Song Series #18: Hungarian Songs I Missed While Abroad

I have returned from the U.S. It is good to be back. Many thanks to everyone who was part of the trip in any way: the person who fed Sziszi (update: I found Dominó and brought him back inside today!), the friends and family I saw in the U.S., the events I attended (including a play, a Kandinsky exhibition, a musical, and a songwriter showcase), all the staff at the various places I visited, the wonderful morning minyan service at B’nai Jeshurun on Thursday morning (which feels like this morning, not yesterday).

I had Hungarian songs in my head throughout the trip, not always the ones I would expect, but no big surprises either. These are background favorites, I’d say. Songs that hold their own whether I am listening to them or not. In this piece, I will not be translating the songs, but I think they come across (in large part) through the music itself.

One that kept coming to my mind was Cappuccino Projekt’s (Dávid Korándi’s) “Vidáman se.” Too hard to explain in a short space, but sad and exhilarating at the same time. It captures life somehow. Here it is. (I later updated the link; this is the reording that appears on his debut LP, released in December 2022.)

Another was Noémi Barkóczi’s “Dolgom volt” (approximately “I had something to deal with,” narrated by someone who has been out of touch with others for a while). Barkóczi sometimes seems to me (slightly) like a Hungarian Joni Mitchell in the 2020s. I love the true-to-life lyrics, the chords, the rhythms, the swooping and diving of the vocals. Here’s the video.

Galaxisok was in my ears most of the time. Which song? Hard to choose, but let’s take “Focipályák éjszaka” (“Football Fields at Night”), since I listened to it in the rental car several times, and there’s this live video.

Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” (“No Panic 2”) figured in there somewhere. Here’s their delightful infomercial-style video of the song.

A song that I played for others (from my phone, not on an instrument, unfortunately) was Kaláka’s “Hajnali rigók” (Dawn Thrushes), a poem by Lőrinc Szabó, which they set to music. They have a whole album and songbook of bird songs (and many, many albums on other themes: bicycles, various poets, musical instruments, psalms, and much more). I can’t wait to hear them again in August. They are legendary; just as Russian literature, it has been said, came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” so contemporary Hungarian song comes out from under Kaláka.

On a tangent: At Arlene’s Grocery on Tuesday, I heard Noah Chenfeld play his song “Orioles,” which was inspired by the rhythm of an oriole’s call. I like it. Although it isn’t Hungarian, I’ll include it, because it was part of the week, and because there’s something interesting going on here. I look forward to more of his music. (My favorite music of the evening was SugarSugar—especially their song “Cruel Things“—that’s another tangent, but you can listen to them and watch their wonderful “Unbreakable” video.)

Lots of Platon Karataev songs played in my head, some of which haven’t been released yet. From Partért kiáltó, “Csak befelé” (“Only inward”) came up again and again. Here’s a gorgeous performance of the song by the Platon Karataev duo, whom I will get to hear on Tuesday.

And to finish off, Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day,” in the translation of Géza Simon) played itself persistently, as did other favorites from his work, including “Pure Sense.” I have brought up “On a Fine Day” many times here, but there’s always room for repetition. Who knows: maybe he will play it tomorrow night.

On A Fine Day
(Egy szép napon)

János Pilinszky, translated by Géza Simon

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

Always, as always
I wished to be back.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy weekend!

For other posts in the Song Series, go here.

Fishing on Orfű, Day 3: “You Can Call It What You Want”

This is a day I will tell backwards, or at least stepwise backwards. I returned to Pécs on the festival bus during big winds; there were branches all over the streets. The Platon Karataev show was not the best I had heard, given the drunken crowd and sometimes imbalanced sound mix, but the music and performance transcended all of this. It must be ridiculously difficult to play at 1 a.m. when you are not a party band, but they threw themselves into it, and the exuberant and (largely) attentive audience swayed, leaped, and sang along.

I wish I had stood a little farther back. A woman in front of me kept waving at someone, not just briefly or subtly, but wildly and tirelessly. At first I thought she was waving at the film crew, trying to get on film. Then I thought she was waving at Laci Sallai. Maybe she was just trying to let a friend know where she was. Anyway, it was distracting. (I thought of moving away from her, but the place was packed.) There were also people who held up their phones right in front of my eyes for a long time, taking videos. These days I take pictures here and there during shows, but I try to make it as quick as possible, so as not to bother others or myself. This is the one picture I took of Platon Karataev last night.

For me, some of the peaks of the concert were “Csak befelé,” “Elmerül,” “Ex nihilo” (with Hungarian lyrics in the middle part), “Tágul” (even though the vocal mix was off), “Lassú madár,” “Atoms,” “Wide Eyes,” “Ocean/Wolf Throats,” and yes, “Elevator,” even though I gather they are a little tired of playing this early hit of theirs, and even though it turned into something of a collective roar. Some time ago I read an interview where Gergő and Sebő talked about the songs on For Her (their first album) in terms of stages of grief; if I remember correctly, they said “Elevator” represented the bargaining stage. Besides the music and brilliantly simple lyrics, this bargaining is what I love about the song.

We are always bargaining in some way, not just in romantic relationships, but in anything we care about that comes to an end. And all things do in some way. “You can call it anything, but that was love.” It’s a basic struggle, or an act of defiance: to hold on to the meaning of something that is no longer yours, that has been taken away from you, even something of yourself. The love in particular. This happens even at a concert. Then comes the letting go, but the defiance has to be there, I think: the declaration that this was in the first place, and second, that it was love. The bargain takes this form: I allow you to “call it what you want,” but the truth of it (or what I know as such) stays intact, with me.

Yes, the concert, the festival is slipping away now (just a few more concerts for me to hear this evening), and yes, describing it is a way of resisting the loss for a little while. But then, as with other concerts, it fades and becomes part of my life. Everything slips away and becomes something else. “Nézd, ahogy hull a levél / aztán földet talál / ez is csak sejthalál” (“Watch how the leaf falls / then finds the ground / this is just cell death,” from “Lassú madár“).

Earlier in the evening, I heard a joyous, momentous Kaláka concert. In between Kaláka and Platon, I could hear nothing else. I didn’t want anything else for a while. So I went down to the lake and sat down among others who were likewise taking a break.

The Kaláka concert was humbling in a happy way. They have a vast repertoire of songs and albums, and young people in the audience knew the songs by heart. Many of the songs are Hungarian poems set to music: for all ages, for everyone who can take in the sorrows, humor, awe of everyday life. They (the musicians and the songs) play for all of us, whether we know the songs or not. So many instruments and sounds in a short interval of time, and a boundless love of playing. I have much to learn in, of, and from their music, but beginners are welcome too. The point is to be with the music. And we were.

Before that, I had a beautiful afternoon: three concerts on the “Fireside” stage (“A tűzhöz közel”). First a trombone concert (with varying numbers of trombone players, at times eight in all), then the rapturous, inspiring Flanger Kids (who reminded me slightly of Laurie Anderson, Luscious Jackson, and PJ Harvey), and then Barkóczi Noémi playing in duo with her bandmate Várnai Szilvia—wow, what musicianship, voices, chords, rhythms, harmonies. That was the one concert I left slightly early, at the start of the last song (I think), not wanting to be late for Kaláka. But I was sorry to leave.

Before the concerts of the day, I attended a discussion with music managers and sound engineers, who spoke about the background work that they do. It was interesting and well attended (the audience included young people who wanted to go into these directions and careers themselves). One of the most interesting parts for me was Ábel Zwickl’s description of the differences between recording an album and doing sound for a show. Some of the differences are obvious: when recording an album, you have no immediate rush and can do take after take until you hit upon the one that everyone likes. When engineering sound for a show, you have only one chance and have to respond to the moment. But also, in that case, it doesn’t matter so much whether you like the music or not; in fact, the music isn’t exactly your focus. What matters is getting the sound right and responding immediately to problems.

Before heading up to Orfű, I walked around Pécs, heard an accordion player, saw the synagogue, and got a hearty iced coffee and baguette. I also managed to get some scissors and trim my bangs, which had grown a little wild. Then took the bus up to Orfű, walked around the lake to the festival, and saw a family of swans. They were carefully guarding their privacy, staying by the tall reeds. You could only see them from a distance; once you came closer, the reeds shielded them.

And that was the third day of Fishing on Orfű.

I added a paragraph and made a few edits to the piece after posting it (most recently on July 4).

This Rumbling World

Just when you think you have it together, the world starts to shake around you. Covid, a teachers’ strike, an impending war in Ukraine. And more, depending on where you are. For me, these three are already a lot to reckon with. With Covid, it seems we’re almost in the clear, and then people get sick, events get cancelled, reports of new variants arise. With the teachers’ strike, so many questions come up at once: what kind of strike this is, what the demands are, what different stances a person might take toward any given action, what lies ahead in the coming months. As for the possible war, if it does happen, it’s unclear how far and long it will reach.

With all that, we have a four-day semi-weekend (two pedagogical days, which we may spend at home catching up on grading and such, combined with the regular weekend). Last night I treated myself to a special event in Budapest: a “songwriters’ circle” at the Magyar Zene Háza in the Zugló district. The whole trip was exciting. I had never walked around in Zugló before and was delighted with the hole-in-the-wall restaurants (I had a gyros pita for dinner) and the park.

The “songwriters’ circle,” the first in a new series, featured Dávid Szesztay (replacing Gergely Balla, who had to cancel because of Covid), Noémi Barkóczi, Vera Jonás and Henri Gonzo (of Fran Palermo). It was fantastic. They played new and not-so-new songs, talked about them, entertained questions from the audience (or not, as the case might be). Gonzo was a rather prickly character, but I found that refreshing. He mocked some of the questions (from the current audience, and from audiences of yore) but then turned around and discussed them seriously: for instance, the question of writing songs in English (or Spanish) or Hungarian.

This was my first introduction to both Gonzo and Jonás, and I’m eager to hear much more from both of them. I have had an ongoing dream of hearing Szesztay and Barkóczi in concert together; this took the dream in a surprising direction. I was very sorry that Balla could not be there—I missed his presence and wished I could have heard him speak and sing—but was glad that of all possible people, they invited Szesztay to step in. The picture I took (at the top) came out blurry, but I like the effect, and you can barely see each of them: Szesztay, then Barkóczi, then Jonás, then Gonzo.

So that was rather thrilling. Then this morning I had a knock on the door from a canvasser asking me to sign a petition. First I thought: what is this? And then he explained: he was gathering petitions for a humorous political party, the Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt (the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party), so that it could be represented in Parliament. I don’t usually sign petitions, but I asked for the brochure and told him I’d have to think about it. The brochure was so funny that I ran back out into the hallway to say, yes, I’ll sign. Here’s an excerpt (in my translation):

Hungary can handle the immigration issue fairly simply, since no one actually wants to come here. We only have to make sure to keep salaries sufficiently low. We see that instead of a fence, it would be enough
to write the average salaries and hospital statistics onto the border.

But if we really want to build something, then, instead of a fence, it would make more sense to build an overpass over the country.

Another approach would be to constantly change the borders. If you don’t know where the border is, then it will be hard for you to migrate across it.

This made my day.

Back to the shaking of the world. Is it legitimate to be content (in some way) with life when things are crumbling and raging around you? Or rather, to have your own rhythm of contentment, sadness, and turbulence? I think it is, because reality has many strands and layers. No matter what seems to be happening, there is always more.

Folyosó, Translations, Cello, and More

The Autumn 2021 issue of Folyosó came out last week, and it is stunning. Take some time with the contest winners, which address the question, “Life is full of contradictions, but how well can you express this through a story, poem, dialogue, essay, or other written form?” The depth, and range or these pieces will bring color to your late autumn and far beyond. I wish I could introduce Roza Kaplan’s “Raindrops in the Darkness” (the story itself) to Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the song itself). I think they would have a lot to say to each other. But the contest is only part of the issue; there are essays, stories, absurdist plays, and an extraordinary long poem with such intricate layout that we embedded it as a PDF (the first time we have done this).

One thing that made this issue unusual was the care and thought that the students put into the writing over time. Several students kept revising their pieces on their own initiative and sending me new drafts. One piece didn’t go in to the fall issue, because it needs some more time, but it’s so remarkable that I will be working with the author and featuring it in the winter issue.

Beyond Folyosó, a lot is happening over here. Asymptote has accepted two of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems for their January 2022 issue. Two more translations of Kertai’s poems will be appearing in a forthcoming issue (maybe the March 2022 issue?) of Literary Imagination. (Update: Literary Matters accepted two as well—so six of the translations will be appearing in the coming months!)

On other translation fronts, I have finished the full first draft of my translation of Sándor Jászberényi’s story collection A varjúkirály. Now there will be revisions, but that will be easier, since the manuscript now exists. Translating this book in the summer and fall, on top of teaching and other things, made for a rather intense stretch. Now I am turning to some other things that have been waiting.

One of these is music. On December 13, I will play cello at a literary evening hosted by the literary journal Eső. whose editor-in-chief is Gyula Jenei (whose collection Mindig más will be published in my English translation in February 2022, by Deep Vellum in Dallas). At the Eső event, according to the current plan (which might change), I will play five cello/voice renditions of Pilinszky poems, in between the main readings. I am very excited but also anxious, since there are two days this week when I will not be able to practice (I have to go to Budapest on Tuesday afternoon for passport renewal, and on Wednesday afternoon for a doctor’s appointment). But I think the practice time will be just enough. (Speaking of Pilinszky, there has been great interest in the March 20 event! Stay tuned for updates in January.)

This morning something special is happening: I have been invited to visit the Sipos Orbán high school to speak English with the students, who have never met a native speaker before. I am looking forward to that very much.

And concerts abound: On December 16, I will be going to hear the Cz.K. Sebő band play their record release show. This is Sebő’s first full-length solo (or rather, solo-with-band) album, after years of singles and EPs (and along with Platon Karataev recordings). Noémi Barkóczi, whose new album I love, will be opening. I can’t wait. Later in the month I will get to hear Jazzékiel (December 23) and Esti Kornél and Felső Tízezer (December 30). Then, on January 28, Platon Karataev will play their record release show for their third album. I had the honor of attending the record listening party on Saturday. It is an incredible album; I think it will move people around the world. Language will not be a barrier, because it goes beyond language. (It’s their first album in Hungarian; the earlier ones were in English, with the exception of a bonus track.)

We are closing in to the winter break; on December 21, my students in the eleventh grade will give the traditional caroling performance. Although they will not be singing (it isn’t possible under current Covid rules), they recorded themselves in advance and will play this recording as they perform their skit. They have been going about this with ingenuity and cheer.

This is all that I have time to talk about; I must get ready. I have a feeling that I’m leaving something out, but if so, it will come up another time.

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

  • Always Different



    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.


    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.


    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.

  • Recent Posts


  • Categories