“Majdnemország” and Political Songs

Should songs be political? There’s no “should” about it. No one has to insert political content in a song. However, if a songwriter has something to say that could be taken as political, but holds back from doing so out of fear or apprehension, that’s a loss to the musician and the music. Try things out, say what you want to say in the form that suits it best.

But know that others might not take well even to your lighthearted endeavors.

On May 10, Felső Tízezer (Upper Ten Thousand, or Upper Class) released a new song, “Majdnemország,” about how we don’t live out our true beliefs and desires but instead give in to the forces at hand. As a result of this passivity, the song sings, we live in a “majdnemország,” which could be translated as “Almost-Country,” or “Republic of Not Quite” or something along those lines. It could also be a pun on “Majomország” (Monkey-Country), a poem by Sándor Weöres that appears on the Sebő-együttes’s 1986 album Cimbora, a collection of children’s songs and poems.

The song begins,

Majdnemországban élni, ahol nem köszönnek vissza,
ahol az ajtóban megállnak, aztán se jobbra, se balra.
Majdnemországban élni, ahol azt mondják, hogy mindegy,
úgyse tudod megcsinálni, inkább azt csináld, amire kérnek.

A rough translation:

To live in Almost-country, where they don’t return your greeting,
where they halt in the doorway, then go neither right nor left.
To live in Almost-country, where they say it doesn’t matter,
that you can’t do it anyway, so do instead what they ask.

Within a day or so of the song’s appearance on YouTube, nasty comments started pouring in. One after another–from people who didn’t seem to have listened to the song but assumed it was an attack on the country or government. That was what struck me: that the comments were not about the song, and that there were so many of them. A familiar scenario! (Since then, the irrelevant comments have been removed, but the comments about the song itself, including negative comments, have remained.)

I saw no point in responding to those commenters, so I posted an independent comment, in which I praised the bracing quality of the song and suggested that it could apply to many countries, not only Hungary: that it was speaking about the tendency to give in to political, personal, and social systems and orders.

It seems that this comment was on target, because it came up in an interview in ContextUs with two of the band’s members, László Sallai (the band’s frontman and songwriter) and Gallus Balogh (the bassist). The interviewer quoted it, and Sallai said that it came closest to an understanding of the song. (Yes, I am honored! But that is not the point here.)

In the interview they talked about how they like to take different directions with their music instead of always repeating the same thing. Their second album, Majd lesz valahogy, is about relationships, but they went on from there, with A bonyolult világ, to sing about complexities of life more broadly.

When the discussion moved toward political songs, the two had somewhat different things to say. Balogh said that he doesn’t bring politics into his music because for him, music is intimate. But he saw “Majdnemország” as only slightly political and was startled by the reactions. Sallai said that a person should not be afraid of writing about political themes, but he doesn’t blame those who don’t, if it’s not what interests them. He went on to say that the climate today is prohibitive, that musicians lose audiences even because of something they have said outside of the music. Later he spoke of how the large news portals have been giving less and less attention to culture.

It’s a fascinating interview because of the frankness, the ideas, the take on political music and Hungarian life. I agree with Sallai: I don’t think musicians have to be political at all, if it isn’t how they see the world. There’s much more to life and music than politics. But if it is part of what they want to do and say, then they shouldn’t be punished for that. Saying, writing, or singing what you think, even tentatively and playfully, deserves room and more. Until recently, I thought that music in Hungary was a great domain of freedom. Now I see some of the restrictions and censure that musicians face. I am glad that there are people speaking about it.

I added to this piece after posting it and made slight corrections to the translation of the lyrics as well.

Listen Up: Cz.K. Sebő

Cz.K. Sebő (Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén). Photo credit: hvg.hu.

When was the last time you discovered new music and couldn’t stop listening to it? One piece, one song after another draws you in; you play your favorites over and over, and then find another, and wait, what, another! Another song goes straight to some part of you that had been sleeping or sloppy until now. An experience that you know to the bones but also have never known before. You want the whole world to know about this, you want to take these songs and hold them up to the light somehow. Except that they can only speak for themselves. Words about music are a little bit like helmets worn as gloves. Still, you have to give it a try. The first piece in my “Listen Up” series was dedicated to the Hungarian band Platon Karataev; the second one, right now, to one of their founding members, Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén (solo name: Cz.K. Sebő), who has released four EPs since 2014, as well as some singles, and is now recording his first full-length album.

If you are drawn to music in this vein—music along the general, disparate lines of R.E.M., Pavement, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, The Smiths, the Breeders, Damien Jurado, Sonny Smith, Granfaloon Bus, Grandaddy, Red House Painters, Nick Drake, Art of Flying, Kid Dakota, Rufus Wainwright, Hannah Marcus, or other folk or indie rock with a special relationship between lyrics and music, a disciplined dreaminess of word and sound—then Cz.K. Sebő’s songs will likely hit home. And even if you listen to a different kind of music entirely, you will find something beautiful here.

I plan to introduce just five of his songs, four of which are in English, and one, his most recent recording, in Hungarian. To hear more, you can go to Bandcamp and YouTube. I recommend listening to the entire albums; in each one, the songs form something together, and it’s hard to leave any of them out.

Cz.K. Sebő is about 27 years old. When I first fell in love with this general kind of music and started listening to it all the time, when I first played (clumsily) in a band, he wasn’t born yet. His songs evoke music that has long been part of my life, sometimes filling it, sometimes just being there with me, yet there’s something “sajátos” (particular, individual) about them. The best way to understand this is to jump right in. So, after all these preludes, let’s go.

The first one will be “Out of Pressure” from his second (2015) EP The masked undressed. I love its combination of dreariness and soaring. Like many of the songs, it steals up on you. Also, the lyrics (in American English) are both natural and unusual: the song seems at home in the language and outside it at the same time.

It begins,

Out of pressure Sunday morning
Feeling nothing but this soaring
I’m alone here in this gray room
With a thought of a beer, but drinking coffee.

The way the voice soars on “gray room” gives you the whole picture: there is a kind of bleakness mixed with glorious solitude. It isn’t unhappy.

I’ll skip the next verse so as not to overanalyze this and to get to the chorus, which to me holds the brilliance.

Another morning after a boring night with you
Why are you falling into the see of society
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony

The words are so simple, but when they culminate in “What I seek is harmony,” they give infinite meaning to “seek” and “harmony.” The seeking is that longing and striving and working and waiting, all of those things together and more, and “harmony” here is so much more than a few notes that sound pleasant together. It’s something you pursue and yearn for all your life long. The second “seeeeeeek” brings the whole song together. And as the word is elongated, the chord progression continues beneath it, so that without realizing it, you have been brought back to the beginning.

The second one is “Disguise,” from the same EP and from an even earlier release, Fugitive Feelings (2014). (There’s a passionate Platon Karataev version too, on the Atoms album, but I love this early version even more.) In an interview somewhere, he named it as his favorite of his solo songs; I don’t know whether that’s still true. I can see why it was, or is, his favorite. It’s sometimes my favorite too. I will just let it speak for itself.

I won’t bring up “Light as the Breeze” here (from his EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze), since I mentioned it in a recent blog post, and there’s so much to mention. Along with “Hart,” it might be my favorite of them all. I’ll just say that it changed my outlook on life and on music, slightly but strongly. Songs don’t teach us how to live, but they give us inklings of something. Those hints can’t be translated directly into life, but they become part of it, something we carry with us. “Light as the Breeze” is a song that I carry with me, even without an audio device; I hear it in my head at various times in the day.

I will go on to “Hart,” from his 2017 EP Junction. I originally included “Sham Melancholy” instead, and it’s a tough call, since I love both songs. But I realized that “Hart” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and I can’t leave it out. It carries you slowly from the contemplative beginning to the expansive, night-filled middle to the quiet end, all of this in three minutes and three seconds. It builds without your knowing it, in a short time; it starts with simple strumming, then the chords and single notes catch your attention, and then the voice comes in slower, with its own rhythm that rises and rises and then sweeps the guitar along with it. There’s so much motion now, everything is moving, but it’s motion in stillness, a falling and sitting, a wounded but joyous arrival. And then the stillness takes over.

Look at me now my friend, I’m on the ground and sitting
Look at me now my friend
Look at me now my friend

Now I’m falling, but I’m sitting here arrived
In the same time I found the road I was searching for so long

Many of these songs have to do with solitude, which is part of why I am drawn to them. Another favorite, in a different mood, is “Chamomile.” It’s the most humorous of his songs that I know so far. It has subtle self-mockery and mockery of the world, but without cynicism. The guitar is so understated and catchy; it takes you in right away, but grows on you too. The storyline seems somewhat as follows: the narrator has been working on songs, just finished one, and now it’s time to rest, but his apartment (or his mind?) is filled with people. So he tries to join the strange, dreamlike party for a little bit, but realizes he would rather be by himself. This song will be on his full-length album.

Not only do I relate to the story, but I enjoy the melodic phrase that elongates specific words, “written,” “season,” “name here,” “solo.” It’s as though they were set in musical italics, but more than italics. They the song a kind of wryness, an amusement with the whole situation, an affable antisociability. The song’s structure allows you to anticipate favorite moments, such as “fingers / linger,” “festival season,” the break (the “Oh my mind, oh my mind, oh my mind is on fire” part) and the ending. In general, his endings are superb. And the video is brilliantly done, with all sorts of subtle details, capturing, as he said in an interview, “that state where a person doesn’t know if they are awake or asleep.” (My favorite moment is the look on his face when he sees Soma Bradák drumming in the bathtub.)

And now we arrive at the last of the songs that I am including here, “kétezerhúsz” (2020), whose video appeared just last Friday. The song is (perhaps) about this Covid era that we have been living in for a year now; the video was shot at Coney Island, which he visited in winter. In an interview with KERET Blog, he said,

Sok lassú dalomra mondom, hogy boldog, de nem tagadom, ez egy szomorú dal. Körülbelül a mögöttünk álló egy évről szól. A szorongásokról, bizonytalanságról. Viszont van itt egyszer egy trükk: ezt a dalt 2019 végén írtam, amikor még nem a Covidtól féltem, hanem inkább a klímapánik jeleit éreztem magamon. Nagyon érdekes, hogy mégis mennyire megtalálta saját magát ez a dal 2020-ban, számomra mindig ezt a mögöttünk álló (- és sajnos most is aktuális) időszakot fogja felidézni.

Rough translation: I say of many of my slow songs that they are happy, but I don’t deny it: this is a sad song. It speaks of the approximate year behind us. Of the anxiety, uncertainty. Yet there’s also a catch here: I wrote this song at the end of 2019, when I wasn’t yet afraid of Covid, but rather feeling symptoms of climate panic. It is very interesting to what degree this song found itself in 2020; for me it will always evoke this time that we have been through (and which unfortunately is still going on).

What’s interesting is that this song steps into a slightly different musical zone; with the lyrics in Hungarian, the music reminds me slightly of songs I have heard here: for instance, Gábor Presser’s “Te majd kézenfogsz.” It proceeds gently through the sadness, verse by verse. I won’t translate it all here, since that would just distort it. But here’s one of my favorite verses:

Ha panaszkodni akarsz,
akkor légyszi menj el
Nekem már betelt a füzetem ezzel
mégsem lettem könnyebb.

(If you want to complain,
do me a favor and leave
My notebook is already filled up with this
and I didn’t get any relief.)

And then, not obviously in the song, but in the author’s commentary, there’s a bit of humor, three verses later:

Talán boldog is vagyok
Ez a keserűség éltet
Keserű nélkül nincs is édes,
Mint só nélkül sincs étel
((a szerző itt megkérdőjelezi improvizációs készségeit))

(Maybe I’m happy too
This bitterness vitalizes me
Without the bitter, nothing is sweet,
As without salt, there is no food
((here the author questions his improvisational skills)))

That last line is Cz.K. Sebő’s comment on what he just wrote. Yes, the analogy just before it seems slightly off. But it also works beautifully: “éltet” (vitalizes) off-rhymes with “édes” (sweet) and “étel” (food); there’s also an alliteration between “keserű” (bitter) and “só” (salt). And the parallel syntax makes this all come together, even if we aren’t sure at the end whether it entirely makes sense. But it does, it does! If you think about it, salt can be compared to bitter taste, and food to life, and through this, the larger meaning comes through. Yet it does so as an afterthought, an improvisation, a grappling for some kind of meaning. The uncertainty leads into the very end, “I wait for tomorrow”:

Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot

which could seem hopeful, but which sounds like sleep, waiting, and a long stretch of uncertainty.

And the Coney Island footage, so slow and peaceful, so beautiful, but also sad, because of the desolation, the soapy sea. It brings up my own memories of Coney Island, of the time I rode the Cyclone (with whom? I don’t even remember).

Well, I think that’s a start, and that’s all it can be at this point; I have only recently begun listening to this music and look forward to much more. There’s much more that I could have said about these songs. But that’s the way it is with music, and with this music in particular. Thanks to everyone who helped to bring it out to the world.

P.S. A few updates and afterthoughts:

Cz.K. Sebő is pronounced “cé ká sebő” (very roughly, if this were French, “tsé ka chèbeu,” with an elongated “eu”). As for his full name, you can hear his Platon Karataev bandmate Gergő Balla introduce him at the beginning of this interview. In Hungarian, the surname is said or written first, then the given name; Sebestyén (Sebő for short) is his given name. You can hear many more of Sebő’s songs on Bandcamp and in videos of his wonderful concerts at the A38 Hajó: one in 2018 and one in 2020.

When I started this “Listen Up” series, I hadn’t listened to “Hart” yet, but I realized later that the words “listen up” are in the lyrics of the song. So let the series title be in honor of “Hart.” The next piece in this series will feature Art of Flying.

I made various revisions, additions, and edits to this piece after posting it, but the basics are unchanged.

Listen Up: Platon Karataev

platon karataev

Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev (Gergő Balla, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Soma Bradák, and László Sallai). I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms, released just last month, whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

Most of their songs are in English (but this will change with their next album). Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on Atoms):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be sung to Ophelia by Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic lostness. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the opening song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon. Months after posting this, I replaced the “Aphelion” and “Ex Nihilo” videos with the Live at Gólya versions, so that you can see and hear these incredible performances. Also, here’s a wonderful interview in English with Platon Karataev’s Gergő Balla.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to. Next up: Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly of Platon Karataev). When I started this series, I didn’t realize this, but Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Hart,” one of my favorite songs in the world, has the words “listen up” in the lyrics. So let “Hart” be the origin in retrospect.

Update: I made a few changes to this piece after posting it, but kept it mostly intact, since these were my thoughts at the time. Their music grows and grows. I can’t wait for the new album, Partért kiáltó (Crying for the Coast).

Another update: here’s a classic 2017 video of them playing live and speaking about their music.

A Great Afternoon in Törökszentmiklós

IMG_9234I went to Törökszentmiklós today for the first time ever (I have passed through it by train but have never set foot in it until now). The occasion? A band contest, AZTaQ, hosted by the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ (Ipolyi Cultural Center) and featuring 1LIFE and others. The contest–one of many taking place around the country–is specifically for amateur bands: that is, those whose music is not commercially available (through big record labels, distributors, etc.). In addition, they must perform only their own music. The bands are judged on the basis of their playing (that is, how well they know their instruments), lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture.

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I learned in advance: each band would play only a short set, and the exact timing was uncertain. That is exactly how it was; the sequence was not announced in advance (at least not to the audience members), and each band had a thorough sound check before performing. This, in a way, made it even more fun; there was time to relax into it. I was only worried that if it went very late, and if 1LIFE ended up being the last band, I wouldn’t get to hear them at all, since I would have to catch the last train, which was to leave Törökszentmiklós at 8:56. But this didn’t happen; they played fifth, and after the sixth band the event came to a close.

I have never been to an official band competition. Festivals, yes; concerts, yes; but no competition with judges and points. The bands who played today had been selected out of a pool of applicants. What surprised me was the relaxed, friendly atmosphere; the people running the event were there for the love of it and seemed to be enjoying themselves all the way through. They helped with setup, breakdown, and soundcheck; took many photos; and tapped their feet during the songs. I have to go back to this place.

I went primarily to hear 1LIFE (and Dana & the Dreamcatchers, who, as it turned out, did not play today), but I was curious to hear the others too: Lélegzet, Dorchipelago, SteelO, Caephis, Perfect Pill, and Nest of Plagues (Nest of Plagues didn’t play today either). Exciting things are happening in Hungarian rock music. Bands upon bands are forming, writing new songs, trying out new sounds and forms. The six bands that played today differed sharply from each other, not only in their styles, which ranged from heavy metal to something R&B-like, but in their approach to music.

I do not want to describe the performances, since the contest is still underway. This much I can say: I now know of more bands that I would like to hear again (particularly SteelO), and 1LIFE was fantastic, hands down. Their sound was glorious, they played with full commitment and presence, and you could feel the audience loving the songs. They finished with a ripping, passionate performance of “Maradok ember.” That in itself made the trip worthwhile.

As for Törökszentmiklós, I look forward to visiting it again.

Update: 1LIFE won first place! And SteelO won second! Congratulations!!!

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I took all three photos in Törökszentmiklós. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

1LIFE in Esztergom

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Does life get a whole lot better than this: listening to a terrific band in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? If it does, I hope to be there for it; but if not, I have already lived well.

Established late in the tenth century, Esztergom was Hungary’s capital until the Mongol seige of 1241. It towers above and alongside the Danube; you quickly encounter its steep hill and cliffs (I was generally able to bike uphill; I just had to watch for cars). When I arrived, it was just early afternoon, so I had time to see the Basilica (up high) and bike along the Danube below.

The Basilica, planned in 1822 and completed in 1869, stands on the foundation of a much older church, built in the eleventh century, that suffered burning, sacking, and ultimate ruin, with renovations in between. Esztergom itself, for all its splendor, has been through war after war, trouble after trouble. Later, when I commented on its beauty to the staff at the Atrium, the bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed, they replied, “Szép lesz.” (It will be beautiful.)

The synagogue, which I did not get to see (I mistook another building for it) is supposedly Hungary’s oldest—I have yet to verify this—but with the deportation and killing of almost the entire Jewish community in World War II, it stopped being a place for services. Today it functions as a cultural center.

 

After coming down from the hill, I walked through the Comedium Corso festival grounds to get my bearings. I heard an organ grinder, saw children riding Shetland ponies, and found the large stage where the bands were to play. I checked in at the Atrium before biking back down for the concert.

 

1LIFE ascended the stage through billows of fog and began to play up a storm. Within seconds or minutes, the audience (ranging in age from about 3 to 60, with a large teenage contingent) was tapping, dancing, singing, cheering along. Some of these songs, such as “Nincsen kérdés,” are heartbreaking and exhilarating at once; the hard-edged sound combines with the raw and thoughtful lyrics. Their sound reminds me a little of Nirvana and a little more of Son Volt (especially the Wide Swing Tremolo album) but their mixture of music and lyrics is unlike any other I have heard.

Several little kids were dancing through almost the whole show—and really dancing to the beat, not just randomly jumping around; teens were singing along to every word; and I was thrilled to be there. I realized, in a new way, that 1LIFE had “it”: the combination of music, lyrics, zest, stage presence, and knowhow that makes you enjoy every moment and want still more. They have more to discover and try out—this is always true for good artists—and they are clearly doing this. They show it through their appreciation of others’ music, their range of textures and tones, and their willingness to go for it, play shows, work with each new situation. They are professional in the best sense of the word: not staid-professional, but live-out-the-art professional.

They played most of the songs from their album, including “Kapcsolj ki!” and other favorites; one still-unrecorded song whose name I didn’t catch (I think it has “bölcsesség,” “wisdom,” in it) and which begins with “Na na na”—I love it so far and can’t wait to hear it again—and another song, “Londoni idő,” that is not on the album either but can be found on video. Midway through “Álmok a parton,” in the chorus, Marcell Bajnai changed “A Tisza-parton éjsaka….” to “A Duna-parton éjsaka” (in accordance with Esztergom’s location on the Danube). I don’t know if this was planned, but it felt spontaneous and perfect. There were memorable moments between the songs, too: quick stage banter, an eloquent impromptu song introduction by Marcell Jankó, the bassist—and then the one sad moment: they announced that they would play their next-to-last song, “Maradok ember,” but a festival staff person apparently told them that they were out of time and could only play one more song. So they skipped “Maradok ember” and played a gorgeous, exuberant “Táncolunk a végtelenben,” which turned responsive toward the end—that is, we sang back when we were supposed to, with full voice. And then cheered and cheered. And hoped for an encore. It did not come, but the concert didn’t go away quickly either. The pictures I took of the show (below) are limited in quality, but Kitti Berényi (kittiphoto) took some great ones.

After the concert, I biked along the Danube again, walked over the bridge to Slovakia and back, got some beef stew from one of the festival food stands, ran into the band and congratulated them, and then walked and biked through sloping alleys, up and down steps, until the sun went down. I got a good night’s sleep; early in the morning, I set out for Budapest (by train), where Rabbi Katalin Kelemen and I led Szim Salom’s Shavuot service. I had been preparing for this daily (it involved, among other things, leyning the Ten Commandments and chanting the first chapter of Ruth), but I didn’t realize that Esztergom would be part of the preparation too. I arrived so rested and happy, and met with such cheer and warmth from the others (regulars and visitors) that it went the way a Shavuot festival should. From festival to festival, the bridge was not long.

Some may think it’s eccentric of a 55-year-old to travel to Esztergom to hear a band led by one of her former students. Well, it is eccentric, but it’s part of my nature, and I don’t regret a second of it. Good music reaches people of all ages. This does not mean that I would go to all their shows. For instance, if they were playing at a young people’s nightclub or party, I wouldn’t want to step into their space. But a festival is meant to bring people together; age is less important there than other things.

There’s another aspect of this too. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes of the individual: “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.“ That is, it is given to each of us in life to appreciate particular things, to see them in a particular way. No one else can do this for us. It’s each person’s choice whether to live this out or not, but for me it’s the difference between full life and a sort of whimpering hesitation. Live modestly; be thoughtful of others; remember life’s stages, necessities and losses; but live out that life that is only yours, because that’s what it’s there for, briefly.

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(I added links to this piece and edited it here and there after posting it.)

No Ordinary Song

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The Hungarian band 1LIFE released their debut CD, Nincsen Kérdés (“There Is No Question”), in February 2019. Here are some thoughts on one of their songs, “Maradok ember” (“I remain human” or “I will stay human”), one of my favorite songs in the world.* My translations and interpretations are imperfect; fortunately you can listen to the song itself. The music is by 1LIFE; the lyrics are by their guitarist, lead singer, and lyricist, Marcell Bajnai.

 

As with their other songs (for instance, “Kapcsolj ki!“), the words and music carry each other. The lilting, descending melody, wistful lyrics, and layers of sound (guitar, bass, drums, and piano or keyboard) make room for each other but also move tautly together; each detail holds the rest. The song begins,

lehetnék hajó, te meg
lehetnél a folyó
úgysem engednéd, hogy benned
elmerüljek én

This translates approximately as

I could be a boat, and you
you could be the river
you would never allow
me to sink in you

This is an image of possibility: two things that could exist in relation to each other–gracefully, strongly. The music seems to play it out; it is as if the lyrics were the boat, and the music the river. Yet none of this has happened yet; the scene plays out in a possible future.

The first word of the song, “lehetnék” (“I could be”) is the first person conditional of the verb “lesz” (“to become” or future “to be”) with the potential suffix “-het”: lesz + -het + nék = lehetnék. The song’s fifth word, “lehetnél” (“you could be”) is the second person singular. They suggest becoming and imagination.

The grammar helps to convey the relationship between the two things. The boat is not preceded by a definite article (or any article at all), but the river is. Thus the first image of the pair is not specified–it’s a boat (or ship), any boat, or an archetypal boat–but the second thing is specific, existing in relation to the first. This pattern–of verbs and definite article–persists through the subsequent three pairs of images in the first verse. (Yet part of the initial pattern gets broken: the “úgysem” segment occurs only twice. I like this about the band’s songs in general: patterns are detectable but not overdone, and they change at just the right time. “Kapcsolj ki!” is also outstanding in that way.)

At first the images and even the action seem common: just as people hold each other up, the river will not let the boat sink. I think I have heard this metaphor before. But there’s an ambivalence: is the river protecting the boat from danger and disaster, or keeping it from what it wants to do? Is there some kind of danger and loss in the protection? The next stanza extends the puzzle:

lehetnék felhő, te meg
lehetnél as eső
úgysem engedném, hogy végül
zápor legyünk

I could be a cloud, and you
you could be the rain
I would never let us end
up as a downpour

It seems, at first glance, that the cloud is holding things together, preventing the downpour from happening–but the rain is already falling, and so the cloud could be holding back from the action, refusing to join in, refusing to become “us,” even though it is made of the same matter as the rain. There might be some separation, some breakage, in this restraint.

Even here, the meanings have not been revealed; we don’t know what the boat and river, cloud and rain are, except that they express relations of some kind. Things take a turn with the next stanza, where living beings (as opposed to inanimate matter) come into play:

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

This picture seems peaceful, except for the suggestion of a threat: that the bird needs to hide from those pursuing it. It’s idyllic and fragile at the same time. But then the next stanza casts new meaning on what has occurred up to now (or the possibilities that have been suggested).

lehetnék bolond, te meg
lehetnél a király
mondd csak, minek is játszanék, hisz itt
mindenki bánt

I could be a fool, and you
you could be the king
just tell me what else I could play, since here
everybody hurts

Now it seems that all of the images from before–boat and river, cloud and rain, bird and forest–are roles being played, like the fool (or jester) and king, and that no matter what part you play, you do not escape the basic pain and your own ability to hurt others. As I understand it, “bánt” is transitive, so the hurting is inflicted as well as suffered.

But then comes the chorus, which seems joyous, almost:

nem leszek több, mint aminek látsz
nem leszek jobb, mint amire vágysz
maradok csendben, maradok ember
nem leszek szebb, mint ez a világ
nem leszek bölcsebb mint az apám
maradok csendben, maradok ember

I will not be more than what you see
I will not be better than what you desire
I remain quiet, I remain human
I will not be lovelier than this world
I will not be wiser than my father
I remain quiet, I remain human

Is this the true victory: staying human, staying quiet, not succumbing to the pressures toward extremes? If so, this song seems to stand up against the hyperbole of our times, the pressure to be the best, the first, the loudest, the fastest. (It could even be a retort to U2’s “Invisible,” whose chorus has been translated into Hungarian as follows: “Több vagyok, mint akinek ismersz, több, mint aminek látsz. Nagyobb vagyok, mint akinek gondolsz. Testben élek. Most még nem, de egyszer majd meglátsz.“) Or maybe it is not protest, but an admission, a promise, or a simple statement of truth. (I originally translated “maradok” as “I will stay”–but because it can also be understood in a present sense as well, I changed it to “I remain.”)

The second verse–only half as long as the first–gives a new dimension to the puzzle. It returns to the first two pairs of images, but not the second two. Now, instead of looking ahead at possibilities, it looks back on what has happened.

te voltál a folyó, és látod
én voltam a hajó
vigyáztam de te mégis
partra vetettél

You were the river, and you see
I was the boat
I was careful but all the same
you landed on the shore

te voltál az eső, és látod
én voltam a felhő
azt mondtad, hogy minden rendben végül
viharrá lettél

You were the rain, and you see
I was the cloud
you said that all was well at last
you turned into a tempest

All the cautions and protections come to nothing: the boat ends up on the shore, and the rain turns into a storm. Also, the becoming has come to an end; the primary verb is now “voltál”/”voltam,” the past tense of “van.” The phrase “viharrá lettél” caught my attention: “vihar” (“storm, tempest”) is of Slavic origin, and it appears here in the translative case, “viharrá,” which gives a sense of transformation (“into a tempest”). From what I gather, the translative case has a slightly archaic or poetic feel. And then there’s “lettél,” the second-person singular past form of “lesz,” the verb I brought up in the beginning. It’s a past future of sorts: in the past, you became.

The forest and bird, fool and king, do not return, but they do not have to; we can decide for ourselves how they end up–how we end up, since we are they. How far do we hide? What and whom do we play? At what cost? To what end?

Then comes the chorus again, several times, along with interjections of “és látod” (“and you see”) and “és hát” (“and well”), and changes of musical texture. What does it mean, staying human? What does it consist of? Maybe being human has to do with two opposite things: protecting each other and yet failing to fully protect or be protected. Or maybe we play parts, well or poorly, while human pain and joy take their own course. Or we lighten our lives and mend the breaks with interjections (“well, you see”).

These words, patterns, melodies, and layers make “Maradok ember” no ordinary song. I sense that these musicians have much more coming, but right now they deserve to be heard.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Enchanted Forest (1945).

*Some background: One of the band members was my student (in a class that met once a week); he has now graduated. I write about this song because it (along with the rest of the album) has had an effect on me and because I would like others, particularly English speakers, to know about it. It’s a magnificent song, and I am grateful for it.

Update: I have made edits to the piece, including the translation, as recently as July 23. Since writing it, I worked out a cello cover of the song, which I played in a little concert at school on April 29. On July 25 and 26 I played it again, this time at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Here is an excerpt from the July 26 performance (at the closing ceremony of the 2019 Summer Institute). The next day, 1LIFE played at East Fest Mezőtúr!

 

 

  • “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.”

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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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