A Musical Breakthrough: Cz.K. Sebő’s “Kesze-kusza nyár”

For about two years now I have loved Cz.K. Sebő’s music (and written about it here and elsewhere). But his new EP Kesze-kusza (Topsy-Turvy), especially the first song (“Kesze-kusza nyár,” or “Topsy-Turvy Summer”), has new depth for me in terms of musicianship alone. The guitar is meditative and rich—he way it lets the pauses ring, the way the notes come forward and retreat. This quality was there before, but it has reached a new level. The acoustic tone (he borrowed an exceptional guitar for this) is so beautiful that I can listen to the whole EP, again and again, for the sake of that sound. You can hear not only wood, strings, and air, but wordless thoughts. On the first song, the accompaniment by Soma Bradák (drums, percussion) and Benedek Szabó (bass) is so subtle that you might not even hear them enter. And then, when you listen to what they are doing, this adds to the wonder.

The lyrics are dreamy and evocative, the syllables so well timed that they sing themselves. This time the words are not hidden. I love the sometimes muffled singing on How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? (and with that, the ambivalence over words), but this is pure and bare.

The melody may sound familiar; this song inspired Platon Karataev’s “Létra,” the magnificent theme song of the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths).

The album is just under fifteen minutes long; it sustains its mood and beauty from start to finish. Three of the other songs on the EP are instrumental (solo guitar, with some effects); the third song, “Értelmet,” also has lyrics. I think the last song, “1012,” is another favorite along with the first. It surprises quietly; it explores and finds its way.

Fruzsina Balogh’s wonderful cover art evokes not only the songs but the experience of listening to the EP.

I don’t think this will be a final musical destination or anything close; his capsule boy album, now in progress, will take different directions. But it touches on infinity.

The EP (and especially the first song) inspired a poem yesterday. The poem isn’t “about” the EP or the song, but this music was a source. If anything, the poem is about holding back from an instant reaction to music, giving myself a chance to take it in. The fourth stanza alludes to the last paragraph on p. 67 of Zàn Coaskòrd’s book A Valóság, Hit és léleK rejtett csodája; the last stanza hints at Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” So I’ll end here with the poem.

Listening

Diana Senechal

Today I tried something new
(Or old in a new way):
Saying nothing.

True, many stints of null
Had marked my days before,
But this nothing had

A pluck to it.
Tuning, muting
Its strings, gearing

Up for the miracle
(As anything that comes
From zero is miracle),

It befriended the oval.
Later I thought of how
The hush had given me time

To hear space sing,
To see the clouds converge,
Break up, glitter, and

Spatter the long sands,
Daring me into a brief
Collapse of words.

The words resurged,
But with the glint of return
From a private voyage:

“Later I looked up the name
Of that beach whose waves
Rough-sang the sky.”

Stretches of Time, and Illusions of Unimportance

The winter break is coming to an end, and as usual, the thing I’ll miss most about it is the stretch of time, the room for doing things (or not) without rush or interruption. But some of this can be brought into the everyday. The time is sometimes there. Not always, but when so, it can be taken.

It was a great treat last night to go to Budapest for a “törzshely” concert evening featuring Tomi Gimpel and Grand Bleu, with Gábor Molnár officiating. This was one of a series of informal concerts set up to benefit beloved small pubs and clubs in Budapest. Gábor Molnár and Cz.K. Sebő have also played at events I have attended in this series. The atmosphere is friendly, and with these lineups, you can’t go wrong. Grand Bleu was fantastic. I enjoyed Tomi Gimpel too; he told funny stories around his songs. (I especially enjoyed the story about how he won a prize for setting an Attila József poem to song, when he had never done this—they had mistaken the lyrics of his József-themed song for a József poem.)

I got to the area early so as not to be late and so as to have a burrito beforehand. I had enough time for a short walk, so I walked up the hill (in Buda). This, to the left, was a picture I took during the walk.

The event was great, and afterwards I took the 11:43 train back and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (well worth the lug). I have just started, but I am enjoying it and finding it oddly comforting. “Comforting” is an odd word to use for the book, and probably not one he would have liked, but I think others know what I mean. It’s discomfiting and disturbing too; there’s nothing placid about it. But in that book the non-placidness has a home, and that might be what’s comforting about it. (So far.)

But for the most part I spent vacation at home: translating, writing, reading, listening to music, recording And that leads to the second theme of this post: illusions of unimportance.

Our internet and celebrity cultures have shamed us into thinking that if we’re not famous, we’re deficient. Look at those “important” people doing “important” things! Look at all the “important” people who gave eulogies at David Foster Wallace’s funeral! Look how many followers other people have! Look how few reviews your book has gotten! Look how few people care what you do, unless you post a picture of a cat!

This is a diseased attitude, and it spreads outward and inward. It throws off our balance and perception, affecting people who know better (famous and unfamous alike). Now, hold on, I am not looking for comforting clichés like “It’s who you are as a person that matters,” “Famous people are unhappy,” or “But your work is appreciated!” Hold on, give me room to sort this out.

Fame, recognition, popularity (all slightly different from each other, but related) can come in response to actual quality. Not only that, but they can lead to money, opportunities, invitations, introductions to others.

But often these have nothing to do with the most important things going on in our lives. Just this past week, a new friend underwent cancer surgery. Another friend lost a family member suddenly. Who cares about fame in these situations, or even the daily ups and downs that we all have?

But there’s more. Success and fame, even when well deserved, can confuse, bewilder, distort.

In his 1947 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams wrote, “You know, then, theat the public Somebody you are when you ‘have a name’ is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own volition—and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!”

He was right; if you are “successful” in the eyes of the world, you must not take it too much to heart, because it has little or nothing to do with your work or life, suffering or joy. Fame comes in response to something static, something already made, whereas you are continually coming into being.

Suppose you have several projects. One of them has a big following, another a much smaller one. Is the project with the smaller following inferior? Not necessarily; it might be a place where you take certain risks with your work. The size of the crowd is not the measure, even if at times it tells you something. But we have been insistently conditioned to think that “likes” and “hearts” and follower numbers are something to take seriously, especially on the grander scale.

And how many people have had their work more or less ignored during their lifetime? Popularity feeds itself. People often latch onto things (partly) because they are already popular. People often feel insecure about using their own judgement, listening to something, reading something because it appeals to them, not because others are doing so. So many people and their work get ignored, simply because they aren’t popular.

Beyond that, everyone has a life that goes far beyond their work, or at least far beyond what others perceive as their work. How many of us know what is going on even with our close friends? Some things we will know, others not. A person has many levels and layers. Are the unknown, private levels less important? Sometimes they are the most important, sometimes we don’t know, have no way of knowing, how important they are.

What makes something important, anyway? What does it mean for something to be important? Does it mean there’s a clamor around it? Or does it mean, rather, that a certain necessity moves it, sometimes in the background, sometimes without anyone noticing?

Returning to Wallace, here is a quote from The Pale King, spoken, I think, by a substitute instructor: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” A little later: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

This is a character speaking, not Wallace himself. Quotes like these often get ripped out of context and misused as life wisdoms; moreover, any maxim like this has its limitations and countermaxims. One could just as well say that the important things in life are the things that reach others.

But maybe Wallace’s character is talking about the willingness to do things without knowing exactly how important they are, without needing the stamp of acclaim, even from ourselves.

If importance continually takes shape, if we ourselves cannot define it fully, if our sense of something’s importance is only approximate, then maybe importance (internal or external) isn’t the main guide. It isn’t enough to say, “What matters is that it be important to me.” I might not know fully what is important to me.

It might make more sense to set aside the importance or its lack (not completely, just enough so as not to get swept up in it), and do some combination of what I have to do, what I want, what others have asked of me, what I don’t even know I am doing, and what I one day will no longer do—and all of this without a preponderance of the “I.” No one finds the perfect combination of these five; there is none. We (simply or not so simply) do our best, without fully knowing what that means.

Credits: First photo by me, taken last night. Second photo by Mark Thompson.

So before you

The Roads are Unfathomably Bumpy (Thoughts on Dávid Korándi’s album)

The album Az utak kifürkészhetetlenül rögösek by cappuccino projekt (Dávid Korándi) came out in mid-December (2022). It’s haunting, rousing, lovely, raw. It sends me in search of music it reminds me of (I can’t figure out what just yet) but also pulls me into itself. It tells a story of a world ravaged by locusts and coming to an end, and three friends setting out on a voyage in the middle of it all. Not all of the songs have to do directly with the storyline, but they all form part of it. The lyrics move back and forth between spoken word and singing; the music, between power punk pop, watchful wandering, and slow, soulful song.

As for what it evokes, the closest I have come is Blondie, Bowie, Hüsker Dü (New Day Rising), Slint (Spiderland), Grandaddy (The Sophtware Slump), the Breeders. Sometimes it reminds me of people playing music in my living room in New Haven or San Francisco, or of obscure albums that I somehow came upon and loved. There’s a songful ease to it; “nem arra” repeats and repeats, opens and opens, changes and changes. The album’s sound is rich and thrilling, ranging from solo voice and guitar to a full band, with Korandi, Gallus Balogh, Zita Csordás, Soma Bradák, István Hromkó, and Benedek Szabó. Cz.K. Sebő wrote the vocal melody for the fourth song, “promenade,” one of my favorites on the album.

I love the album as a whole: for the scary but calm (and sometimes anxious) story it tells, the musical roads it takes (listen to “bolognai nyár,” for instance, or “egy epikureus fulladása“), the solitude combined with companionship, the outspokenness. It’s outspoken not just because of its willingness to look disaster in the face, but because of its musical freedom and zest. I think you can listen to it without knowing any Hungarian and understand so much from the sounds themselves. Or you can run some of the lyrics through your favorite translator and get a vague idea of what they’re about. Or a mixture of both. But whatever you do, listen to “kezek.”

I first learned of cappuccino projekt when I started to listen to Cz.K. Sebő two years ago; Korándi played on “Light as the Breeze,” which I have brought up many times here. I heard him play solo twice: once at a benefit along with Cz.K. Sebő and László Sallai, and another time in with Grand Bleu. He is one of the early members of Felső Tízezer, and rejoined not too long ago. It also seems that life explorations, questioning, travels are a kind of musical practice for him. The album was in the making for five years; during this time he visited and lived in various countries, including Scotland and Czekhia. The ninth song, “nao vou nao amor,” was recorded in Portugal (and reminds me a little of “Elephant” by beloved 20 Minute Loop).

I hope this album gets many listens around the world. I can imagine returning to it with wonder in twenty years, just as I have lately returned to Grandaddy and others, but long before then, I look forward to many hours with it.

I took the photo at the concert at the MANYI on May 27.

Correction to an earlier version of the post: Soma Bradák, not László Sallai, is among the contributors to the album.

A Quietly Extraordinary Year (2022)

I don’t think I’ll do any of those countdowns or “Top 10” lists. In a future post I’ll talk about some favorite concerts, recordings, readings from this year. But in terms of projects alone, this has been one of the most exciting years of my life, even though it all seems so quiet now.

There was the online Pilinszky event in March. Months of planning and preparation went into it, and then it was just so beautiful. The audience (from the U.S., Hungary, and elsewhere) took interest, and the conversation and performances came together in a magical way.

A few weeks later, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más was published by Deep Vellum. I am very proud of these translations and love the original poems. The collection went largely ignored, unfortunately, aside from some wonderful Amazon reviews—but the one official review it received was a review to dream of. Also, one of the poems, “Scissors,” won honorable mention in the 2022 Jules Chametzky Prize. (This particular translation was first published in The Massachusetts Review.)

A couple of weeks later, we had the Shakespeare festival, the first of its kind, a joint event hosted by the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library on Kossuth Square in Szolnok) and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. The day was filled with performances (of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs), as well as workshops, games, and lectures. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this and helped to bring it about. We will hold the second Shakespeare Festival in April 2023.

After that, I was concentrating almost exclusively (outside of teaching) on the upcoming trip to the U.S. in October, for the ALSCW Conference at Yale. The three featured guests from the Pilinszky event—Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, and Gergely Balla—were all to take part, along with three other Hungarians and twelve panelists from the U.S., in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” The planning was intense, continuous, and detailed, with several bumps along the way that added to the suspense but that all got worked out. I am still amazed at how it all came together and how joyous and interesting it was. One of my favorite parts was the visit to Dwight Chapel, where Gergő and Sebő played a few songs on guitars they had borrowed from friends of mine in New Haven.

There was also Folyosó (the spring and fall 2022 issues), a mini-concert I organized at Varga, and lots of translating. Eight of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems were published (two apiece) in Literary Imagination, Literary Matters, Asymptote, and Modern Poetry in Translation; two more will be published soon in the online version of the Continental Literary Magazine.

All this on top of “regular” teaching and daily life (and another big translation project that is complete but in limbo). And here I was thinking I had been lazy this year!

And yet it all returns to quiet. It all becomes part of something else. In the larger world, with a war and other serious crises on the one hand, and, on the other, heaps of commotion over things that don’t matter much, there are probably few who care that any of this happened. There are those who do. There are those who were part of it, who experienced it along with me, who attended it. Who know that this wasn’t just some quaint pastime.

But mattering and attracting crowds are not the same thing. Deserved recognition comes to some, but most of the time, you have to be willing to accept the quiet, because the alternative is ugly: scrambling and fighting for attention, making it all about you. Or, if you’re rich, paying people to pull strings for you.

The quiet has its hidden scrolls and sounds. Those who come upon them will know what they have found. Those who pass on by them will not know what they have missed. That is how the world’s clamor deceives, again and again: it proclaims its own importance and offers its loudness as proof. Quiet, on the whole, can be trusted more. But loudness and quiet can contain each other, and there the matter gets complicated, as most things do.

On Nonconformity

Nonconformity for its own sake means nothing. The only nonconformity worthy of respect is nonconformity over something specific: a refusal, out of principle or character, to follow certain rules. Is this true? Not entirely. I will return to the first sentence a little bit later.

American (U.S.) culture has an old strain of nonconformity that I love: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Frost, O’Connor, Baldwin, Dylan, and on and on. But it also has traditions of extreme conformity: not only in small towns, but in urban enclaves. Being “cool” really means that you belong to some refined and rarified group, real or imagined. You stand out, but in a way that is fully accepted by the others in your group.

Hungary seems more conformist, on the whole, than, say, New York City, Boston, San Francisco. But compare Hungary (excluding Budapest) with a rural section of the inner U.S., and you might find similar levels. By “conformity” in this case I mean a strong belief in—and desire to follow—a set of codes regarding marriage, childrearing, gender roles, home life, and national traditions, in addition to clothes, activities, and so forth. Overall, with exceptions, people take pride in doing things the proper way.

So do they in many sectors of the U.S. Every religion, to some degree, opines on the right way to do things. So do social classes, ethnic groups, local traditions. Small towns and sophisticated political in-groups can both be stifling in their ways. Even groups of nonconformists can be stifling.

But when is nonconformity needed and respectable? The most obvious case is where the social rules are patently unjust (as in the case of segregation), hypocritical (as in the case of “religious” people who engage regularly in nasty gossip), or terribly dated.

Beyond that, few rules work well for everyone. An example: In the classroom, I might give my students a writing task, and a student might tell me, “I’m writing it in my head.” I often accept this, because I would have been the one saying it as a teenager. I was able to compose pieces very well in my head and resented being told to write them down when I didn’t need to. Most of the time, when a student says, “I’m writing it in my head,” this is true. (Later I ask to hear it out loud.)

Now, some will say “I’m writing it in my head” to get out of doing it at all. Then the question arises: does the student find the task dull or inane? Does the problem lie partly with what the student is being asked to do?

A few years ago I had a student with particularly strong opinions who also seemed angry a lot of the time. He resented the textbook tasks because he found them superficial. I spoke with him individually and welcomed him to write about something else if the particular task didn’t interest him. He started turning in exceptionally interesting and thoughtful essays.

Granted, we often have to complete tasks that we don’t particularly like, or that aren’t quite what we would do or say if given a choice. It’s important to learn how to do this, but not all the time. The act of not following the instructions just might be the secret combination in the lock on the door that opens up to the constellations.

What about a larger, longer nonconformity, such as being unmarried, single, childless? Hungarians have a disparaging loanword for single women—”szinglik”—that conveys some sort of narcissistic languishing. These “szinglik” have presumably chosen not to marry or have kids because they thought they could have more freedom on their own. But instead of freedom they have misery (according to assumptions).

But singleness—its reasons, origins, nature—has many more dimensions than that. There are all sorts of reasons why a woman might end up alone; the condition is neither pitiable nor permanent. Nor is a single woman necessarily cold and unloving (or unattractive, for that matter). It’s possible, living alone, to do good, take part in your surroundings, enjoy life, make something new, sustain friendships, and deepen your own understanding. It’s also possible, even later in life, to find a partner who is right for you.

What about people who don’t like small talk? They may seem “socially awkward” to some, but is that such a horrible thing? Maybe they have more to say than others, if you strike up a conversation on an actual subject.

What about artistic nonconformity, where you break with a given form or convention, subtly or strongly? Every good artist breaks in some way with what has come before, while also honoring it in some way. The breaking and the honoring are different for each. I am moved by the full-length album by Dávid Korándi (Cappuccino Projekt) that just came out. It’s spoken and sung, dreamy and driven, but it does more than encompass those oppositions: it goes on a voyage, with friends, through a destroyed world. Its directions surprise me. I will write more about it soon.

Still, so far, it seems that there’s nothing to be said for being different just to be different. But maybe there is. At the ALSCW conferenee, a participant who has listened to a lot of my music advised me, “Try changing keys once in a while.” (I do change keys at times. But I think she meant more than that: experimenting with different keys and key changes.) Sometimes, if you break your own patterns just to see what happens, something surprising will emerge.

It’s fun to start a story in a new way, or give a slightly different inflection to a monologue, sometimes whimsically, to see what will happen. It’s fun, on a bike trip, to take a detour just to see where it goes.

To learn a language well, you have to break rules of language-learning.Yesterday I went over to my friends’ place for (lunch) dinner and a long, wonderful conversation (all in Hungarian, of course), which went longer than seven hours. At moments during that conversation, I thought about what I needed to do to bring my Hungarian closer to fluency. I can express myself on complex topics, but I don’t necessarily use the verbs correctly. The forms: yes, most of the time. The prefixes: not always. The subtle differences between synonyms: not always. But more than that, sometimes my tongue gets stuck even when I know what to say and how.

A language has infinite angles: just about anything you do in the language helps you speak it better. If I listened to Hungarian songs all day, every day, my Hungarian would grow better. If I read all the eighteenth-century Hungarian literature I could, my Hungarian would grow better. But for these weaknesses in particular, I think I need a combination of radio shows and drama, to get the needed verbs and phrases in my ear, to practice speaking them. Something of an Eliza Doolitle approach, without Henry Higgins and without the goal of being taken for royalty.

In addition, I need to get hold of the Hungarian language textbooks that are used by Hungarians in Hungarian language and grammar class. Those books are gems.

That’s not particularly nonconformist, but it isn’t standard procedure either. That’s often how it is with nonconformity. It doesn’t have to blast itself from the rooftops or highrises or whatever your standard type of edifice might be.

(What does the photo at the top have to do with nonconformity? I stopped to take it last night as I headed over the Zagyva river. There might be a kind of nonconformity in stopping to notice anything at all. Not because people don’t do it—they do, again and again—but because what you see, hear, or read will always be singular.)

On the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness, Again

A year and a few months ago, I wrote here on the mixtures of happiness and sadness. I would like to return briefly to this topic.

Lately I haven’t been attending all the concerts I would like to hear, since I have been busy and in need of more time for projects, thought, reading, and rest. But I have chosen well. This picture, taken by Zsuzsanna Győri, shows Cz.K. Sebő’s concert on Thursday at the Béla (a bar and restaurant on Bartók Béla Street in Buda). That’s me in the foreground. I love the picture because it conveys what it was like to listen.

It was one of my favorite Cz.K. Sebő concerts so far. In the first part, Sebő played covers of songs especially important to him—by Jackson C. Frank, Blaze Foley, Bob Dylan, and a contemporary songwriter whose name I don’t remember. Maybe someone else too. In the second part, he played his own songs, three of which were renditions of poems by Endre Ady, János Pilinszky, and Attila Jószef. He talked about the songs as he went along. At one point, during the first part, he mentioned that he doesn’t feel sad when playing these sad songs. Nor did I feel sad listening to them. There’s something in them beyond happiness and sadness, beyond them but involving them.

I loved the atmosphere there: the hushed audience, the company of friends and acquaintances, the brick and lighting, the knowledge that we were all there for the same music, each in our own way.

What’s at stake here is a music that plays out life itself, but in quiet concentrated form; where you hear the many voices of the river, city, sea. Where you hear a person bringing this music across: music of others, music of his own, music of his own with the poetry of others. Happy, sad, calm, turbulent, all at once (or at different moments but brought together). Full of influences but particular, unlike any other.

What’s killing us today (or one of many things) is the pressure to be one thing or another. Happy or sad, left or right, “with us” or “against us.” Safe and summarizable. A concert like this opens into a glorious danger where we don’t have to follow the standard rules.

December 8 and 9 (the day of the concert and the day afterward) were the first anniversary of Cz.K. Sebő’s first full-length album, How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? (Its official release date was December 9, 2021, but it came out a day earlier, as happens at times.) I listened to it yesterday with joy. Joy is both happy and sad; it has room for both and more. It reaches ecstasy and grief. I think of the end of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking“:

Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,

Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
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.

The top picture was taken by Zsuzsanna Győri, the bottom one by me.

Wrapping the Unwrappable

This is not an anti-Spotify post, or even an anti-“Spotify Wrapped 2022” post. I just want to challenge the notion that Spotify can—or should—know anything about my music listening habits, practices, and whims.

Spotify’s streaming service is (or can be) great for independent musicians; without any intervention from a music label or publicist, their music might get played around the world, even millions of times per year. (Although I prefer human recommendations over algorithms, I see how the latter can work in musicians’ and listeners’ favor.)

However, one problem with Spotify’s “Wrapped 2022” (individualized year-end stats for both musicians and listeners) is that the stats can be wildly off for those who don’t rely primarily on Spotify for their listening or streaming. I listen through Bandcamp, CDs, records, downloaded albums, and live concerts; I use Spotify only when I have to or when I want to listen to someone else’s recommendation. Spotify highlighted as “love at first listen” Earl Kim’s “Where Grief Slumbers: Listen to it Rain,” which I do love, but which I listened to over and over primarily for the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar (granted, afterwards too). It also named a NYC band that I listened to several times but probably would not return to. It got a few things right as well, but in a tacky way that I won’t repeat here.

Also, the emphasis on numbers can distort things. Many people play Spotify as background music; they aren’t necessarily listening closely. A musician without impressive Spotify stats might have attentive, discerning listeners. (So might a musician with high stats—but still, Spotify gives more weight to the numbers than to anything else. The quality of listening is out of the picture.)

Also, the music I love most isn’t always the music I listen to most. There are songs and albums that stay in my head, to the point where I play them in my mind. There are albums I haven’t listened to in a long time that are among my favorites. I don’t put on music in the background, or work while listening, so my total listening time may seem relatively short. And then there are some silly songs that for some reason become addictive for a short while. I play them over and over, then set them aside forever. (This happens rarely now, but it can happen.)

The bigger problem is that I don’t even want Spotify to “talk about me.” I don’t want it to try to figure out, even haplessly, what music I love most. I write a lot about music on this blog, but that’s my choice, and I put it in my words. I also need privacy with music. There’s something glorious about putting on a CD and not telling anyone.

Sharing music has become both a public duty and a habit (good, bad, or both). Musicians want their music to be shared, because then it will reach more listeners. Listeners enjoy sharing favorite music (out of sheer enthusiasm or a desire to bring it to others, express thoughts about it, or show something of themselves). None of this presents a problem until it takes over completely. The time taken alone with music (without anyone else’s judgment, without any pressure to react instantly) has a soulful, even sacred element: the willingness to be in full encounter with it, the willingess to hold back from wrapping it up or being wrapped up by it.

Spotify pretends to do something it can’t. No matter how important streaming is, no matter how much the stats can matter, music is unwrappable. We convert it momentarily into virtually and physically wrappable things—playlists, stream counts, photos, CDs, reviews—again and again, and will continue to do so and should, but all of this is a level down from the music and the unadorned listening to it.

Some will say that I am taking Spotify’s pretenses too seriously, that they are meant only in fun. No, I think they are serious. The people in charge of Spotify want massive reach and influence. They want the stats to loom large. They have some laudable aims too (bringing people together, promoting creativity, etc.), but these are hard to separate from the commercial goal of dominating the streaming market.

There are probably many besides me who feel that despite its great convenience and ubiquity, something about Spotify is amiss: that its very assumptions (the more streams you get, the better you are, and the more times you play a song/album, the more you love it) not only fall short of the truth, but do their own subtle damage. This was true of record labels when they and radio were the main conveyors of recorded music, but in those days, once you bought an album, you were left alone with it. No one wrapped up your year for you. Recommendations, too, took a different form. For me, they usually happened when a friend and I would listen to records together. Or at the record store, if I had the courage to ask one of those exalted record store workers for advice.

To come to music plainly, without explanation or excuse, and to listen without pressure to do or say anything afterward: this gives life and truth to all the rest. Share away, share all you want, I say to myself, but never give up the freedom to listen just for listening, without anyone knowing, and without your stats hurling themselves at you through stars and bubbles, proclaiming who you are.

Ladders

This week, outside of school, I was absorbed in preparing to chant Genesis 28:10-22, the verses about Jacob’s dream, in which he sees a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. Then God appears beside him, reveals who he is, and promises to stay with Jacob and his descendants (who will be as the dust of the earth, spreading west, east, north, and south) and bring them back to this land. When Jacob wakes up, it dawns on him that God might have been present. As far as I know, his words are the first expression of awe in the Bible:

יז  וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם.17 And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

What is this ladder? After our service at Szim Salom today, we gathered around a table to discuss this question. Many ideas came up, including the possibility that the ladder is Jacob himself: that he is a conduit between heaven and earth, like certain rare people with a special quality of holiness. Another possibility that the ladder is internal—that it has something to do with his struggles and dichotomies (just a few verses later, he vows that if God fulfills his promises, he will accept him as his own God).

Various people brought up literary references to ladders: in particular, Sándor Weöres’s poem “Szembe fordított tükrök” (“Facing Mirrors”):

Örömöm sokszorozódjék a te örömödben.
Hiányosságom váljék jósággá benned.
 
Egyetlen parancs van, a többi csak tanács:
igyekezz úgy érezni, gondolkozni, cselekedni, hogy mindennek javára legyél.
Egyetlen ismeret van, a többi csak toldás:
Alattad a föld, fölötted az ég, benned a létra.
 
Az igazság nem mondatokban rejlik, hanem a torzítatlan létezésben.
Az öröklét nem az időben rejlik, hanem az összhang állapotában.

Here is my tentative translation:

May my joy be multiplied in your joy.
Let my defects become goodness in you.

There is only one commandment, the rest is just advice:
Try to think, feel, and act for the good of everything.
There is only one precept, the rest just follows from it:
Below you is the earth, above you the sky, within you the ladder.

Truth dwells not in sentences, but in undistorted existence.
Eternity dwells not in time, but in the state of harmony.

Listen also to Dániel Gryllus’s musical rendition of the poem.

I brought up the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths), which I had been hoping to go see for the third time. The film’s theme song, which plays from start to finish in the credits and answers the entire film, is Platon Karataev’s “Létra” (“Ladder).

I knew that the film would be playing in Hungary for just a few more days, so, after leaving Bálint Ház (where we hold our services), I checked to see where it was playing. It turned out that I could see it at 2:45 at the Művész Mozi, not far from the Nyugati train station. It worked out perfectly.

The film is a somewhat fictional (and also faithful) rendition of the true story of the mountaineer Zsolt Erőss, who died in a Himalayan descent; it focuses on his wife, Hilda Sterczer (played brilliantly and profoundly by Emőke Pál), who has to contend with his loss and help her daughter do the same. This viewing opened up new levels of the film for me, both because I had seen it twice before and because I was thinking of the ladder. I realized how important it is that Hilda herself is an exceptional mountaineer. Once a mother, she gives it up, but she understands her husband’s expeditions as those around her cannot. Her excellence and her dependence are part of the same ladder. Slowly she begins to climb (down or up, it could be seen either way).

For instance, after gathering three million forints for a helicopter rescue mission (which proves futile), she decides not to undertake further rescue efforts—maybe partly because she wants to end the waiting and doubt, but also because she knows what it means to be up in the mountains, in weak condition, in extreme cold. She also knows that a mountaineer thinks in terms of survival, and that if her husband died, as she understands he did, he would have wanted her to survive. In other words, what others perceive as her coldness or lack of faith is actually her knowledge.

Also, her struggle with the loss, her difficulty living as herself, is not just the plight of an overly dependent wife. It comes from her strength and talent. Her strength and weakness are like the angels in Genesis going up and down the ladder. Maybe the resolution is the “undistorted existence” of the Weöres poem.

Back to the passage in Genesis: the angels ascending and descending could mean that what we take as a descent might sometimes be an ascent, and vice versa: that we are continually moving up and down at once. For Jacob, this seems true; his acts of trickery (descents from one point of view) have something holy to them, since they allow God’s plan to be fulfilled. In a more mundane way, each of us must do things at times that others disapprove of, for the sake of something greater. Last night (at the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which had an exciting new musical rendering), I was anxious because I wanted and needed to leave right after the kiddush: the blessing over the wine and challah bread, after the official service. I felt guilty (because others wanted me to stay for the dancing and socializing) but needed to get back to Szolnok, into my quiet, to rest and prepare for the next day. I did this, and it was a good decision.

This return to quiet was necessary in its own way. In this and other ways, I am moving up and down the ladder, both at once.

It is never a resolved matter; our most important conflicts do not have a definite, final answer. For me, retreating into quiet is essential, but calling it “quiet” is somewhat deceptive, since it may be a kind of turbulence I retreat to. Also, there are times when I need to fight against this pull, and (more) times when I need to trust it. Beyond a few basic precepts, the “right” way to be in the world is not fixed; we must perceive it again and again, and let it be different from what others assume.

But what I hear in these verses, beyond everything, is awe: Jacob’s sense that God was present, and his willingness (conditionally, tentatively) to trust that and act upon it. The words he speaks (such as hamakom, nora) are sparse but full of depth. Whatever the ladder and the motion of the angels might be, it suggests something divine in motion.

Platon Karataev’s “Létra” has something to do with all of this. I end with a translation, once again tentative.

Létra
by Platon Karataev

másznék már, de a szó visszaránt
létrám szelídíti a mélységet
magasságot egyaránt

kérdésem rétegeket hánt
elmémről, felelet gyanánt néha
fogadd el a talánt

tékozolja magasát a menny
hullajtja nagyságát a hegy
lépek: a mostban gázolok

érintsd meg a szél két oldalát
kulcsod majd ez lesz, odaát
nem kell, és visszaadhatod

a magasba, hol a szél is gyalogol
mélybe, hol ölel a pokol
tudd meg, mindkettőhöz tartozol

az óceánt zsilipelem éppen át
magamon már elhagytam
a szavak zátonyát

imádságaim közé egy istenfej szorult
szabadítom,
végre csak legyen az, ami
Ladder
by Platon Karataev

I would be climbing by now, but
the word pulls me back
my ladder tames both depth and height

my question peels layers
of my thoughts, sometimes “maybe”
is the answer you must accept

the heavens squander their height
the mountain sheds its greatness
I walk: I wade in the now

touch both sides of the wind
this will be your key, over there
it’s unneeded; you can return it

to the height, where the wind
also treads deep, where hell embraces you
know that you belong to both

Now I’m sluicing through the ocean
alone I already left the reefs
of words behind

a godhead is squeezed between my prayers
I let it go,
at last let it be only what it is

Art credit: Helen Franenthaler, Jacob’s Ladder, 1957 (on view at the Museum of Modern Art).

I added a little to this piece after posting it (and made two small edits to the translation of “Létra”).

Update: Here is my musical rendition of the Weöres poem:

What makes a good concert?

A confluence of things. The music, the performance, the venue, the sound, the occasion, the time of day or night, the audience, the state of mind of a particular listener, the way the music might strike the performers or listeners at a given moment, the effect of these things on each other, the eccentricities that make this concert different from any other like it, the samenesses that we look forward to.

The way children love to hear stories, poems, songs again and again, so do adults, but unfortunately we have to justify it to ourselves. Do I have time? Can I afford it? Of the many events I could attend tonight or this week, is this the right choice?

This time, my only question was about time, since I am pressing to put out the autumn issue of Folyosó and still have a lot of editing to do. The editing takes many hours because there’s so much basic correction and formatting involved. When editing, you can wear out your eyes and still miss some little thing—but then, there are pieces that make it worthwhile, again and again. There are students who take writing seriously—and playfully—and are grateful to find their way to readers.

But I figured that I could take my laptop on the train and work there—not always a given, since the train can be noisy and crowded, but worth a try. As it turned out, I had a quiet ride both ways and was able to get a lot done.

The concert (part of a fundraiser for the Waldorfeszt, an independent music festival that may or may not survive) was peculiarly moving, even within the Platon Karataev duo context, where that tends to be the case. One song that I didn’t remember hearing before became a new favorite. Other songs came to me in new ways, maybe because of how they were played, maybe because of what I heard in them this time.

I was not alone. The people around me were rapt, and I talked briefly with two fellow audience members afterwards (whom I have met before, at a recent concert). That’s another part of these concerts: whether you talk with others or not, you know you have something in common with them: this music you have been given, the coming out to hear it, and things you can’t define.

Thoughts on Religion and Return

Any true religion is poetry translated into bodily action. That is, religion approximates—and can only approximate—a level of life that cannot be expressed in words. Wars between religions result from taking these approximations too proudly and literally, treating them as flat truth rather than path.

I do not believe Judaism has an edge over Christianity or vice versa. That Judaism is now my form of religious expression does not mean that I believe much of it literally at all. And yet I believe that it points at something, and that its rituals and texts have centuries, sometimes millennia, of practice and wisdom behind them. The conflict between the concept of a single God and that of a Trinity can be (partially, tangentially) resolved if we consider how far God lies beyond our comprehension in the first place. That is one of the central tenets of Judaism: that God is far greater, far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Even the Shechina (the manifestation of God in the world) is barely at the edge of our perception; God’s other levels are so deep and immense that at most we can apprehend the existence of the vastness.

Christianity ritualized and championed the concept of conversion; while Judaism has had converts here and there all along, Christianity made conversion its central premise. Any Christian is (supposedly) a convert, since to be a Christian, you must willingly turn yourself over to Christ. There’s a beautiful openness to this, but also a temptation toward condescension: toward the view that those who have not converted are, at best, poor lost souls.

I do not see a necessary conflict between Judaism and Christianity (within an individual). I know that the two religions are historically and theologically incompatible, and painfully so. I know that not only the Catholic Church, but also Protestant churches have traditionally portrayed the Jews as the killers of Christ—which evades what I see as the true sources of the crucifixion: human nature, tragic misunderstanding in all directions, and political expedience. (Not to mention that Jesus the historical figure probably came across as a bit of a gadfly.) But I have room for internal reconciliation, not only between the religions themselves, but between what they have been for me. I have no desire to be a Jewish Christian. I have an aversion to movements such as “Jews for Jesus” that claim a Jewish identity while proclaiming Christ. I reject insinuations that Christianity is superior to Judaism and other religions. But it isn’t for nothing that the trope of Christ has moved people around the world and inspired astounding art. Treating people kindly, no matter what their status, feeding and healing them, encouraging them to lay their sins aside and start over, and speaking in parables that point to our own deepest contradictions and deceptions—that’s profoundly compelling and confounding. To me it’s no surprise that this man was described as the “son of God”—but that term has led to all kinds of grief.

Judaism, for its part, can overemphasize the tribe and tribal identity; while many congregations are moving away from this and trying to welcome people of different backgrounds, you can still feel distinctly left out if you do not know the many codes of Jewish life. Yet Judaism is not self-enclosed; tikkun olam (roughly, helping to repair the world), hesed (lovingkindness, charity), and welcoming the stranger are among its central practices.

The intensely communal quality of Judaism can also be difficult for those (like me) who treasure solitude and who see solitude as central to religious life. On the surface, Christianity gives more overt attention to solitude—but both traditions have mixtures of solitude and community. Solitude in Judaism exists (you can hear it often in the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets), but you have to look for it and find your own way to it. Christianity, for its part, also emphasizes the group, sometimes to an extreme.

In my late teens and early twenties (starting toward the end of high school, and then at Yale) I attended church and was baptized and confirmed (by turns Episcopalean, Lutheran, Catholic). But my life was in upheaval; my family was breaking up, I was asserting early independence, and trying to figure out who I was in myriad ways. I lacked even basic self-confidence. Being Jewish wasn’t even in my consciousness; I knew only vaguely that I was Jewish according to Jewish law, and knew close to nothing about what that could mean. Once, with a friend, I attended several Jewish services at Yale, but the more traditional services seemed remote from me, and the Reform service seemed like summer camp. Christianity, in contrast, was open-armed and engaging, up to a point. I say “up to a point” because I never felt comfortable with churchiness, with the idea of being a “good Christian.” To me, the point of religion, or part of it, was never to become pat and staid.

Much of my searching took place at Dwight Hall, and in Dwight Chapel itself: not only services, but late evenings when I would sit there alone and listen to the organ, At Dwight Hall (Yale’s center for social service and social justice), I took part in many activities—prayer services, community service, political advocacy, Cabinet meetings, support groups, get-togethers, events and discussions—and endured a few heartbreaking crushes. I was mixed up and unmoored, so badly in need of company that I neglected my studies, and so unsure of myself that I made friendships difficult if not impossible. But I met remarkable people and have rich memories of that time.

Two and a half years into my studies and extracurriculars, I took time off from Yale and worked at Sterling Memorial Library for several years; the work kept me in contact with the university and brought regularity and responsibility into my life. When I returned to Yale as an undergraduate, it was with clear focus; I did well in my studies, graduated with distinction in the (Russian) major, and went on to graduate school there (where I ultimately earned a Ph.D., with a dissertation on Gogol, and translated a volume of Tomas Venclova’s poems). I had distanced myself from religious practice; from the age of twenty-four or so, I no longer went to church. It took another twenty-five years before I would start going to synagogue and learning Jewish liturgy and cantillation.

My entry into Jewish life was different from my earlier explorations, though not entirely. For one thing, I had solid footing; for another, the impulse came not only from an internal yearning, but from a perception of history. A series of events brought me to my first encounters with Hebrew and Jewish liturgy: in particular, a recording of the “Blessing Before Haftarah,” which had a strong resonance for me, a memory of something I didn’t remember. I found meaning in those very syllables and melodies; because of this beginning, and because of the richness of the learning over time, I have been a practicing Jew for almost ten years, and serving as Szim Salom’s lay cantor here in Hungary for five. This way of life is for the long term, with increasing responsibilities, so now I have room to look back and pull things together. It is essential for me to do so; I have changed and learned a lot over the years, but everyone has a unity between past and present, and I am ready to face my own.

When we visited Dwight Chapel with the Hungarian group in October (during the ALSCW conference at Yale), when Sebő and Gergő (the Platon Karataev duo) played a few of their songs there, old memories started to come up for me, but the music in the room was far more important to me right then. Still, it was only because of this past, my readiness to return to it in some way, and the helpfulness of the Dwight Hall staff that we were able to be there at all. Also, maybe the possibility wouldn’t have occurred to me if we hadn’t had to cancel the concerts, and if Gergő and Sebő hadn’t been so willing to play this unofficial, informal session for its own sake. On top of that, if Tim and Jenn hadn’t been able to lend their guitars in time for this, there would have been no music, though we might still have stopped inside. The songs themselves, or many of them, have to do with internality, searching, intuition, self-loss, but are not religious per se—so there was no statement here, no pressure to believe this or that. All of these conditions together allowed for this beautiful occasion, and now it too has joined the layers of life.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (and added a paragraph about solitude).

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

  • Always Different

  • 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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