Is Music “Entertainment”?

In Book V of the Odyssey, Odysseus, shipwrecked, bereft, and alone in the sea, ends up swimming to the island of the Phaiakians. After meeting Nausikaa and being welcomed into the palace of Alkinoös (now already in Book VIII), he is treated to a musical performance by “the inspired singer Demodokos” (θεῖον ἀοιδὸν / Δημόδοκον), in whose singing and lute-playing the Phaiakians delight. But when Demodokos sings of the origins of the Trojan war, Odysseus starts to shed tears. No one notices but Alkinoös, who decides to cut off the music and bring everyone outside for contests. Later, after the contests, celebration (with music—again by Demodokos), gifts, and a bath, and feasting, Odysseus asks Demodokos to sing a third time: this time about the wooden horse that Odysseus filled with men. He sings, and Odysseus weeps like a woman “lying over the body of her dear husband.” Finally Alkinoös brings himself to ask the stranger who he is; Odysseus’s answer fills the next four books of the Odyssey.

When listening to music, we all have some combination of the Phaiakians and Odysseus in us. We delight in it for its beauty, we receive it as entertainment, but also, to some degree, we want it to confront us with a truth. We want to face ourselves, or the world, or death, or the divine in it. The kinds of entertainment and truth are many and layered, and people differ in the proportions they want. Some go to music primarily for entertainment, others primarily for confrontation. But somehow both elements have to be there, if the music is good and if we are listening closely.

The word “entertainment” is richer than it may seem on the surface. It comes from the French, and before that, the Latin inter- (“between, among”) and tenir (“to hold”), the latter of which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ten- (“to stretch”). To be entertained is to be held for a time. In contrast, the Hungarian word for entertainment, “szórokozás,” has the root szór, “to sprinkle, scatter”; it’s a calque of the German zich zerstreuen. But maybe, if you scatter yourself into something, you can be taken up by it. But what kind of taking up do you want? When I listen to Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? I am taken up and even scattered; I dissolve into it for a while. I love the sound itself and the many changes it undergoes; I look forward to hundreds of moments. But the album also carries me into a new sense of life.

To an extent, differences in musical tastes come down to this: what are we seeking in the music? What do we find in it? Music is not a “customer satisfaction” project, thank God, so there will always be a discrepancy between what we seek and what we hear, and that is good. The music will even change what we are seeking. But we go to music with a longing of some kind; our differences of longing lead us to different kinds of music and different encounters with it. Still, sometimes there’s a sense of musicians and audience coming together, being there in the same moment for the same thing. “Ezért a mondatért jöttem, ezért a mondatért….” (At the Csoóri event last Saturday, Gergely Balla told us about the origin of these lyrics.)

Last night I went to hear Jazzékiel. The concert was glorious. I especially loved the early set, in which they played their 2011 album Téli mesék (Winter Tales). There was so much subtlety, playfulness, and dark humor to it. The later set had bigger, rapturous sound. I marveled at the keyboard player and each of the musicians, the way they were so fully committed. I left just before the encore, since I had to catch the 10:45 train back to Szolnok, but was happy about having come out for this.

The other band (who played in between Jazzékiel’s sets) didn’t agree with me at all. I am not naming them here, because I don’t wish to put them down. They had a very enthusiastic crowd, so they are clearly appreciated. But it was so far from what I like and love in music that I had to go to the back of the room, sit down, and think about what was going on. Jazzékiel seemed to like this band a lot; they had promoted them enthusiastically in the days leading up to the concert, and I see that Péter Jakab (Jazzékiel’s lead singer) directed at least one of their videos.

I think it was partly that they tilted a bit too far in the “entertainment” direction for me. But that wasn’t necessarily so. I go back and listen to one of their songs now, and I hear more going on in it than entertainment alone. For some, their songs might be transcendent. I think it has more to do with their heavy metal sound. It shuts me out, for the most part, instead of bringing me in. There are exceptions. It isn’t that I need or want music to be pretty all the time. I love a good dirty sound in the right places. This is all difficult to define; it depends on how it’s done.

Sometimes the entertainment is so intense that it becomes something else, something otherworldly or utterly in-the-worldly. I feel that when listening to Pandóra Projekt. They have a light touch to them, both musically and lyrically; they’re having so much fun when they perform. But their voices, rhythms, creative song forms, and passion come together into something profoundly human. To me it’s miraculous that they have accomplished all of this in the one year that they have been playing together. (They formed a duo, then a band, in the beginning of 2021.)

The “entertainment” aspect of music cannot be boxed up and separated from the rest; at its best, it leads into the rest. Musicians have to be able to sweep the listener up. Into what? That will depend on what they themselves bring, what the listeners are willing to receive, and what else is at work in the air.

Image credit: Demodocus playing the harp in an illustration of Homer’s Odyssey by John Flaxman (1810).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it. I could add more and more; the subject is vast. But I’ll leave it at this.

The Right to Be Astonished

Lazy days do not come often for me, but I love them when they come. A time for slow movement and stillness. A time to look at the paintings on my wall. A time to think things over. A time to listen to music without having to rush anywhere afterward. A time to go on a longer run than usual. I do have a few things to do today, but with the exception of one assignment I need to create for my students, there’s no immediate deadline. And the winter break (short but substantial) is around the corner.

Thoughts pass through my mind, weaving around each other. I think about an essay that a student wrote about human abilities. The essay concludes (I am quoting with the student’s permission): “In the end we shouldn’t forget that to be amazed by something or give an opinion on it is also an ability. Day after day we keep getting impressed by others. We should keep going like this, and affect the future, who will also have the right to be astonished.”

The right to be astonished! I was astonished by the phrase itself. Astonishment is often put down as naive. People hesitate to show it or even feel it. What a shame and loss. People hold back from astonishment because they don’t want to be embarrassed or look like fools. But the world would be better with such fools. Awe and astonishment are indeed abilities, and they are real. They mean that something reached you, some kind of beauty or meaning, and that you were able to receive it. No single person receives it everywhere, but each of us takes part in a larger perception.

If we hold back out of shame or self-consciousness, the student suggests, we are not only denying our own astonishment, our own ability, but affecting the future too. To say (in words or otherwise) that “this is beautiful” is to allow such things to be said.

A few things have astonished me in the past week, including Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, the Torah portion that I chanted yesterday (Genesis 50:15-26), the Sándor Csoóri event that I attended yesterday (a discussion, held at the Petőfi Literary Museum, between Miklós Vecsei and Gergely Balla, with music by Balla—a song he wrote that draws on nine Csoóri poems), a video premiere of the Platon Karataev duo performing “Partért kiáltó,” and passages in Hamlet, which my eleventh-grade students are close to finishing now.

Then last night I came upon something that topped it all off. A student had posted a new photo of herself on Facebook. (Here it is common for teachers and students to be “friends” on Facebook and even to use Facebook for classroom-related communication, so I see these updates from time to time.) Another student commented, “you caught my eyes just like the pirates caught Hamlet.” (We had just read the scene where Hamlet tells Horatio in a letter about having been captured, and thereby rescued, by pirates.) What a beautiful Hamlet reference! That’s why it’s possible to read Hamlet again and again; there’s no end to what it can evoke, what associations it can form in different minds, lives, stages of life.

Oh, and I forgot one other thing. After the Csoóri event, I had a little time before my train back to Szolnok, so I walked to the Keleti station and had two slices of pizza at a nearby chain restaurant. It isn’t always easy to find good pizza in Hungary (by which I mean pizza with a crackling thin crust and light, fresh toppings), but this place has them, and this time they had plain (tomato sauce and cheese) slices. And those slices were so delicate and delicious that I could have eaten two more, but by then it was time to catch the train, which was just as well, because I also had chicken soup waiting for me at home.

So yes, I claim my right to be astonished, and I will not give it up.

The photo is of three paintings by Cz.K. Sebő. Instead of selling physical CDs, he is selling a series of tiny mood-paintings, which come with download codes (so that they include the full album as well as two forthcoming demo songs). I bought this series of three and intended to give two away as gifts—but love what they give to the room and will not part with them.

  • “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

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  • 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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