A Day, a Night, and a Morning

It turned out that the day after returning to Hungary, I needed to spend a full day in Budapest, because I had a doctor’s appointment there in the morning, was attending a Platon Karataev/Kolibri concert in the evening, and saw no point in returning to Szolnok in between. But as it turned out, I also got to meet with a writer whose work I am translating, and in the remaining in-between time I walked around Buda and visited a thermal bath. Here are a few pictures and thoughts from the day.

After the (uneventful) doctor’s appointment, I walked over to the Három Szerb Kávéház, where I heard Csenger Kertai in an interview and reading in June. No, it was not Csenger I met with yesterday, though I am translating a few of his poems–more about that later! Anyway, the meeting was interesting and enjoyable (more about this project later too), and it was good to revisit the Három Szerb Kávéház and its terrace. I was left with about four or five hours of afternoon before the concert. So I crossed the Liberty Bridge and started walking along Gellért Hill. It was there that I came upon the waterfall.

I stood and watched it for a little while, feeling some of its spray, and then headed up the stone steps to see more. But it was a very hot day, and I decided not to go up to the top of the hill. Instead, I continued onward toward the Lukács thermal bath, and saw ferns, trees, shady parks along the way. I came to a park with a large lopped-off tree whose leaves were casting shadows on the trunk. I also stopped inside an enticing antique bookstore, the Krisztina Antikvárium, and bought a volume of Sándor Weöres and another of Mihály Vörösmarty (the latter in part because my street is named after him).

I was looking forward to the sauna at the Lukács thermal bath, where I had never been before, since I was already sweating a lot and figured a sauna and shower would be refreshing and restful. I was not disappointed, and I hope to return sometime.

Then it was already time to head over to the concert. I walked part of the way, took the train the rest of the way, and had about half an hour to sit back with a beer on Szentlélek tér before going into the KOBUCI Kert, a large outdoor concert venue that was soon to be packed.

The concert was the sort of thing that words won’t reach, at least not these words. A loving, wildly enthusiastic crowd that sang along (beautifully) to most of the songs and roared at the end for more and more. A passionate, spot-on performance by both Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) and Platon Karataev. A feeling of togetherness. These guys are rock stars but also brilliant songwriters and musicians; the music is deep and lasting. I felt that I knew the audience just a little bit, even the strangers, because it was so obvious why we were here. We sang along, danced along, hushed along; we waited for favorite moments and took in the new. I can’t wait for the new Platon Karataev album, which will be all in Hungarian; they played some astonishing songs from it.

I am so happy that I will get to hear both Kolibri and Platon Karataev again this summer: both of them at the Kolorádó festival, and Platon also at Fishing on Orfű and (the Platon duo of Gergő and Sebő) in Veszprém. They are playing many more festivals, one after another; these are the ones I can attend, and I am grateful for them. Fishing on Orfű is separate from MiniFishing, though part of the same festival; the latter took place in June, whereas the former will be in August. I can go for only one day and night, because of the school year starting up again, but I can’t wait to go, with bike, tent, and sleeping bag, just as in June. I will get to hear Dávid Szesztay as well, and others too.

At the very end of the concert, I spoke briefly with Ivett Kovács, whom I hadn’t met before but whom I recognized because of her beautiful cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Disguise.” I complimented her on the cover, then said goodbye to Zsuzsanna, Atti, Mesi, et al. and headed to the train station.

It was a long ride home, but I wasn’t tired yet; so many thoughts from the day and evening came back. Walking from the train station to my apartment at around 1:30 a.m., I saw hedgehogs in the grass. At home, I stayed up a little longer, then went happily to sleep. In the morning, feeling out of pressure, I was inspired to re-record the vocals of my cover of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I like the new recording much better; my voice is more relaxed, and it blends better with the cello. Everything else is unchanged.

I must run now. But here is a picture of the ferns, since I mentioned them and since they capture something of the day.

Two-Week Roundup

A lot has happened in the past two weeks. In two weeks from now, I will already be on my way back from the U.S. (I head out there on Friday). I am not bringing the laptop, so any updates during those two weeks are likely to be brief (though you never know).

So, a roundup:

The school year ended, and the faculty went on a trip to the village of Demjén. We visited a winery and thermal bath. It was a beautiful day.

I went to three concerts over the past two weeks: Cz.K. Sebő and Felső Tízezer (at the A38 Hajó), then a performance by Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai (at the Szolnoki Művésztelep), then the Platon Karataev duo at the TRIP Hajó. In addition, I attended two literary events at the Szolnoki Művésztelep (at the ARTjáró Összművészeti Fesztivál): one featuring the literary journal Eső, and one featuring Légszomj, Gyula Jenei’s Covid diary in verse with György Verebes’s art. I also attended an online event featuring the poet and translator George Szirtes. All of this is enough to fill the mind and soul for a long time.

As far as writing goes, the inaugural issue of The Penny Truth is out and about, My long semi-satirical poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist, and my newest poem, “Day of Rage,” received some nice comments here on this blog. I am working on two translation projects (poetry and short stories), both of which are an honor for me. I will say more about them later.

Two weeks ago, I posted my cover (with cello, guitar, and voice, and a homemade video) of Cz.K. Sebő’s “Out of pressure.” I learned a lot from playing the song.

Radio also figured prominently in these past two weeks. I have been enjoying WFMU”s Continental Subway, and also listened to Marcell Bajnai’s interview on Megafon.

Speaking of songs, I have a few to recommend. Two have come up on this blog already, but that’s all the more reason to mention them again.

The first is Cz.K. Sebő’s “First Snow.” Listen to the whole song, the lyrics, the drums. This song sounded especially beautiful at the concert at the A38 Hajó; I have been hearing it in my mind ever since.

The second is Felső Tízezer’s “Majdnemország,” about which I have written here.

The third is Lázár tesók’s (the Lázár Brothers’) new video, “Olyan egyszerű” (“So simple”). The song is from their debut album, Hullámtörés. If you just listen to the melody and watch the video, you might think it’s about how nice it is to be out on Lake Balaton together. But the song is not nearly so cheery, and that’s part of what makes it beautiful: the combination of moods and colors. And that they composed and performed it so well.

And then, to wrap it up, Marcell Bajnai’s most recent song, “legjobb metaforám,” which I have heard in three forms so far: as a recording, in live performance, and read aloud as a poem (during the radio interview; the interviewer, Marci Lombos, read it aloud, and Marcell read “Forróság környékez” by Norbert Siket. This might be my favorite of Marcell’s solo songs; it is certainly one of them.

And that is a good way to end the day.

Pictures of a Concert

I am not going to describe last night’s concert, except to say that the place was all hushed, listening to this beautiful performance by the Platon Karataev duo of Gergő Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly on the TRIP Terasz. I was grateful to be there, to be able to listen too, along with Zsuzsanna, Mesi, and so many others. It was a full house, the concert was sold out, and no one chatted during it; under the music, you could hear the waves and the breeze. Here are some pictures. The first is from the beginning of the concert, when they started to play “Elevator.”

Here are some pictures from before the concert:

And a few from the concert itself:

And a few taken afterward:

This is one of the great happinesses of life: to listen to a concert like this, knowing that there is no concert like this, just this one, moment by moment.

Festival Season

Until this year, I had little idea what the Hungarian music festival season was like. Last summer, the festivals were cancelled, and the summers before that, I was in the U.S. most of the time, both teaching and visiting. This year, I am attending three music festivals here in Hungary (two just overnight, with sleeping bag and tent, and another for three days). Three festivals (in addition to standalone concerts) is quite a bit for me, even though it’s a fraction of the whole.

If you are a musician in festival season, then you might spend the whole summer performing at one festival after another, with a few other concerts in between. Lots of fun, I imagine, but also demanding: being around so many people all the time and being expected to stick around for at least part of the event. Then again, it must be a great way of joining together, reuniting, playing for new audiences and on new stages (indoors, outdoors, on the water), getting to know other musicians, and enjoying some beautiful places. Each of these festivals has a character of its own. Last night, at the Mini Fishing on Orfű, I loved how relaxed and enthusiastic the audience was, how they danced and sang to the music. I felt right at home. But let me backtrack.

The festival Fishing on Orfű (named after a Kiscsillag EP) began in 2008. It was founded primarily by András Lovasi (the lead singer of Kiscsillag) and Tamás Kálocz. It started as a three-day festival, then was extended to four days; in 2017, in honor of Lovasi’s fiftieth birthday, it was five days long, and in 2020 it was cancelled because of Covid. This year, in addition to holding the main festival in August, the organizers decided to have a mini-festival in June. Hence Mini Fishing on Orfű. Orfű is about 18 kilometers northwest of Pécs (but what an 18 kilometers! I don’t think I have ever biked such hills before). It’s next to a small lake, the Pécsi-tó.

I went just for one night (this was one of the three festivals I mentioned earlier), since I have a lot to do here in Szolnok. To get there, I brought the bike on the train, went to Budapest, then transferred to a train that went to Pécs, and bicycled from Pécs to Orfű—a rather steep climb most of the way, then downhill for the last stretch. I had a tent, sleeping bag, and backpack with me. The whole thing seemed so unlikely, and I didn’t know if I had made a mistake. But when I rolled into Orfű, the sun was setting over the little lake, people were sitting by the water, and I quickly got my bearings and found out where the festival was.

I arrived at last, set up my tent (a bit of a challenge in the dark, but I figured it out), and then headed up the hill for the 30Y concert. It had already begun, but I got to hear most of it. I had heard only a few of their songs before (online), but the music and the audience’s love took over. At certain points the band would stop playing before a song ended, and the crowd would keep on singing, not just for a few seconds, but on and on, about a thousand people, an overwhelming feeling.

Then I went on a search for the stage where Platon Karataev would be playing. I finally found it and sat down for a little bit. Their concert was to begin at 1:20 a.m.; earlier in the evening, their bassist, Laci Sallai, had a solo concert at the TRIP Terasz. They arrived at some point after midnight and began setting up. Then Zsuzsanna, Atti (her husband), and Mesi came along and joined me in the front. We were right up close to the stage. I can’t describe the concert, except to say that it swept me up, song after song, “Aphelion,” “Ocean,” “Disguise,” “Orange Nights,” “Elevator,” and many others. I was so happy and excited to be right there, hearing these songs live. It was actually the first Platon Karataev concert I had ever attended, except for the acoustic duo last August.

Then I went to sleep in the tent. I had planned to get up at the crack of dawn, bike to Pécs, and take the 7:27 train. That was completely unrealistic; I woke up around 7:00, packed up, biked (the return trip was mostly downhill but still had some steep uphill parts), and barely missed the 9:27 train. So I waited for the 11:27 one. I got home late in the afternoon; the cats were fine and happy to see me.

How great to have this to think back on.

Song Series #15: Doing Almost Nothing

Some of the most beautiful songs that I know work with silence and air. They seem to do almost nothing. Or maybe there’s a lot going on in them, but also a simplicity. I will bring up four such examples today.

Let’s begin with Jacques Brel’s “Départs,” one of his very early songs, recorded in 1953. The guitar has a simple chord progression and rhythm; for the most part (but not always), he strums on the beat, softly. But the little variations—of rhythm, stroke, volume—give the song a brooding texture. The lyrics are extraordinary on their own (about all the friendships that we abandon, all the good-byes we say, in our urge to travel the world in search of happiness), and the guitar gives them an extra tautness. (If you click on the picture, this will take you to the recording on YouTube.)

Toutes les amitiés
Qu’on laisse mourir
Qu’on laisse tomber
Pour aller courir
Sur de vains chemins
Cherchant pas à pas
Un bonheur humain
Qu’on ne connaît pas
Amitiés anciennes
Vieilles comme la vie
Idées faites siennes
Et que l’on renie
Visage sans nom
Prénom sans visage
Rires que nous perdons
Inutiles bagagesTous les “au revoir”
Qu’on lance à la ronde
Parce qu’on croit devoir
Parcourir le monde
Et tous les adieux
Aux filles donnés
C’est trop d’être d’eux
Allant guerroyer
Les bonheurs qu’on sème
A chaque départ
Meurent vite d’eux-mêmes
Sur les quais de gare
Tous les “au revoir”
Et tous les adieux
Nous rendent l’espoir
Nous rendent plus vieux

The next song is “Csak mi” by Lázár tesók (the Lázár brothers), whom I had the joy of hearing in concert a week ago. This song (about a relationship that can see in the dark, that becomes luminous in the dark) keeps playing and playing in my head and in my headphones; it’s the first song on their album Hullámtörés. In different hands, and with different lyrics, the vocal melody could have led to something cheesy. But they make it unique with the syncopated guitar and the beautiful repetitions of piano phrases and notes. It’s that repeated note on the piano toward the end that gets me; it’s like seeing in the dark itself. I think it’s possible to appreciate this song without knowing Hungarian, but here’s a rough translation of the lyrics:

A storm is stirring, light doesn’t come in
Everything in the window is already dark
Only you, only you can see (me) as such
This is me, I emerged just now.

When everything is invisible, that’s when I live
When everything goes dark, I shine

The edge of the setting sun is dark red
It floods the evening, but comes to an end
Only you, only you keep vigil at night
And that is the time when I emerge

When everything is invisible, that’s when we live
When everything goes dark, we shine
When everything is invisible, just then we appear
Just you, just I, just we have remained

The next song is “Psalmus” by Platon Karataev, whom I will hear next week at the Mini Fishing on Orfű festival! I am going just for Thursday night: bringing my bike (and tent and sleeping bag) on the train to Pécs, and biking from Pécs to Orfű. And then head back early in the morning. This will be the first time I hear the full band in concert; I heard Sebő and Gergő in an acoustic duo last August, and I heard Sebő play a solo concert just recently. I love this song for its long layers, among other things. First there’s bass alone. Then Gergő’s guitar comes in, and then, at the instant that he begins to sing, the drums come in too. Then Sebő’s quiet backing vocals. The whole band holds back so much in this song, it builds up so slowly, and its confession or offering is so bare. (You can read the lyrics here.) The Live at Gólya video is especially beautiful, because it lets you see some of what is going on musically. The song is from their second full-length album, Atoms.

I will end with Dávid Szesztay’s “Hullámzás,” which has also been playing in my head this week. It was beautiful at the concert on Wednesday and has become one of my favorite songs on the new album. The colorful chords and arpeggios combine with the simple vocal melody and the repeated words, like “elaludtál” (you have fallen asleep) and “ideúsztál” (you swam over here), and the single repeating note in the background. I won’t translate it here, since it would be hard to do correctly. The song seems to have to do with spending time with a person, morning and night, traveling together, waking almost together. Sometimes I think it’s a little bit about death, but then, everything is, in some way.

Oh, heck, here’s one more, because it has been one of my favorite songs over many years: “Strip Darts” by Hannah Marcus, from her 2003 album Desert Farmers. (“Strip Darts” is actually the correct spelling, even though it appears online as “Stripdarts.”) For this I have to use Spotify, because the song isn’t available on YouTube or Bandcamp. Listen to its story, its incantations, and the way it goes on without words. Even within the words, there is so much unsaid; you sense a person going through a private crisis, and someone else watching from the outside, with wry compassion. There is hope in this song. “But just when you think your love’s in vain / Look out here comes the desert rain / Look out here it comes.” And yes, there is the rain, in the music, and what a rain.

My descriptions here have been rather sparse, but that’s in the spirit of doing almost nothing. These songs have a way of coming back again and again.

Song Series #14: One Morning in May

This morning I had the joy of listening to songs with my ninth-grade students, as part of the music unit in the American Civilization course. A few weeks ago, while we were still online, I had introduced them to U.S. American and Canadian songs and pieces from various genres: jazz, blues, folk, country. They then had to choose one of the songs from the playlist and write a reflection on it. From their reflections and songs, I chose five, and added one more (which isn’t American but which is clearly influenced by these traditions, particularly folk): Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights.” So here was what we listened to, in person, this morning in May.

First was the remastered version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” which an eleventh-grade student had strongly recommended to me. I listened to it and understood why he thought I should hear it. A person could listen to this piece alone and fall in love with jazz. One ninth-grader wrote, “In the first second when I heard the jazzy piano, I knew
that this song was going to be good. The wind instruments are played like they are the singers I’m a fan of. It is really calm and smooth.” Another mentioned that he might include a sample from this piece in one of his own musical projects.


The next one was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which I have brought up on this blog before. While Cohen was Jewish and observant, as well as being involved with Buddhism, the verse that describes Jesus is heartbreaking. That is part of the song’s opennness; Suzanne in the song carries the spirit of openness, the ability to feel with the world and to love with a purity that sweeps up everything.

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And then you think maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

The next was “Little Red Rooster” by the great blues musician Howlin’ Wolf. A student found it intriguing because nowadays teens don’t listen to this kind of music. “I noticed his beautiul energetic voice,” he wrote, “which is incredible.” He gave some brief background on Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), his teenage life on a cotton plantation, and his musical evolution.

The next one was Sarah Jarosz’s “Song Up In Her Head,” this version recorded during the Music Fog sessions at the 2010 Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. The students who had written about this song had been taken by her voice and the way the song gets you to sing along. “I personally think that the lyrics are catchy,” one wrote; “they are easy to memorize. After listening to the song two or three times, you can already sing along easily. There aren’t many too high or too low notes, because the focus is more on the instruments, as the genre is bluegrass.”

From there, we moved along to Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” which had appealed to several of the students. The song has layers and layers of memories for me. I love the languourous mood, the characteristic soaring of the voice, and the way the song tells a story and then, in the last verse, moves into the first person.

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

To wrap it all up, we listened to Platon Karataev’s “Orange Nights,” which they hadn’t heard before. I chose it because it is gorgeous and because it fit so well with the rest; also, because they could hear how a Hungarian band draws on U.S. folk traditions in a genuine and original way. The music wraps you up and carries you along; you can hear and see the orange nights in Pest. The lyrics are full of textures and meanings. One of my favorite aspects is the rhyme of “Pest” (“pesht”) with “detest,” “rest,” “best,” and “chest”; another is the pair of lines “Solitude, you’re with me in the end / We salute as old friends,” with “salute” pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, so that it sounds very close to “solitude” and brings out this beautiful paradox of solitude and greeting. No native English speaker would come up with this, and it’s perfect; the song, after you listen to it a few times, starts playing in the mind and limbs.

What a happy lesson, and a rare treat at school: to be able to listen to songs like this, one after another. The students were tranquil and thoughtful, and several commented at the end that they had enjoyed this. One of them doesn’t like slow songs, so it wasn’t quite as enjoyable for her; but others were strongly enthusiastic (one especially loved “Orange Nights”), and in any case, this is an opening into more: for instance, the full albums, or these same songs again, or something else. Who knows where listening will lead?

To see all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

The Concert Conundrum

Live concerts in person are starting to take place again in Hungary, and they can happen in one of two ways. If they are outdoors—for instance, on a terrace—then a vaccination certificate might not be required. (This depends on the size and nature of the event.) On the other hand, if it rains, the concert will probably be cancelled. If they are indoors, then they can happen rain or shine, but only those with official vaccination certificates (in the form of a plastic card) will be allowed in, unless the venue decides to risk breaking the law. So actually attending one of these concerts can be a challenge.

This afternoon, immediately after my last class, I took the train to Budapest for a concert by Dávid Szesztay. I had a feeling that it would be cancelled because of the rain, but I was willing to take the risk. It was indeed cancelled, unfortunately (and I didn’t realize this until I was close to the venue), but the trip was not in vain. It was nice to see parts of Buda that I haven’t explored yet, particularly the Szentlélek tér area (shown in the picture above). I hope to return there soon.

The next concert I hope to attend will be on Friday, June 28. Cz.K. Sebő will be playing at the TRIP Hajó nightclub (a stationary ship on the Danube). It will be on the open-air terrace, and the vaccination card is required. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I want to attend. The only catch is that I have had both vaccinations but have not received the plastic card yet. I have done everything I need to do to receive it, and even received an official electronic letter stating that it will be mailed soon. In addition, I have paper documentation of the two shots. Will that be enough, if the card does not arrive on time? I will contact the TRIP Hajó to try to find out in advance. It’s a strange position to be in: to have had the shots and still not to know whether I can attend a concert. I am hoping that it will work out. (Update: they will let me in.)

So, in hopes of a rescheduled Dávid Szesztay concert, and anticipation of the Cz.K. Sebő concert, I will leave off with a few of their songs. (I included two different songs of theirs in my latest post on my Hungarian-language blog, Megfogalmazások.) “Késő” (“Late”) is from Szesztay’s 2021 album Iderejtem a ház kulcsát.

For a Sebő selection, here’s one I love but have not mentioned yet: “Fear from passing” (from his EP The masked undressed), at the start of a wonderful live performance at the A38 Hajó in 2018. You can then listen onward and hear seven more of his songs.

I enjoy listening to these songs individually, and even more as part of albums (or concerts, which are albums of a different kind), and even more as part of something that is continually finding form and meaning. It was exciting to discover, for instance, that the song “Opening” (from Sebő’s very first release, his home-recorded Fugitive Feelings) became the basis for the Platon Karataev song “Orange Nights.” You can listen to both songs below. I love the official “Orange Nights” video, which is why I include it here, but as for recordings, I also love the one on their Orange Nights EP. So listen to both, a doubling upon doubling!

Here’s to the concerts! May they happen, may there be many, and may those who want to attend be admitted!

I made a few corrections to this piece after posting it. The Covid regulations are loosening, but the new rules have ambiguities. In any case, vaccination cards are still required for many outdoor as well as indoor events.

The Spotify Trap (and a Way Out)

This isn’t exactly an anti-Spotify piece, though I dislike Spotify (and similar services) for all sorts of reasons: for the money it keeps for itself and for big record companies, for the pressure to subscribe to Premium (no, I won’t), for the emphasis on its own algorithms, for the irritating ads, and for the weird feeling that when I spend time there, I’m not listening to music as I would otherwise do, but instead curating a playlist that matters to no one. If there’s an online music service where I will gladly spend my time, it’s Bandcamp. Anyway, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Rather, I want to look at how these giant algorithms have replaced the old traditions of listening to music together, introducing friends to new music, going to a record store and browsing, or getting a great suggestion from one of the staff. I miss those days but also have been thinking that we could recapture some of that in a new medium.

Some of my best memories of Yale involved spending time with friends who introduced me to music I didn’t know, or music I knew but not as well as they did. I remember listening to Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen with Steve; to David Bowie with Ron; to the Pixies with Joe, to Kris Kristofferson with Geoff and his friends, to Leonard Cohen with Nico, and the list goes on. In San Francisco this continued, mostly with people with whom I played music, or whose music I loved. There was so much music around us, and all this music had influences going decades back and farther. And even later, in New York, I had a few friends with whom I could spend an afternoon listening to music: both my favorites and theirs. But this grew rarer and rarer. Today, while someone occasionally plays a song for me or vice versa, I can probably count on my left hand the people who will listen to something because I recommended it. And I’m terrible at listening to other people’s suggestions too. We’re all overloaded, at least in our minds. Also, there’s an illusion of self-sufficiency: we already know what we like, and we have an overabundance of it, so why take in anything else?

Some of this just has to do with getting older. When you’re past forty, never mind past fifty, you and your friends don’t spend time together in the same way as before, partly because that time isn’t there. People are busy raising kids, keeping up with demanding jobs, working on their projects. An afternoon with a friend, spent listening to albums, just isn’t in the picture most of the time.

But there are other forces at work too. I mentioned being overloaded. We have “stuff” coming at us all day long: emails, Facebook and other shares, ads and automated recommendations of various kinds. In addition, we have the illusion of an abundance at our fingertips: just go on YouTube, or Spotify, and listen to just about anything. Those services generate playlists through algorithms, so you get suggestion after suggestion of things you might like (based on the preferences of others who listen to “similar” music). But those algorithms lose eccentricity and idiosyncrasy; they are based on general tendencies, not individuals. There’s no passion in them. True, they may expose you to lots of music you like, that you would never have heard otherwise, but there’s no one saying, “I love this, you’ve got to hear it.” It just pops up on your screen.

In addition, the world has been divided into two classes: the “influencers,” whose opinion matters for some reason, and everyone else. People strive to be influencers, often to the detriment of the influences themselves. The focus is on the wrong thing.

So, as a result, we live in our enclosures, our headphones, with the illusion that we’re accessing the world, when we are actually cut off from it. That is, we can access music from around the world, but if someone says, “You’ve got to listen to this,” we often simply don’t, or listen with half an ear. This is not true for everyone or all the time, but the problem exists. It’s especially hard on musicians, because they spend months, maybe years, on a song or album, then “share” it online, and then receive silence, or near-silence. Maybe a few likes or short comments.

So, very well. It’s a crying shame. What can be done about it?

Some of the response has to come from individuals, both listeners and musicians. Just clear out room and time for listening to things, and have some of those things be friends’ personal recommendations. When Covid ends, have people over and ask them to bring favorite albums. If you are a musician, bring your work to people in a personal way. Platon Karataev is having a special record-listening party a month before their new album comes out, for those who contributed at least 10,000 HUF (about $33) to their album fundraising campaign and who selected this perk. (After some hesitation about possibly being the oldest one there, I selected the perk, because who can resist a listening party featuring a new album by one of your favorite bands, hosted by the musicians themselves? Certainly not I.)

Also, there could even be a new kind of online gathering: for instance, a Bandcamp feature where you could pay a modest fee to get together in a virtual listening room and play anything in the Bandcamp catalog. The same percentage of the money would go to the artists as with purchases. In the listening room, you could talk with each other and listen to music (though not at the same time), and the guests could see the information about each album or song. It would be like a cross between a radio show and a virtual meeting. It could be for select guests or for anyone who showed up. People could hold regular (say, monthly or weekly) listening events if they wished. They could be based mainly on one person’s selections, or everyone could bring something. Bandcamp does have private streaming, but that’s a little different; it’s where artists can stream an album (in advance of the release, say) for a group of listeners. Why not let listeners do this as well, for a fee?

As I was coming up with this brilliant notion, it occurred to me that it must already have occurred to someone. Yes, indeed: in 2011, Eliot Van Buskirk published an article in Wired about the new virtual listening rooms, which apparently were a hot new phenomenon. While most of the services mentioned are now defunct, Turntable.fm is reviving as of this month. It has a waitlist; to be considered for admission, you have to email them your favorite song. If they like it, they will let you in. It’s hard to learn much about it, because if you go to the website, all you get is a sign-in page.

But there was something I didn’t like in a Wikipedia description I read. These listening sessions come with audience votes; audience members click the “lame” or “awesome” button to indicate their reaction. Awful. You have to let a song sink in before reacting to it. People might click “lame” because they don’t understand where the song is going, or they might click “awesome” because it sounds catchy from the start. And having to choose between “lame” and “awesome” is not only limiting but lame. So I would prefer a service that required you to listen through a full session before responding. Then you could leave comments and reactions, not only immediately but later on.

So yes, someone has already thought of this, but there’s room for improvement, and I am thinking of pitching an idea to Bandcamp. If they wanted, they could contribute something unique to the virtual-musical-meeting genre. I probably won’t be able to get to it for another 8-10 days, because I have an event to plan, but get to it I will.

Update: Here’s an interesting article by Damon Krukowski, published in NPR Music, on some of the fundamental differences between Bandcamp and Spotify. Also, see Shira Ovide’s NYT interview with Ben Sisario.

Listen Up: Cz.K. Sebő

Cz.K. Sebő (Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén). Photo credit: hvg.hu.

When was the last time you discovered new music and couldn’t stop listening to it? One piece, one song after another draws you in; you play your favorites over and over, and then find another, and wait, what, another! Another song goes straight to some part of you that had been sleeping or sloppy until now. An experience that you know to the bones but also have never known before. You want the whole world to know about this, you want to take these songs and hold them up to the light somehow. Except that they can only speak for themselves. Words about music are a little bit like helmets worn as gloves. Still, you have to give it a try. The first piece in my “Listen Up” series was dedicated to the Hungarian band Platon Karataev; the second one, right now, to one of their founding members, Czakó-Kuraly Sebestyén (solo name: Cz.K. Sebő), who has released four EPs since 2014, as well as some singles, and is now recording his first full-length album.

If you are drawn to music in this vein—music along the general, disparate lines of R.E.M., Pavement, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash, Elliott Smith, The Smiths, the Breeders, Damien Jurado, Sonny Smith, Granfaloon Bus, Grandaddy, Red House Painters, Nick Drake, Art of Flying, Kid Dakota, Rufus Wainwright, Hannah Marcus, or other folk or indie rock with a special relationship between lyrics and music, a disciplined dreaminess of word and sound—then Cz.K. Sebő’s songs will likely hit home. And even if you listen to a different kind of music entirely, you will find something beautiful here.

I plan to introduce just five of his songs, four of which are in English, and one, his most recent recording, in Hungarian. To hear more, you can go to Bandcamp and YouTube. I recommend listening to the entire albums; in each one, the songs form something together, and it’s hard to leave any of them out.

Cz.K. Sebő is about 27 years old. When I first fell in love with this general kind of music and started listening to it all the time, when I first played (clumsily) in a band, he wasn’t born yet. His songs evoke music that has long been part of my life, sometimes filling it, sometimes just being there with me, yet there’s something “sajátos” (particular, individual) about them. The best way to understand this is to jump right in. So, after all these preludes, let’s go.

The first one will be “Out of Pressure” from his second (2015) EP The masked undressed. I love its combination of dreariness and soaring. Like many of the songs, it steals up on you. Also, the lyrics (in American English) are both natural and unusual: the song seems at home in the language and outside it at the same time.

It begins,

Out of pressure Sunday morning
Feeling nothing but this soaring
I’m alone here in this gray room
With a thought of a beer, but drinking coffee.

The way the voice soars on “gray room” gives you the whole picture: there is a kind of bleakness mixed with glorious solitude. It isn’t unhappy.

I’ll skip the next verse so as not to overanalyze this and to get to the chorus, which to me holds the brilliance.

Another morning after a boring night with you
Why are you falling into the see of society
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony
I’m here singing, sit down and hear me,
What I seek is harmony

The words are so simple, but when they culminate in “What I seek is harmony,” they give infinite meaning to “seek” and “harmony.” The seeking is that longing and striving and working and waiting, all of those things together and more, and “harmony” here is so much more than a few notes that sound pleasant together. It’s something you pursue and yearn for all your life long. The second “seeeeeeek” brings the whole song together. And as the word is elongated, the chord progression continues beneath it, so that without realizing it, you have been brought back to the beginning.

The second one is “Disguise,” from the same EP and from an even earlier release, Fugitive Feelings (2014). (There’s a passionate Platon Karataev version too, on the Atoms album, but I love this early version even more.) In an interview somewhere, he named it as his favorite of his solo songs; I don’t know whether that’s still true. I can see why it was, or is, his favorite. It’s sometimes my favorite too. I will just let it speak for itself.

I won’t bring up “Light as the Breeze” here (from his EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze), since I mentioned it in a recent blog post, and there’s so much to mention. Along with “Hart,” it might be my favorite of them all. I’ll just say that it changed my outlook on life and on music, slightly but strongly. Songs don’t teach us how to live, but they give us inklings of something. Those hints can’t be translated directly into life, but they become part of it, something we carry with us. “Light as the Breeze” is a song that I carry with me, even without an audio device; I hear it in my head at various times in the day.

I will go on to “Hart,” from his 2017 EP Junction. I originally included “Sham Melancholy” instead, and it’s a tough call, since I love both songs. But I realized that “Hart” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and I can’t leave it out. It carries you slowly from the contemplative beginning to the expansive, night-filled middle to the quiet end, all of this in three minutes and three seconds. It builds without your knowing it, in a short time; it starts with simple strumming, then the chords and single notes catch your attention, and then the voice comes in slower, with its own rhythm that rises and rises and then sweeps the guitar along with it. There’s so much motion now, everything is moving, but it’s motion in stillness, a falling and sitting, a wounded but joyous arrival. And then the stillness takes over.

Look at me now my friend, I’m on the ground and sitting
Look at me now my friend
Look at me now my friend

Now I’m falling, but I’m sitting here arrived
In the same time I found the road I was searching for so long

Many of these songs have to do with solitude, which is part of why I am drawn to them. Another favorite, in a different mood, is “Chamomile.” It’s the most humorous of his songs that I know so far. It has subtle self-mockery and mockery of the world, but without cynicism. The guitar is so understated and catchy; it takes you in right away, but grows on you too. The storyline seems somewhat as follows: the narrator has been working on songs, just finished one, and now it’s time to rest, but his apartment (or his mind?) is filled with people. So he tries to join the strange, dreamlike party for a little bit, but realizes he would rather be by himself. This song will be on his full-length album.

Not only do I relate to the story, but I enjoy the melodic phrase that elongates specific words, “written,” “season,” “name here,” “solo.” It’s as though they were set in musical italics, but more than italics. They the song a kind of wryness, an amusement with the whole situation, an affable antisociability. The song’s structure allows you to anticipate favorite moments, such as “fingers / linger,” “festival season,” the break (the “Oh my mind, oh my mind, oh my mind is on fire” part) and the ending. In general, his endings are superb. And the video is brilliantly done, with all sorts of subtle details, capturing, as he said in an interview, “that state where a person doesn’t know if they are awake or asleep.” (My favorite moment is the look on his face when he sees Soma Bradák drumming in the bathtub.)

And now we arrive at the last of the songs that I am including here, “kétezerhúsz” (2020), whose video appeared just last Friday. The song is (perhaps) about this Covid era that we have been living in for a year now; the video was shot at Coney Island, which he visited in winter. In an interview with KERET Blog, he said,

Sok lassú dalomra mondom, hogy boldog, de nem tagadom, ez egy szomorú dal. Körülbelül a mögöttünk álló egy évről szól. A szorongásokról, bizonytalanságról. Viszont van itt egyszer egy trükk: ezt a dalt 2019 végén írtam, amikor még nem a Covidtól féltem, hanem inkább a klímapánik jeleit éreztem magamon. Nagyon érdekes, hogy mégis mennyire megtalálta saját magát ez a dal 2020-ban, számomra mindig ezt a mögöttünk álló (- és sajnos most is aktuális) időszakot fogja felidézni.

Rough translation: I say of many of my slow songs that they are happy, but I don’t deny it: this is a sad song. It speaks of the approximate year behind us. Of the anxiety, uncertainty. Yet there’s also a catch here: I wrote this song at the end of 2019, when I wasn’t yet afraid of Covid, but rather feeling symptoms of climate panic. It is very interesting to what degree this song found itself in 2020; for me it will always evoke this time that we have been through (and which unfortunately is still going on).

What’s interesting is that this song steps into a slightly different musical zone; with the lyrics in Hungarian, the music reminds me slightly of songs I have heard here: for instance, Gábor Presser’s “Te majd kézenfogsz.” It proceeds gently through the sadness, verse by verse. I won’t translate it all here, since that would just distort it. But here’s one of my favorite verses:

Ha panaszkodni akarsz,
akkor légyszi menj el
Nekem már betelt a füzetem ezzel
mégsem lettem könnyebb.

(If you want to complain,
do me a favor and leave
My notebook is already filled up with this
and I didn’t get any relief.)

And then, not obviously in the song, but in the author’s commentary, there’s a bit of humor, three verses later:

Talán boldog is vagyok
Ez a keserűség éltet
Keserű nélkül nincs is édes,
Mint só nélkül sincs étel
((a szerző itt megkérdőjelezi improvizációs készségeit))

(Maybe I’m happy too
This bitterness vitalizes me
Without the bitter, nothing is sweet,
As without salt, there is no food
((here the author questions his improvisational skills)))

That last line is Cz.K. Sebő’s comment on what he just wrote. Yes, the analogy just before it seems slightly off. But it also works beautifully: “éltet” (vitalizes) off-rhymes with “édes” (sweet) and “étel” (food); there’s also an alliteration between “keserű” (bitter) and “só” (salt). And the parallel syntax makes this all come together, even if we aren’t sure at the end whether it entirely makes sense. But it does, it does! If you think about it, salt can be compared to bitter taste, and food to life, and through this, the larger meaning comes through. Yet it does so as an afterthought, an improvisation, a grappling for some kind of meaning. The uncertainty leads into the very end, “I wait for tomorrow”:

Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot
Várom a holnapot

which could seem hopeful, but which sounds like sleep, waiting, and a long stretch of uncertainty.

And the Coney Island footage, so slow and peaceful, so beautiful, but also sad, because of the desolation, the soapy sea. It brings up my own memories of Coney Island, of the time I rode the Cyclone (with whom? I don’t even remember).

Well, I think that’s a start, and that’s all it can be at this point; I have only recently begun listening to this music and look forward to much more. There’s much more that I could have said about these songs. But that’s the way it is with music, and with this music in particular. Thanks to everyone who helped to bring it out to the world.

P.S. A few updates and afterthoughts:

Cz.K. Sebő is pronounced “cé ká sebő” (very roughly, if this were French, “tsé ka chèbeu,” with an elongated “eu”). As for his full name, you can hear his Platon Karataev bandmate Gergő Balla introduce him at the beginning of this interview. In Hungarian, the surname is said or written first, then the given name; Sebestyén (Sebő for short) is his given name. You can hear many more of Sebő’s songs on Bandcamp and in videos of his wonderful concerts at the A38 Hajó: one in 2018 and one in 2020.

When I started this “Listen Up” series, I hadn’t listened to “Hart” yet, but I realized later that the words “listen up” are in the lyrics of the song. So let the series title be in honor of “Hart.” The next piece in this series will feature Art of Flying.

I made various revisions, additions, and edits to this piece after posting it, but the basics are unchanged.

Listening All the Way to the End

For the fourth consecutive year, I was one of three teachers administering the oral entrance exams for our school’s bilingual program. For three days, all day long, we interviewed eighth-graders in English. Their scores on this exam, combined with their scores on the written tests, will determine their admission to Varga and to this particular program. The interviews took place in person, but with masks; that added to the challenge. Throughout the examinations, I could see how excited and nervous each student was, each in a slightly different way. It reminded me of when I was little and we would be driving somewhere, and I would be looking at the other cars on the highway and realizing that they were driving somewhere too, and that inside each of those cars were people who said “I” about themselves and lived out that “I.” I could hardly believe it, but I grasped it: that everyone was an “I,” with a particular way of looking at the world and a privacy of experience.

What is it that allows the insular “I” to affect others–maybe just a few people, maybe hundreds, maybe millions, maybe far more than anyone knows? Part of it is that we’re all trying to figure out the puzzle of living, or some part of it. Some people’s way of grappling will inspire others. This morning, before heading off to school, I re-listened to Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Light as the Breeze,” which I had come upon the previous evening. (Cz.K. Sebő, or Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, is one of the two lead singers and guitarists of Platon Karataev; he has many solo releases too.) The song is so beautiful—with hints of Elliott Smith’s “Angeles” and Nick Drake’s “From the Morning,” but with its own soul and meaning—that it kept coming back to my mind in the brief pauses throughout the day, giving things a lightness and a motion. And I wondered: what songs are playing in other people’s minds? What poems, conversations, questions?

To get even a hint of this, you have to listen all the way to the end, which is impossible in a way, since life requires us to cut each other off at some point, or at least to cut ourselves off. But within the short segments of time that we have, listening to the end is possible. It has to do with keeping the ears and mind open, recognizing that there’s more. With this song, it’s right near the end when everything starts to dance, the song comes together, something quietly glorious happens.

During a test, the surface goal is much more cut and dry. The examiner is trying to see what the examinee knows and can do. Does this person understand the text? The questions? How well can the person express an idea or talk about a subject on the spot? How accurate and expressive is the person’s vocabulary, grammar, syntax, command of idiom? Will this person be able to handle the demands of the bilingual program in particular? But it’s possible to stay within that specificity, yet recognize that the student exists beyond it. A student who gets a top score may end up not coming to the school, because of a conflicting pull in another direction. A student who receives a lower score may have an excellence in another area, such as history or music. Sometimes it’s a question of timing, too; a student may be having a particularly bad or good day. So we score as accurately and fairly as possible, but there’s so much going on beyond the scores.

I am not opposed to testing or competition. Both are necessary; both can illuminate and even stretch a person’s capacities. The problem lies not with either, but with the excessive authority given to them, their way of claiming the last word. No test, no competition has the last word. It just offers a few words or numbers. Those words or numbers (and the challenges behind them) can tell us something useful. Sometimes they affect our future. But our work goes far beyond them.

Speaking of work, when I arrived this morning, around 7:30, one of the school’s cleaning staff had just finished mopping the floor in the room where we have been holding the exams. When I arrived, she told me that she had just finished in there, and then asked if I would like to keep the window open. She then proceeded on to the next rooms. I don’t have any moral to draw from that, except that she brought something to our day, maybe without realizing it herself, maybe without our knowledge.

  • “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

  • 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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