In Person

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The coronavirus isolation is not all bad. It’s good for working on projects, sifting through thoughts, going on bike rides. Even on a short bike ride, I find all kinds of things to explore; I turn off onto dirt roads (which are dry, not muddy, right now), discover a bridge or path I didn’t know about before, take detours, cross meadows, peer into the river, and turn back when I think it’s time.

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So that’s isolation, on the one hand. At home, too, there’s a lot of exploring in it. Putting together the online journal Folyosó, which will appear on May 11, I have been editing pieces, experimenting with layouts, fixing this or that feature, and getting so absorbed in the whole thing that I stay up late.

But the pandemic is bringing out, in different ways, the necessity of doing certain things in person. Zoom and other online services are substitutes, and substitutes only. Sometimes a substitute will not do. For instance, we (the drama club, the drama teacher, and I) were going to take Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok (Wolves) to the festival in Veszprém this June. The festival was cancelled; of course it was. First of all, if the drama troupes cannot rehearse, how can they prepare for a festival? Second, a festival of this kind cannot take place virtually. We were disappointed, but this just brings out how drama requires physical presence–of the actors among each other, of the stage and space, and of the audience along with the actors. The actor and director Joel Grey wrote about this in a memorable and treasurable New York Times piece.

With teaching, too, the best thing is to have classes in person. We work with the substitutes because we have to, and some good things come out of them. But there is nothing like being in the room together, seeing each other’s facial expressions and gestures, sensing the mood as the lesson progresses, picking up on understanding and uncertainty, and above all, living the lesson–be it grammar, literature, or something else–together. The substitutes–Discord, Zoom, Messenger, Google Classroom, and so on–are functional, but functionality is not everything. I think of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

–Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz.

I don’t think anyone is mistaking Zoom, etc., for a palace. But it’s also good to see them for what they are: substitutes. Less than ideal. Not the ideal itself. Granted, they can do some things that in-person gatherings cannot (for instance, bring together people from all around the world). But that doesn’t make up for the losses.

A new video by the rock band Kiscsillag expresses this uproariously (and bawdily). The song itself, “Nem szégyellem,” precedes the pandemic–and appears on the band’s new album, Tompa késekbut the video itself was shot on mobile phones, just a few weeks ago, in the band members’ homes. (See a Music Backstage article on this.) A gem of quarantine rock and home filming–and you don’t need to know Hungarian to appreciate it, though each word raises the appreciation higher.

 

 

There you have the soul of it, ticklish but true. It isn’t just that certain things are best done in person. It’s that when all the things around you–the food in the fridge, the bathtub, the rocking horse, the vacuum cleaner, the chess board–start acting as substitutes for the world, then you know that you, too, have been substituted.

 

Dávid Szesztay in Szeged

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This is one of the easiest concert reviews I have ever written. At one level, it’s obvious why Dávid Szesztay’s show last night at the Grand Café in Szeged was so good. First, it was beautiful from start to finish. Second, he speaks the language of music like someone born to it. Third, he has something to say, through music. Fourth, he has wonderful bandmates. Fifth, there’s an integrity to his performance. He doesn’t show off, doesn’t put on a pose, doesn’t do anything except convey this music as he hears it–singing, fingerpicking the guitar, dropping chords and rhythms onto the keyboard with ease. The songs are his (except for a couple of collaborations with András Lovasi from Kiscsillag), but he seems like a messenger who brings you the music from somewhere inside you. As though it were already there, and he were translating it for you, and you were listening with recognition and surprise at once.

Maybe that’s part of the meaning of the album title, Dalok bentre (possibly translatable as Songs for Indoors, though I sense several meanings). But these songs also open up and build, without your even noticing it; they carry you along, and then you suddenly wonder, how did I get here? That happened with several of my favorite songs so far: “Szólj,” “2120,” “Jóbarát,” and “Beleszédültem.” There were a few times when the audience wouldn’t clap until the last note had faded away. From what I felt around me, the audience loved the show; there was no sense that we had to hold back our enthusiasm, and no point in doing so either. The cheers and applause built up as the show progressed, leading up to an encore.

 

I began by saying “at one level,” since there’s much more to the music than I could describe right away, or ever. The rhythms, chords, lyrics, and tones come from years of composing and playing. But you can feel them without understanding exactly what’s going on. And even if you don’t understand all the lyrics, it’s as if you did, because they too speak the language of music.

From “Szólj”:

és táncol a szemeteszsák
ordítja gyere világ itt vagyok
érted dagadok fel
érted szakadok fel hogy

Szólj!
hogy végre szólj!

A rough translation:

and it dances, the garbage bag,
come, world, it screams, I’m here,
for your sake, I puff myself up,
for your sake, I break myself up so you’ll

Speak!
Finally speak!

After the show, I bought a copy of Dalok bentre from Mr. Szesztay himself–a beautifully crafted box CD with a postcard for each song: a photo of the natural outdoors–trees, fields–on one side, and the lyrics on the other. (The photos on the postcard were taken by his wife, the acclaimed violinist Luca Kézdy, with whom he plays in their band Santa Diver.)

I learned about Szesztay through Kiscsillag. When I went to the 1LIFE/Kiscsillag show in Törökszentmiklós, I was especially taken by the song “Ott ahol akarod” (music by Szesztay, lyrics by Lovasi). I later found the video, listened to it over and over, and then looked for Szesztay’s solo work. (I am just beginning to discover it; he has been composing for many years.) I am also eager to hear more of the Szesztay/Lovasi songs. They are a great combination. Dalok bentre has two songs that they wrote together, “Téli nap” and “Elindul.”

There is no need to say more. Listen to these songs if you can. Go hear him and his band if you can. I hope to hear them again soon. And it was great to return to Szeged (my seventh time there). After the concert I walked to the bridge to look at the water. I then went to the hotel and looked at the album (which I played after returning to Szolnok today). The sights and thoughts mixed with memories of sounds. A good end.

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Blasts from the Present and Past

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Yesterday evening, after Shabbat in Budapest, I went to hear 1LIFE open for Kiscsillag in Törökszentmiklós. They had actually played in Budapest on Friday evening, at the famed Akvárium Klub, but I couldn’t go, since the Friday night Szim Salom service (including the kiddush and meal) didn’t end until after 9, well after their concert was over. So I was determined to make it to this one; to get there in time, I had to leave Budapest on the 4:28 train. I had bought the concert ticket in advance and had reserved a room at a guesthouse (the Almásy Vendégház, since there are no late-night trains back to Szolnok. It was more than worth it; 1LIFE played a terrific show, the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ is one of my favorite venues, and I enjoyed Kiscsillag too. I was left thinking about the differences between the two bands.

Kiscsillag–a famous Hungarian alternative rock band with witty lyrics, zesty musicianship, and many musical influences–drew a crowd of excited, enthusiastic fans who danced, jumped, laughed, sang along, interacted with the band members, and rollicked all around. The atmosphere brought back strong memories of Dieselhed shows in San Franciso. The music wasn’t really similar, but the overall spirit was. Twenty years ago, I loved going to hear Dieselhed; I went whenever I could. Their songs had a mix of silliness and melancholy, their music would stay in and on your mind. Lyrically and antically, the band members wielded irony; the audience had a sense of “getting it,” of being part of the show. By irony I mean (in this case) looking askance at the world, putting a wedge between the music and yourself, so that the audience takes it as entertainment.

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Brilliant as it can be, I am not as drawn to that kind of irony as I used to be (and even back then, I had my limits–I never liked Gogol Bordello, for instance). I can enjoy it a lot–and believe I will enjoy Kiscsillag lyrics when I take some time with them–but I want something else now. One reason I respect and enjoy 1LIFE’s songs and performances so much is that they don’t put a barrier between themselves and the music. They are fully in it. Granted, they are performing; their songs are art, not direct speech. They have many contrasts; sometimes the heaviness of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the music, or vice versa. The lyrics are both clear and enigmatic; you come to understand them in different ways over time. There’s irony in them sometimes too. But the band doesn’t lean on irony. They let themselves say what they want to say, through their songs and performance. Last night they seemed relaxed and revved up, still filled with the experience of the previous night’s concert (which, I gather, was fantastic). They played some of my favorites (with some slight changes and variations) and some of the less familiar ones; several of the highlights were “Sötét van,” “Kopog a szív,” and a song whose name I don’t know but that has a refrain of “Ná–ná ná ná…”

The Kiscsillag show had lots of beauty, probably more than I caught. My favorite song was the one sung by the keyboardist, Dávid Szesztay, “Ott ahol akarod.” I want to get to know their music better; I need time to learn what’s in it.

Different bands (like writers, actors, and others) have different understandings of what music does, what it is for, and what is most important in it. As a listener, you come to know yourself gradually; over time, you get a clearer sense of what you are seeking out and hearing. It’s good to stay open, to avoid writing off any particular kind of music. No matter what the type, there’s something good to be found in it, maybe a surprise or even a revelation. But it’s also good to find your way, even if others don’t understand or agree with it.

All in all, it was a great evening–my first time going to a nighttime rock show in Hungary, and a comfortable adventure at that. There were people of many ages there, from kids to grandparents. The house music–one ear-catching song after another, such as David Gilmour’s “Faces of Stone—made the waiting good. I had a conversation with a young man from Törökszentmiklós who, as soon as I told him I was a teacher, addressed me as “Tanárnő” (literally, “woman teacher,” a respectful form of address) and tried to treat me to a beer (I insisted on a Coke instead). We had a short conversation; he had never heard 1LIFE, but he told me Kiscsillag would be the better of the two. I found that amusing; I told him that I had come expressly to hear 1LIFE but would stay for the later band as well. Then, in between the bands, a grandmother of one of the 1LIFE members (whom I have met many times before) approached me and gave me Christmas cookies! She had brought them for me, knowing I would be there. I was touched and honored. A few minutes before the end of the Kiscsillag show, I left and went back to the guesthouse. At the crack of dawn, I took the train back to Szolnok.

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I made a few minor changes and added two photos to this piece after posting it. Later I edited it some more for clarity.

Update (April 2020): Kiscsillag is absolutely brilliant. I recognize this now that I understand the lyrics better. I am still more drawn to their solo work– that is, the songs and recordings of Dávid Szesztay and of András Lovasi. Still, I look forward to hearing more and more of this band.