Thoughts on Sincerity

In strands of U.S. American culture, there’s a strong prejudice against (or fear of) sincerity, a kind of knee-jerk preference for knee-jerk irony. You are supposed to say things, even in art, with a slight roll of the eyes, a sense of knowing better than most. On the other hand, Americans love public confessions, media-sponsored personal revelations, and so forth. But if you show your feelings, you will often get the response that you were too open, too sincere, too emotional, too naive, or whatever else might accompany the “too.”

In no way am I suggesting that art should be just expression. In art, if you pour out your feelings without giving them form, you will end up with something mediocre. That’s a mistake novice poets often make, writing from the heart and thinking that because they were really sincere, it must be good. On the other hand, if you are so bent on not writing from the heart that you stumble over yourself to be clever, you will end up with something even worse. The fear of sincerity is more dangerous than sincerity’s excesses.

There are cultural differences when it comes to sincerity. In Hungary, for instance, if you ask people how they are, they will often actually tell you the truth (up to a point). It is not considered inappropriate to share personal information. Granted, there are exceptions, variations, and limits, like anywhere, not to mention human nature, but I have found tolerance for things beyond the superficial.

This is not to say that I feel in all ways more at home here than in the U.S. There are many things I miss, and many ways in which I will never fully belong here. For instance, being a single, unmarried woman at my age (and one who isn’t seeking marriage) is quite unusual here, whereas in the U.S. it isn’t; even my married friends don’t perceive it as such. That’s a different subject–I just mean that I’m not trying to say “everything is great here.” It isn’t. I love living here and plan to stay permanently, but the country is far from perfect, as is my own life.

But I have relaxed so much into myself since coming here. Part of it has to do with sincerity. It isn’t looked down upon. Letting people get to know me doesn’t come with the reaction “Whoa…. too much information.” It’s permissible, in many ways (not all ways), to be yourself.

When it comes to art, there’s so much room, and so much need, to be open within the form: to make it beautiful and also unravel yourself in it, even more than you can in real life, at much higher levels. It isn’t everyday sincerity—it’s something different, maybe truer, maybe humbler, becoming part of something else. That is part of what I love in the music of Cz.K. Sebő—who is playing a concert on May 28!—and Kolibri, and Platon Karataev, and Art of Flying, and others. It’s only a part; there’s so much more to say, and so much that isn’t easily said, but it’s there.

I have been writing a lot of stories this year. I don’t post them on the blog, because I am submitting them for publication. One of them, “Immemorial,” appears in the inaugural issue of the bilingual Budapest journal The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság. Others are awaiting decisions from various journals. There’s always something in the works. But I think there’s much more coming, not just in terms of volume, but in terms of quality. In some way, I have been holding things in for years and years, but also not; I have been writing since childhood, but didn’t try hard enough to get the poems and stories published. Now is the time. The poems, unfortunately, I have usually posted online, with the result that they’re now considered “published” and ineligible for publication elsewhere. But there will be more.

And translations, and music. I am shy about the music, but just recently I returned to Marcel Feldmar’s lovely review of my 2000 CD Fish Wigs Hats Rats (a somewhat clumsy, mostly homemade venture). It appears in Issue 49 of the wonderful music magazine The Big Takeover. I couldn’t have wished for words that were more appreciative.

As I have said elsewhere, I wish I had taken more time to get the album right: to treat the current one as a draft and then re-record the real thing.

So that’s really where these morning thoughts are heading: that sincerity is part of the picture, only part, but an essential part, and then you work and work to get it just right, so that every piece belongs. People do this in different ways: some work more spontaneously, whereas others take their work through many stages and layers of revision. There is no single “writing process,” which is why I often get bored with discussions of the subject. You find out what you need to do to make your work the way it is supposed to be.

But sincerity plays a role not only in your own work, but in your appreciation of others’ work too. Why not show the enthusiasm that you truly have? Why hold back, in this brief life? I remember a long time ago, when I attended a musical at my high school (as a high school student). I had wanted to be in the musical but, because of various circumstances, could not be. I loved the performance and ran up to the cast party afterward to ask some of the cast members (fellow students at the school) to sign my program. My parents yelled at me afterwards about the autographs; they said that I was embarrassing myself by asking for them. But on that long ride home I stood up for myself (from a seated, seatbelted position) and said that there was nothing shameful about showing my appreciation, even asking for a signature. My parents ultimately conceded that I was right. This has stayed in my memory, both because it was somehow considered undignified to ask for autographs, and because I stood up for myself, something I wasn’t generally too good at doing.

I hold to that point. Even those fan-ish actions like asking for autographs have a place and a beauty in life. How sad it would be for performers to get no response at all, just because the audience was trying to be cool! People have to be willing to risk the embarrassment slightly. No one has to be a groveling or bothersome fan. That’s not what it’s about. But if I look back on my life so far, one thing I do not regret is letting people know that I love their work. Because those are some of the things that should be said when the words are sincere.

The word “sincere,” by the way, may come from the Proto-Indo-European *sm-ke-ro-, from *sem- “one” (see same) + root of crescere “to grow” (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary). According to the same dictionary, it dates back to the 1530s, with the sense of “pure, unmixed.” Some might argue that nothing is pure, nothing unmixed, but I don’t think that’s true; or, rather, there’s a purity even in our mixed-up selves and ways.

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

The Pity of the Project

Spring break, which goes through Tuesday, has begun. When people ask me what I’m doing, and I reply that I am staying home because I have a lot of projects, they sometimes look at me with an expression of pity. But there’s nothing to pity here; I love having time to work on things without rush. I have some things to do: wrap up the Orwell project with a final report (for the grant), prepare a presentation on the same project, write an essay that I have promised for publication, catch up on grading, work on Folyosó (which has some exciting features and pieces in the upcoming issue), write a story that has been in my mind for a while, start putting together the Shakespeare video, and do a little something with music too. All that, and finish the book I am currently reading, and listen to music, and write a few blog pieces. Yes, and I have an appointment for my first Pfizer shot on Friday. That’s already a lot! But I do plan to take a day trip on the bike–maybe take the train to Tokaj and bike around from there, or maybe bike to Tiszafüred again and take the train back. The challenge lies in getting home by Covid-curfew (8 p.m.), but something can be done.

A few announcements, while I’m here:

My translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”) will be published on the Asymptote Blog on Tuesday. That’s a great honor. (Update: here it is.) Speaking of that, the ALSCW event featuring Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai went splendidly, and we received many appreciative comments afterwards. Thanks again to Ernie Suarez, the Bajnais, and everyone who attended.

Today I had the joy of listening to Art of Flying’s “Song for Iris” on KKFI 90.1 FM, in Mark Manning’s Wednesday Midday Medley. I listened onwards too, for a little while, and look forward to listening again soon.

My “Listen Up” series on this blog has been taking off; the piece on Art of Flying left me with albums in my ear. It is so much fun to delve into favorite music. I haven’t decided yet what the next piece in the series will be, but before too long there will be one on Jacques Brel.

Also, I have started to read the poet János Pilinszky, thanks to references in Cz.K. Sebő’s and Platon Karataev’s music. One poem, “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), I recited and put together with a video I made, that same day, of snowfall on the Tisza. You can read Simon Géza’s gorgeous English translation (of this and some other Pilinszky poems) here. My pronunciation has some imperfections, but I decided not to try to fix this particular video. Let it be as is. The poem is what matters.

On the Pesach front, I co-led a virtual seder (at Szim Salom) and attended a virtual family seder. In addition, I have been eating matzah since Saturday, thanks to my friend Éva in Budapest, who sent me two boxes (more than enough for the week, but it’s really tasty, so I’ll just keep on eating it).

And spring is here.

Listen Up: Art of Flying

Photo: Doctor Foxglove. Make-Out Room, San Francisco, 2013.

I have been listening to Art of Flying for more than fifteen years. Their songs seem ancient and modern at once: as though plucked from the sky and rolled in our world. I listen to An Eye Full of Lamp (2000), their first full-length album, and have a hard time selecting particular songs from it, since they form a piece. Many are tightly and beautifully crafted, with attention to each instrument, each part; others are exploratory, a little like driving late at night and taking a different road from the usual, which takes you through forests and fields and stars and scares you just a little, though you want to be there. Listen to the whole album, and all of their albums, and you learn what it means to live in music, to make each note, sound, and word matter; to catch a song’s drift, that thing that makes us want to play it again and again.

At its core, Art of Flying is the duo of David Costanza and Anne Speroni. They have been playing music together for several decades, with other musicians coming and going for short, long, and recurring intervals: first as the Whitefronts (named after a local grocery store), then as Lords of Howling, and then, since the late 1990s, as Art of Flying, which has recorded nine full-length albums, if my count is correct, and several shorter releases. For years they recorded their albums in their own studio, the legendary Barn (in Questa, New Mexico); eventually they had to give up the Barn, but the music continues and changes. While delighted to be on the radio, to receive even brief messages from listeners, to play concerts around the world, they have never let publicity distract them from the music. A big record label might have pressured them to make their songs more packageable; they have no interest in that. They are here to make music the way they hear and imagine it. Their influences range from the Minutemen to Nick Drake; their songs are filled with surprises and treasures. Their listeners respond enthusiastically. The Italian magazine BLOW-UP has called them “the best-kept secret in American music of the new century”; the secret has been spilling slowly. They have been played over the years on independent radio stations such as WFMU and KALX, and received vigorous praise, such as in Lynne Robinson’s article in TaoStyle and J. Simpson’s in Divide and Conquer. Nonetheless, discovering their music is a private experience, since it is best done with full attention and a little stretch of time.

Let’s start with one of my favorites of all their songs, “Born to Follow,” from their 2005 album asifyouwerethesea.* It gives me the shivers, about sixteen years since I first heard it.

arise arise yr work is done
the fields are buried with the dead
how sweet it looks like no one won
some dreams awaken some dreams are dead

and under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow.

It was hard to choose one song from this album; I also wanted to bring up the opening song, “What the Magpie Said,” as well as “Song for Coins Tossed,” “The Sailor’s Song,” “Song for Orion,” “Butterfly Song,” and, well, the whole album.

But I have to do this in some kind of sequence, so let’s go back to An Eye Full of Lamp and take a few minutes with “Island Song,” whose flugelhorn, played by David, and whose singing, by Anne, sound like they’re coming out of a late-night street in the memory of years ago. I want that horn to come back in the song with the same melody, and the first time it does, but then at the end it doesn’t, and I love that it doesn’t: “But all we wanted was to be together” leads not to the original melody, but to “fireflies and flame-throwers.”

Now let’s turn to Garden of Earthly Delights (2002), the first Art of Flying album I ever heard, thanks to my friend Cory, who sent me a copy, thinking it just might be up my alley. To say that I was blown away is apt here, since the second song is “Blow Away.” This album rolls from one gorgeous and evocative song into the next, from the words “& now yr great & mighty king has got no clothes / & neither does the queen” to the album’s closing lyrics, “& THOUGH I will die without yr kiss / there is more to love than this / in a garden of earthly delight.” Each song feels as if I had remembered it from years and years ago, although I had never heard them before the first listen. This is the album I have given away to people as a gift; this is the one I would still most likely give, along with Escort Mission and a couple of others.

The fifth song, “Tomorrow,” is about as perfect as a song can get in terms of poetry, tune, and harmonies, the alternation between words and “la, la, la,” and the sounds of guitar, piano, tuba, and trumpet. This is a song I could imagine in a classic songbook of some kind, to be sung by future generations.

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

Another favorite from this favorite album is “Goodbye Too Soon.” I love the slow dance of its rhythm, the evocation of lullaby, the joining of heartbreak and perspective.

There is a humility throughout the albums: a knowledge that we do not live long, that greatness is not given to most of us, that we can lose anything at any time, and that it’s still possible, to find beauty, or maybe possible only when we know, somewhere down their in our souls, that we don’t possess it. We still try and hope to possess it in some way or another; that doesn’t go away, but we also know better, and learn better, and fail again. There are no pat realizations here; it’s difficult no matter how you go about it, and just when you start coming to terms with it, mortality socks you in the stomach. But music will be there, even then.

I had promised, in the piece about animals in songs, to bring up “The Jaguar Song” here (from their 2014 album I’m Already Crying), and I wouldn’t leave it out anyway. It starts out with a William Blake-like feeling:

the jaguar in his forrest bright,
a river made of tears,
tangled through the longest night
’til stars flew everywhere.

But then it moves into something else:

i watched them from the ferris-wheel
mesmerized by all the lights
the strange things we must see as real
as black & white

and then the chorus, full of sound and spirit, with that wonderful chromatic progression leading in:

they cannot steal our story
they cannot steal our love
they cannot steal the heavens dancing way up above
they say i don’t remember well…
i don’t need to
when i’m holding you

What is this jaguar? So many possibilities come to mind, but to me it is something like music itself, weaving its way through heartbreak, shedding stars as it goes, but taking something from you too, the way he “sets his eyes ablaze /
and licks the lips right off my face.” Both of these things are happening at once: something being taken away, something being untakable.

I will finish with “Hang Around the Water,” the first song from their most recent album, Escort Mission, a sonic masterpiece. (I brought up “Song for Iris” in another piece recently.) I don’t even know what to say except: listen to the album from start to finish, then repeat! Then maybe set it aside briefly, and return to it with the songs now familiar. No matter when it kicks in for you, each listen will bring something new.

Oh, no, I can’t finish this piece without mentioning “ThOUGH the LIGHT Seem SMALL,” on which I had the honor of playing cello (in the recording itself, at the Barn). I love the slightly archaic subjunctive (“seem” instead of “seems”), which by itself does so much for the song. I also love the rhythmic change, between verse and chorus, from a slow 4/4 to a 3/4 (or similar), and the change of texture that goes with this. And the lyrics, which begin:

When the bright unspoken light of Winter takes the world
Gathering each solitary day,
All the pages written you won’t need them anymore
Winter comes & Winds us all away
& Winds us all away!

I hope this piece has introduced a few people to the music of Art of Flying. I’ll just finish with a little story of meeting them for the first time. I think it was in the summer of 2005, just a few months after asifyouwerethesea came out. Or else 2006. I know I had heard that album many times before going there. They (and the wonderfully enthusiastic and talented Larry Yes) encouraged me to come out for SuanFest, and I was excited about doing so, but also nervous, since it isn’t easy to show up at an intimate music fest hosted by musicians you admire. But yes, I flew out Colorado, and then drove southward to Taos in a rental car. They were playing a show in a little club in Taos that evening, and I wanted badly to make it on time. I took a road that led me up steep hills and through pine forests, winding this way and that, and then the sky darkened, and torrents started coming down, the kind of torrents where you really can’t see through the window any more, and I was going along slowly, since there wasn’t even anywhere to stop, and wondering if I would get there at all, never mind on time. But then, as happens in those parts in the late afternoon, the rain suddenly cleared, the sun poured gold onto everything, and I continued on my way, driving through the gold, and got to Taos after sunset, and then to the club, and there they were, and I met them and relaxed into an evening, and then a full weekend, of glorious music. That first night, I stayed in someone’s friend’s house, on Blueberry Hill, which brought to mind Hannah Marcus’s song “Hairdresser in Taos“; at SuanFest itself I stayed outdoors in a tent, like most of the others.

Sixteen years have gone by since then. And their music has gone on and on, growing more and more beautiful, not only with the newer albums, but with the returns to the older ones. Thank you, Art of Flying, for all of this. Oh, and one more song (is it possible to finish, really?), “Butterfly Song” from asifyouwerethesea, with Sare Rane’s lovely and fitting video below.

wings like a butterfly
mouth full of june
I ignored all warnings & flew to the moon
the knife & the fork & the spoon were all there
we cut up the king & we braided the air

peace…where could you be?
held in a dream…more real to me
than all of these magic powers gone

And that’s the end of this beginning.

*For the main songs mentioned here, I embedded Bandcamp audio. If you like them, you can go to Bandcamp, listen to more, and purchase the songs or albums. Bandcamp lets you listen to the music for free, without advertisements; if you do decide to buy it, Bandcamp takes 15% and pays the rest to the musicians.

Also, while Art of Flying often put their album and song titles in lowercase, I usually capitalized them here, so that they would stand out visually.

This is the third piece in my “Listen Up” series; the first two were dedicated to Platon Karataev and Cz.K. Sebő, respectively. Each installment focuses on a particular artist or band whose music I love. Your comments are welcome.

Song Series #12: Songs with Animals

For some reason I started thinking about songs with animal references, of which there must be millions, and put together a playlist of eleven. Animals have a special relationship to songs for all sorts of reasons: music and animals move in a similar way, according to a particular kind of knowing; animals fill literary language; many of us feel, at times, that an animal is in our soul; animals have song and rhythm; an animal view allows us to see ourselves from a new angle; animal sorrow can be the profoundest sorrow of the world; animals need no reasons at all. It’s no coincidence, then, that some of my favorite songs have animals in them, and that their roles in the songs are about as different as can be. I have many to choose from but will discuss songs by Cz.K. Sebő (of Platon Karataev fame), Art of Flying (the focus of my next “Listen Up” piece), Robyn Hitchcock, Belle and Sebastian, and Marcell Bajnai/Idea.

I have already talked about Cz.K. Sebő’s “Hart” (from his Junction EP) in my most recent “Listen Up” piece, and I don’t want to overdo it. But there is one point I wanted to mention, regarding the way the hart comes up. When you listen to the song, it sounds as though he is singing, “I was hart and I remember the stars,” but then the printed lyrics say, “I was like a hart, and I remember the stars.” The sung version is perfect to me. In spoken English we don’t usually say “I was cat,” or “I was bird”; if we say it at all, we say it with an article, e.g., “I was a cat.” But if you leave out the article, you are referring to the essence, the name. To say “I was hart” is unusual but poetically permissible (with a beautiful archaic sound); it means something like, “I was a hart in my essence.” It is one of my favorite moments in the song, because it brings up something that I understand but cannot explain. The second part of that sentence, too: “and I remember the stars”: how being hart becomes not only a memory, but a way of seeing the world, at least for a moment.

For the Art of Flying song, it’s difficult to choose between “Armadillo” and “The Jaguar Song.” I’ll choose the former (from their album An Eye Full of Lamp), because the latter will come up in the “Listen Up” piece. “Armadillo” is one of my favorite Art of Flying songs; haunting, mysterious, moving, and untranslatable. I don’t know what it means rationally, but in a different way I understand it well. I had the joy of playing it with Anne Speroni (one of the Art of Flying duo) when visiting in Taos for the music festival they held for many years. I accompanied her on cello for a few songs–something I would only have dreamed of. Being inside the song, part of its sound, comes back vividly when I think of it years later. I won’t type out the lyrics here (for fear of getting them wrong), except for the chorus, “this is where we didn’t go, following the armadillo.” I think the song has something to do with taking a different path from others in life, and reflecting on what that other way might have been, “following the armadillo.” But the song makes no direct statements about this; instead, it paints the difference through the music. The armadillo itself feels ominous: separated from the singer through time and habit, but a danger for anyone. Yet that’s just one way of hearing the song.

The next one is Robyn Hitchcock’s “Lizard.” I am grateful to my friend Tara for introducing me to his music, years ago. This is from his debut solo album Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981); he has released about 20 more full-length albums since then (in addition to EPs and compilations) and, most recently, has been giving streamed concerts with Emma Swift during the pandemic. This song has a wonderful eerie bass line and lyrics that mention the lizard in almost every other line. Brilliant rhymes, brilliant stretching of this idea across the verses of the song. I don’t think it needs any explanation.

You wear the lizard’s shoes
And afterwards you get confused
You wear the lizard’s coat
And afterwards you fail to float
You take the lizard’s path
But look who’s lying in the bath
You wear the lizard’s skin
No man can be a god and win at all
Ahh

One song that I wanted badly to bring up here but am going to put off is Kurt Vile’s “One Trick Ponies,” because it has so much character and fun. It doesn’t really refer to ponies, though; “one-trick pony” is a common expression. I will save it for the next installment of this song series. It has the classic line “cuz I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” and the next piece in this series will focus on repetition itself.

So, let’s go on to Belle and Sebastian’s “The Fox in the Snow,” from their album If You’re Feeling Sinister. It has been covered by Grandaddy and many others; many treasure it as an anthem of suffering. But there’s a joy to it; it has to do with survival, but also that chance at survival, the chance that can be taken at any moment.

Fox in the snow, where do you go
To find something you could eat?
‘Cause the word out on the street is you are starving
Don’t let yourself grow hungry now
Don’t let yourself grow cold
Fox in the snow

In the next verses, instead of a fox, or along with the fox, it becomes a girl, a boy, a kid, and then that kid becomes all of us, “second just to being born, second to dying too, what else would you do?” There’s also a slightly bitter, but matter-of-fact “When your legs look black and blue” and “It’s not as if they’re paying you.” And the song dances and dances and ends on a graceful slowness.

The final song for this piece is specially chosen for today, since this evening (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET), at an ALSCW Zoom event, I will be interviewing both the songwriter, Marcell Bajnai, and his father, Zsolt Bajnai, and after the interview, Zsolt will read some of his stories, and Marcell will play his own songs between them. Do come! The Zoom information is here.

I have written about this song before and covered it on cello. Marcell Bajnai has performed it both solo and with his band Idea (formerly 1LIFE); it’s the eighth song on the band’s debut album, Nincsen Kérdés. The song proceeds through a series of metaphor-pairs, of possibilities: “I could be” a boat, “you could be” the river, then cloud and rain, then forest and bird, and then fool and king. The bird comes up just once, in this little part, but it’s one of my favorite parts, musically and lyrically:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

It’s so fleeting and fragile, you sense that that’s part of the meaning of the whole song: that being human means having a life full of imperfections and mistakes; the song captures something universal in a humble and beautiful way.

That concludes the twelfth installment of the song series. For the full series, go here. Stay tuned for the next “Listen Up” piece, which will appear in the next few weeks. And we hope to see you tonight (or at whatever time of day it will be for you)!

Song Series #11: Songs I Reach For, or Vice Versa

What does it mean to love a song? It’s something that comes over time, not usually at first listen. You reach back for the song, or it reaches for you. Something pulls it up and puts it on. The songs you “love” at first listen may stay with you a day, a month, a year, or many years, but you only find out over time.

The first is “Song for Iris” by Art of Flying, on their brilliant 2018 album, Escort Mission, the only vinyl album I have right now in Hungary. (I will eventually bring my records and CDs here and get a recordplayer too.) Here’s a gorgeous performance at the Taos Center for the Arts. You can read the lyrics on Bandcamp (where you can also purchase the album). I have often wished there were an Art of Flying songbook; their songs sound like they come through the ages, but they’re also right here, in our world. They could be sung in so many places and times, alone, with others, by the fire or on a long road. Here’s how “Song for Iris” begins:

I sing for the beautiful old singer
Voice rising higher than the moon
Who sings how trouble hangs around
& pleasure leaves too soon.

Ain’t it the beautifulest thing,
To be lost in the heat of love
I paint a river for your feet
Your blue-eyed sky above.

I can’t see your face at all, but
They say you’re everywhere.

Another song I reach for, again and again, over the years is “24” by Red House Painters. I say this reluctantly; I didn’t want to love this music, even back in the 90s, but forget it, it does its own work. This is from their 1992 album Down Colorful Hill. The lyrics begin:

So it’s not loaded stadiums or ballparks
And we’re not kids on swingsets on the blacktop
And I thought at fifteen that I’d have it down by sixteen
And twenty-four keeps breathing in my face

But it’s the guitar I especially love, its slow descent, the way it lets the voice swing slowly on it.

Another that comes back again and again is “Oh, My Girl” by Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter. I don’t know what the song is about, but I dance in it. The way her voice goes up on “Girl,” the way the voice, lead guitar, and viola talk to each other, the way the song paints a room with afternoon light, all of this is what I can name, but like any beautiful song, it goes from there into its own language.

There are so many more to bring up here–but one that has been in my ears is “Part of Joy” by Grandfaloon Bus, one of the hardest songs of theirs to describe, but one that goes far beyond whatever you hear in it the first time around. I wrote about it some years ago; somewhere, on an old computer, my thoughts are stored, I think. But I love how it leads, part by part, to its ending, “Here’s the last words that were said before the line went dead, before failure went to your head and so you lie instead of admitting you’d sing for your supper too.” That “sing” sounds sad and exuberant at the same time, and then the instruments take over. It’s one of my favorites on the album and in the Granfaloon Bus repertoire–though if “Say Cheese,” “Free Gold Halo,” “Sugar Museum,” and others were online too, I would have had a hard time choosing one.

I love songs somewhat in the same way I love stories–for their taut form, their imagination, their possibilities inside the brevity, and their way of calling you up out of nowhere. These are just a few.

To read my other posts in the Song Series, go here.

Radio

Antique-Radio-1

The radio joins mystery with clarity. We take it for granted today, with all the alternatives out there, but I remember the awe that came from rotating the dial in and out of sound and fuzz, sometimes even tuning in to stations in foreign countries, with broadcasts in French, Spanish, German… Also, from a young age I thought of the radio as something you could make at home, and even broadcast on from home. My various electronics kits allowed me to make basic crystal radios and to broadcast signals, even voice. (Once the neighbors came over to complain because my signals were being picked up by their TV.)

My paternal grandfather, who died when I was six or so, had a ham radio station in the basement of their house in Chicago. My one memory of him is from there: he was in his radio broadcasting room, fiddling around with things and singing along.

We actually didn’t listen to radio much at home; my parents listened to classical music and were content to stick to their record collection and informal musical gatherings with friends. In fact, radio listening stood out through its absence. Once I was home with a fever, and my cousin (who was living with us at the time) put the radio in my room. I heard two songs I had never heard before: Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” They played at least twice that day, maybe more. I would hear those songs many more times over the years; today they are popular classics.

Many years later, when I lived (for about seven months) in Tucson, I signed up to be a volunteer DJ at KXCI, Tucson’s community radio station. There I learned how DJs get to be DJs, what the various rules are, and how to set up a good sequence of songs, with announcements in between. I learned, also, that people will tell you if they like what you’re doing (and if they don’t). My time there was so short that I didn’t get my own slot, but I filled in for people a few times. Twice, I think, I took on the early-morning show “Breakfast Cafe.” I thought some of my favorite songs would be perfect for it, but about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, and someone asked in an aggrieved voice, “Could you play something that isn’t so depressing?” But then another time, when filling in for someone in a prime time slot (around 11 a.m.), I confused the “heavy” and “medium” rotation categories–and thus ended playing songs that people don’t hear very often (and that I happened to like). I got an excited phone call: “This is great! Can we have more music like this?” The thing is, during prime time you are supposed to play mostly “heavy rotation” songs–that is, songs that are already being played all the time. A smaller portion of the time goes to “medium rotation,” and only a tiny portion to “low rotation.” To me, that’s backwards–but anyway, I got it wrong, had a great time, and received no complaints from anyone.

But back to radio itself and what it can be. People used to gather around it for news, radio theatre, songs, talk shows, and more; it was through the radio that people heard the breaking news in the world. Sometimes those broadcasts changed lives. I have brought some recordings of old radio broadcasts to my students here in Hungary; we listened to a few episodes of the Aldrich Family, as well as one of the broadcasts when John F. Kennedy was shot. A radio broadcast about Kennedy (John or Robert) is the opening event of Gyula Jenei’s poem “Rádió” (which I translated and which we will include in the Dallas events). Listening to old radio shows, I am brought into a time when this device was an opening to the world, or else a tiny world of its own. (In Jenei’s poem, a version of which can be found here, the child imagines little people in the box.)

One of the great traditions of radio is the “call-in” show or the phone request. It was something exciting to find yourself on the air, even for a few seconds, to request a song, ask a question, or enter a contest. For some, this was (and still is) a way of life; Irving Feldman conveys this trenchantly in his poem “Interrupted Prayers,” which begins:

The sun goes, So long, so long, see you around.
And zone by zone by zone across America
the all-night coast-to-coast ghost café lights up.
Millions of dots of darkness—the loners,
the losers, the half alive—twitch awake
under the cold electronic coverlet,
and tune in their radios’ cracked insomnia.

Today radio has distanced itself from us, through streamlining and corporatization; there are fewer request and call-in programs, fewer independent stations, fewer people taking up broadcasting with a passion. Or maybe that’s my imagination–maybe there are more than ever, but they have to be sought out. There’s a lot of controversy about whether radio is dying; some say yes, others say no. To a great extent it is giving way to Spotify, YouTube, etc. But there are still radio shows and DJs discovering, uncovering, loving, broadcasting music. Art of Flying’s new album Escort Mission is getting all sorts of radio play; that right there attests to the vitality of the medium.

Why am I fond of radio sometimes? Is it just nostalgia? I don’t think so. With radio, first of all, you’re focused on sound; there are no visuals, and so you can get caught up in the listening. Second, it’s there to bring you something you don’t already know, like, or have. Sure, you hope your favorite songs will get played, but in between them, something else catches your ear. Your trusted DJs will bring you things worth hearing. And even news broadcasts seem more intimate than TV; the updates are less polished, more spontaneous, and since you don’t have to see the reporters in suits, with layers of makeup, they seem closer at hand somehow.

I say “sometimes” because I am not always fond of radio; sometimes all the available broadcasts are mediocre, or sometimes I want something that doesn’t skip so quickly from song to song, topic to topic. Giving the choice between listening to a full album and listening to the radio, I will usually go for the former. But the radio has many delights.

It fascinates me when I am taking the cab to the airport (in NYC) and the cab driver has a classical radio station on. And the driver himself is very quiet, listening. Classical music (a broad category, and a misnomer) can give people something to stay their minds on and be staid, to paraphrase Robert Frost. But it’s also full of adventures–twists and turns of melody, many shades of chord. Many people listen to popular music in this way too: who treat it not as background music, but as the center of attention, something worth listening to again and again.

I listened to radio (KXT 91.7 FM) sometimes when driving in Dallas. I enjoy that station; everything I heard on it was interesting, and I intend to keep on listening to it. Just before returning to Hungary, I mailed a copy of 1LIFE’s CD Nincsen Kérdés to KXT 91.7 FM in Dallas. “Maradok ember” is the 8th track. Dallas readers, if you would like to hear the song played on KXT, here’s the online request form. The form allows for three requests–so you can ask for other songs too! It would be great to hear “Maradok ember” on KXT, not only because it’s a great song, but because the song already has a presence in Dallas. I’m not trying to organize a request blitz, since that would go against the whole purpose of requests: to bring hosts and listeners closer together. But if you listen to KXT and would like to hear the song there, you can help bring this about.

That, to me, is part of the fun and meaning of radio: hoping that a particular song will be played, requesting to have it played, listening to hear whether they play it, and in the meantime, getting surprised by things you haven’t heard before.

Image credit: Courtesy of Plymouth Voice (Michigan).

Song Series #2: Presser/Csík, Art of Flying, Waits

IMG_8434

On this blog I recently started a song series, in which I intend to present songs I have introduced in class, am planning to introduce, or wish to include for any reason. My main purpose is to draw attention to songs themselves and what they can hold and do–but purposes aside, this is fun. The first post focused on songs that I had brought to various classes and that we had sung along with cello.

This time, I will introduce three songs that remind me of each other in some way, whether musically, lyrically, or otherwise. All three are tremendous (they come up to you slowly and then shake something up in you); all have to do with love in a broken and transitory world. They all convey hope in some way without sidestepping loss and sadness. The Gábor Presser and Art of Flying songs remind me of each other melodically and rhythmically (in the chorus); the Presser and Tom Waits, lyrically. The Art of Flying lyrics stand apart. The similarities between these songs compelled me to consider them together; their differences are even more interesting than what they share.

The song “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” (“You will take my hand and take me home”), written by Presser, has to do with two people staying together even after everything and everyone else leaves them–youth, money, comfort, health, family, friends. Here are two different renditions; each one brings something different out of the song. It was Marcell Bajnai’s cover that introduced me to the song; I then heard it in a concert by the band Csík (this past Saturday night). Although I love the instrumental parts of the Csík version (and the way they transform the song), Marcell’s cover brings out the lyrics and gives them room. The mood of his rendition is different too: more reflective or matter-of-fact than exuberant.

Now listen to Art of Flying’s “Tomorrow” (one of my favorite songs in the world, on their wonderful album “Garden of Earthly Delights“); you will hear how the two choruses remind me of each other. As far as I know, there’s no video of the song; the recording is up on their Bandcamp site, where you can listen to all of their albums. I am proud to have played cello on one of their songs. Here, by following the link below (in an image of the record cover), you can listen to “Tomorrow” and read the lyrics, which begin:

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

gardenofearthlydelights

These lyrics, like many Art of Flying lyrics, hold a range of times; they are ancient and modern, immediate and evocative at once. The vocal harmonies go so gently along that you hardly realize what is happening to you until the song is over and you think, wait, what? How did that song get into my bones?

Finally, here is Tom Waits’s “Time.” The similarity between these and Presser’s lyrics lies not just in the theme, but in the relation between verse and chorus; in both, the verses (mostly) hold the brokenness, and the choruses the simple affirmation. Also, both speak of the future in some way; although Csík refers to physical action (taking a person’s hand and bringing the person home) and Waits to some metaphysical state (of it being “time” for something), they both speak of something that will endure or come into being. It was the Presser/Csík song that reminded me of the Waits song and how great it is.

That wraps it up for the second installment of the song series. Next time, unless some other ideas occur in the meantime, I intend to present a few songs that have had special importance to me over the decades, songs that have stood out as favorites over time.

I took the photo by the Zagyva river on Sunday night.

Update: After writing this post, I realized (on my own) that I had made an error: “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” is written by Gábor Presser; this is stated in Marcell Bajnai’s video credits, but I mistakenly thought he was a member of Csík. The Csík version is a cover; in the video, Presser performs it with them. I adjusted the post and title accordingly (and made some other edits too, while I was at it). Here is Presser’s own recording of the song. This adds to the correspondences; his voice and Waits’s have a similar texture.

The Cats of Istanbul

Yesterday I learned from David Costanza (Art of Flying) about Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s documentary about the cats of Istanbul! It looks absolutely wonderful; I will write about it after watching it in full.

Speaking of Istanbul cats, it would be a shame not to assemble the photos I took of some of them. Here is a slideshow of fifteen pictures. What moved me was not only the omnipresence of cats, but the love with which they were treated. The first two pictures–of a mother and baby cat inside a restaurant–came thanks to a stranger on the street. He saw me photographing cats and, with hand gestures, urged me to go inside.

While in Istanbul, I sent Andrew Gelman some cat photos in case he wanted any of them for his blog. So far, he has used two; you can see them here and here.

  • “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

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • 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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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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