Cz.K. Sebő: How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?

Cz.K. Sebő’s album, released on December 9, starts with “Opening Gibberish”—partly worded, partly wordless, hymnlike, rapturous, lost. It’s like someone trying to remember a song from long ago, a spiritual or maybe an Appalachian folk song from a different era, and mumbling forth the melody, then lilting and soaring with it—as a chorus, human or electronic, swells in the background—and hanging a word or two on one of the melodic phrases, and loving the song, and going on. It also reminds me of a time during my years in San Francisco when a friend and I played music together. That is exactly how he would write new songs: the melody would bring out this or that word or phrase, and in between, he would mumble gibberish. The song seems like memory and creation at the same time, but beyond that, it’s so beautiful, so full of longing for the right word at the right time, and wordlessness otherwise.

How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? is filled with words and wordlessness: it mumbles, wails, and crackles as on its journey from gibberish to pure sense and beyond. But what is this album, and who made it? It is the first LP (after years of EPs and singles) of Cz.K. Sebő: that is, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly and his bandmates, Benedek Szabó (of Galaxisok) and Soma Bradák (of Galaxisok and Platon Karataev). I think back on the first (and, so far, only) time I heard Sebő play a solo concert (back in May, on the TRIP Hajó). At the end he said the solo shows would get rarer and rarer, since he would be playing with his band. For a moment I wished this wasn’t so, and I still hope he plays solo shows now and then. But what the three of them have done together with this album, and in concert, goes far beyond the few words I am putting down here. They have created a special sound, natural to the songs themselves, something like American acoustic folk mixed with electronica. Hints of Blaze Foley, Ben Leavez, and much more. The songs rotate through moods and phases, with moments of humor, rage, bewilderment, and stretches of grief and despair, joy, awe. I hear a vast, deep happiness in the album: the kind of happiness that makes room for everything else.

Humor appears in the very beginning: “Opening Gibberish” makes me smile, and the mood continues through “Chamomile,” which by now is hard for me to separate from the video, but which I love listening to with my eyes closed. It was this time around, in the album, that I truly noticed the piano by Levente Kapolcsi-Szabó. Things start to shift with “Someday,” and then “Got Lost (Interlude I)”, one of my favorite songs on the album, marks a transition. It reminds me a little of Elliott Smith, but it also makes me think of walking and talking quietly to myself, and all these associations and the sounds would be enough, but I want to catch the words as they go by, I get wisps of them, then get wrapped up in the beautiful keyboard or piano, which patters like snow that seems to rise as it falls.

Then come the songs of despair and grief, “Kétezerhúsz” (the first Hungarian song on the album) and “First Snow.” They both have a tranquility to them; not knowing the language, anyone could hear them as serene, even hopeful, but the lyrics take you in a different direction, into helplessness, into loss that we can do nothing about, that makes us small. I have written about these songs before, so I won’t go into them here, but I love hearing them in this new context, in the larger album, note by note. Because of the “Kétezerhúsz” video, I now picture a deserted Coney Island when I listen to it with my eyes closed; and I hear the waves. As for “First Snow,” its poetry is not only in the words, but in the drums, the gentle layering of sounds, the pacing of the words.

“Space Between Us” suggests a new transition; in this song, I love the subtle, understated bass. The song has a “get up and go” feeling to it, a little bit like the end of Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” This sense continues into “Interlude II,” which oddly reminds me of one of the transitions in Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis.

And now the album has carried me to a different place. I recognize “Keveset olvasok” from at least one concert, and love its way of rotating around and around, with lyrics that I try to catch as they go by, and which I will eventually learn. The album isn’t out on Bandcamp yet, so I have no lyrics in front of me, except for songs previously released as singles. But I do hear phrases like “látom a végtelent, a lélek időtelen” (“I see the infinite, the soul is timeless”), and know that the uplifting is underway.

Then the rapturous, playful “Pure Sense,” which reflects back on some of Sebő’s earlier songs, perhaps the EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze, but from a new perspective:

We’re laughing
We’re laughing on a pelican waggling freely in this salty wind
The air’s blue,
the sun blew away all the spray flying up from collapsing waves

I love you
But we’re not even close to those folk songs I was writing in ’18
’Cause this one,
Has no single subject, or person, or any purpose,
its just unfolding…

Then the song takes a turn and goes into a big anthem-like sound, something like a joyful and defiant ode to Being, except that the way it’s sung, I don’t even know that it’s about Being, and I don’t care; the words don’t matter so much any more, because I know where we are.

But not for long; this joy, this defiance is not the end. Something else comes along, with “Interlude III” and the last two songs of the album. I won’t try do describe it; it’s not just that “words wouldn’t do it justice,” but rather that it seems to be about wordlessness itself, bringing things back around to the beginning in a way, and reminding me of Pilinszky’s “Amiként kezdtem.” Along the way something has shifted and broken, and it’s the breaking that has allowed the rest to happen. Balogh Gallusz’s art for the album expresses this. But what is it?

The title gives a clue. “How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?” suggests that this is an impossible task (in contrast with “How can I…,” “How might I…,” or “How should I…,” which suggest possibility). This album has a paradox. It has done the impossible. There is no question that it has shown the beauty. I just refuse to believe that it’s a life in vain in the first place. The very existence of this album proves that lives are not in vain, because not only is this music playing over and over in people’s homes, in the middle of the night, but the music itself draws on other music, maybe even music by unknown people who sang in their backyard once upon a time long ago. Beauty, yes; in vain, no.

But this means I have to listen more closely. I have to come back to beloved “Kétezerhúsz” and “First Snow” and take them in. The album asks this of me. If I do, I recognize that yes, our lives are in vain, or at least I can hear this. The thing we rely on all our lives, that sense of “I,” will one day be gone. No matter what else may remain, that won’t last forever either. One day we will all be gone, forgotten. Not just covered with snow, but washed over by the waves and fires. And even the waves and fires one day will be no more. This has to be understood for the rest to come through. The joy depends on it.

As does the showing (“How could I show you…?”). Through song, through these songs, through this album. The sounds make pictures. They evoke other songs, other pictures. From start to finish, they draw a life. No part can be left out.

But there’s still more to the title. There’s the “I” and the “you.” A gift is being given, an ineffable gift. If I receive it, I will no longer be the same as before. Something ineffable might happen to me too.

The album art shown here is by Balogh Gallusz.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it, but otherwise kept it unchanged.

  • “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.

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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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