Remembering Concerts

I don’t want to go to so many concerts and literary events that they start blending into each other or splintering 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. The event, hosted by the Juhász Anna Literary Salon, 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 reflected the excitement: listening intently, dancing along, somertimes 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 has 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 quite 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 not go to 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 treasuring the notes as they fly by, wrapping myself in them, carrying them for days and weeks and sometimes much longer. Even when the memories of the concerts fade, they have made some kind of mark on my life, and though I can’t pinpoint it and don’t need to, I know it’s there. There’s a new resonance in 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 small edits to this piece 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!

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 rich 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 are generally superb. 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.

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.

A Festival, a Book, and a Conference

The Shakespeare festival is arriving soon! On April 22, the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium will hold a day-long event filled with acting (by students from six different schools), sonnets, songs, games, lectures, workshops, an art contest, a jury, and more. Everyone is welcome! (At Varga we have no classes on that day.) This festival has been in the planning for two years. It had to be postponed a year because of Covid, but now we can actually hold it, in three weeks and a day from now!

Next, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más (Always Different: Poems of Memory, published by Deep Vellum) now exist; the publisher has already received copies from the printer! Gyula and I will receive five complimentary copies each, and I am ordering many copies for events. We intend to hold at least two events here in Hungary, and if everything works out, I will give readings in Dallas and NYC as well. The official pub date is still a few days away (April 12), so I will make a new announcement then.

Finally (for now), the ALSCW has released its Call for Papers for the October 2022 conference, which will take place at Yale. I will be leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” which may feature guest presenters from Hungary, if everything works out! More about that later—but in the meantime, if you are interested in presenting a paper in any of the seminars, please follow the instructions at the top of the document.

I should have a few more announcements very soon, but that is enough for now.

(The photo is of my students’ performance of Hamlet scenes at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár in June 2019.)

“Mert elhagyatnak akkor mindenek.”

With Pilinszky, you can spend hours on a single line, even a single word, of one of his poems. Yesterday I was thinking about the opening line of “Apokrif,” “Mert elhagyatnak akkor mindenek.” It means, approximately, “Because everything will be forsaken then.” But what are these forms? I looked into it and found out that the verb “elhagyat” is an old passive form (of “elhagy”) that no longer exists in Hungarian; “mindenek” (the plural of “minden”), likewise, is archaic. So this first line has an ancient Biblical ring to it. That’s just the beginning; I could walk through “Apokrif” here, but that would take hours and hours, and I wouldn’t be satisfied with my words.

Another way to spend time with Pilinszky’s poetry is to set it to music. This morning I recorded my musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Metronóm” (which I performed at the Eső-est in December). It starts out with a pizzicato, then a rather dirty bowed cello underneath the poem (which I recite rather than sing). But almost by mistake, I decided to add another plucking track, under the bowed track, which would be like the metronome itself, keeping a different time from ours. Another thing that happened almost by accident is that the last word, “ígéretét” (“promise”) occurs just as the bowing fades, so it’s on its own. This is a draft of a recording I plan to make later, but even so, I think it brought something out of the poem. The video I shot along the Zagyva in February.

You can read the poem and N. Ullrich Katalin’s translation here; it’s hard to translate this poem into English, because the word order has to change, and along with it, the emphases. The word at the end of each line has special emphasis. If I were to translate it, it would read somewhat like this (but this is just a tentative draft):

Measure time,
but not the time that is ours,
the splinters’ motionless present,
the drawbridge’s degrees,
the winter scaffold’s snow,
the silence of paths and clearings,
in the mounting of the fragment
the promise of God the Father.

Yes, another way to focus on Pilinszky’s poetry is to translate, another is to listen and read, and another is to memorize. All of these I have been doing, slowly, at this point not so much to prepare for the event (I’m probably about as prepared as I will be), but because the event itself is a beginning.

Speaking of the event and absorption just today Platon Karataev released a video of Gergő and Sebő performing “Lombkoronaszint,” the last song on the album Partért kiáltó (and one of my favorites, if I have a favorite at all). This is part of their Grain Session recording; the motion picture is by Géza Vadas and the sound recording by Ábel Zwickl. It is worth dropping everything for.

The photo of Pilinszky at the top was one that I found on Magyar Kurír. I don’t know its origin.

Past the bourn, and a translation of “Tágul”

This morning I woke up with a different idea for my translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (which I wrote about earlier, and which will be part of the program at the Pilinszky event next Sunday). I had been bothered by the tenth and twelfth lines (“He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast” and “And yet a breakless ocean booms it back”). “Far and fast” seemed padded; the “fast” seemed extraneous, even though I liked its subtler meanings. But the real problem lay in the last line: a “breakless” ocean seems like an ocean without waves, rather than a whole ocean. Also, the iambic pentameter was a little too regular and placid compared to the Hungarian (also regular iambic pentameter, but with a little bit of friction at “egy egész tenger”). Those problems, though, seemed worthwhile for the sake of the whole. Then I thought of a different way of doing it. Here’s the last stanza as it was before.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a breakless ocean booms it back.

Here’s the new version:

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

The word “bourn” (“limit”) evokes Hamlet’s soliloquy (“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”) in an appropriate way, in that the action of throwing the stone is irrevocable. Neither the stone nor the throwing can return. That striking line “Nem szabadul már soha többé tőle” (“Never again will he get rid of it”) puzzles the mind at first; you might expect “Never will he get rid of it” or even “Never again will he find it.” But there’s a singularity to the very act of throwing the stone away. As for the last line, I like how “whole” and “sea” struggle against each other slightly, each one claiming rhythmic stress. And “booms it in return” brings out the paradox of noise in the voicelessness. Also, you can hear a parallel between “mute breach” and “whole sea.”

So the whole translation reads as follows:

A boy who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all eternity
and never could become anyone else’s.

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has grown so alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

I started thinking about catharsis in this poem. There is a purification in the throwing of the stone. The verb “szabadul” (“to be freed of, get rid of”) is very close in meaning to “rid,” which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *reudh-, “to clear land.” The stone becomes too much, I think; it has to be thrown. But this will come up at the event, so I won’t say more here.

What I will do now, though, on a somewhat different subject, is provide a loose translation of “Tágul” from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó.” The song is indirectly related to the poem; the two juxtaposed say something to each other. “Tágul” has so much of what I love about Platon Karataev: lyrics, sounds, the duet of Sebő and Gergő, atmosphere, eternity. I have heard this song played by the whole band and by Sebő and Gergő in acoustic concert. Each version brings out something different. I think a cello cover would be beautiful; I will keep that in mind for the future.

While my translation is mostly literal, more so than my translation of “Partért kiáltó,” I took some liberties to convey the rhythm and richness of the words. I translated “elmém egy hangyaboly” as “this my mind is an anthill” to keep the stress on the first syllable of the line, since this is so important to the music.

I initially translated “tágul az űr belül” as “spreading within, the void” to convey both the rhythm and the continual motion. I think there’s supposed to be some ambiguity about what is spreading: the void itself, the moment, the shadow, the self, the non-self? But then I changed my mind, and changed it to “the void expands within.” (“Spreading within, the void,” requires the commas, but those can’t be heard. So the meaning was too unclear.)

I translated “ez a pillanat most minden pillanat” as “this moment is now each moment of all time,” for the sake of emphasis (that is, both a strong final beat and a strong statement).

The translation as a whole is imperfect (what translation isn’t?), and I might see reason to revise it later, but I think it conveys the essence and could work with the rhythm of the music.

az égbolt köldöke a Hold
elvágom a köldökzsinórt

az éjjel szitálja az énem
nem-énem kitárja, elérem

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

talpam alatt már szűkül az árnyék
lépek, mintha vízen járnék

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat
the heavens’ navel is the Moon
I sever the umbilical cord

the night dissipates my self
pours forth my non-self, I touch it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

beneath my soles the shadow thins
I step as though walking on water

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

I made a few changes to the translation of “Tágul” after posting this piece (most recently on March 23).

Art credit: Cloudy Day (1871) by Alfred Thompson Bricher.

A Weekend of Concerts and Life

If it hadn’t been for Idea and their lead singer and songwriter, Marcell Bajnai (who was my student at Varga in 2018–2019, and who now is in his third year at ELTE), I might not have heard about Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő, or Dávid Szesztay. Rather, I might have, but not nearly so soon. It was through Marcell Bajnai’s online music recommendations that I learned about Platon Karataev, which then led me to Cz.K. Sebő. It was when Idea (then 1LIFE) opened for Kiscsillag, in December 2019 in Törökszentmiklós, that I first heard Dávid Szesztay. So not only was the Idea record release show—last night, at the Robot club in Budapest—exciting in itself, but it commemorated something for me.

It was one terrific show. They were so charged up, joyous, spot on, and the music and lyrics were so good, with such intense communication between the musicians, that it didn’t matter that this was harder and more driving than the music I usually listen to (quite different from Cz.K. Sebő and Dávid Szesztay, whom I heard in Pécs tonight). I was dancing and singing with abandon. There were songs that I have loved for about three years (like “Maradok ember“) along with songs from the exciting new album, Gyorsan eltűnő hosszú napok (Fast-disappearing long days). There were songs in different moods: exuberant, thoughtful, youthful, mature. I’ll leave it at “wow.”

I stayed overnight in Budapest, then took the train to Pécs in the late morning. On the way, I saw that Felső Tízezer had challenged their listeners (via a Facebook group) to name the literary references on their new album Elkerülhetetlen (Inevitable). This not only kept me busy for the whole trip (which seemed to go by in minutes) but brought up memories of poems, novels, and plays. I then got to Pécs, checked into the hotel, rested a little, went to a restaurant for dinner, and found my way to the Szabadkikötő.

The Szesztay Dávid/Cz.K. Sebő concert went beyond what I can say right now. There was something kindred in their music, even though their styles are somewhat different. I understood why they are two of my favorite songwriters anywhere. One thing I loved about Szesztay’s performance was the way he loosened the rhythm at times. The tiny pauses brought out something new in the songs. He started with “Szoba” (which I discuss in the “Listen Up” piece dedicated to his songs), ended with “Szólj” (a gorgeously textured, loose rendition), and played much in between—from his albums and from unreleased material. “Valamit érzek,” “Beleszédültem,” “2120,” and “Hullamzás” were four of my other favorites in this concert.

As for Sebő, he played some of his wordless songs combined with songs old and new—for an audience listening with every bit of attention they had. He played, among other things, “Out of Words,” “Away,” “Maybe I should,” “Teeter,” “Chamomile,” “Disguise,” “Lombkoronaszint,” “Lassú madár,” “Papermache Dreams,” “Felzizeg,” and “Wide Eyes” (the most beautiful rendition I have heard yet). Then he said that he usually doesn’t bring politics into his music, because political subjects seem limited to a surface level—but because the war in Ukraine has gone below the surface, there is no way not to say something about it. And so both “Wide Eyes” and “On a Fine Day” (his rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon” in Géza Simon’s translation) were filled with thoughts of Ukraine. Through this, I understood the Pilinszky poem and the songs in a new way.

Thank you, Idea, Dávid Szesztay, and Cz.K. Sebő, for giving us your music this weekend. This music is life itself—not “szórakozás” (though that too, sometimes, in a certain way), not escape, not circumvention, but life with the beauty and bravery that we can bring to it if we dare.

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

Listen Up: Dávid Szesztay

For a while I had been wondering whom to feature next in the Listen Up series. The first four artists (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő, Art of Flying, and Hannah Marcus) set a high standard. I wanted to continue in that spirit: to present bands or musicians whose music holds up when other things come and go.

The composer and songwriter Dávid Szesztay came to mind early on. The only problem was that I didn’t think I could translate the lyrics of his songs. They are dreamy, intuitive, impressionistic. They tell stories, but through pictures, broken sentences, incantations. I wasn’t even sure that I understood them correctly. But now I understand them better and can translate them imperfectly, at least.

While he has composed for theatre, film, and other media, I will focus on his songs, which are in a style of their own. I haven’t heard any songs quite like them; they remind me a tiny bit of João Gilberto, but that’s it. They are slow, contemplative, melancholic, with transformations. They have elements of classical, jazz, folk, and electronica, but they don’t seem hybrid at all; Szesztay brings all of this together into gradual sweeps of sound. I love the subtlety of the chord changes. You barely notice the shifts at times.

I found out about him in an unlikely way. In December 2019, I went to Törökszentmiklós to hear 1LIFE (now Idea), who was opening for Kiscsillag, an uproarious, funky alternative rock band led by András Lovasi. During the Kiscsillag set, I was feeling a little out of sorts, but a slower song, sung by the keyboardist/bassist, took me in. Afterwards I found out his name: Dávid Szesztay.Then I found his solo music and started listening to it online, then went to hear him in Szeged (in February 2020), where I bought a copy of his first LP, Dalok bentre. Two years later, he has one more solo LP and an EP, and I heard him tonight for the fifth time, in a concert with Cz.K. Sebő in Pécs. (It was their first time playing a show together—each of them solo—and I hope they do it again. You can read about the concert here.)

Besides having a solo project and playing in Kiscsillag , Szesztay plays in a trio, Santa Diver, with his wife, the violinist Luca Kézdy, and the drummer Dávid Szegő. I think this is a good place to begin, since it has no words and gives a sense of his musicianship (though his solo music is more pared down and less jazz-like). Santa Diver is phenomenal. You can sink into the music and rise with it.

A good song to start with, from Szesztay’s Dalok bentre album, might be “Jóbarát,” which means “good friend,” “true friend.” The refrain goes, “jó barát a táj, hű barát a táj.” The word “táj” means “natural surroundings, scenery, landscape”—so much contained in that one syllable. For brevity’s sake, I will translate it as “land,” though that isn’t quite accurate: “The land is a good friend, the land is a faithful friend.”

As for the other lyrics, the one word that gives me trouble here is “nő,” which usually means “woman.” Here, though, it might be used in a more archaic sense, where it means a female animal, often a bird. If that is correct, then the verse translates roughly as follows:

The earth, the sky, the bird (woman) calls,
the song surrounds the fire.
In quiet you sit, desire
won’t send you flying now

On spacious ground the road
you walk is infinite.
It’s good with you, it’s good with you,
there’s peace.

This is not an artistic translation; it’s meant just to convey some of the basic meaning.

Then comes the refrain, which returns later, though there is no second verse. The song has several musical motifs, each one leading into the next. The first is the verse melody, accompanied by expansive acoustic guitar arpeggios and a subtle effect. Then the refrain melody, where piano enters, ever so slightly behind the voice. (That little lag is one of the most beautiful details in the song.) Then comes an aching wordless melody, with piano too. Then the refrain returns. Then a change of rhythm and a final meditative ending by the guitar.

Here’s his performance of the song at Fishing on Orfű in 2017. This version doesn’t have piano (even though a piano appears in the video), so I recommend listening to the album version as well.

I can’t write this piece without bringing up “Elindul,” a magnificent song and a terrifically difficult one to translate. The lyrics are by András Lovasi. The difficulty here is that many of the phrases have at least a double meaning: one meaning if considered on their own, and another meaning if taken with the following phrase. The song as a whole conveys abandonment, bewilderment, being out alone in the freezing rain and wind and finding no answers. The sound is dark, with piano, drums, and effects (maybe from guitar). If you listen closely to the piano, you will be amazed by the chords, yet they go along so simply, as though almost nothing were happening.

I won’t translate all of the lyrics, since that, with explanations, would take too long; I think the refrain will be enough.

A szél bebokszol egyet
Az eső szembe vág
Nekem ne magyarázd meg, hogy miért nem
Nekem ne magyarázd meg, hogy miért

Translated:

The wind boxes me one (gives me a punch)
The rain cuts into my eyes,
Don’t explain to me why it doesn’t
Don’t explain why it does

The grammar in Hungarian has a special ambiguity and irresolution to it. The lines “Don’t explain to me why it doesn’t / Don’t explain why it does” are commands. A more literal translation would be “Don’t explain to me why not / Don’t explain to me why.” Taken by themselves, these phrases paint a mood. But on their second occurrence, I think they are meant to link to what follows, “Elindul, és csak hull, hull” (“It leaves/takes off, and just falls”). Together, they would be heard to mean, “Don’t explain to me why it doesn’t, don’t explain to me why it…. takes off, and just falls, falls.” So “elindul” itself has a double meaning: “departs” or “starts.” The rain is not going away, but it starts up again and again, and falls and falls.

I love this live performance of the song:

There are so many more songs that I would like to bring up, but I’ll choose just two more, from his second LP, Iderejtem a ház kulcsát. The first is “A szoba” (The Room). The music conveys the meaning even if you don’t understand the lyrics. It’s turbulent and yet seems to roll in toward a silence, as though you were spinning and spinning into a tunnel. The lyrics have to do with dying and aloneness and maybe a panic of sorts. It begins:

Képzelted, hogy egyedül fekszel
Képzelted, hogy sohasem kelsz fel
Képzelted, hogy ez a szép ajtó
Sohasem nyílik, sohasem hajszol

Benned senki soha sem hív fel
Soha nem kérdi minek és miért nem
Képzelted, hogy egyedül fekszel
Egyedül ébredsz, egyedül kelsz fel

Körbevett a szoba levegője beszív
Így szól, így szól
Pohár leszel és én leszek benned a víz
Így szól, így szól
Körbevett a szoba levegője beszív
Így szól, így szól

And a working translation:

You imagined that you would lie down alone,
you imagined you would never get up,
you imagined that this lovely door
would never open, would never slam behind you

Inside you, no one calls you,
no one asks why and why not,
you imagined that you would lie down alone,
wake up alone, get up alone,

The room’s trapped air sucks you in,
this is what it says, this is what it says,
you will be dust and I will be the water inside you,
this is what it says, this is what it says,
The room’s trapped air sucks you in,
this is what it says, this is what it says…..

I love the song for its exhilaration and darkness, the richness of the sound, the way it sucks you in like the air of the lyrics.

The last song for this piece is the appropriately titled “Késő” (“Late”), the last song on Idejrejtem a ház kulcsát. I have brought it up before. To me it captures what Szesztay’s music is about, as I understand it right now. I hear the song as an ode to the artistic imagination, the ability of music to rise up out of sorrow and create color and light. From the entreaty “Gyere ülj a fűz alá, a szomorú fűz alá” (“Come sit under the willow, the sorrowful willow”) to the ecstatic later part, “De valamit érzek a vállamon éppen elég / hogy befogad újra a képzelet színű vidék” (“But I feel something on my shoulder, just enough for the imagination-colored countryside to take me in”), you can feel the music take you from one place inside you to another.

And that will be all for this piece. For other pieces in the “Listen Up” series, go here.

Getting There on Time

This week, among war worries and other things, I was figuring out whether and how I could get to the Platon Karataev duo concert at the Várkert Bazár on time. We have been administering oral entrance exams at school, going past 4:00; the last test yesterday was scheduled for 4 (but actually began a few minutes later, because we were running slightly behind schedule). To get to the concert, which started at 7, I would have to catch the 4:45 train, transfer in Cegléd, arrive at the Nyugati station around 6:09, and then get out to the concert hall as quickly as possible.

Not only did it work out, but I managed to do it without cutting any corners. After finishing our last exam, I said goodbye to my colleagues, ran out the building (had to run back for something, but then ran out again), bicycled like mad to the train station (getting there within ten minutes), and boarded the train just two minutes before its departure. Everything went well with the train trip and the transfer. Once I got to Budapest, I took a cab to the concert hall, not wanting to take any risks. I got there about ten minutes before seven and found a perfect seat in the fourth row.

I love the pre-concert picture at the top; it might be my favorite pre-concert picture that I have taken. It conveys the anticipation, the warmth of the hall, even the acoustics (which were phenomenal).

And the concert was so beautiful. Entirely in Hungarian. They played songs from the album, newer songs, some of which will be on the fourth album, and in the encores, “Égboltba zárt madár,” “Felzizeg” (from Cz.K. Sebő’s new album) and a cover of Galaxisok’s “Galaxisok” (which in turn evokes Kaláka for me). They played with such awareness of each other that the tiny imperfections, when they happened, only made things richer. We were with them at every fraction of a moment, listening together, keeping the hush, applauding with full heart at the end.

After the concert I hurried out to catch the 9:28 train from the Nyugati station back to Szolnok. The station was filled with refugees who had just gotten off a train—and volunteers offering to help in English and Russian. Many were Ukrainian, many were not.

But now, speaking of getting there on time, I have to run, because the new day, filled with oral examinations, is soon to begin. I enjoy interviewing the prospective students—hearing about their interests, thoughts, and lives—but it’s quite intense, with hardly a break. So that is all for now.

  • “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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