Translations Published in Asymptote, and More

This is one of those glistening days. First of all, a milestone and an honor: Asymptote is the first to publish my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems. “Redemption” and “I,”, as well as the original poems and a recording, appear in the January 2022 issue, which came out today. I am thrilled, not only because these are the first published English translations of Kertai’s poems, not only because I started this translation project last July and have been enjoying every bit of it, but also because Asymptote is a journal I admire and avidly read. The January 2022 issue is full of enticing pieces, including an interview with George Szirtes!

(How can a milestone glisten? you may ask. Well, it can. Suppose it has been raining. Then the sun comes out. All sorts of stones glisten then, not only milestones. But milestones glisten symbolically too, in the mind.)

Csenger Kertai will be one of the featured guests at the March 20 Pilinszky event, which is not so far away now. I have enhanced and updated the website and spend much of my time thinking about the poems we will discuss. One of these is Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”). I will write some thoughts about it here soon.

I am at a café in Budapest, catching up on things before heading to the Turbina to hear Pandóra Projekt. (I can’t stay for Damara; I have to head back to Szolnok before it gets too late.) Before heading over to Turbina, I am going to tune in to WFMU’s Continental Subway. (Update: David Dichelle, the DJ of Continental Subway, played Platon Karataev’s “Elmerül”!)

Tonight at midnight Platon Karataev’s third album, Partért kiáltó, is coming out! Along with the album, the band is releasing an illustrated lyrics book (pictured and linked here on the left). They will have their record release show on the 28th; I will be staying over in Budapest so that I don’t have to worry about catching a late-night train back to Szolnok afterwards.

This is just a fraction of the things happening in my life, which in turn is a tiny sliver of lives and deeds in the world. But as far as slivers go, this is pretty good.

I added a little to this piece after posting it. And an update: Partért kiáltó is out!

Is Music “Entertainment”?

In Book V of the Odyssey, Odysseus, shipwrecked, bereft, and alone in the sea, ends up swimming to the island of the Phaiakians. After meeting Nausikaa and being welcomed into the palace of Alkinoös (now already in Book VIII), he is treated to a musical performance by “the inspired singer Demodokos” (θεῖον ἀοιδὸν / Δημόδοκον), in whose singing and lute-playing the Phaiakians delight. But when Demodokos sings of the origins of the Trojan war, Odysseus starts to shed tears. No one notices but Alkinoös, who decides to cut off the music and bring everyone outside for contests. Later, after the contests, celebration (with music—again by Demodokos), gifts, and a bath, and feasting, Odysseus asks Demodokos to sing a third time: this time about the wooden horse that Odysseus filled with men. He sings, and Odysseus weeps like a woman “lying over the body of her dear husband.” Finally Alkinoös brings himself to ask the stranger who he is; Odysseus’s answer fills the next four books of the Odyssey.

When listening to music, we all have some combination of the Phaiakians and Odysseus in us. We delight in it for its beauty, we receive it as entertainment, but also, to some degree, we want it to confront us with a truth. We want to face ourselves, or the world, or death, or the divine in it. The kinds of entertainment and truth are many and layered, and people differ in the proportions they want. Some go to music primarily for entertainment, others primarily for confrontation. But somehow both elements have to be there, if the music is good and if we are listening closely.

The word “entertainment” is richer than it may seem on the surface. It comes from the French, and before that, the Latin inter- (“between, among”) and tenir (“to hold”), the latter of which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ten- (“to stretch”). To be entertained is to be held for a time. In contrast, the Hungarian word for entertainment, “szórokozás,” has the root szór, “to sprinkle, scatter”; it’s a calque of the German zich zerstreuen. But maybe, if you scatter yourself into something, you can be taken up by it. But what kind of taking up do you want? When I listen to Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? I am taken up and even scattered; I dissolve into it for a while. I love the sound itself and the many changes it undergoes; I look forward to hundreds of moments. But the album also carries me into a new sense of life.

To an extent, differences in musical tastes come down to this: what are we seeking in the music? What do we find in it? Music is not a “customer satisfaction” project, thank God, so there will always be a discrepancy between what we seek and what we hear, and that is good. The music will even change what we are seeking. But we go to music with a longing of some kind; our differences of longing lead us to different kinds of music and different encounters with it. Still, sometimes there’s a sense of musicians and audience coming together, being there in the same moment for the same thing. “Ezért a mondatért jöttem, ezért a mondatért….” (At the Csoóri event last Saturday, Gergely Balla told us about the origin of these lyrics.)

Last night I went to hear Jazzékiel. The concert was glorious. I especially loved the early set, in which they played their 2011 album Téli mesék (Winter Tales). There was so much subtlety, playfulness, and dark humor to it. The later set had bigger, rapturous sound. I marveled at the keyboard player and each of the musicians, the way they were so fully committed. I left just before the encore, since I had to catch the 10:45 train back to Szolnok, but was happy about having come out for this.

The other band (who played in between Jazzékiel’s sets) didn’t agree with me at all. I am not naming them here, because I don’t wish to put them down. They had a very enthusiastic crowd, so they are clearly appreciated. But it was so far from what I like and love in music that I had to go to the back of the room, sit down, and think about what was going on. Jazzékiel seemed to like this band a lot; they had promoted them enthusiastically in the days leading up to the concert, and I see that Péter Jakab (Jazzékiel’s lead singer) directed at least one of their videos.

I think it was partly that they tilted a bit too far in the “entertainment” direction for me. But that wasn’t necessarily so. I go back and listen to one of their songs now, and I hear more going on in it than entertainment alone. For some, their songs might be transcendent. I think it has more to do with their heavy metal sound. It shuts me out, for the most part, instead of bringing me in. There are exceptions. It isn’t that I need or want music to be pretty all the time. I love a good dirty sound in the right places. This is all difficult to define; it depends on how it’s done.

Sometimes the entertainment is so intense that it becomes something else, something otherworldly or utterly in-the-worldly. I feel that when listening to Pandóra Projekt. They have a light touch to them, both musically and lyrically; they’re having so much fun when they perform. But their voices, rhythms, creative song forms, and passion come together into something profoundly human. To me it’s miraculous that they have accomplished all of this in the one year that they have been playing together. (They formed a duo, then a band, in the beginning of 2021.)

The “entertainment” aspect of music cannot be boxed up and separated from the rest; at its best, it leads into the rest. Musicians have to be able to sweep the listener up. Into what? That will depend on what they themselves bring, what the listeners are willing to receive, and what else is at work in the air.

Image credit: Demodocus playing the harp in an illustration of Homer’s Odyssey by John Flaxman (1810).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it. I could add more and more; the subject is vast. But I’ll leave it at this.

On Missing Concerts

There are times in life when a person is unable to attend a particular concert, despite wanting badly to do so. This is well known to most people, and not a surprise. Going to any concert that you love is a special occasion, not an everyday matter. The musicians, in contrast, might be playing every day, or close, because that’s what they do (at the risk of exhaustion and more). Audience members have to choose; sometimes the choice is made for them. Some will go to more concerts than others, but everyone has a day when they can’t.

“Can’t” is relative; there are ways to break through the impossible into possibility. But that isn’t always a good idea. Also, not being able to go, once in a while, makes the next occasion all the more meaningful. Moreover, life deserves attention, not neglect. It is our daily lives that open us up to music in the first place; we don’t live in total abstraction. I also need unstructured time when I am not rushing off anywhere but can think, write, listen to music, sing, play cello.

And the very existence of the concert is much more important than one person’s attendance or non-attendance. Those who are there will get to hear it; that is the great thing. Since the Covid era begyn, this stopped being something to take for granted.

Musicians have to take care of themselves too; this can pose challenges. It’s good to perform often, but at some point, it gets to be too much. It’s hard to judge that point or adjust to it, because until then, more seems better, not only for the thrill of playing for different audiences, not only for the exposure, but for the art itself. But the art also needs withdrawal and quiet; it can’t survive on constant activity. Different musicians need different proportions, but the proportions must exist.

The musicians’ responsibilities are different from the audience’s. If they cancel a show, many people, including those running the venue, will be disappointed, whereas if an audience member can’t make it, others still can—and it is good for the audiences to vary. That said, it’s hard, even knowing this, to turn a long-awaited concert down.

Yesterday I went to Buda for the Óbudai Nyár, to hear Marcell Bajnai and the Pandóra Projekt. It was fantastic: probably my favorite of Marcell’s solo concerts so far, and the first time I heard the Pandóra Project live. Marcell played solo songs (that is, songs he does not play with his band, Idea), including some favorites and at least one I hadn’t heard before; some songs that he plays with the band but that originated in his room, and some fantastic covers, including “Zöld-sárga” (which I plan to learn), “Lámpát ha gyújtok” (a Quimby cover), and Gábor Presser’s classic “Te majd kézenfogsz.”

As for the Pandóra Projekt, it is astounding what the two women (Janka Zsuzsanna Végh and Dorci Major) do with their voices and a ukulele. The harmonies and rhythms, the textures, the humor and pathos, the Hungarian folk feel mixed with blues, all of those are just words; you have to hear them to know what their music is like. Here’s one of their songs, “csirkefogó.” In this recording, they have other musicians playing with them, but it’s even more exciting to hear them as a duo, because of the way the sound fills the air, and the twists and turns it takes.

I had a ticket to go hear Esti Kornél (for the first time) right nearby, in the evening, but I was exhausted and had to come back home. I had also wanted to hear Platon Karataev play in the town of Zsámbék (it had to be one of those concerts or the other), but there was no way to get out there without having to spend the night there too. So I came home happy and a little bit woozy, too tired to do anything. I went to sleep. The cats seemed perturbed that I was going to bed so early, but they accepted it eventually.

I have to miss the next two Platon Karataev concerts too, or the next two that I know about right now. One of them is today, but it isn’t a good idea for me to go back to Budapest, after Orfű and yesterday; I have to catch up with translating and prepare for the new teaching year. The next one—and this chips at my heart a little—is their concert on September 16 at Müpa Budapest. I would have gone if there was any way; I bought a ticket as soon as it was announced. But it starts at the very tail end of Yom Kippur, at the time of breaking the fast, and as the cantor, I can’t just skip out at that moment (or earlier, to get to the concert on time). It wouldn’t be right; it would mean breaking my responsibility during the most solemn Jewish holiday of the year, and it would be wrong at other levels too. (Update: A friend found someone, her mother in fact, to take my ticket; I am so happy that the seat won’t be empty and that someone will get to enjoy the show instead of me. The concert is completely sold out now.)

There is even something beautiful about attending a concert when you truly and fully can, instead of trying to twist heaven and earth to make it possible. It becomes less of a theft and more of a gift. Yes, sometimes it’s great to find a way through all sorts of obstacles. But not all the time.

I made some additions to (and subtractions from) this blog piece after posting it.

A Great Idea Concert

Many people had been looking forward to this for a while: Idea’s acoustic concert, their first show after this year’s quarantine, out on the terrace of the Tisza Mozi, which was to take place last night. Well, it was moved indoors because of the impending rain (which did come), and then moved back a bit later in the evening, because other concerts were happening as well. So when we finally entered the hall, the excitement could not be contained.

It was moving to see how they had transformed into young men over the past few years, how their music had deepened and matured, even their oldest songs, and among those, even the ones they played mostly the same as before. They had added touches to various songs, but more than that, they had relaxed into them, gained new perspective on what was in them, and written new songs too. It was that mixture of relaxation and utter liveliness that made this concert exceptional—and the cheering, clapping, singing audience, and their guest vocalist, Janka Végh. She sang with them on “Kopog a Szív” and “Táncolunk a végtelenben,” and what she brought was so beautiful, joyous, and spunky, I hope they bring her back. More about her in a minute.

So yes, they played some of my very favorites, including “Maradok ember,” and some newer songs, and one or two very new ones. The concert was acoustic in that Marcell Bajnai was playing an acoustic guitar (with pickup), he and the bassist were sitting down, and the songs were slightly slower and softer than at their electric shows. I have heard them play acoustic in this way before, two years ago, at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. Both kinds of concerts are fun to attend, but the acoustic ones give me a chance to take in the lyrics and the different sounds, even with songs that are unfamiliar to me. So I was enjoying every detail—for instance, the pauses they inserted in “És.”

Janka Végh is a member of the indie folk rock duo Pandóra Projekt, along with Dóra Major. They met just last fall, I believe, at university, and became friends, and started working on the musical project, which has already won my heart, it’s so beautiful and full of character. Here’s their debut video of their song “Aki érdekel,” which (in my understanding) comments wryly on the difficulty of finding someone who is right for you in the weird world of dating and relationships. I love the song and video and can’t wait for more.

So just imagine what it was like to have Marcell Bajnai and Janka Végh singing “Kopog a szív” (below), each of them singing half of each verse, and then coming in together in harmony for each chorus.

A great and happy occasion! Coming back together after all this time, and hearing the band at a new level, with a new sense of who they were, and taking part in the general joy. Thanks to Idea, their families and friends, the Tisza Mozi, Janka Végh, and everyone who was there. I walked home along the Tisza, thinking back on the song “Álmok a parton,” “A Tisza-parton éjszaka / Ülnek az álmok, / Ülnek a gáton….”

  • “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 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.

  • 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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