show at the Szimpla Kert, a labyrinthine venue with colorful lamps, dark passageways, open-air places, wooden steps, mirrors, and at least two enclosed performance halls. This was only my third time hearing them in concert; this time I was blown away by their musicianship, the beauty of the songs, the transformations inside them. The audience reveled in it all: listening intently, dancing along, sometimes singing along (there’s a song where the audience takes over the singing at one point), cheering at the end. Here is a video of one of the songs from the concert, “Nevess.”

The week before that, I went to two concerts: Cz.K. Sebő at the A38 Hajó, and then, the following day, Galaxisok at Budapest Park. The Cz.K. Sebő concert was a little difficult for me at first because of the noisy crowd (I think this had something to do with the acoustics of that particular hall at the A38); also, they played some of the songs slightly faster than I hear them in my mind. But the concert grew more and more beautiful and absorbing as it went along. I can still hear the sounds of “Interlude II” in my mind; “Fox in the Holt,” “Pure Sense,” “Keveset olvasok,” and “Papermache Dreams” were also highlights for me, and there was a new song too, which I am eager to hear again. It has been almost exactly a year since I first heard Cz.K. Sebő in concert, and I look forward to at least two more concerts in the next couple of months (one at Fishing on Orfű and one in the middle of July in Budapest). I am eager to see and hear how his capsule boy project develops; he is releasing a new song, “Fázom, ha nézel,” the first capsule boy non-remix single, this weekend!

As for Galaxisok, I hadn’t heard them in a while and was excited to hear them at Budapest Park, where they were playing for the first time. The sound was rich, the songs already familiar and evocative for me, the performance thrilling. It’s hard to describe them, because their songs take different directions without becoming a hodgepodge at all. There’s a whimsical coherence to them, a kind of worldly-wise melancholy mixed with zest. The best description I have seen so far is their own (for the upcoming concert at Müpa):

The singer-songwriter Benedek Szabó, who you may also recognise from his earlier band Zombie Girlfriend, founded the Galaxisok in 2013 under the name Szabó Benedek és a Galaxisok (Benedek Szabó and the Galaxies). They have released six major albums to date, ranging from chord-strumming hits inspired by Tamás Cseh to catchy guitar pop, end-of-the-world ballads on the piano and South American and African-influenced songs, creating a daring, ever-changing, unpredictable whole. What kind of music do they play? ‘Well-being polbeat’? Jangly guitar pop? Dreamlike piano ballads? The band, which is approaching its tenth birthday, has a meandering repertoire that means something different to every individual, depending on what age, place or given moment they hear it for the first time. But what is the essence of the Galaxisok, which has such a strong relationship with the public? Maybe the frontman has a radically different picture of the band from the guitarist, while the drummer thinks in another way entirely – and who knows what alternative production the bassist might have imagined? All our questions will be answered on the Müpa Budapest stage, as the Galaxisok play their favourite tunes.

Some of my favorites from the concert were “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” their new song “Ez a nyár,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal,” “Mondo Bizarro,” and “Középsulis szerelmes szám,” but the one playing in my mind right now, “Sandy View,” stands out among them all. In any case, I think Galaxisok will be the subject of my next “Listen Up” post, because there’s so much there to listen to and reflect on.

To take in a concert fully, I need to stay away from concerts now and then. Especially with the train rides from Szolnok, I would wear myself out if I went to them all. Also, I have large ongoing projects and a need for sustained quiet time. So, for instance, I am not going to the Platon Karataev duo concert this evening, although I would have loved to, since I am attending the Grand Bleu/Cappuccino projekt concert tomorrow and a Platon Karataev (Gergely Balla) discussion and brunch on Sunday. The upcoming weeks are dense; I have to check my calendar frequently to make sure I’m not forgetting something.

But that’s the gift of it: holding back from concerts just enough that when I do go, it’s with full joy. Joy not in the sense of glee and cheer, necessarily; there’s melancholic and sad joy too. But catching and holding the notes as they fly by, wrapping myself in them, carrying them for days and weeks and sometimes much longer. Even when the memories fade, the concerts leave some kind of texture behind, and though I can’t pinpoint it and don’t need to, I know it’s there. There’s a new shape to the air.

First photo (of last night’s event) by Kriszta Lettner; more photos here. Second photo (of the May 12 Cz.K. Sebő concert) by me.

I made a few edits to this piece (in several stages) after posting it.

Listening to Grand Bleu

I am very excited about hearing Grand Bleu in concert for the first time this Friday, along with Cappuccino projekt—that is, Dávid Korándi, whom I have heard once before; more about his music soon. It was Cz.K. Sebő who recommended Grand Bleu (Asztrik Kovács, Ádám Ballai, Edvárd Szalma) to me, and I’m glad I did; there’s so much to these songs that I expect to listen to them for years. They are intensely evocative, reminding me at various times of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Neil Young. But what’s special about them is the way the clear acoustic guitar, vocals, and lyrics create an atmosphere and story, taking you far within them and changing as they go along. A few of the songs start out with samples (of street music, I think, and thunder), but for the most part the sound and style are folk with bluesy elements. Within this, there is an infinity to hear: stories, harmonies, a rhythm that holds you all the way through, transformations that involve you.

“Kálvin tér,” for instance, is sung from the point of view of someone who can’t find his way to Kálvin tér (in Budapest) because the city looks so different, as if it had been rebuilt at night. But then it turns out that it’s himself he can’t find, it’s as if he’s in a dream where the only thing missing is him. But then he finds himself again (as the harmonies build and build), or at least finds where he is, and asks once more, where is Kálvin tér? That’s the gist, but the music tells the story at least as much as the lyrics do.

Thanks again to David Dichelle for playing this song on WFMU’s Continental Subway on April 10. It was a great start to the show.

It’s hard to name favorite songs on the album (Gyalog a tengerig, Grand Bleu’s 2022 debut), but “Emlékszem meg,” “Kálvin tér,” “Öreg halász,” and “Vihar” are definitely among them. Another is “Egy évszázada már,” which sings a family story of several generations. The grandfather, returning from the front, is walking with his horse, but the stones under the horse’s hooves turn to dust, and the side of the mountain breaks off, taking the horse along. When the grandfather gets home, he plants a sapling, swearing that when it has grown into a tree, he should tie those to it who sent him to war and took his horse away. But by the time the tree has grown up, those responsible are nowhere to be found. And then powers change hands, the land and the tree are taken away, and the grandfather himself is taken to a “little robot” (Soviet forced labor, if I understand correctly). The grandmother, in her pain, plants a sapling and says that when it has grown, she should tie those to it who took the land and her husband away. But when the time comes, they are nowhere to be found. And in the final verse of the song, the singer is the one who plants a sapling, before moving abroad so that his family can eat (because he is a teacher and can’t make ends meet at home). And by the end of the song, which fools you with its familiar melody, its understated narrative, and its Na-na-na refrain, I have a big lump in my throat.

I know nothing about the band members and have never met or heard any of them, as far as I know. I know that Asztrik Kovács is the primary songwriter, but that’s it. About Dávid Korándi I know a tiny bit more, but not much. I have heard him twice: once in a concert where he played solo, with Cz.K. Sebő, and with László Sallai; and in a Felső Tízezer concert. (He was a member of Felső Tízezer some years back and has recently rejoined, to the joy of many.)

Well, that has to be all, because I am running late and have a lot happening today, including a book release at school this afternoon!

Update: the concert was so good that I wish I could take its virtue and give everyone a piece. There would be enough to go around. Here are a few pictures. The last one is a view of the street as I was walking to the train station afterwards. I think it captures the evening.

Setting Poetry to Music (25th ALSCW Conference seminar, October 2022)

In October 2022, at the 25th ALSCW Conference at Yale, I will hold a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” Paper proposals have been coming in; for those still hoping to participate, the deadline for proposals is June 10 (please follow the instructions in the Call for Papers)! So far, the seminar participants include three invitees from Hungary and a number of other presenters (from both Hungary and the U.S.). The full roster will be established by the end of June.

The seminar description is as follows:

What questions and problems do composers encounter when setting poetry to music? How can music enhance, transform, or distract from a poem that already stands on its own? How might the music follow or depart from the poem’s inherent rhythms and tones? How might the musical rendition become an artistic creation in its own right? This seminar will explore these and other questions in relation to a wide variety of poems and music. Papers may take one of two directions. Those analyzing others’ musical renditions of poetry should plan to present a short paper (5–10 pages), possibly with an accompanying sound recording. Those presenting their own musical renditions or poetry should play it (through or a recording or on an acoustic instrument) and then comment on it briefly. The poems considered may be in any language, but any poem not in English should be accompanied with at least a basic translation or summary. The presentations should be prepared with a general audience in mind. Composers, songwriters, musicians, poets, scholars, teachers, students, and others interested in the subject are welcome to submit proposals. (Note: This seminar is not about songwriting or poetic song verse in general; it focuses specifically on poetry set to music.)

This seminar will differ in some ways from a literature seminar in that we will spend some time listening to the musical renditions of poems (which participants will either perform or play through a recording). Also, the topic is flexible; some presenters might take it in visual and other directions. I am eager to see what proposals come in.

I am honored that the three featured guests at the Pilinszky event in March will be the featured guests in the seminar as well! Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla, and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly will all be presenting; they all won Petőfi Literary Fund grants to cover the trip. In addition, Gergő and Sebő (the Platon Karataev duo) will be performing at Cafe Nine in New Haven on October 23. We also plan to hold an event in NYC featuring Csenger as well as the duo. (We will have more details once they exist.)

The ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) “seeks to promote excellence in literary criticism and scholarship, and works to ensure that literature thrives in both scholarly and creative environments. We encourage the reading and writing of literature, criticism, and scholarship, as well as wide-ranging discussions among those committed to the reading and study of literary works.”

I have attended ALSCW annual conferences in Worcester, Nashville, Dallas, and DC. They are not only interesting but lots of fun. I have held and participated in numerous seminars (sometimes three different seminars in a given conference) and especially love the range of topics, the geniality, the participants’ willingness to hear contrasting views and approaches. Also, the ALSCW supports poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers through grants, prizes, and publications; the poetry and other readings at the conferences have introduced me to writers who have since become favorites. And let us not forget the Saturday night banquet, where the conference comes to a jovial close (there is an ALSCW Council meeting on Sunday morning, but otherwise no conference activities). I am especially excited about this year’s location, since Yale is my triple alma mater (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and I spent about fifteen years in New Haven all together (including two years from 2019 to 2011, when I wrote my first book, Republic of Noise).

This year’s conference has many other exciting seminars and panels as well, on topics ranging from Proust to Ulysses to “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture” to “Figures of Civil War” to “The Art of Confession” to “Aesthetics of the Sublime in Japanese Literary Arts.” And it will be our first conference since 2019, since we had to cancel twice because of Covid. Many thanks to David Bromwich, the president of the ALSCW; Ernie Suarez, the executive director; conference committee member Rosanna Warren, and others for bringing this to pass. While nothing is certain until it actually happens, this conference will take place unless a large and unforeseen obstacle arises. It is now only five months away.

Photo of Yale’s Harkness Tower by Chris Randall.

Update: So many people submitted paper proposals for the ”Setting Poetry to Music” that we will have two sessions! The presenters include composers and songwriters, poets and other writers, visual artists, scholars, teachers, and combinations of these. Six of the participants are from Hungary and twelve from the U.S. I look forward to the presentations and discussions!

Five Songs Chosen for a Birthday

All right, I told myself, get up and choose five Hungarian songs for your birthday! Don’t give it much thought; just choose five that you especially love and that are calling you right now. (Why Hungarian songs? Because they are in my ears, thoughts, and life, and if I had to choose songs in English, it would be a much harder task, with decades of favorites, and different kinds of favorites, to consider.)

These are the five. With minimal commentary. A way of marking not only a day, but something that cuts through time.

First, “Felzizeg” (“It buzzes/rustles forth”) by Cz.K. Sebő, from his 2021 album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, one of my favorite albums of any time. I wrote about it and the whole album in the essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech,” published recently in the online version of The Continental Literary Magazine. The song title is better understood through the first line of the lyrics, “Felzizeg a szaradó levelű juhar” (approximately: “The maple tree with its drying leaves is rustling”); but alone the word suggests a rustling, buzzing, rattling sound that bursts gently out of the silence.

Next, “Éjfél” (Midnight) by Galaxisok, from their gorgeous 2017 album Focipályákon sétálsz át éjszaka (You walk across the football fields at night). I love the lyrics, the pace, and the atmosphere.

Next, “Lassú madár” (“Slow bird”) from Platon Karataev’s 2022 album Partért kiáltó. It has been playing in my head recently; I am eager to hear it and their whole concert this Thursday. It evolved slowly from one of Cz.K. Sebő’s early songs, “Fear from passing” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed); the lyrics are by Gergely Balla.

Next, “Gyertyaláng” (“Candle flame”) by Dávid Szesztay, from his album Iderejtem a ház kulcsát (I am hiding the house key here). I couldn’t attend his concert on Friday—though I had bought a ticket and was looking forward to it—since I had the Shakespeare festival all day long and then had to finish preparing the Torah verses that I was going to chant at the Szim Salom service on Saturday. (All of this went well.) I imagine that this was one of the songs he played.

Finally, a song and an album very new to me (thanks to Cz.K. Sebő for recommending it): Grand Bleu’s “Öreg halász” (Old fisherman), from their 2022 album Gyalog a tengerig (On foot to the sea). Just listen to where this song goes. I will be listening to this album a lot and expect to devote a blog piece to it soon.

There are other songs I could have included as well, but these are great choices, and they came together early in the morning on this lovely-cloudy April 25.

Image credit: Partért kiáltó lyrics book, published by Prae Kiadó. Lyrics by Gergely Balla; illustrations and text layout by Emőke Dobos.

The Shakespeare Festival

It was a great success. Above, you can see the group that came all the way from the Kossuth Lajos Gimnázium in Tiszafüred. There were groups from Karcag and Törökszentmiklós as well, and several groups from Varga, as well as the wonderful Híd Színház in Szolnok and students of József Rigó (who was there as well). The day was filled with performances (of scenes, sonnets, songs), lectures, a workshop, a few introductory remarks, remarks from the jury, and gift bags for the participants.

I was so eager to get to school early (I wanted to be there by 7:00, but arrived at 7:15) that I rushed out the door and forgot my glasses. Once I realized this, there was no time to go back for them, since I had gone to school on foot, with cello. I printed out my introductory remarks (that I had written in Hungarian) in very large font, but even so, I stumbled over a few words. However, that didn’t affect things; once the performances began, everything flew.

The Hamlet scene (which I had helped my students prepare, along with sonnets and songs—but which they prepared entirely by themselves in the end) was intense and beautiful from start to finish.

The pieces were traditional, experimental, or both, in Hungarian or English; they contrasted enough with each other to keep the whole day interesting. The feeling in the room (both rooms, both parts of the day) was warm and lively; we had a substantial audience, including former Varga students (Zalán and Petra, thank you for coming!), and the performers and their teachers seemed to enjoy the whole event.

There will be more pictures, videos, interviews, and thoughts—so I will leave off here with just a few more photos. Thanks to everyone who helped bring this into being and who helped out in any way. Thanks especially to the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár and to my colleagues at Varga, who carried this from an idea into an actual occasion.

Update: Here is the SzolnokTV report on the festival!

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

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

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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