Five Songs Chosen for a Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 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.

This Rumbling World

Just when you think you have it together, the world starts to shake around you. Covid, a teachers’ strike, an impending war in Ukraine. And more, depending on where you are. For me, these three are already a lot to reckon with. With Covid, it seems we’re almost in the clear, and then people get sick, events get cancelled, reports of new variants arise. With the teachers’ strike, so many questions come up at once: what kind of strike this is, what the demands are, what different stances a person might take toward any given action, what lies ahead in the coming months. As for the possible war, if it does happen, it’s unclear how far and long it will reach.

With all that, we have a four-day semi-weekend (two pedagogical days, which we may spend at home catching up on grading and such, combined with the regular weekend). Last night I treated myself to a special event in Budapest: a “songwriters’ circle” at the Magyar Zene Háza in the Zugló district. The whole trip was exciting. I had never walked around in Zugló before and was delighted with the hole-in-the-wall restaurants (I had a gyros pita for dinner) and the park.

The “songwriters’ circle,” the first in a new series, featured Dávid Szesztay (replacing Gergely Balla, who had to cancel because of Covid), Noémi Barkóczi, Vera Jonás and Henri Gonzo (of Fran Palermo). It was fantastic. They played new and not-so-new songs, talked about them, entertained questions from the audience (or not, as the case might be). Gonzo was a rather prickly character, but I found that refreshing. He mocked some of the questions (from the current audience, and from audiences of yore) but then turned around and discussed them seriously: for instance, the question of writing songs in English (or Spanish) or Hungarian.

This was my first introduction to both Gonzo and Jonás, and I’m eager to hear much more from both of them. I have had an ongoing dream of hearing Szesztay and Barkóczi in concert together; this took the dream in a surprising direction. I was very sorry that Balla could not be there—I missed his presence and wished I could have heard him speak and sing—but was glad that of all possible people, they invited Szesztay to step in. The picture I took (at the top) came out blurry, but I like the effect, and you can barely see each of them: Szesztay, then Barkóczi, then Jonás, then Gonzo.

So that was rather thrilling. Then this morning I had a knock on the door from a canvasser asking me to sign a petition. First I thought: what is this? And then he explained: he was gathering petitions for a humorous political party, the Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt (the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party), so that it could be represented in Parliament. I don’t usually sign petitions, but I asked for the brochure and told him I’d have to think about it. The brochure was so funny that I ran back out into the hallway to say, yes, I’ll sign. Here’s an excerpt (in my translation):

Hungary can handle the immigration issue fairly simply, since no one actually wants to come here. We only have to make sure to keep salaries sufficiently low. We see that instead of a fence, it would be enough
to write the average salaries and hospital statistics onto the border.

But if we really want to build something, then, instead of a fence, it would make more sense to build an overpass over the country.

Another approach would be to constantly change the borders. If you don’t know where the border is, then it will be hard for you to migrate across it.

This made my day.

Back to the shaking of the world. Is it legitimate to be content (in some way) with life when things are crumbling and raging around you? Or rather, to have your own rhythm of contentment, sadness, and turbulence? I think it is, because reality has many strands and layers. No matter what seems to be happening, there is always more.

On the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness

I remember coming upon Lucky Curtains, the last of Granfaloon Bus’s albums, in a record store and seizing it in its gleaming wrapping. I purchased it, took it home, and for weeks listened to nothing else. It opened up something raw; my editing job (at a company that published career guides) went against my grain, and I knew it was time for a change. It was around then that I decided to become a teacher, and it took another year to make this happen. The music, this album, was part of the catalyst. Why? It’s hard to define and delimit these things, especially after all these years. But listening to the songs now, I hear not only the sadness that hit me then, but a happiness mixed in too, a kind of tentative, mitigated hope or at least ease.

Any mood, any emotion, is more than one thing at once; we are under pressure to name it one thing or another, to give it one emoticon or another, but it usually comes along with its opposite. Often when I am angry, I also see past the anger; often when worried I feel calm. Likewise, happiness and sadness go together so strongly that to separate them means to lose both.

On the Lucky Curtains album, the song “House” has all kinds of emotions together: happiness and sadness, security and tentativeness, expansiveness and enclosedness. Not only opposites, but gradations and hints, something outside of the polarities.

Whenever I mention being sad, there are those who jump in and try to fix it. Don’t! It is part of the happiness; it makes happiness possible. The dreariest thing on earth is one-sidedness. No one has to fall for it.

There are specific, obvious things to be sad about (climate change, the spreading Delta variant, hurricanes and floods, the disaster in Afghanistan, personal losses), but beyond that, sadness is a current in life; loss of some kind is always present. In János Pilinszky’s poetry I find an exceptional compression of happiness and sadness: a seemingly tranquil scene can contain endless grief. An example is his poem “Kegyelem” (“Grace”):

Bogarak szántják a sötétet
és csillagok az éjszakát.
Van időnk hosszan üldögélni
az asztalon pihenő lámpafényben.
Megadatott a kegyelem:
miközben minden áll és hallgat,
egyedül az öröklét működik.

In rough translation:

(Beetles plow through the dark
and stars the night.
We have time for long lingering
at the table in leisurely lamplight.
Grace has become possible:
while everything stops and listens,
eternity works all alone.)

The pivotal word here is “megadatott,” which is not the same as “megadott” (“it is given”). “Megadatott” expresses a tentative possibility. Grace is not certain; it just becomes possible in these still moments, which themselves are rare. The poem holds this rarity.

Last night I was listening again to Cz.K. Sebő’s “kétezerhúsz” (“2020”), a truly sad song. But if there’s a happiness in it, it has to do with being able to sing the sadness as it is, being at peace with it in some way. I think that is a kind of happiness, but not a cheery kind. I understand much more of the song than I did before; not just the literal meaning of the lyrics, but their tones too.

It’s hard to explain that happiness and sadness go together; lots of people know and understand this, but our current vocabulary doesn’t make much room for it. There’s so much pressure to be on the up-and-up, always doing better, feeling better. But literature and music (and other arts) make room for something else.

What is the mood of Dávid Szesztay’s “Késő” (“Late”), for instance? It starts out mournful, but then it lifts up into a kind of exhilaration. The word “but” here is misleading; the one mood follows from the other.

It isn’t just that different moods coexist. Rather, there’s something more important than mood. We (around the world, but particularly in the U.S.) place too much emphasis on being happy, being fulfilled, as though such a thing could be attained and frozen in place, and as though it were more important than the things we do and receive. I don’t mean that mood is unimportant, but it’s a background color, changing and blending and fading, a wash of sky.

Fishing on Orfű: Highlights and Other Lights

I had been dreaming of this for a while: to go to the Fishing on Orfű festival for a day (I had schedule constraints and couldn’t go for longer), hear Platon Karataev on the water stage, then go hear Dávid Szesztay and, in the remainder of the time, walk around and hear other musicians I happened to come upon. It worked out just like that, only better.

I had gone to one day of the Mini-Fishing on Orfű in June. As soon as I found out that there was going to be a full-length festival, I ordered a ticket. It’s a great place to be. The music is anywhere from good to outstanding, the friendly crowd spans several generations, and the scenery takes you up in its arms. It’s around you, all the time; if you like, you can take a quiet walk by the lake in the morning, when only the birds and fish are making sounds. Fish making sounds? Yes, I saw and heard a few leap out of the water, including a big one. They come back down with a splash, sending the rings ripping.

I left home on Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. to catch the 7:56 train to Budapest. From there I transfered to a train that went to Pécs. On the train, I was sitting across from a talkative elderly woman, who had the ear of the young woman sitting beside her. She talked and talked about her family, about religion, about anything that came to mind; eventually I was included in the conversation too. She offered to sell me one of the necklaces she made—she carried them around in a box—but I didn’t think I could afford the cash. So she just gave me one as a gift, and gave another to the young woman, whose name was Izabell. (In the photo below, I am wearing the necklace, along with one that I already had.) Then the necklace-giving woman got off one stop before Pécs, or maybe two, and Izabell and I continued talking, this time about music. We exchanged recommendations, lots of them. She was also going to Fishing on Orfű to hear Platon Karataev and a few others.

We both intended to take the bus from Pécs to Orfű, but I sensed that she had her own plans, so when we got there, we said goodbye and went in opposite directions. Unsure where to catch the bus, I ended up taking a cab—a bit of a splurge, but worthwhile in terms of getting me to the festival in time. The cab driver was jovial and full of stories. He told me about a Roman bust of Marcus Aurelius that had been found in the area. The ride went over hill and dale, and soon I was there.

I set up the tent and headed down to the water.

The water stage is actually on the water, not beside it. The musicians arrive by boat, and the sound man stays nearby in a boat during the show. The audience either sits on the edge of the lake or goes into the water, near the stage. When I arrived, Carson Coma was in the middle of their set. I enjoyed what I heard; I had heard them briefly at Kolorádó, but this acoustic version caught my ear. Lots of people were in the water, thigh-deep or so, singing along; I made my way into the crowd.

Just a few days earlier, I had learned that the Platon Karataev concert was going to be the acoustic duo, not the full band (the band played at the festival the previous night, after midnight, to a huge audience). That made it all the more wonderful, because it was low-key and quiet and attentive. You could take in the songs and feel the water and air. I don’t know if I will ever get to hear “Partért kiáltó” in the water again, or “Orange Nights,” or any of their songs. But maybe yes. Maybe they’ll play the water stage again next summer. Either way, it was a gift. They played a series of songs from the upcoming album, and some older songs too.

After that, I headed up the hill to see and hear what was going on before Dávid Szesztay. I heard a solo musician I immediately liked, Hunor Ipolyi-Gáts. I stayed to hear the rest of his set. Then I stopped for a few minutes to hear a band playing on the largest stage—it might have been a rehearsal, since it wasn’t listed in the schedule—then walked way up the hill and found myself listening to Dante, an lively folk-rock band with horns, traditional recorder-like instruments, and more. I eventually realized that they were on the very stage where Dávid Szesztay would be playing, so I stayed put (after leaving anxiously for a few minutes to check a map and make sure I was in the right place).

This was my fourth time hearing Szesztay live, whether solo or with his band, but this time he had a new band, a trio, whom I hadn’t heard befor and who were fantastic. One of them plays bass ukulele (I think); the other, drums (and Szesztay alternates between keyboard and guitar). The sound was rich and deep, with all sorts of rhythms; I heard familiar songs in new ways. My favorites of the evening were “Késő,” “Hullámzás,” and “Szólj.” Granted, those are some of my favorites anyway, but they had a different texture this evening.

After that, I heard Ivan & the Parazol (fun, with lots of people singing along and dancing), and then most of the HS7 (Heaven Street Seven) show. I knew nothing about them but realized pretty quickly that they were legends. This was their only festival performance in 2021, and the crowd seemed to be relishing every bit of it. I enjoyed what I heard but was a bit overwhelmed after the whole day; I will return to their music on my own to see if it catches on with me.

And that was enough. I went back down to the tent and tried to sleep, but didn’t really succeed. It rained for a good part of the night, and the music went on and on, but I rather enjoyed that. Then, around five in the morning, everything settled into quiet, and I packed up the tent and got ready to go. Before leaving, I walked around the grounds a little. The Amondó stage was glowing and deserted. (This is where Platon Karataev played in June, at Mini-Fishing on Orfű; this is also where they played on Wednesday night.)

I took a walk down by the lake and saw the water stage at daybreak.

As I mentioned, there were fish jumping out of the water; in a video I shot, you can hear one (along with many birds).

The trip back required good timing, which I fortunately had; I took a 6:30 bus back to Pécs, took a 7:30 train (or thereabouts) to Budapest-Kelenföld, took another train to Kőbánya-Kispest, and then changed from there to the train that took me to Szolnok, where I arrived at 11:37. Just before arriving in Szolnok, I took a video from the back of the train.

That was the day at Fishing on Orfű. Now I am listening to the rain and the leaves here in Szolnok, and it feels like a continuation and rupture at the same time. Orfű isn’t transportable, but it is still with me in some way, even as I turn my mind to other things.

Song Series #15: Doing Almost Nothing

Some of the most beautiful songs that I know work with silence and air. They seem to do almost nothing. Or maybe there’s a lot going on in them, but also a simplicity. I will bring up four such examples today.

Let’s begin with Jacques Brel’s “Départs,” one of his very early songs, recorded in 1953. The guitar has a simple chord progression and rhythm; for the most part (but not always), he strums on the beat, softly. But the little variations—of rhythm, stroke, volume—give the song a brooding texture. The lyrics are extraordinary on their own (about all the friendships that we abandon, all the good-byes we say, in our urge to travel the world in search of happiness), and the guitar gives them an extra tautness. (If you click on the picture, this will take you to the recording on YouTube.)

Toutes les amitiés
Qu’on laisse mourir
Qu’on laisse tomber
Pour aller courir
Sur de vains chemins
Cherchant pas à pas
Un bonheur humain
Qu’on ne connaît pas
Amitiés anciennes
Vieilles comme la vie
Idées faites siennes
Et que l’on renie
Visage sans nom
Prénom sans visage
Rires que nous perdons
Inutiles bagagesTous les “au revoir”
Qu’on lance à la ronde
Parce qu’on croit devoir
Parcourir le monde
Et tous les adieux
Aux filles donnés
C’est trop d’être d’eux
Allant guerroyer
Les bonheurs qu’on sème
A chaque départ
Meurent vite d’eux-mêmes
Sur les quais de gare
Tous les “au revoir”
Et tous les adieux
Nous rendent l’espoir
Nous rendent plus vieux

The next song is “Csak mi” by Lázár tesók (the Lázár brothers), whom I had the joy of hearing in concert a week ago. This song (about a relationship that can see in the dark, that becomes luminous in the dark) keeps playing and playing in my head and in my headphones; it’s the first song on their album Hullámtörés. In different hands, and with different lyrics, the vocal melody could have led to something cheesy. But they make it unique with the syncopated guitar and the beautiful repetitions of piano phrases and notes. It’s that repeated note on the piano toward the end that gets me; it’s like seeing in the dark itself. I think it’s possible to appreciate this song without knowing Hungarian, but here’s a rough translation of the lyrics:

A storm is stirring, light doesn’t come in
Everything in the window is already dark
Only you, only you can see (me) as such
This is me, I emerged just now.

When everything is invisible, that’s when I live
When everything goes dark, I shine

The edge of the setting sun is dark red
It floods the evening, but comes to an end
Only you, only you keep vigil at night
And that is the time when I emerge

When everything is invisible, that’s when we live
When everything goes dark, we shine
When everything is invisible, just then we appear
Just you, just I, just we have remained

The next song is “Psalmus” by Platon Karataev, whom I will hear next week at the Mini Fishing on Orfű festival! I am going just for Thursday night: bringing my bike (and tent and sleeping bag) on the train to Pécs, and biking from Pécs to Orfű. And then head back early in the morning. This will be the first time I hear the full band in concert; I heard Sebő and Gergő in an acoustic duo last August, and I heard Sebő play a solo concert just recently. I love this song for its long layers, among other things. First there’s bass alone. Then Gergő’s guitar comes in, and then, at the instant that he begins to sing, the drums come in too. Then Sebő’s quiet backing vocals. The whole band holds back so much in this song, it builds up so slowly, and its confession or offering is so bare. (You can read the lyrics here.) The Live at Gólya video is especially beautiful, because it lets you see some of what is going on musically. The song is from their second full-length album, Atoms.

I will end with Dávid Szesztay’s “Hullámzás,” which has also been playing in my head this week. It was beautiful at the concert on Wednesday and has become one of my favorite songs on the new album. The colorful chords and arpeggios combine with the simple vocal melody and the repeated words, like “elaludtál” (you have fallen asleep) and “ideúsztál” (you swam over here), and the single repeating note in the background. I won’t translate it here, since it would be hard to do correctly. The song seems to have to do with spending time with a person, morning and night, traveling together, waking almost together. Sometimes I think it’s a little bit about death, but then, everything is, in some way.

Oh, heck, here’s one more, because it has been one of my favorite songs over many years: “Strip Darts” by Hannah Marcus, from her 2003 album Desert Farmers. (“Strip Darts” is actually the correct spelling, even though it appears online as “Stripdarts.”) For this I have to use Spotify, because the song isn’t available on YouTube or Bandcamp. Listen to its story, its incantations, and the way it goes on without words. Even within the words, there is so much unsaid; you sense a person going through a private crisis, and someone else watching from the outside, with wry compassion. There is hope in this song. “But just when you think your love’s in vain / Look out here comes the desert rain / Look out here it comes.” And yes, there is the rain, in the music, and what a rain.

My descriptions here have been rather sparse, but that’s in the spirit of doing almost nothing. These songs have a way of coming back again and again.

From Rain to Shine: Dávid Szesztay’s Concert

When you’ve waited months and months for a concert like this to happen, and then it gets scheduled and cancelled because of the rain, and then gets rescheduled and takes place, on a sunny evening in Buda, and when you find yourself enjoying it with an audience that is fully involved in the music, swaying to it, thrilling in the songs, well, then, you (I) go home a bit richer.

This was only the second time that I had heard Dávid Szesztay play in concert, and the first time I had heard him play solo. The other concert was in Szeged, in February 2020, just before the coronavirus restrictions set in. His subsequent concert, which I had hoped to attend, was cancelled, and there were many months of no concerts for anyone. This must have been his first Budapest concert since early 2020 (solo or with his own band, that is; he also plays in Santa Diver and Kiscsillag).

For those unfamiliar with Budapest, there’s a big difference between Buda and Pest. Buda is older, hilly in parts, more elegant, more residential; Pest is flat, buzzing, touristy. You can love both parts of the city, but you don’t know Budapest until you have spent time in Buda: on its terraces (like this concert), in its side streets, up in its hills. And for all its beauty, it’s remarkably untouristy on this side of the Danube; wherever you go, people are leading their everyday lives.

On May 19th I had come out here, to Széntlélek tér in Buda, for the concert, but as I mentioned, it was rained out. Last night it took place right here, at the same venue where the other one was to be, at the Esernyős terrace of the Óbuda cultural center. Here’s how Szentlélek tér looked on the two days:

This somehow related to the music too. Dávid Szesztay’s music is dreamy, subtle, turbulent: the songs take you through many different colors and moods. It was great to hear him play solo, to hear the bare versions of the songs. He played songs from the new album, Iderejtem a ház kulcsát (I am Hiding the House Key Here) and several others (from Dalok Bentre and Határtalan). One of my favorites was “Gyertyaláng” (“Candle Flame”), from the new album; it was amazing to hear it right there in the moment.

Another favorite, one of my favorites of all his songs, was “Késő,” which I have mentioned here before. There were others too, too many to mention here.

There was a dog in the audience who got excited and started barking along during two of the songs.

At the end of the concert, we gave him a hearty ovation, and he played an encore. (I think it was “Szabadon”; I’m not sure now.) Then I lingered on the square for a little bit, and then headed home with songs in my head.

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.

  • “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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