A Musical Breakthrough: Cz.K. Sebő’s “Kesze-kusza nyár”

For about two years now I have loved Cz.K. Sebő’s music (and written about it here and elsewhere). But his new EP Kesze-kusza (Topsy-Turvy), especially the first song (“Kesze-kusza nyár,” or “Topsy-Turvy Summer”), has new depth for me in terms of musicianship alone. The guitar is meditative and rich—he way it lets the pauses ring, the way the notes come forward and retreat. This quality was there before, but it has reached a new level. The acoustic tone (he borrowed an exceptional guitar for this) is so beautiful that I can listen to the whole EP, again and again, for the sake of that sound. You can hear not only wood, strings, and air, but wordless thoughts. On the first song, the accompaniment by Soma Bradák (drums, percussion) and Benedek Szabó (bass) is so subtle that you might not even hear them enter. And then, when you listen to what they are doing, this adds to the wonder.

The lyrics are dreamy and evocative, the syllables so well timed that they sing themselves. This time the words are not hidden. I love the sometimes muffled singing on How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? (and with that, the ambivalence over words), but this is pure and bare.

The melody may sound familiar; this song inspired Platon Karataev’s “Létra,” the magnificent theme song of the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths).

The album is just under fifteen minutes long; it sustains its mood and beauty from start to finish. Three of the other songs on the EP are instrumental (solo guitar, with some effects); the third song, “Értelmet,” also has lyrics. I think the last song, “1012,” is another favorite along with the first. It surprises quietly; it explores and finds its way.

Fruzsina Balogh’s wonderful cover art evokes not only the songs but the experience of listening to the EP.

I don’t think this will be a final musical destination or anything close; his capsule boy album, now in progress, will take different directions. But it touches on infinity.

The EP (and especially the first song) inspired a poem yesterday. The poem isn’t “about” the EP or the song, but this music was a source. If anything, the poem is about holding back from an instant reaction to music, giving myself a chance to take it in. The fourth stanza alludes to the last paragraph on p. 67 of Zàn Coaskòrd’s book A Valóság, Hit és léleK rejtett csodája; the last stanza hints at Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” So I’ll end here with the poem.

Listening

Diana Senechal

Today I tried something new
(Or old in a new way):
Saying nothing.

True, many stints of null
Had marked my days before,
But this nothing had

A pluck to it.
Tuning, muting
Its strings, gearing

Up for the miracle
(As anything that comes
From zero is miracle),

It befriended the oval.
Later I thought of how
The hush had given me time

To hear space sing,
To see the clouds converge,
Break up, glitter, and

Spatter the long sands,
Daring me into a brief
Collapse of words.

The words resurged,
But with the glint of return
From a private voyage:

“Later I looked up the name
Of that beach whose waves
Rough-sang the sky.”

Ladders

This week, outside of school, I was absorbed in preparing to chant Genesis 28:10-22, the verses about Jacob’s dream, in which he sees a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. Then God appears beside him, reveals who he is, and promises to stay with Jacob and his descendants (who will be as the dust of the earth, spreading west, east, north, and south) and bring them back to this land. When Jacob wakes up, it dawns on him that God might have been present. As far as I know, his words are the first expression of awe in the Bible:

יז  וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם.17 And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

What is this ladder? After our service at Szim Salom today, we gathered around a table to discuss this question. Many ideas came up, including the possibility that the ladder is Jacob himself: that he is a conduit between heaven and earth, like certain rare people with a special quality of holiness. Another possibility that the ladder is internal—that it has something to do with his struggles and dichotomies (just a few verses later, he vows that if God fulfills his promises, he will accept him as his own God).

Various people brought up literary references to ladders: in particular, Sándor Weöres’s poem “Szembe fordított tükrök” (“Facing Mirrors”):

Örömöm sokszorozódjék a te örömödben.
Hiányosságom váljék jósággá benned.
 
Egyetlen parancs van, a többi csak tanács:
igyekezz úgy érezni, gondolkozni, cselekedni, hogy mindennek javára legyél.
Egyetlen ismeret van, a többi csak toldás:
Alattad a föld, fölötted az ég, benned a létra.
 
Az igazság nem mondatokban rejlik, hanem a torzítatlan létezésben.
Az öröklét nem az időben rejlik, hanem az összhang állapotában.

Here is my tentative translation:

May my joy be multiplied in your joy.
Let my defects become goodness in you.

There is only one commandment, the rest is just advice:
Try to think, feel, and act for the good of everything.
There is only one precept, the rest just follows from it:
Below you is the earth, above you the sky, within you the ladder.

Truth dwells not in sentences, but in undistorted existence.
Eternity dwells not in time, but in the state of harmony.

Listen also to Dániel Gryllus’s musical rendition of the poem.

I brought up the film Magasságok és mélységek (Heights and Depths), which I had been hoping to go see for the third time. The film’s theme song, which plays from start to finish in the credits and answers the entire film, is Platon Karataev’s “Létra” (“Ladder).

I knew that the film would be playing in Hungary for just a few more days, so, after leaving Bálint Ház (where we hold our services), I checked to see where it was playing. It turned out that I could see it at 2:45 at the Művész Mozi, not far from the Nyugati train station. It worked out perfectly.

The film is a somewhat fictional (and also faithful) rendition of the true story of the mountaineer Zsolt Erőss, who died in a Himalayan descent; it focuses on his wife, Hilda Sterczer (played brilliantly and profoundly by Emőke Pál), who has to contend with his loss and help her daughter do the same. This viewing opened up new levels of the film for me, both because I had seen it twice before and because I was thinking of the ladder. I realized how important it is that Hilda herself is an exceptional mountaineer. Once a mother, she gives it up, but she understands her husband’s expeditions as those around her cannot. Her excellence and her dependence are part of the same ladder. Slowly she begins to climb (down or up, it could be seen either way).

For instance, after gathering three million forints for a helicopter rescue mission (which proves futile), she decides not to undertake further rescue efforts—maybe partly because she wants to end the waiting and doubt, but also because she knows what it means to be up in the mountains, in weak condition, in extreme cold. She also knows that a mountaineer thinks in terms of survival, and that if her husband died, as she understands he did, he would have wanted her to survive. In other words, what others perceive as her coldness or lack of faith is actually her knowledge.

Also, her struggle with the loss, her difficulty living as herself, is not just the plight of an overly dependent wife. It comes from her strength and talent. Her strength and weakness are like the angels in Genesis going up and down the ladder. Maybe the resolution is the “undistorted existence” of the Weöres poem.

Back to the passage in Genesis: the angels ascending and descending could mean that what we take as a descent might sometimes be an ascent, and vice versa: that we are continually moving up and down at once. For Jacob, this seems true; his acts of trickery (descents from one point of view) have something holy to them, since they allow God’s plan to be fulfilled. In a more mundane way, each of us must do things at times that others disapprove of, for the sake of something greater. Last night (at the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which had an exciting new musical rendering), I was anxious because I wanted and needed to leave right after the kiddush: the blessing over the wine and challah bread, after the official service. I felt guilty (because others wanted me to stay for the dancing and socializing) but needed to get back to Szolnok, into my quiet, to rest and prepare for the next day. I did this, and it was a good decision.

This return to quiet was necessary in its own way. In this and other ways, I am moving up and down the ladder, both at once.

It is never a resolved matter; our most important conflicts do not have a definite, final answer. For me, retreating into quiet is essential, but calling it “quiet” is somewhat deceptive, since it may be a kind of turbulence I retreat to. Also, there are times when I need to fight against this pull, and (more) times when I need to trust it. Beyond a few basic precepts, the “right” way to be in the world is not fixed; we must perceive it again and again, and let it be different from what others assume.

But what I hear in these verses, beyond everything, is awe: Jacob’s sense that God was present, and his willingness (conditionally, tentatively) to trust that and act upon it. The words he speaks (such as hamakom, nora) are sparse but full of depth. Whatever the ladder and the motion of the angels might be, it suggests something divine in motion.

Platon Karataev’s “Létra” has something to do with all of this. I end with a translation, once again tentative.

Létra
by Platon Karataev

másznék már, de a szó visszaránt
létrám szelídíti a mélységet
magasságot egyaránt

kérdésem rétegeket hánt
elmémről, felelet gyanánt néha
fogadd el a talánt

tékozolja magasát a menny
hullajtja nagyságát a hegy
lépek: a mostban gázolok

érintsd meg a szél két oldalát
kulcsod majd ez lesz, odaát
nem kell, és visszaadhatod

a magasba, hol a szél is gyalogol
mélybe, hol ölel a pokol
tudd meg, mindkettőhöz tartozol

az óceánt zsilipelem éppen át
magamon már elhagytam
a szavak zátonyát

imádságaim közé egy istenfej szorult
szabadítom,
végre csak legyen az, ami
Ladder
by Platon Karataev

I would be climbing by now, but
the word pulls me back
my ladder tames both depth and height

my question peels layers
of my thoughts, sometimes “maybe”
is the answer you must accept

the heavens squander their height
the mountain sheds its greatness
I walk: I wade in the now

touch both sides of the wind
this will be your key, over there
it’s unneeded; you can return it

to the height, where the wind
also treads deep, where hell embraces you
know that you belong to both

Now I’m sluicing through the ocean
alone I already left the reefs
of words behind

a godhead is squeezed between my prayers
I let it go,
at last let it be only what it is

Art credit: Helen Franenthaler, Jacob’s Ladder, 1957 (on view at the Museum of Modern Art).

I added a little to this piece after posting it (and made two small edits to the translation of “Létra”).

Update: Here is my musical rendition of the Weöres poem:

“See, there’s magic hiding in every departure…”

That is a loose translation of a line from Platon Karataev’s “Lombkoronaszint,” “lásd, hogy varázs rejlik minden indulásban.”* Most of the traveling group is now on route to the U.S.; the rest of us will join them on Wednesday. Over the past six months, we all have been planning and preparing, adjusting to circumstances, changing certain plans, preparing the conference papers and presentations (I am presenting too, in a different seminar), scheduling concerts, canceling them, handling vaccinations, lodging, passports, visas, gathering everything together, packing—and now here we are, right at the bundle of moments.

We had to cancel the two concerts in New Haven and NYC because, as we learned, foreign musicians traveling to the U.S. need a special artist visa to perform in any capacity, even for free. Even if we had known about this long in advance, Sebő and Gergő might not have been able to get the visas in time, since they require many steps and extensive documentation (and cost a fortune too). So there will be no Platon Karataev duo concerts at all, but the trip itself and the conference remain intact. (At the 2022 ALSCW conference at Yale, I am leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” in which six members of the Hungarian group and twelve composers, writers, and scholars from the U.S. will be presenting.) In some ways it’s even better this way, since we will have more time to enjoy the trip, with less rush from one event to the next.

The concerts leading up to this trip have been some of my favorites in all my five years in Hungary. On Friday night, Cz.K. Sebő, Gábor Molnár, and Grand Bleu held a concert at the cozy Borpatika, the first in a series of concerts intended to help Budapest’s tiny clubs and pubs survive. I think Sebő—and maybe the others who performed that night—created the series. The idea is not only to hold concerts in little pubs, but to give them a personal and relaxed atmosphere. The musicians talk with the audience, tell stories between songs, welcome requests, etc. It was so beautiful and genuine that I had a weird attack of happiness.

In more ways than one, I was not alone. One person invited me to join her and her friends at a table; another treated me to a glass of wine and told me he liked my blog (this one here). These are people I have seen at various concerts and online but never met before. I stayed almost until the end of the concert, then took the latest train back to Szolnok and got home around 2:00 a.m. I didn’t even feel the lack of sleep the next day, which was a work day for us, but an easy one: the “Katalin Day” celebration (an annual tradition: a humorous competition and induction for the ninth graders, along with the equally traditional and legendary skit in which students from Class 11B parody the teachers).

After the celebration, I went home for a few hours and then headed out to Budapest again, visited a favorite Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and then set out for the Táncszínház, where Platon Karataev gave a rich, charged performance, just hours before Gergő, Sebő, and the others would head out to the airport. It had been a few months since I had last heard the whole band (the last time was at Fishing on Orfű). This time I heard new textures in the songs, or combinations of textures. Some of the high points for me were “Most magamban,” “Wide Eyes,” “Lassú madár,” “Elmerül,” “Tágul,” the cover of VHK’s “Halló mindenség,” and “Elevator.” But I was so excited about the trip that even sitting there in the hall was a high point: magic hiding in a departure, and a departure hiding in the act of sitting still.

Art credit: Andrew Walaszek, Departure (1989). Platon Karataev concert photo credit: sinco. I took the three pictures in the middle of the post: (1) of the entrance to the Borpatika, (2) of Cz.K. Sebő and Gábor Molnár, and (3) of Grand Bleu.

*Update: I later learned that the line from Lombkoronaszint is a quotation from Hermann Hesse’s poem “Stufen” (“Stages”), “Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne, / Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.”

Highlights of the Week

One of the great highlights of this week was reading John Cheever. I bought a big collection of his stories; this was inspired by Benedek Szabó’s online recommendation of “The Swimmer.” Before buying the book, I read “The Swimmer” and two other Szabó favorites, “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband” (all three are fantastic) and reread two, “The Enormous Radio” and “Reunion.” Once I had the book, I started opening up to a random place and reading that űstory; in that way I have read (so far) “Clementina,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “A Vision of the World,” “The Music Teacher,” and (my favorite of these five) “Metamorphoses.” Although the female characters sometimes lack depth (and not always), these stories are both brilliant and addictive, a great combination for someone who doesn’t very often sink into reading for sheer fun. My reading is usually slow and preparatory; I am getting ready for class, translation, leyning, or something else. I enjoy that kind of reading, or I wouldn’t do it—but it’s great to have this thick book of Cheever and to know that I’m going to read it fast.

I have already brought up some of the other highlights of the week, but one of them deserves a repetition. Cz.K. Sebő’s instrumental song “4224” is gorgeous. Listen to it here. The cover art is by Fruzsina Balogh.

Two interviews were published or announced this week, one from last week, one taking place next Thursday. My Chametzky Translation Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, summer intern at The Massachusetts Review, can now be viewed on YouTube.

And next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. in Hungary), Matt Barnes and Keil Dumsch will interview me about my ten-year-old book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Everyone is welcome; to join, you need to be registered on LinkedIn.

Yesterday I had a beautiful day. I went to Budapest for two performances: first, Platon Karataev at the MOMkult, for the opening of the exhibition in memory of Tamási Áron. It was an absorbing and dreamy performance; I think “Tágul” was my favorite, though it’s hard to say.

Then I walked briskly to the Városmajori Szabadtéri Színpad to see the premiere of a musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (in Hungarian: 80 nap alatt a Föld körül). It was lively, funny, and inventive, with colorful song and dance, umbrellas, digital scenery, and a terrific cast. The libretto is by Réka Divinyi, and the music is by the band Lóci játszik. For years I had wanted to see Around the World in 80 Days on stage, having read about a performance in NYC. Here are some photos.

And there was much more: translating, writing, running, preparing for the ALSCW conference and October trip, listening to music, spending time with the cats, thinking, walking around Budapest, discovering new places and buildings. And now the sun is setting, and I will try to rest a little. Shabbat Shalom.

“nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül”

I would like to look at the magnificent Hungarian language through Platon Karataev’s magnificent song “Elmerül” (the ninth song on their 2022 album Partért kiáltó). This is a song about the place beyond language, but its own language resonates in all directions. I am writing for people who don’t necessarily speak Hungarian, so I will take this slowly and partially.

I’ll start with one of the refrains:

követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül
nem beszélem nyelved de beszélek emberül

This could be translated roughly as “I tie a stone around it, the mind sinks down / I don’t speak your language, but I speak the human tongue.” Look at the beautiful alliteration and assonance of “követ kötök köré.” “Követ” is the accusative of , “stone.” “Kötök” is the first person singular of köt, “tie.” “Köré” is the directional preposition meaning “around.” Each of these words comes from a different Proto-Finno-Ugric root. The alliteration and assonance is even stronger in “az elme elmerül”; “elme” means “mind or intellect” and “elmerül” means “sinks.” In the second case, the “el-” is a prefix; in the first, it is not. I tried to track down the etymology of “elme” but found nothing; even a Hungarian online etymological dictionary states, “Régi szavunk, de eredetéről semmi biztosat nem tudunk.” (“It’s an old word of ours, but we know nothing certain about its origin.”)

Then comes this beautiful, simple complexity (and an allusion to Pilinszky’s Apokrif): “nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül” (“I don’t speak your language, but I speak in the language of humans.”) “Beszélem” and “beszélek” both mean “I speak”; why the difference? Most Hungarian transitive verbs have both an definite form (used with specific objects) and an indefinite form (used with nonspecific objects or no object at all). It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic principle. Here, “beszélem” is the definite form and “beszélek” the indefinite form. The definite form is needed the first time because “nyelved,” “your language,” is a specific object, even without an article preceding it. But “emberül” isn’t an object at all; it’s an adverb, so the second time around, the indefinite form is needed.

This refrain actually alternates with a similar one: “követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül / most szembenézek azzal, mit találok legbelül” (approximately, “I tie a stone around it, my mind sinks down / now I’m looking straight into the face of what I find farthest inside”).

After these, the next refrain is just as rich, though in a different way: “kérdeznem nem kell / egy vagyok a felelettel” (“I don’t have to ask / I am one with the answer”). There’s the alliteration of “kérdeznem” and “kell”; the second part also has subtle alliteration: the “gy” of “egy” and “vagyok” as well as assonance (the repeated “e” sound). There’s also a play of zeroes and ones: the zero of “nem” and the one of “egy.” In addition, these two parts have a kind of mirror symmetry (especially visible in the lyrics book), where “kérdeznem” and “felelettel,” the two longest words, mirror each other as questioning and answer. (In the photo here, the text is slightly skewed; that’s because I was holding the book open.)

But all of this is later in the song, after the three stanzas or short verses, which have to do with the place beyond language, and which is likewise rich with Pilinszky allusions. Here is a very rough translation:

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
nem jelöl mit a hangalak
a pusztában hagytalak

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a lélek önmagába les
a végtelen dadogni kezd

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a válasz torkomban rezdül
a káosz mélyén rend ül
what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the phonetic form has no sense
i leave you in the wilderness

what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the soul spies into itself
the infinite starts to stutter

what do you find beyond the words?
there the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the answer vibrates in my throat
in the depths of chaos, order sits

“Nyelv” means both “tongue” and “language”—but in English, “tongue” can mean “language” too, so I translated “nyelvharang” as “tongue-bell.” This is a Platon Karataev neologism, as far as I know; it could be a play on “nyelvhang,” “lingual consonant.” That would tie in with the word “hangalak,” which is a linguistic term meaning “phonetic form.”

I think the rest explains itself.

I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

Update: Here’s the video of my Chametzky Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, a summer intern at The Massachusetts Review.

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).

Learning from Covering a Song

Covering a song you love is a way to go farther into it, to find out what it is about. For a while I have had a thought of covering Platon Karataev’s “Lombkoronaszint” (“Canopy Layer”) and a few ideas of how I would do it. About a week ago I set down the underlying track. Then yesterday I recorded the rest. The recording is far from perfect, but I learned a lot about the song while making it. Here it is (available only in this post; I am not turning it into a video or sharing it elsewhere).


When you first listen to “Lombkoronaszint,” it might seem very simple to play: a melody repeating over and over, a refrain that slowly takes over. But then when you try to play it, you find a hidden intricacy: the pattern varies, the syllables match differently with the beats of the measure. It takes intense concentration to get it right (and I still only got it right up to a point). As I worked on it, I was taken into a different level of the song, and I think that comes through.

The lyrics can be translated roughly as follows (I might edit or correct this later):

now the boat left behind
for the last one
floats entirely on its own,
look, we have crossed over,
the tired capillary
slowly pushes
my blood forth;
all the water
has reached the other shore.

do you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
in a shivering child.

see, how magic hides in each setting forth,
the slow water sets you on your way,
let’s row back all over again.

do you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
in an opening flower,
on the canopy layer,
do you ask where god is?
on the canopy layer,
do you ask where god is?

Here, below, is a beautiful live recording and video of Gergő and Sebő playing the song. And you can hear the album version here.

Update: I re-recorded the later part of the vocals and uploaded the new version here.

Remembering Concerts

I don’t want to go to so many concerts and literary events that they start blending into each other or twisting into oblivion, but so far that hasn’t been a danger. Each one has stood out in a particular way. A few details can bring the whole evening back. Last night’s event (pictured to the left) at the MITZI café was one of my favorites here in Hungary so far. Hosted by the Anna Juhász Literary Salon, it focused on the Partért kiáltó lyrics book but took this in many directions. Anna Juhász related it to Pilinszky (and led the discussion overall); Ákos Győrffy and Csaba Szendrői gave their thoughts, both about the book and music and about questions of language, creation, and more; Gyöngyi Hegedűs, Gergő’s mother, spoke about being a poet, doctor, and mother, and read one of her poems; and Gergely Balla played three songs and spoke about his music, influences, quests.

One of the most interesting ideas for me was the distinction between passzió (strong enthusiasm) and passió (holy passion, which is bound up in suffering). Another was Gergő’s story about how someone had said, after Partért kiáltó was released, that he didn’t think Gergő had quite found his voice yet. Gergő’s response was that he had no interest in finding his voice; to the contrary, he has been reaching for something beyond the “I.” Still another favorite part was when Ákos Győrffy told the story about how some of the lyrics of Partért kiáltó described exactly a dream that he had had, and Gergő read aloud Győrffy’s description of the dream. And Gyöngyi Hegedűs’s comments, humor, and poem. And Gergő’s exceptional humility toward the others: for instance, his deeply appreciative praise of Elefánt (Csaba Szendrői’s band). And Anna Juhász’s comment on the shortest song on the Partért kiáltó album, “Fagyott csontok,” and how its lyrics have the true density of poetry. There was much more that came up—and the music itself at the beginning and end said what the discussion could not. All of this took place in front of a hushed and densely seated audience. I had lots to think about on the train ride back home.

As for other recent concerts: Just last week, though it seems longer ago than that, I went to a terrific Cataflamingo show at the Szimpla Kert, a labyrinthine venue with colorful lamps, dark passageways, open-air places, wooden steps, mirrors, and at least two enclosed performance halls. This was only my third time hearing them in concert; this time I was blown away by their musicianship, the beauty of the songs, the transformations inside them. The audience reveled in it all: listening intently, dancing along, sometimes singing along (there’s a song where the audience takes over the singing at one point), cheering at the end. Here is a video of one of the songs from the concert, “Nevess.”

The week before that, I went to two concerts: Cz.K. Sebő at the A38 Hajó, and then, the following day, Galaxisok at Budapest Park. The Cz.K. Sebő concert was a little difficult for me at first because of the noisy crowd (I think this had something to do with the acoustics of that particular hall at the A38); also, they played some of the songs slightly faster than I hear them in my mind. But the concert grew more and more beautiful and absorbing as it went along. I can still hear the sounds of “Interlude II” in my mind; “Fox in the Holt,” “Pure Sense,” “Keveset olvasok,” and “Papermache Dreams” were also highlights for me, and there was a new song too, which I am eager to hear again. It has been almost exactly a year since I first heard Cz.K. Sebő in concert, and I look forward to at least two more concerts in the next couple of months (one at Fishing on Orfű and one in the middle of July in Budapest). I am eager to see and hear how his capsule boy project develops; he is releasing a new song, “Fázom, ha nézel,” the first capsule boy non-remix single, this weekend!

As for Galaxisok, I hadn’t heard them in a while and was excited to hear them at Budapest Park, where they were playing for the first time. The sound was rich, the songs already familiar and evocative for me, the performance thrilling. It’s hard to describe them, because their songs take different directions without becoming a hodgepodge at all. There’s a whimsical coherence to them, a kind of worldly-wise melancholy mixed with zest. The best description I have seen so far is their own (for the upcoming concert at Müpa):

The singer-songwriter Benedek Szabó, who you may also recognise from his earlier band Zombie Girlfriend, founded the Galaxisok in 2013 under the name Szabó Benedek és a Galaxisok (Benedek Szabó and the Galaxies). They have released six major albums to date, ranging from chord-strumming hits inspired by Tamás Cseh to catchy guitar pop, end-of-the-world ballads on the piano and South American and African-influenced songs, creating a daring, ever-changing, unpredictable whole. What kind of music do they play? ‘Well-being polbeat’? Jangly guitar pop? Dreamlike piano ballads? The band, which is approaching its tenth birthday, has a meandering repertoire that means something different to every individual, depending on what age, place or given moment they hear it for the first time. But what is the essence of the Galaxisok, which has such a strong relationship with the public? Maybe the frontman has a radically different picture of the band from the guitarist, while the drummer thinks in another way entirely – and who knows what alternative production the bassist might have imagined? All our questions will be answered on the Müpa Budapest stage, as the Galaxisok play their favourite tunes.

Some of my favorites from the concert were “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” their new song “Ez a nyár,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal,” “Mondo Bizarro,” and “Középsulis szerelmes szám,” but the one playing in my mind right now, “Sandy View,” stands out among them all. In any case, I think Galaxisok will be the subject of my next “Listen Up” post, because there’s so much there to listen to and reflect on.

To take in a concert fully, I need to stay away from concerts now and then. Especially with the train rides from Szolnok, I would wear myself out if I went to them all. Also, I have large ongoing projects and a need for sustained quiet time. So, for instance, I am not going to the Platon Karataev duo concert this evening, although I would have loved to, since I am attending the Grand Bleu/Cappuccino projekt concert tomorrow and a Platon Karataev (Gergely Balla) discussion and brunch on Sunday. The upcoming weeks are dense; I have to check my calendar frequently to make sure I’m not forgetting something.

But that’s the gift of it: holding back from concerts just enough that when I do go, it’s with full joy. Joy not in the sense of glee and cheer, necessarily; there’s melancholic and sad joy too. But catching and holding the notes as they fly by, wrapping myself in them, carrying them for days and weeks and sometimes much longer. Even when the memories fade, the concerts leave some kind of texture behind, and though I can’t pinpoint it and don’t need to, I know it’s there. There’s a new shape to the air.

First photo (of last night’s event) by Kriszta Lettner; more photos here. Second photo (of the May 12 Cz.K. Sebő concert) by me.

I made a few edits to this piece (in several stages) after posting it.

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

  • Always Different

  • 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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