Escape into Truth

Music at its best is an escape into truth: an escape from noise, distraction, circumvention into something that you recognize and know at your core but also learn right there and cannot fully explain. That’s what Cz.K. Sebő’s concert last night at the Központ was like. A full room, most of the audience seated on the floor. A hush. A quality of attention that you don’t often find. A rich, beautiful performance: his own songs (including favorites such as “Out of Pressure,” “Hart,” “Eternal Home,” “Wide Eyes,” “Debris,” and a Hungarian/English rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon”) and an array of covers (of songs by Jackson C. Frank, Blaze Foley, Current Joys, Sebő Együttes/József Attila, and Damien Jurado). The covers were an act of gratitude and love, and an opening into music we hadn’t necessarily heard before, or heard in that way.

There was something I learned at the concert, but I can’t explain it. It was a flash of “You must change your life” stretched into an hour. But changing your life doesn’t mean doing everything differently. It might mean, simply, a new alertness, a new way of hearing things, or to borrow from Art of Flying, timeawakenness. It is nothing to take for granted; you have to build room for it and defend it against everything that would chip away at it or knock it down.

So I’ll end here with a beautiful recording and video of Damien Jurado playing “Abilene.” I love how the song ends with a question.

Highlights of the Week

One of the great highlights of this week was reading John Cheever. I bought a big collection of his stories; this was inspired by Benedek Szabó’s online recommendation of “The Swimmer.” Before buying the book, I read “The Swimmer” and two other Szabó favorites, “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband” (all three are fantastic) and reread two, “The Enormous Radio” and “Reunion.” Once I had the book, I started opening up to a random place and reading that űstory; in that way I have read (so far) “Clementina,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “A Vision of the World,” “The Music Teacher,” and (my favorite of these five) “Metamorphoses.” Although the female characters sometimes lack depth (and not always), these stories are both brilliant and addictive, a great combination for someone who doesn’t very often sink into reading for sheer fun. My reading is usually slow and preparatory; I am getting ready for class, translation, leyning, or something else. I enjoy that kind of reading, or I wouldn’t do it—but it’s great to have this thick book of Cheever and to know that I’m going to read it fast.

I have already brought up some of the other highlights of the week, but one of them deserves a repetition. Cz.K. Sebő’s instrumental song “4224” is gorgeous. Listen to it here. The cover art is by Fruzsina Balogh.

Two interviews were published or announced this week, one from last week, one taking place next Thursday. My Chametzky Translation Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, summer intern at The Massachusetts Review, can now be viewed on YouTube.

And next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. in Hungary), Matt Barnes and Keil Dumsch will interview me about my ten-year-old book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Everyone is welcome; to join, you need to be registered on LinkedIn.

Yesterday I had a beautiful day. I went to Budapest for two performances: first, Platon Karataev at the MOMkult, for the opening of the exhibition in memory of Tamási Áron. It was an absorbing and dreamy performance; I think “Tágul” was my favorite, though it’s hard to say.

Then I walked briskly to the Városmajori Szabadtéri Színpad to see the premiere of a musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (in Hungarian: 80 nap alatt a Föld körül). It was lively, funny, and inventive, with colorful song and dance, umbrellas, digital scenery, and a terrific cast. The libretto is by Réka Divinyi, and the music is by the band Lóci játszik. For years I had wanted to see Around the World in 80 Days on stage, having read about a performance in NYC. Here are some photos.

And there was much more: translating, writing, running, preparing for the ALSCW conference and October trip, listening to music, spending time with the cats, thinking, walking around Budapest, discovering new places and buildings. And now the sun is setting, and I will try to rest a little. Shabbat Shalom.

Songs, Towns, and Time

Cz.K. Sebő’s new instrumental song “4224,” released yesterday, has so much in it that I don’t want to try to sum it up in any way. I love the sound-filled silences and pauses, the beguiling chords, the changes and returns, the acoustic guitar sound, the ending. It is my favorite of his instrumental (wordless) songs so far; three other favorites are “First Day Without,” “Maybe I Should,” and “Interlude II,” but I think this one takes a new musical direction. Fruzsina Balogh’s cover picture is beautiful too.

I first heard it on the road to Szentendre, where I went yesterday evening to hear Galaxisok. Have you ever arrived in a town you have never visited before, and gone off looking for the concert you are about to attend, only to hear them doing soundcheck in the distance and playing “Gyuri elmegy otthonról” (“Gyuri is leaving home”)? And then you know you’re heading in the right direction.

And what a great show it was—on the outdoor stage at the Barlang, with ivy behind them, fir trees, colored lights, and a thrilled, dancing audience. They played so many songs that I love, including “Janó és Dzsó,” “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” “Mondo Bizarro,” the aforementioned “Gyuri elmegy otthonról,” “Focipályák éjszaka,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal,” “M6,” “Ez a nyár,” and others.

I left immediately afterwards (to get back to Budapest in time to catch a late train back to Szolnok) but look forward to returning to Szentendre soon.

And now for the subject of time, which the post title promised. It is common to think and say that “summer’s almost over,” “time’s running out,” and so forth, and to bewail how little we got done when time was in abundance. And all of that has some truth. Summer really does come to an end quickly, and most of us don’t get everything done that we plan or intend (including relaxation and fun). But I actually did a lot: not only translating, writing, getting ready for October, but taking care of the cats (who went to the vet on Friday for shots and flea treatment), seeing friends and family, running every day, cleaning my apartment thoroughly, going to some wonderful concerts, biking around Tihany, leading Szim Salom services, and going to Szentendre for the first time. Moreover, the phenomenon of time running out is just mortality, which there’s no getting around anyway. Yes, make the most of “your” time, but is it really yours, and is there any way of knowing what “the most” is? Sure, set goals and deadlines, but also realize that such control is partly vain, and we’re always capable of being slightly wrong about what’s important.

Meanings of Craving

George Szirtes’s wonderful and bracing essay “Landscapes of Desire” in the second issue of The Continental Literary Magazine sent thoughts twining through my mind. He asks about the differences between words with overlapping meanings: desire, craving, lust, passion. He writes:

One might have a craving for food or drink or tobacco, for possession of an object, or for something more abstract, like comfort, or fame. The word implies a form of dependency in that one cannot live without, or cannot resist, the thing craved. In any case, it suggests something potentially illicit. Maybe, in English, it is simply because the word crave rhymes so neatly with the word deprave. It is excessive, intemperate, well beyond the supposed Golden Mean.

Desire is nobler than that. We all claim to understand and indeed to glory in it. It takes the best out of the notion of passion. Passion and desire are the driving forces of a heroic, if potentially tragic life. But craving? Does that not imply something slavish? Isn’t there something a little humiliating about it?

He goes on to discuss the poems in the issue of the journal in terms of the words he brings up. According to Szirtes, desire is elegaic, aware of the loss it contains; craving is aware only of itself and the moment.

Yes. But not quite.

I use the word “crave” repeatedly in my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech: Reflections on Cz.K. Sebő’s New Album,” which was published in the online version of the same issue of The Continental. After reading Szirtes, I see that I should have defined the word a little, or maybe justified my use of it. I knew what I meant by it, and no, it isn’t quite as enclosed and delimited in my ear as it is in Szirtes’s. Instead, it’s sharp, compelling, and possibly pure.

There’s a kind of spiritual craving where you want something so badly that you are set in motion willy-nilly, even though you may have many reflections on what is going on. There is nothing humiliating about this. It can be surprising and enlightening. It can open up years of learning.

Hermann Hesse writes of this in Demian: “If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion led you to it.” In the original German, this reads, “Wenn der, der etwas notwendig braucht, dies ihm Notwendige findet, so ist es nicht der Zufall, der es ihm gibt, sondern er selbst, sein eigenes Verlangen und Müssen führt ihn hin.” Now, “Verlangen” could be translated as “longing,” but “Müssen” suggests urgency, compulsion. So the sharpness of craving comes through.

Or take Walt Whitman’s “Song of Prudence,” with these lines: “Whatever satisfies souls is true; / Prudence entirely satisfies the craving and glut of souls, / Itself only finally satisfies the soul, / The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson / but its own.” Here’s a paradoxical idea: that you can crave your way into prudence.

That is exactly where the beauty of craving lies. If we only had longing, desire, etc., we would sit around and do nothing but contemplate the yearning and the loss. Craving sets a person in motion, which can be toward the good. Yes, in craving you are carried. You do not necessarily know where you are going, even if your object seems clear. Some of the best changes in life happen because of this.

It has happened to me with music. I remember distinct times over the decades. Music touches on everything and goes past everything; its motion brings everything along with it. I have been hurled by music. Into the unknown, into new ways of life.

There is nothing humiliating about being hurled into uncertainty. Craving may be certain and specific in some ways. But in others it’s a complete unknown. What you think you want may only be the catalyst.

Craving is immoderate, yes. But even moderation must be taken in moderation. Only excess (not all kinds of excess, not excess to the extreme, not excess that blocks out thought, not excess that treats others badly, but still a certain kind of excess) allows a person to tip over, and sometimes this is the best thing that could happen.

It has its dangers too. People seized by craving can discard responsibilities, histories, awareness of others. But danger lies everywhere, even in the safest of things. It is possible to live too carefully, too courteously, too containedly. Moderation, too, has its excesses. A certain kind of craving keeps them in check.

But that’s not really craving you’re talking about, someone might say. It’s more like a state of spiritual urgency. Well, then, to settle that question (or to unsettle it), let’s look up “crave” in the beloved Online Etymological Dictionary.

Old English crafian “ask, implore, demand by right,” from North Germanic *krabojan (source also of Old Norse krefja “to demand,” Danish kræve, Swedish kräva); perhaps related to craft (n.) in its base sense of “power.” Current sense “to long for, eagerly desire” is c. 1400, probably through intermediate meaning “to ask very earnestly” (c. 1300). Related: Craved; craving.

What is prayer, if not craving of a sort? Where would craft come from, if not from a certain craving?

Art credit: Michael Pickett, The Old Piano.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

Update: Here’s the video of my Chametzky Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, a summer intern at The Massachusetts Review.

Song Series #18: Hungarian Songs I Missed While Abroad

I have returned from the U.S. It is good to be back. Many thanks to everyone who was part of the trip in any way: the person who fed Sziszi (update: I found Dominó and brought him back inside today!), the friends and family I saw in the U.S., the events I attended (including a play, a Kandinsky exhibition, a musical, and a songwriter showcase), all the staff at the various places I visited, the wonderful morning minyan service at B’nai Jeshurun on Thursday morning (which feels like this morning, not yesterday).

I had Hungarian songs in my head throughout the trip, not always the ones I would expect, but no big surprises either. These are background favorites, I’d say. Songs that hold their own whether I am listening to them or not. In this piece, I will not be translating the songs, but I think they come across (in large part) through the music itself.

One that kept coming to my mind was Cappuccino Projekt’s (Dávid Korándi’s) “Vidáman se.” Too hard to explain in a short space, but sad and exhilarating at the same time. It captures life somehow. Here it is.

Another was Noémi Barkóczi’s “Dolgom volt” (approximately “I had something to deal with,” narrated by someone who has been out of touch with others for a while). Barkóczi sometimes seems to me (slightly) like a Hungarian Joni Mitchell in the 2020s. I love the true-to-life lyrics, the chords, the rhythms, the swooping and diving of the vocals. Here’s the video.

Galaxisok was in my ears most of the time. Which song? Hard to choose, but let’s take “Focipályák éjszaka” (“Football Fields at Night”), since I listened to it in the rental car several times, and there’s this live video.

Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” (“No Panic 2”) figured in there somewhere. Here’s their delightful infomercial-style video of the song.

A song that I played for others (from my phone, not on an instrument, unfortunately) was Kaláka’s “Hajnali rigók” (Dawn Thrushes), a poem by Lőrinc Szabó, which they set to music. They have a whole album and songbook of bird songs (and many, many albums on other themes: bicycles, various poets, musical instruments, psalms, and much more). I can’t wait to hear them again in August. They are legendary; just as Russian literature, it has been said, came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” so contemporary Hungarian song comes out from under Kaláka.

On a tangent: At Arlene’s Grocery on Tuesday, I heard Noah Chenfeld play his song “Orioles,” which was inspired by the rhythm of an oriole’s call. I like it. Although it isn’t Hungarian, I’ll include it, because it was part of the week, and because there’s something interesting going on here. I look forward to more of his music. (My favorite music of the evening was SugarSugar—especially their song “Cruel Things“—that’s another tangent, but you can listen to them and watch their wonderful “Unbreakable” video.) By the way, the Platon Karataev duo will be headlining at Arlene’s on October 24!

Lots of Platon Karataev songs played in my head, some of which haven’t been released yet. From Partért kiáltó, “Csak befelé” (“Only inward”) came up again and again. Here’s a performance of the song by the Platon Karataev duo, whom I will get to hear on Tuesday.

And to finish off, Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day,” in the translation of Géza Simon) played itself persistently, as did other favorites from his work, including “Pure Sense.” I have brought up “On a Fine Day” many times here, but there’s always room for repetition. Who knows: maybe he will play it tomorrow night.

On A Fine Day
(Egy szép napon)

János Pilinszky, translated by Géza Simon

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

Always, as always
I wished to be back.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy weekend!

For other posts in the Song Series, go here.

Fishing on Orfű: Day 1 (June 29, 2022)

I bounded out the door around 9:30, took a delayed train to Budapest, missed my Pécs connection, did a post office errand and had a Vietnamese lunch, took the next train, got to Pécs, went running around (sweating from the heat and the day) in search of an ATM machine, having realized that I had to pay the hostel in cash, found one, ran to the hostel, checked in and dropped off my bags (I have a tiny private room for four days, perfect under these circumstances), caught the jam-packed festival bus, and rode up into the hills and down to Orfű with some fifty jovial, excited people. Then went through the ticket check, got my festival pass, and headed up to the “A tűzhöz közel” (“Near the Fire”) stage to hear my first concert of the festival, which will stand out among them all.

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly gave a solo Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert: the words “dreamy, melancholic, joyous” are only tangents, since the music has so many interesting elements and is so moving at the same time. It brings up new thoughts, new emotions. Sebő seemed fully in his element. And there, in the forest shade and early evening, the large audience was wrapped (rapt) in these songs and sounds. They had classical influences (one of them was slightly Arvo Pärt-like, and in others I heard hints of baroque music); they alternated between Hungarian and English and a language of their own. They have a feeling of exploration; I don’t know whether any improvising was going on in the moment, but they keep searching and diving and returning.

After this, I heard two terrific concerts: Lázár Tesók and Felső Tízezer. The Lázár Tesók crowd was a little bit too rowdy for the music, singing drunkenly along and out of tune, but it was all in good fun, and people were having a great time. There was love in the air.

In between this and Felső Tízezer, I walked down to the lake. Lightning was flashing in the distance. Here you can see ducks passing by.

And the Felső Tízezer show was punchy and beautiful. They played old and new songs, including some of my favorites. The audience knew the songs and was involved in every moment of them. During ”Semmi pánik 2” we were all anticipating the ”pont pont pont”—it was a great moment, with fingers flying in the air.

After that, I caught just the final two minutes of the band Kaukázus, enough to make me curious to hear them again. I also heard a minute or two of Vad Fruttik, but not enough to tell me whether I want to hear more.

The evening’s rollickings were far from over! From here, I went down to the bus stop, hoping to catch a festival bus back to Pécs, but not realizing that the next one wouldn’t be until 1 a.m. A lot of others were waiting for a bus too, or for something or other. It felt a little like a Waiting for Godot situation. The trolley came along and people (including me) got on it, some of us for no reason whatsoever. Some people were riding it to another part of town, but the rest of us had gotten on just to board something or other. So I rode it around the lake.

Not having had dinner, I returned to the festival for fish and chips, walked around a little, and then headed back to the bus stop, where a large group of hopefuls had again assembled. This time, it was close to 1 a.m., and the bus did indeed arrive.

It’s good to have a room to return to after all this, even a bare-bones one. To be able to sleep, and then relax in the morning and type out memories of the previous day. Today I am keeping it short and sweet: going just for a few afternoon hours to hear Felső Tízezer and then Balaton on the water stage, followed by Szalai Anna and Dorozsmai Gergő (together) at the “fireside” stage, then coming back to the hotel to tune in to Continental Subway. That may seem odd: tuning in to a radio show from a music festival! But I regretted missing it last week—David Dichelle played Galaxisok’s “Ez a nyár,” among many other interesting things—and this way I can pace myself. Tomorrow will be quite a full evening, with Middlemist Red (whom I have never heard before), Barkóczi Noémi, Kaláka, maybe another band or two, and then Platon Karataev. And then Saturday will include a saxophone concert, Elefánt, some unexpected things, and finally Galaxisok, the last show I will hear before heading back into Pécs, getting some sleep, and then, the next morning, returning to Szolnok (where I will regather my wits and pack for the U.S.).

What makes Fishing on Orfű different from other festivals? The wonderful music (well, that’s to be found at other festivals too, but my Orfű memories stand out so far); the hills, lake, and greenery (lots of shade, lots of tall conifers); the good cheer; the people of many ages; the knowledge that we’re here for the music; and a spirit of adventure, among other things. As I have mentioned before, lodging (and even camping) here can be tricky; you have to know the options and plan well in advance. Yesterday I released my camping ticket through Ticketswap (at the original price); someone bought it within ten minutes. I was happy to know that one more person was now able to set up a tent. As for my hostel room, it’s quiet, comfortable, and secure (and just a few steps away from the buses and trains). Now it’s time to leave it behind and head off to the festival again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Remembering Concerts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to Grand Bleu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • “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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