Preparing for a Ten-Minute Concert

During the long break this morning, we held a little performance in the hallway, outside the teachers’ room. Two groups of students sang four American and British folk songs; I accompanied them on cello. The singing was full of spirit (and in tune and on time). The audience’s enjoyment came through, both then and throughout the day.

Because of the coordination involved, it took weeks to prepare this ten-minute concert; the participating students were from different classes, and we had only one rehearsal all together. Also, my cello playing was dismally out of shape even a week ago; I had to coax it back. But coax it back I did.

This morning, to take the bus to school, I needed to be out the door by 6:30. I managed this and got to school before 7. I went to the drama room and warmed up for about half an hour.

The cello playing barely figured in the concert, though. I played introductions to three of the songs, then accompanied the students with pizzicato. They hardly needed the accompaniment; they held their own and sang with full voice.

This was the fourth short concert that my students and I had held at Varga during a long morning break. The first was in 2018, with class 9.A; the second, in the spring of 2019; the third, the following December, and the fourth today. There was a stretch in 2020-2021 when, because of Covid, we were not supposed to sing at school at all. So it was good to sing again and know that we could.

I have a lot to do in the next week—particularly editing and putting out the autumn issue of Folyosó. Once it is published, I can give attention to writing and translation again—and music too, but played on my own.

This little concert reminded me indirectly of Keith Vincent’s lecture on “Haiku and the Japanese Novel” at the ALSCW Conference: about the novelist Natsume Sōseki, who initially was a haiku poet, and how the haiku prepared him for the longer forms. This concert was the haiku: demanding intense concentration in itself, and part of something larger. Many people, hearing about a ten-minute concert with students, would say, “Oh, that’s so nice,” or “How lovely,” but there’s more to it than the “nice” and the “lovely.” It’s a way of approaching the larger projects as well.

I am weary of all the opinion pieces about how “we” have given up the madness of around-the-clock work culture, how, after Covid, “we” have started to demand something saner. I gave up that kind of work culture long ago. Anyone who knows me knows that I work hard—but at the things I have chosen, not at jobs where I am at someone else’s beck and call. Over the years I have turned down or ignored jobs and opportunities that would have paid more but put me at the company’s mercy. Yes, a teacher has to fulfill requirements, but at the school where I am now, they are not too onerous; there’s room for music and literature in addition to the standard material. The salary is dismal, but I can manage with it here. People may think I’m independently wealthy, with a lot in the bank, but that is not the case; I have very little. Rather, I can live simply, and why not do so? The greatest challenge right now is exhaustion in the evenings—not exhaustion, but simply falling asleep. Another challenge is affording travel when I need it; a trip to the U.S. costs me a lot, relative to what I have.

So a ten-minute concert is also a possibility, among many others, and in that light, something worth doing more often. When you lift up the possibilities, they change what can be found in the minutes of a day.

I was sorry not to go hear Grand Bleu last night, but by the time I realized there was a concert, it was too late to go out to Budapest and get to the concert on time, and besides, I needed to rest and catch up with things. I have been meaning to mention that I heard them and Gábor Molnár in a wonderful concert at Sejribizli, shortly after returning to Hungary from the big trip. I was still a bit jetlagged but loved the music and atmosphere; the audience included many Turks and Indians as well as Hungarians and others, and there was a great cheer to it all. I leave off with a picture from that concert and a link to “Emlékszem még,” one of my favorites of their songs.



Listening to Grand Bleu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Songs Chosen for a Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

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

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

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

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

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    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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