How to Deal with the Void

Views of space reveal anything but a void—there’s more out there than we will ever come close to knowing—but the void I’m about to discuss is not outer space. It’s a void closer to home: the void that anyone has felt who has “put something out there” (on the internet or anywhere) and gotten no response at all. This can happen to anyone, regardless of their degree of fame. Or at least some version of it can happen. Maybe a famous person always gets responses of some kind, but some of them feel much more real than others. That, at times, can be more depressing than getting no response at all. Anyway, the void, from one angle, makes no sense. Out of the billions of people in the world, and the many millions who could potentially respond to this thing, why would no one bother to do so? What is going on? Is it the sheer overload of stuff that everyone’s expected to take in? Is it a habit of indifference? Lack of interest? Lack of time?

But the first question to ask is: Is it really a void? Most of the time, if we think about it, we realize that people have been responding to what we do, what we make, what we post. Maybe not in huge numbers, but those who do respond, do so genuinely. Waxing overdramatic and telling ourselves that “we’re talking to a void” will just reinforce the solipsism that hurts. There is often someone listening, or reading, or looking.

True, but sometimes it still feels like a void. That is fine. But aside from improving your own work and finding ways to reach more people with it, there’s only one way to respond: by cracking the void yourself, by taking in others’ work, by reading, listening, watching. Every time you do this, you give a work, and the person behind it, an audience. And in doing so, you and the work together create something other than a void.

The void does not get erased, though. It isn’t the internet, though the internet exacerbates the anxiety. On the one hand, it’s fate, and on the other, a fundamental feeling. The fate is everyone’s. We all die one day, and whether or not our own works and actions survive us, we descend into nothingness of some kind. That is true even if you believe in an afterlife. The afterlife transcends the nothingness, but the nothingness is still there. We will never come back.

The feeling is real too: no matter how full our lives are, we’re always dealing with the abyss in some way: maybe up close, maybe from a distance, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. We know that what we do matters intensely, and we also know that it does not; it will all be gone one day, and we’re just one speck in the human population, which in turn is a speck in space. The void is not just the silence from the world. The void is inside us, at the center of our knowledge and intuition.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “First Snow,” one of my favorites, has something to do with this theme, so I recommend it here, both for that reason and for itself.

So a second response, which can accompany the first, is to acknowledge the void. Instead of trying to get rid of it, laugh and cry into it, say whatever you want to it, sing into it.

And there the fun begins. Because the void is there, but it’s not the only thing there. Music exists alongside it. Maybe that’s what heaven is: the music that gleams on the edge of the void and admits anyone who hears it.

Image credit: Hubble Extreme Deep Field NASA/ESA, courtesy of Vox.

A Few Brief Thoughts After the Concert

I don’t want to describe every concert I go to, because sometimes the thoughts I have aren’t verbal or structured. Sometimes I have lots to say, sometimes little or nothing. This piece is somewhere in between; I will just mention a few things that come to mind.

First, I love these boat concerts at the A38 Hajó and the TRIP Hajó. It’s great to get there early, enjoy the setting, and wait for the music to start. And to be quiet without talking, and to talk with people, both of which I got to do. And then listen to the music.

Cz.K. Sebő and his band played a rather short set. It was the first time I heard them play together in concert. I admire Soma Bradák, the drummer (also the drummer of Platon Karataev and Galaxisok) for his way of creating any kind of texture, and changing textures in the middle of a song. I loved the sound of the mallets. Some songs that stood out for me were “First Snow,” “Papermache Dreams” (which has become a favorite), “Chamomile,” “Someday,” and a very new song whose name I don’t know.

Felső Tízezer was just plain fun. The songs are punchy, wry, and tuneful; the crowd was dancing and singing, roaring out their favorite lyrics as they came along. This music is not what Sebő’s is for me, and will never be; it has a different spirit and imagination, a different view of the world. But it brings so much cheer, and there’s a lot to the lyrics, which I am starting to get to know. They remind me that many of life’s woes can be approached with humor and spunk. And they take many different directions, without inhibition. There’s a bounding (leaping) boundlessness to them.

I saw Zsuzsanna and Atti, and met their three children, who seemed to be having a great time. I saw Mesi too. Soon after Felső Tízezer finished, I took off so that I could catch the 10:50 train back to Szolnok.

Afterwards I was thinking about how versatile life is, and music too, how many different directions they can take, even in one room, even in the same person. The musicians last night all play more than one kind of music; their members overlap with Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Somersault Boy, and they have other projects too. I came home late, stayed up even later, got up in the morning, and worked on the new translation project, the first draft of which is now done. No one has to be limited: that is, we all have limitations of time, energy, ability, thought, but we don’t have to say, “Because I do X, I can’t do Y,” or “Because I listen to A, I can’t listen to B.” The world has more wiggle room than that, as does the soul.

My cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure”

In April I started working on this cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Out of pressure” from his 2015 EP The masked undressed. I love the song and wanted to learn it from the inside. The video below is the coffee (i.e., the fruit) of this project.

I kept it in the original key, which meant singing near the bottom of my range; there were days when I couldn’t go down there at all, and days when it came easily. Also, it took me a long time to get the “seeeek” the way I wanted it; it wasn’t going to be the way Sebő sings it, but it had to work here. Finally it did. The cello melody isn’t part of the original, but it came out of the song as I played it. The guitar part here is minimal, just providing a frame; in the original it is rhythmic and full of subtle melody.

Out of the hundred or more takes, four recordings emerged. The fourth one I set to a simple video that I made at home. With Sebő’s permission, I shared it on YouTube and beyond.

Through working on this, I found that the song held something of my own life, and of many other lives too. It expresses a contradiction of boredom and yearning, desire for solitude and desire for relation. The lyrics and the music convey this together. The song could be played in hundreds of different ways and moods, by people of different ages and walks of life. If I had tried to make the cover exactly like the original, it wouldn’t have worked; this version came from me, and it’s just one take of one possibility.

You can hear the original song here:

I am not the only person who has covered Sebő’s songs. Ivett Kovács created a beautiful cover of his “Disguise” (also from The masked undressed):

There may be others still. I look forward to hearing them.

I updated this piece after posting it. Also, I re-recorded the vocals and re-posted the video. The version shown here is the new one.

Csenger Kertai’s Reading: Before- and Afterthoughts

Beforethoughts

Tomorrow evening I am going to a reading by Csenger Kertai in Budapest, my first time hearing him read. I am very excited about this and have been rereading his second collection, Hogy nekem jó legyen (also the title of the last poem in the book). The poems are straight labyrinths in themselves; in that sense they sometimes evoke Pilinszky for me, just at moments. Their language is clear, charged, mysterious. They have to do with religious searching, introspection, fallibility, destruction, solitude, desire, love, barriers, eruptions of life. The first poem, “Aztán legyen béke bennem,” begins,

Nézd, szakadozik az ég,
és fehér hasú fények mutogatják maguk neked.
Valaki rendet rakott,
a virágok pedig nem akarják, hogy megköszönd,
ha tavasszal rózsaszín szirmokba pirulnak előtted.

An informal translation (taking a few minor liberties for rhythm and sense) might go like this:

Look, the sky is breaking up,
and white-bellied lights reveal themselves to you.
Someone has put things in order,
but the flowers do not want you to thank them
when in spring they blush into petals before your ey
es.

Translating this collection would be a fascinating project, and one I might propose at some point, if someone else hasn’t done it by that time. I have a big project to complete first, though.

I have been wondering, over the past month or so, how I would translate the title itself. It is not easy. It means, approximately, “So that it/things will be good for me,” but that’s a bit cumbersome in English. I thought of a few possibilities, such as “For My Well-Being,” or “For My Good,” or even “Pursuit of Happiness” or “Pursuing My Happiness,” but those don’t convey the grammatical suspension. In Hungarian, you sense that the phrase completes something else; it’s part of a sentence and does not usually stand alone. Its standing alone here means that you have to find the completion, in the poem and throughout the collection. “To Make Things Good for Me” or “To Set Things Right for Me” or something along those lines, might possibly work (though I am not satisfied with the word “things” here). Also, as I hear it, the emphasis in the Hungarian phrase is neutral; neither on “nekem” (“for me”) nor on “jó” (“good”). With a different word order, this would change: “Hogy jó legyen nekem” would emphasize the “nekem”; “Hogy nekem legyen jó,” the “jó.” So the translation, too, must be neutral in its emphasis. That allows the reader to consider different meanings and nuances, not just here in the phrase, but throughout the poem and collection.

But this is just the beginning; the poems are full of puzzles of these kinds, even without any thoughts of translation. Not only linguistic puzzles, but puzzles of form and spirit. I can stay with just one stanza for an hour, thinking about what it might mean and how it connects with the rest. The clear, condensed language calls for a kind of meditation.

A musical project emerged from this book; various musicians created, played, and recorded musical versions of poems from the collection. It was Cz.K. Sebő’s musical reworking of “Balaton” that introduced me to Kertai’s poetry. (In this recording, Kertai himself reads the poem aloud, and the music joins, interprets, and colors it.) The poem begins,

Megvan a lehetősége, hogy minden elromlik,
pedig a pazar panoráma eddig valami megnyugvásfélét nyújtott.
Ne bennem nyugodj meg – mondja a vitorlás egyedül a tó közepén –
nyugodj meg magadban, hogy bármi, bármikor elromolhat.

This reminds me a little of T.S. Eliot; I would translate it roughly like this:

It’s possible that everything falls apart,
yet until now, the lush panorama has offered some kind of reassurance.
Don’t take comfort in me – says the sailboat alone in the middle of the lake –
take comfort in the knowledge that anything, anytime, can fall apart.

The challenge here is that “njugodj meg” has so many different meanings, at least two of which play out in these lines. It can mean “calm down” or “quiet yourself,” but it can also mean “submit,” “resign yourself.” The translation would need to show both the repetition and the change of meaning. There’s a lot to think about here. The music brings out these underwater paradoxes.

Another favorite musical rendering from this project is daydreaming twins’ interpretation of “Én” (“I”):

I don’t want to quote or translate more here, since putting something on a blog constitutes publication, and it’s too early for that. Or too late! Just thinking about a few lines of these poems brought me close to 11:00 p.m., and tomorrow morning we have our closing ceremony at school.

Whether or not I ever translate these poems, or any of them, I love taking time with them and look forward to the reading tomorrow.

Afterthoughts

It was great. I got a little lost looking for the Három Szerb Kávéház, now one of my favorite cafés in Budapest, since I started out walking in the wrong direction from Kálvin tér. In the last few minutes before 7, I ended up sprinting the last block or two, and arrived all sweaty and ready for a beer. Fortunately the event hadn’t started yet. It was out on the terrace, where birds were singing in oversongs and undertrills, and a tree stretched far up above the building.

It was a combination of reading and discussion: the author Zoltán András Juhász interviewed Kertai about his work, life, and thoughts, and during the course of the discussion, Kertai read aloud five poems: “Ikarosz,” “Balaton,” “Hogy nekem jó legyen,” “A másik bármi lehet,” and (I think) “Nem lesz béke benned.” The discussion ranged from his name (which is rather unusual) and how it might have shaped his identity (it didn’t, he said), his place in the contemporary scene (he doesn’t really have one, he said; he doesn’t fit into any of the particular trends, nor is he part of a fixed literary community), the poets who are important to him (he brought up Attila József, Szilárd Borbély, and others), the challenges of dedicating yourself to writing poetry, the ways that poems can come into existence, the changes in his work since the first volume, and more. Throughout the interview, he was frank and thoughtful, unafraid to challenge people’s assumptions.

As for the poems, the first three I had read and reread at least several times, and hearing them brought new understandings. Also, I could appreciate the rhythms: free verse with hints of ancient metrics. “Balaton” has something of the feel of a Greek ode.

On the way to the event, on the train, I had been reading and pondering “A megváltásról” (“On Redemption”), which came together all except for a grammatical question, which I figured out this morning. I was puzzled because I thought “alkonyat” was the accusative of “alkony,” “twilight,” and if it was the accusative form, where was the verb? But then I woke up this morning realizing that “alkonyat” was a variant of “alkony,” and not its accusative form, which is “alkonyt.” The whole poem came together and has become one of my favorites.

Those may seem like elementary ponderings. But through them, I came farther into the poem than I would have if there had been no grammatical question at all. The knot became an opening. Poems can break and bend grammatical structures, but it’s essential to know when they are doing so and when they are not. This happens to me in English too: a grammatical structure in a poem doesn’t make immediate sense, and I have to look at it closely, and read it over and over, to figure out what is going on. Then, when it clicks, it resounds.

The atmosphere out on the terrace was friendly and enthusiastic; many people there were Kertai’s friends and acquaintances, but there were some strangers and newcomers, like me. Mr. Juhász welcomed people to stay afterward and talk with him, and buy a book. I had brought my copy with me, so I asked for an autograph, then headed out happily to catch the 8:50 train back to Szolnok.

Festival Season

Until this year, I had little idea what the Hungarian music festival season was like. Last summer, the festivals were cancelled, and the summers before that, I was in the U.S. most of the time, both teaching and visiting. This year, I am attending three music festivals here in Hungary (two just overnight, with sleeping bag and tent, and another for three days). Three festivals (in addition to standalone concerts) is quite a bit for me, even though it’s a fraction of the whole.

If you are a musician in festival season, then you might spend the whole summer performing at one festival after another, with a few other concerts in between. Lots of fun, I imagine, but also demanding: being around so many people all the time and being expected to stick around for at least part of the event. Then again, it must be a great way of joining together, reuniting, playing for new audiences and on new stages (indoors, outdoors, on the water), getting to know other musicians, and enjoying some beautiful places. Each of these festivals has a character of its own. Last night, at the Mini Fishing on Orfű, I loved how relaxed and enthusiastic the audience was, how they danced and sang to the music. I felt right at home. But let me backtrack.

The festival Fishing on Orfű (named after a Kiscsillag EP) began in 2008. It was founded primarily by András Lovasi (the lead singer of Kiscsillag) and Tamás Kálocz. It started as a three-day festival, then was extended to four days; in 2017, in honor of Lovasi’s fiftieth birthday, it was five days long, and in 2020 it was cancelled because of Covid. This year, in addition to holding the main festival in August, the organizers decided to have a mini-festival in June. Hence Mini Fishing on Orfű. Orfű is about 18 kilometers northwest of Pécs (but what an 18 kilometers! I don’t think I have ever biked such hills before). It’s next to a small lake, the Pécsi-tó.

I went just for one night (this was one of the three festivals I mentioned earlier), since I have a lot to do here in Szolnok. To get there, I brought the bike on the train, went to Budapest, then transferred to a train that went to Pécs, and bicycled from Pécs to Orfű—a rather steep climb most of the way, then downhill for the last stretch. I had a tent, sleeping bag, and backpack with me. The whole thing seemed so unlikely, and I didn’t know if I had made a mistake. But when I rolled into Orfű, the sun was setting over the little lake, people were sitting by the water, and I quickly got my bearings and found out where the festival was.

I arrived at last, set up my tent (a bit of a challenge in the dark, but I figured it out), and then headed up the hill for the 30Y concert. It had already begun, but I got to hear most of it. I had heard only a few of their songs before (online), but the music and the audience’s love took over. At certain points the band would stop playing before a song ended, and the crowd would keep on singing, not just for a few seconds, but on and on, about a thousand people, an overwhelming feeling.

Then I went on a search for the stage where Platon Karataev would be playing. I finally found it and sat down for a little bit. Their concert was to begin at 1:20 a.m.; earlier in the evening, their bassist, Laci Sallai, had a solo concert at the TRIP Terasz. They arrived at some point after midnight and began setting up. Then Zsuzsanna, Atti (her husband), and Mesi came along and joined me in the front. We were right up close to the stage. I can’t describe the concert, except to say that it swept me up, song after song, “Aphelion,” “Ocean,” “Disguise,” “Orange Nights,” “Elevator,” and many others. I was so happy and excited to be right there, hearing these songs live. It was actually the first Platon Karataev concert I had ever attended, except for the acoustic duo last August.

Then I went to sleep in the tent. I had planned to get up at the crack of dawn, bike to Pécs, and take the 7:27 train. That was completely unrealistic; I woke up around 7:00, packed up, biked (the return trip was mostly downhill but still had some steep uphill parts), and barely missed the 9:27 train. So I waited for the 11:27 one. I got home late in the afternoon; the cats were fine and happy to see me.

How great to have this to think back on.

“Oh come meet me there”: Cz.K. Sebő at the TRIP Terasz

This concert—by Cz.K. Sebő on the Trip Terasz on Friday night—stands out among all the concerts I remember in my life. It left me sad, but in an uplifting way. It opened something up, taught me something, and filled my mind with music that stayed and played onward.

I arrived a little before 4 (the concert started at 7, but the venue had encouraged people to arrive early) and walked around until it was possible to go in. I thought maybe I had arrived much too early, but just minutes later, more people came, and then more and more. So it was wise, not to mention tranquil, to spend a late afternoon on the deck of a stationary ship on the Danube, listening to the sound of water, wind, and traffic. I read Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen from cover to cover, starting at the end, and spent time with particular poems, including “Az elhagyatottságról,” “Dokkolás,” and “A helytartó és a rabszolga.” Now comes the slow reading with the dictionary, but at least I got a feel for the rhythms and some of the meaning.

I was then joined at the table by two friendly people, Zsuzsanna and Timi Mesi, who recognized me from various online comments and who love Sebő’s music. As it happened, Zsuzsanna had her own copy of the Kertai collection with her! Soon Zsuzsanna’s husband joined us too. Now we were a lively table, until the music started and we hushed.

Sebő’s music starts with simplicity and humility, but those are complicated words and can only be part of a complicated reality. Nobody is completely simple or humble. What I mean is that he doesn’t show off, doesn’t rush to the peaks of the songs. He starts playing and lets the songs build on their own. And then when they build, it’s so true that it can break you open. This simplicity can take years to find; you have to play the instrument well and know your voice. Even more than that, you have to be willing to let the music show itself, unforced, both when you write it and when you perform it.

The humility has to do with his admiration of others’ music. This is part of the Platon Karataev foundation too: the knowledge that there’s music greater than their own, but the willingness to give what they have and to keep on searching. The second part of the concert was all covers—carefully chosen and played, and beautiful to the bones. Not for a second does he imitate the author of the original; he sings it as himself. But more about that in a moment.

The place had filled up, and he started out with a thrilling performance of “Eternal Home” (one of the bonus tracks from his Junction EP). Then came “Fear from passing,” then (I think) “Disguise,” then “Junction.” After that, I lose track of the order, but I know two new songs were in there, including “Someday” and one with a Pilinszky poem for the lyrics, in English translation (I believe the poem was “A pokol hetedik kőre,” but I might be wrong). He played “Chamomile,” “Wide Eyes,” “Hart” (which blurred my sight for a while there), “On a fine day,” “Out of Words,” and “The Fox in the Holt,” and there we were, with the sun going down, the water lapping, standing kayakers rowing by, the breeze getting chillier, and these favorite songs living themselves out as they never would again, not in that exact way. The cold was getting a bit stiff; in the break between sets, someone gave him a blanket.

For the second part, he had so much planned, but didn’t get to all of it because the air got still colder. Still, he played at least ten gorgeous covers: first “Purple Rain” (which opened up the song for me, it was so relaxed and genuine), then “In a Year of 13 Moons” by Current Joys, then “Carry on” by Willy Mason, then again I lose track of the order, but one of my favorites was “Rejtelmek” by the Sebő Együttes, whose lyrics are an Attila József poem, and which Sebő had heard many times in his childhood. Another favorite was “The Immigrant Lad” by Eric Burdon and the Animals. He played Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” one faster song whose name I don’t know, another song I don’t know (Damien Jurado must have been in there somewhere, but I don’t know where), and then, to finish things off, a Platon Karataev song in Hungarian, one that I have not heard before unless they played it at Budapest Park in August. (In the beginning, the guitar reminds me of “Fear from passing,” but then it takes a different direction.) You could hear, throughout the set, that these songs had guided his own music in one way or another.

I am grateful that he told us what the songs were. (I missed a few titles when he said them, but he said them.) There was no attitude of “You should know what song this is, and if you don’t, you’re dumb.” The audience didn’t have to prove anything. Being there and listening was enough. I think that’s another part of the humility: being willing to accept your listeners as they are, whoever they are, provided they are listening. Young, old, friends, strangers, cool, awkward, lively, quiet, a great musician can allow for them all, and so can the music.

I think a lot of us felt the greatness of this music and this concert. At my table, that was definitely the case. It’s greatness that comes, in part, from not having to be great, not needing to force or feign.

He mentioned that he was going to be playing solo less and less, since future concerts would include a drummer and a bassist. I would wish for both kinds of concerts; a solo concert is unadorned and direct, but I can understand that when other musicians play with you, you have more possibilities of sound and timing.

After the concert ended, I stayed around for a few minutes, but then left so that I could catch the 9:50 train back to Szolnok, a slow local train that gave me time to think back on the concert and hear the songs in my mind, and all the things they were evoking.

I will end this with the concert’s beginning, “Eternal Home,” which led me to start listening to Blaze Foley. Here’s the second verse and chorus:


Whatever is around me
Whatever makes me blind
Balance and composure sleeps inside
And it’s not so hard to find

When I’m walking in the city
And I’m to lose my mind
I’m listening to some Blaze Foley songs
And leave this world behind

Oh come meet me there,
Let’s jump into that blunted head,
Your home is eternal there
Go deep and shut the world out.

That is what happens at a concert like this, if there is any concert like this. You find your eternal home, and you know you can find it again.

I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it. The most recent edits were on June 1.

Update: For a sense of what Sebő’s solo concerts are like, see this video recording of a 2020 concert on the A38 Hajó. Both the concert and recording are amazing.

Folyosó, a Concert, and More

The past few months have been full, and I think I have finally met all the pressing deadlines. So now it will be possible, while wrapping up the year, to resume work on some projects and go on a long bike ride or two. The summer will be varied; except for ten days in the U.S., I expect to be here, relaxing, working on projects, riding the bike, and going to the Kolorádó music festival in August.

The spring issue of Folyosó (our first anniversary issue) came out on May 17, and it is beautiful. There’s a section with pieces about walls (of many different kinds), a section of short absurdist scenes, a section of miniature stories, a section of speeches, and some beautiful art by Lilla Kassai. Click on the picture to view the contents. If you feel so moved, please post a comment on the comments page.

This evening I am going to my first concert of 2021, a highly anticipated solo concert of Cz.K. Sebő, who is going to treat us to a double program at the TRIP Terasz, the outdoor part of a ship nightclub on the Danube. In the first part, he will play his own songs, including one or two entirely new ones; in the second part, he will play covers of some of his favorite songs. Because a maximum of 80 people can be admitted, and priority is given in order of arrival, I can’t take any chances. So that means: get there very early (when they open at 4 p.m.) and bring something to read, and I have the perfect thing: Csenger Kertai’s poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen, which I ordered after listening and relistening to Sebő’s musical rendering of Kertai’s poem “Balaton,” in which Kertai reads the poem and Sebő’s music paints it underneath.

This little book is not easy for me to understand; there are words I don’t know, expressions to puzzle over, meanings to ponder, but so much the better; the time will whisk by (on a ship on the Danube, with a beer), and then the concert will begin, and there will be time to sink into it, and then I can return to the poems later, on the train ride home, and again and again over time. I will say more about all of this later, after it has happened.

Speaking of songs, I wrote my first song in Hungarian and will try to record it over the weekend (I may need more time). The song is mostly set in my mind; it just needs to be played, in its various parts and instruments. The title is “Időköz,” which means “time interval.” It’s my first serious attempt at a song in a language other than English; at age 14 I composed a round with brief Russian lyrics, but that’s it. I don’t even remember the first part, but the second part went, “Счастлив человек, который каждый день слушает музыку.” (“Happy is the person who listens to music every day.”) Before posting “Időköz,” I will run it by a native speaker, just in case there’s something impossibly wrong with the lyrics. A few quirks I don’t mind.

I have to run, so that is all for now.

The Concert Conundrum

Live concerts in person are starting to take place again in Hungary, and they can happen in one of two ways. If they are outdoors—for instance, on a terrace—then a vaccination certificate might not be required. (This depends on the size and nature of the event.) On the other hand, if it rains, the concert will probably be cancelled. If they are indoors, then they can happen rain or shine, but only those with official vaccination certificates (in the form of a plastic card) will be allowed in, unless the venue decides to risk breaking the law. So actually attending one of these concerts can be a challenge.

This afternoon, immediately after my last class, I took the train to Budapest for a concert by Dávid Szesztay. I had a feeling that it would be cancelled because of the rain, but I was willing to take the risk. It was indeed cancelled, unfortunately (and I didn’t realize this until I was close to the venue), but the trip was not in vain. It was nice to see parts of Buda that I haven’t explored yet, particularly the Szentlélek tér area (shown in the picture above). I hope to return there soon.

The next concert I hope to attend will be on Friday, June 28. Cz.K. Sebő will be playing at the TRIP Hajó nightclub (a stationary ship on the Danube). It will be on the open-air terrace, and the vaccination card is required. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I want to attend. The only catch is that I have had both vaccinations but have not received the plastic card yet. I have done everything I need to do to receive it, and even received an official electronic letter stating that it will be mailed soon. In addition, I have paper documentation of the two shots. Will that be enough, if the card does not arrive on time? I will contact the TRIP Hajó to try to find out in advance. It’s a strange position to be in: to have had the shots and still not to know whether I can attend a concert. I am hoping that it will work out. (Update: they will let me in.)

So, in hopes of a rescheduled Dávid Szesztay concert, and anticipation of the Cz.K. Sebő concert, I will leave off with a few of their songs. (I included two different songs of theirs in my latest post on my Hungarian-language blog, Megfogalmazások.) “Késő” (“Late”) is from Szesztay’s 2021 album Iderejtem a ház kulcsát.

For a Sebő selection, here’s one I love but have not mentioned yet: “Fear from passing” (from his EP The masked undressed), at the start of a wonderful live performance at the A38 Hajó in 2018. You can then listen onward and hear seven more of his songs.

I enjoy listening to these songs individually, and even more as part of albums (or concerts, which are albums of a different kind), and even more as part of something that is continually finding form and meaning. It was exciting to discover, for instance, that the song “Opening” (from Sebő’s very first release, his home-recorded Fugitive Feelings) became the basis for the Platon Karataev song “Orange Nights.” You can listen to both songs below. I love the official “Orange Nights” video, which is why I include it here, but as for recordings, I also love the one on their Orange Nights EP. So listen to both, a doubling upon doubling!

Here’s to the concerts! May they happen, may there be many, and may those who want to attend be admitted!

I made a few corrections to this piece after posting it. The Covid regulations are loosening, but the new rules have ambiguities. In any case, vaccination cards are still required for many outdoor as well as indoor events.

Song Series #13: “A soft spot for repetition”

At the ALSCW Zoom event in which I interviewed Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai and they gave a performance, I asked Marcell about the repetitions and subtle variations in his songs. He began by saying that repetition is part of the foundation of songs. His comment, and Kurt Vile’s song “One Trick Ponies,” which has the line “cuz i’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” brought out thoughts for this piece.

It is difficult to think of a song that does not involve repetition of some kind. There are repetition of melody, rhythm, refrain. There are repetitions of phrases within a verse, of words within a line. There are repetitions of syntax, musical phrases, chords, syllables, single consonants or vowels, guttural sounds. Why is repetition, when done well, essential to a song?

Some of it goes to our childhood. Remember how babies love to play the same games over and over, hear the same stories over and over, sing the same songs again and again? You see them anticipate the next word, the next peak. The fun lies in the anticipation of that known and beloved moment. Adults know that kind of anticipation too. That’s partly why I love to return to favorite songs, poems, stories; I can’t wait to hear that phrase, to see that turn of words again.

Also, repetition allows us to take the songs into ourselves. Within a short while, we know them well enough to sing at least part of them to ourselves. Soon afterward, we know the whole thing, and after that, we have room to hear more details and to imagine the song being played in different ways. They become part of our waking and walking. There’s discovery too: the repetition allows us to hear the changes and variations, which would not stand out if the song as a whole were changing all the time.

I will begin with a classic form of repetition in a song: the verse/refrain structure, where the refrain repeats more or less exactly, and the verses change. (There are many songs where the refrain changes, where the verse contains repetitions, or where verse and refrain cannot be separated, but let’s start here.) The Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” not only keeps to this structure but does something extraordinary with it. This slow, gentle song carries you along, verse through verse, refrain after refrain, building a story of forbidden love. You don’t realize the heartbreak until you’re right in the middle of it.

The refrain seems simple: “Linger on your pale blue eyes.” But what does it mean, even grammatically? Is someone lingering on the pale blue eyes, or are the pale blue eyes lingering on (enduring)? Is it a command, a yearning, or a statement? The phrase seems to float, like a subjunctive wish, sometimes coming closer to the present, sometimes receding away. Lou Reed’s voice cracks on the “on” itself, the word that is drawn out the longest.

The guitars, bass, tambourine, Hammond organ, and voice carry the song in such an understated way that you hardly notice the sound growing fuller. There are no dramatic shifts, just a sound and a story wrapping around you.

The second song I am including here, Péter Jakab’s “Te vagy az ellenség bennem” (“You are the enemy inside me”) has a different kind of repetition entirely: the repetition, over and over, of that single title sentence. I know nothing about Péter Jakab except that he is the frontman of Jazzékiel, that he released his first solo album, Nem fontos személy, in February 2021, and that Norbert Kristóf (who, along with Szabolcs Puha, recorded Cz.K. Sebő’s EP Junction) released a remix of this particular song. This kind of repetition is millennia old, part of prayer and incantation. Just as when you say a word many times in succession, it starts to sound strange or holy, so when you do this in a song, you become more detached from the words, and at the same time more involved in them. They take on a meaning of their own, apart from where they started out. This song is wonderfully surprising and haunting.

The next song, Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” has yet a different kind of repetition: that of syntactic rhythm. I learned just recently, when listening to Jeffrey Davison’s Shrunken Planet program on WFMU, that Cohen didn’t actually write this song. (I should have realized this long ago; I have had the album Songs from a Room for many years, and it was one of the handful that I brought it to Hungary.) The song was originally written by Anna Marly during World War II. It is not clear to me whether she wrote the original lyrics herself, in Russian, or whether the lyrics were originally written by Emmanuel d’Astier, but the music was Marly’s, and the song became an anthem of the French Resistance. In the 1960s, Hy Zaret adapted it and translated it into English (changing some of the words and meanings). Leonard Cohen’s version is based on Zaret’s—but he simplifies the texture and adds a few verses of the French lyrics to it. If you listen to Marly’s, Zaret’s, and Cohen’s versions, you can hear how Cohen draws from both of his predecessors but gives the new version a soul of its own. (That’s another kind of repetition right there.)

The syntactic repetition is this: in each of the verses, the first three lines constitute an idea, and then the fourth line responds to it somehow. In Hebrew cantillation, there would be an etnachta trop, a melodic phrase indicating a semicolon-like caesura, between the third and fourth lines. Here you can hear it in the vocal pause, the stretch of rumbling guitar, between the last word of the third line and the first word of the fourth.

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished.

I have changed my name so often
I’ve lost my wife and children
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

And so on, up to these aching words:

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows

There’s also repetition through the translation itself, or the almost-translation; when the French verses come along, they seem like a distant memory, with the backing vocals and the feeling of wind. And just like memory and wind, the “wind” verse comes back in English at the end, and within it, the repetition of “wind” and “blowing.”

Speaking of translation, this past Sunday was Poetry Day in Hungary, and I had the occasion to think about how poems get translated into song. This often involves a kind of repetition: the songwriter might repeat words and lines that occur just once in the original poem, and may rearrange them somewhat too. This repetition and rearrangement in music gives something new to the meaning. One example of this is Marcell Bajnai’s reworking in song, released on Sunday, of Krisztián Peer’s poem “Félteni magadtól” (“Fearing Yourself”). It would be too complicated to explain and translate everything here, but I particularly like how he saves two lines until a little later in the song, and then again for the very end:

Minek simogatsz, amikor dicsekszem?
Szereted a vesztes ügyeket?

(Why do you caress me when I brag?
Do you love lost causes?)

This not only highlights the two lines, which have everything to do with the title, but also brings everything together. To me, it is supposed to be this way.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “On a Fine Day,” whose lyrics are the János Pilinszky poem “Egy szép napon” in Géza Simon’s beautiful English translation, does something similar, though different, through repetition.

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.

After singing through the poem, the song returns to the four lines,

I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

That ends the song, so that those lines become the return itself: the return to the words becomes the return to the old house, and so I, the listener, have returned to the house without even realizing it.

This is just a dip into the topic of repetition in songs, which gave me a chance to bring up two old favorites, a recent favorite, and two that I heard for the first time this past week. I look forward to hearing them all many more times.

I corrected my translation of the Krisztián Peer lines on July 2.

To read the other pieces in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #12: Songs with Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I revised part of this piece long after posting it.

  • “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

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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