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’: (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.

Five Songs Chosen for a Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An essay in The Continental Literary Magazine (online)

I am proud and honored that my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech“—about Cz.K. Sebő’s 2021 album, How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?—has been published in the online version of The Continental Literary Magazine, an international journal launched last October by the Petőfi Cultural Agency and led by editor in chief Sándor Jászberényi, with Eszter Jászberényi as online editor and social media manager (and a number of others serving in editorial and other capacities). From what I have read in it so far, I admire its quality, its liveliness, and its inclusion of contrasting, sometimes even opposite viewpoints. I wrote the essay specifically for the second issue, whose theme is craving. I am grateful that The Continental appreciated and accepted it. The essay is important to me in different ways and on several levels, but I will say just the following and let the rest speak for itself.

I have had many essays published (in addition to books, poetry translations, etc.), but this is the first one on music that has been printed anywhere besides my blog (except that the Budapest Symphony Orchestra translated my piece about their Don Giovanni performance in New York and posted it on their website). Two of my interviews with musicians (The Breeders and Belly) were published long ago in the Yale Herald, I wrote a series of satirical music reviews (of imaginary bands) for Warped Reality, and a chapter of my second book discusses Hebrew cantillation; but other than that, my musical writings have appeared only here (and on past blog sites), and quite often, for that matter. I don’t write music reviews, and wouldn’t want to; the essays take their own shape and content. This is my favorite one so far.

Many thanks to Sándor and Eszter Jászberényi, and to the entire Continental staff, for making this possible and real. And thanks to Cz.K. Sebő for his music.

A Weekend of Concerts and Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen Up: Dávid Szesztay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I love this live performance of the song:

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

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

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

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

And a working translation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to Look Forward To

With war in Ukraine and worries across the border, there is much to cherish and attend. A glimpse of the next week:

Tomorrow in Budapest I am leading a Szim Salom service with Rabbi Kelemen. I still have to practice my leyning but am confident about it.

Next week we have oral entrance exams—three packed days—for students applying to our bilingual program. That will be intense and packed but enjoyable too.

On or around March 1, the Winter 2022 issue of Literary Matters will come out—with my translations of two of Csenger Kertai’s poems, along with many other interesting and beautiful things. (I have seen the proof.)

On March 2, if I finish with the oral exams early enough, I will hurry out to Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev duo concert (Gergő and Sebő).

On Friday, March 4, I will go to the Idea record release show.

On Saturday, March 5, I will head off to Pécs to hear both Dávid Szesztay and Cz.K. Sebő in concert. Any reader of this blog knows what this means to me, or has some sense of it. I will stay overnight in Pécs and come back to Szolnok in the morning.

Then various things over the following weeks, including a visit to the Sipos Orbán vocational high school for Women’s Day. And then the Pilinszky event on March 20.

This seems like just a list, but there is more to it than a list. There are sounds, thoughts, memories, hopes, works, drafts, anticipations, departures.

The photo at the top is from an event I attended last night at the Nyitott Műhely, a place I hope to visit again many times. Csenger Kertai, accompanied by Lóránt Péch on piano, read from his novel-in-progress. Then Péch performed solo.

I added to this piece after posting it.

A Few Thoughts about János Pilinszky’s “Straight Labyrinth” (“Egyenes labirintus”)

I am not going to say much here about “Egyenes labirintus,” because we will be discussing it at the Pilinszky event in March. These are just a few preliminary thougths, along with a translation. The poem is a brief masterpiece; to see why, it is necessary to pay attention to every word and the relationships between them.

First of all, what is a straight labyrinth? The title confronts us with an ancient paradox. Directness may inhere in the labyrinth. Many of us know the experience of pondering a math problem, for instance, looking at it from every possible angle, trying this, trying that, and suddenly having the solution flash in our heads, a solution which, once it arrives, seems both obvious and elegant. But when it comes to life itself, such an insight is cataclysmic, or can be. I think of Oedipus realizing that he is the source of the plague. I think of Rilke’s “You must change your life.” I think of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.  What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”

Pilinszky creates a labyrinth in the poem itself.

Milyen lesz az a visszaröpülés,
amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek,

he begins, which I have translated, “What will it be like, that return flight / that only similes speak of?” Here the puzzling element is the “visszaröpülés,” the “return flight” or “flying back,” which one would take to be a metaphor, except that Pilinszky treats it as the reality, in that “only similes” can speak of it. If there is a “visszaröpülés,” what is the original flight, the “röpülés”?

The next four lines bring up the similes that might describe the flying back; then comes a renewed question, “what will it be like at last, what will it be like,” and then a return to the image of flight, with new intensity:

olyanfélék, hogy oltár, szentély,
kézfogás, visszatérés, ölelés,
fűben, fák alatt megterített asztal,
hol nincs első és nincs utolsó vendég,
végül is milyen lesz, milyen lesz
e nyitott szárnyú emelkedő zuhanás,
visszahullás a fókusz lángoló
közös fészkébe?

In my translation: “Words like altar, sanctuary, / handshake, homecoming, embrace, / a spread table in the grass, under the trees, / where there is no first and no last guest, / what will it be like at last, what will it be like, / this wide-open-winged ascending dive, / this falling back into the focus, the flaming common nest?”

The similes seem like isolated attempts, distinct from each other (though pointing to the same thing); then the poem picks up tempo, asks the question again, and swoops back into flight, a falling and soaring at once. Then comes a turning point, something like a sonnet’s volta, though this is no sonnet: “—Nem tudom,” “—I do not know,” and then a shift of focus to the “röpülés” itself, which was hiding here all along:

és mégis, hogyha valamit tudok,
hát ezt tudom, e forró folyosót,
e nyílegyenes labirintust, melyben
mind tömöttebb és mind tömöttebb
és egyre szabadabb a tény, hogy röpülünk.

(“and yet, if there is something that I know, / well, this is it: this burning corridor, / this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where / thicker and thicker, freer and freer / falls the fact that we are flying.”)

The word “tény” is the key to the whole poem: “the fact that we are flying” means that this is no metaphor, but reality—which, like the flying back, may be untouchable by language. Perhaps the ways we describe our lives, the things we take for reality, are in fact approximations and similes—that is, the “röpülés,” like the “visszarópülés” is something “amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek.” So that when we start to recognize that we are in flight (towards death? towards the point of turning around?), when it becomes thicker and thicker, it also becomes freer; we no longer have to take it for anything else.

In my translation I especially wanted to draw attention to the relation between the flying back and the flying, the beginning and end of the poem. Here it is in full below; you can also read the translations of N. Ullrich Katalin, Géza Simon, Ted Hughes, and Virág Natália Szűcs. Each translation brings out something different. I think that of the three, mine is closest to Hughes’s, but I am also haunted by Simon’s (and by the way that each translation can “speak of” the original only in approximations).

What will it be like, that return flight
that only similes speak of?
Words like altar, sanctuary,
handshake, homecoming, embrace,
a spread table in the grass, under the trees,
where there is no first and no last guest,
what will it be like at last, what will it be like,
this wide-open-winged ascending dive,
this falling back into the focus, the flaming
common nest? I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something that I know,
well, this is it: this burning corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where
thicker and thicker, freer and freer
falls the fact that we are flying.

When Pilinszky reads this poem aloud on a recording, the intensity comes to a breaking point with the very word “tény” near the end. It tells a lot about the poem.

This was the first Pilinszky poem that I fell in love with. The first one I ever read and memorized, on a student’s recommendation, was “Egy szenvedély margójára”; it was important to me at the time, but I didn’t go on to read more Pilinszky, partly because I was still more or less a beginner in Hungarian and read very slowly. But when I came upon “Egyenes labirintus” through Cz.K. Sebő’s 2014 rendition, I kept coming back to it, then to “Egy szép napon,” then to more and more. I started hearing Pilinszky allusions in Platon Karataev’s songs, and hints of Pilinszky’s influence in Csenger Kertai’s poems. I started reading Pilinszky collections cover to cover, memorizing more poems, reciting them when alone, and attending Pilinszky events. The idea for the event—now less than six weeks away—started taking shape. And all of this is still a beginning.

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

Covid and Not-Covid (and Other Opposing Forces)

On Thursday, in the late afternoon, I walked out to the Széchényi körút (a big, long street here in Szolnok with many businesses and offices) for a Covid test. I had a terrible time finding the place; many buildings had no number, this part of the street was poorly lit, and while I had the exact address, no one knew where it was. Panicking that I had lost my appointment, I ran in the general direction that someone had suggested, and saw a testing booth. That was where I was supposed to be, and there was only one person ahead of me in line.

The quick test came back negative. I was overjoyed and already scheming in my mind to get back to school and other things. Hooray, I can go to the Captain Average record release on Saturday! I thought. They took a PCR test too, and I would just need to wait for that result and then start getting things in order.

The next day, the PCR result came. It was positive. How strange, to see that on my screen, through the online health portal: pozitív. Especially considering that I have been feeling completely well for a few days now. In fact, throughout the whole episode, the only time I felt particularly sick was Tuesday, and even then it wasn’t extreme, just a slight fever and a sense that something wasn’t right. I haven’t had any of the typical Covid symptoms: coughing, tight chest, headache, etc.

And then all sorts of thoughts started cascading. Next Saturday, along with the rabbi, I will be leading a service that will be the bar mitzvah ceremony for Tóbiás Feuer-Grillusz. It would be heartbreaking not to be able to take part in that; I have high hopes that I can get a negative PCR test before then. But I had to let the rabbi and program organizer know what was going on. I am paying for a new test tomorrow (if I went through the official system, I’d have to wait several days), and if it comes back negative, then there will be no more worries. If it comes back positive, then I’ll get tested again on Thursday. As for school, I can go back on Wednesday in any case, since I will have been in isolation for seven days and have no symptoms.

As it turns out, the Captain Average concert was cancelled too, because one of the members had a positive test. I was so sad to hear that. This is the way of the world right now.

These days at home have been very productive for me; I have been able to start putting the next issue of Folyosó together, continue preparing for the Pilinszky event, catch up on grading, plan for the Shakespeare festival, play cello, clean up the apartment, and get lots of rest. I had time to think, play with the cats, listen to music ranging from Kaláka to VHK.

I had never listened to or known anything about VHK (Vágtázó Halottkémek, or Galloping Coroners) before, and am glad to have waited until now. One of their founding members, who was in the band from 1975 to 1990, is the father of Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly; I am glad that I was able to come to Cz.K. Sebő’s music on its own terms. VHK is legendary; in the Soviet era they played a kind of music that no one had heard before, screaming, hypnotic, repetitive, frenetic, and beautiful, led by their daredevil singer Attila Grandpierre (who is also an astrophysicist—three of the founding members, including Sebő’s father, are physicists). There was an era when they were outlawed, but clubs invited them to play anyway and just paid the fine. Their shows would get interrupted and called off by the authorities, again and again, so they had a very short set list. But one evening in 1982 no one interrupted the show, and so they played a long improvised set that ended up influencing their musical direction. (This is all according to a fascinating article on the WFMU blog.)

I am particularly intrigued that they were doing this at a time of enforced tameness, that they broke all the rules and didn’t care, that their music is thrilling to the ear, and that three of them were physicists. But while a new formation of the band continues to play now and then, and Grandpierre has an acoustic band as well, I don’t think I would seek out either band’s shows today, though I might go hear them at some point. The magic (as I hear it right now) had to do with the sheer inspiration of the original musicians, who were friends. Grandpierre was a legend unto himself from childhood onward; he used to dazzle his classmates with stunts and experiments.

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly has taken a profoundly different direction with his music, though I can hear a little bit of influence (which he himself recognizes; at the concert on January 28, when Platon Karataev covered VHK’s “Halló Mindenség” in the encore, Sebő was the one to sing, and he threw himself joyfully into it). But if I had been the one growing up with a larger-than-life legacy like this, I think it would have been difficult for me, though rich and exciting too. (I think of larger-than-life figures in my own childhood.) But there was much more to it than I can possibly know, and I leave it with all the unknowns. I am grateful that Sebő found his own music. Nothing we do is entirely “our own”; we are shaped by the others in our lives and by people we have never met. But out of that, each person brings something that no one else can bring, and when it’s music, and it reaches someone’s soul, nothing else could have done the same, ever.

  • “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)



    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.


    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.


    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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