A Platon Karataev Time Capsule

Last night, when I was listening to a few things on YouTube and elsewhere, a Platon Karataev video popped up that I had never seen before.Beautifully shot by Diána Komróczki, it shows them performing “Prison” on the KERET stage (where I first heard the wonderful Cataflamingo this year) at the Kolorádó Fesztivál in 2017. Their bassist was András Jáky.

KERET is an independent blog and journal about independent Hungarian music. (I support it, by the way, when I can, and I recommend doing the same.) It draws attention to some of the most interesting and gifted—and often little-known—indie musicians performing today. The KERET stage is my favorite thing about the Kolorádó Fesztival. If only there weren’t a thumping drum from a dance area nearby! Although my feelings about the festival were mixed (mostly because of the incessant thumping electronic monotonic drum from several stages and areas there), I would go back for the KERET stage alone.

Anyway, here was Platon Karataev on the KERET stage, playing a song that has not appeared on any of their albums… and why not? Because that was not its fate; it was to transform into another song, “Wide Eyes.” If you listen to this (right here below), and then “Wide Eyes” (below that), and watch these performances too, you will see what an incredible and unexpected journey they have been on. How could they have known, in 2017, where this song and they would go? Also, look at the (sparse and intensely attentive) audience: the young man standing in the very front with two others, the one listening with all his heart, is none other than László Sallai (wearing a “Player 00” shirt, it seems), who would become their bassist in 2019. And I love this “Prison” song; it has a country feel with upbeat, subtle lyrics and the refrain “Let’s look for a better one.” I would have been drawn in on that day.

And now, here’s “Wide Eyes,” which is part of their 2020 album Atoms. I am showing the Live at Gólya performance below, because it’s great, and that way you can see them performing it. It’s slightly slower than “Prison,” the lyrics are mostly changed, but the soul of it is the same, only clearer. The song has found its way. The “straight labyrinth” is a reference to Pilinszky’s poem by the same title, and the reference goes beyond that phrase alone. The song’s essence is close to the poem; when Sebő sings, “Meteors light my mind / I peel layers of my thoughts,” it brings to mind “this free-fall on open wings, / this flight into the fiery / focus, the communal nest” (from Géza Simon’s translation of Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus“).

Besides being part of Atoms and their many performances (I think it’s one of the audience favorites, wherever they go), this song has an extraordinary video starring the actor Ágoston Kenéz, whose zest, instinct, and understanding of the song fill every split-second frame.

On Friday night I heard Platon Karataev play in Szeged, at the beloved Grand Café, where I have previously heard Dávid Szesztay play and Gyula Jenei read. As I listened, I felt how much has happened with them and their music over these past few years. And so much more to go. They had last played in Szeged in 2018. It was a joyous return for them and the crowd. They said they were staying around afterwards to talk with people, and I was tempted to stay and say hi, but I didn’t, even though I was staying the night in Szeged. I actually have never talked with them in person, except to say thank you quickly. I would love to talk with them at some point, but after a show I am a bit shy and don’t really feel the need. I still have the music in my ears and want to carry it for a while. Also, I figured they had lots of Szeged friends waiting to speak with them, and there would be a better time. But I walked out with sounds, thoughts, and pictures in my head (not on camera), one of which was this glimpse of time, of the things that happen that no one expects but that take us closer to our wobbling, plunging truth.

Photo credit: I took it in Szeged on Friday a few hours before the show.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it.

Kolorádó, Home and Not-Home, and More

The Kolorádó Fesztivál is sweet and beautiful, with one drawback, which I’ll get to in a moment. I felt out of place there (older than most, and conspicuously alone), but this feeling disappeared during the shows themselves and during some quiet hours in the kunyhó, the miniature cabin where I stayed. The experience was sonically bracketed (embraced, uplifted) by the shows before and afterwards: the Platon Karataev acoustic duo at Papírkutya in Veszprém, and Felső Tízezer and Jazzékiel at Monyo Land in Kőbánya-Kispest.

Kolorádó is a fairly large but intimate music festival (with some theater and other arts as well) in the Buda hills. It has large and small stages, renowned and lesser-known musicians. Being able to hear Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Kolibri on three consecutive days was just great. Granted, not everything there went perfectly. Buses didn’t run often enough. There was only one phone-charging station in the whole place. Etc. Those, to me, are minor issues, things that can happen anywhere. My one big complaint is that there was a constant thumping of an electronic drum, in at least one location, almost all day and night, without any pause except for a few minutes here and there. This interfered not only with my sleep, but with the concerts on the KERET stage, my favorite feature of the festival. I am not against electronic music in itself—it can be brilliant—but this went overboard. Other than that, the festival is great.

As for being alone, I usually enjoy it—but here, when not listening to music, I felt unusually self-conscious, maybe because part of me would have liked to be with friends, or gather enough courage to meet people. The vast majority of the audience seemed not only younger, but accompanied. I say ”seemed” because there actually were people closer to my age, and people who, like me, had come alone.

But the self-consciousness did not take over everything. As I walked around and took in the festival, I discovered more and more of its wonders: the campfire open to everyone, the tents upon tents, the beautiful wooded valley with the bridge running over it, where people go to be quiet and read, the delicious food (which you have to buy, but still—while there, I had two burritos, a serving of fish and chips, and a gyros pita sandwich), the different performances happening, the brilliant music, the natural surroundings. All the more reason to get rid of or limit that thump, thump, thump! I know that many people at Kolorádó love techno/house music, but perhaps it could be moved somewhere where it didn’t interfere with other concerts or sleep.

I stayed in a kunyhó, a kind of triangular miniature cabin equipped with a mattress, blanket, pillows, an LED light, and a lockable storage space. That was a great choice, because when the festival and hot sun were too much for me, I retreated there and read Pilinszky for hours.

I had planned months earlier to attend Kolorádó, and originally intended to be there the whole time. But then it turned out the the Platon Karataev duo (Gergő and Sebő) were playing in Veszprém, and if I went there first and stayed the night there, I could easily head on to Kolorádó the next morning. The concert entranced me, and the whole evening was lovely; I saw Zsuzsanna and Atti there and had a comfortable stay at the Éllő Panzió.

At the festival itself, on Thursday I heard Mordái (very interesting but a little bit over the top for me), Platon Karataev (an exuberant and gorgeous show), Csaknekedkislány (whom I liked), and a few sound checks and bits of other concerts. On Friday, at the KERET stage, I heard Cataflamingo (my favorite new discovery from the festival—they were wonderful), the tail end of ДEVA (beautiful voice), Galaxisok (just fantastic), a little bit of Carson Coma (first time hearing them), and a few other bits and snatches. Then on Saturday I heard Kolibri (again at KERET) and took off immediately afterwards.

Let it never be said of me that I treated a Felső Tízezer concert as a “B-terv” (Plan B). That is not what happened. I had bought the ticket weeks ago, before realizing that it coincided with a few shows at Kolorádó that I was going to want to hear, particularly Ben Leavez. So until Friday morning, I wasn’t sure whether to stay at Kolorádó or to take off right after the Kolibri show and go hear Felső Tízezer and Jazzékiel at MONYO Land in Kőbánya-Kispest. But after a night of thumping electronic drums, my mind was made up, and I figured out the logistics, which were not simple.

It was good to hear Kolibri except for that thumping drum in the background, just a few meters away, through the trees. I almost went to ask them to turn it off just for this show, or at least to turn it down, but realized that the set was very short and I would end up missing too much of it. So I stayed still, and then took off.

To get to MONYO Land, I took the Kolorádó bus to the Hűvösvölgy stop, took the tram from there to Széll Kálmán tér, took the subway to Blaha Lujza tér in hopes of catching the special MONYO Land bus, realized I was going to miss that bus, took the subway back to Déli pályaudvar, took a train from there to Kőbánya-Kispest (with a transfer at Kelenföld), took a taxi from there to the venue, and arrived a little before Felső Tízezer took to the stage. The security guards kindly held my luggage for me.

I was so happy to be there. A mix of ages, a friendly open-air atmosphere. A feeling of home, though I had never been there before.

And Felső Tízezer, and then Jazzékiel, thank you for crowning these past few days so gloriously! I danced my heart out to songs I knew and loved, and songs I was hearing for the first time. “Majdnemország” was one of the highlights of the week. So were some songs whose names I don’t know.

I realized at the concert that I had heard László Sallai play on three consecutive nights, in three different bands: Platon Karataev, Galaxisok, and Felső Tízezer, the last of which he fronts. That is a first for me—I have never heard a musician play a public concert on three consecutive nights, not to mention in three different bands, not to mention bands that I love, and terrific shows to boot—and an astounding accomplishment from him, not just the three nights, but the years of work and inspiration that made them possible. So thank you, Laci and all your bandmates.

As for Jazzékiel, I had heard a few of their songs before, and commented on a song by their frontman, Péter Jakab, but the show drew me in completely, and I will be hearing much more.

Many thanks to Marianna and Gyula’s son Zalán for feeding Dominó and Sziszi while I was gone. The past few days were an important experience. I not only heard some of my favorite music and made some discoveries, but recognized that my partial discomfort at Kolorádó did not detract from the festival itself. One’s feelings about a thing are not the same as the thing itself or its quality—and feelings can change. While there, I found my way into some beauty (quite a bit of it, actually), then came back home in stages, first to MONYO Land, then here, and last of all, after some sleep, to this quiet morning.

Update: I shortened and edited this post a few months after posting it, because my perspective changed.

“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.

  • “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

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • 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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