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. (I contributed to the campaign but didn’t select the perk, since the party seems intended for people much younger than me, and I’d feel like a generational intruder. But I applaud the idea.)

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, a well-tuned soulfulness—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 out any of them.

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, though 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 inklings 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, which absolutely has to be included here, 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 sound and rhythm 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. And this gives 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.”

And now we arrive at the last of the songs that I am including here, “kétezerhúsz” (2020), the video of which 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 of music 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 lighter.)

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 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 sound hopeful, but which seems 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 this fantastic performance at A38 Hajó.

For three of the songs mentioned here, I embedded Bandcamp audio. If you like them, you can go to Bandcamp, listen to more, and possibly purchase the songs or albums.

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 to this piece after posting it, most recently on March 28; and made a tiny correction (adding the accent to the “ú” in “kétezerhúsz”) on April 5.

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.

Song Series #10: Song Endings

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One of the most important parts of a song is its ending. There are many ways to end a song, and the ending matters. It gives something to the song; it is also really hard to do well. Many artists rely on the fade-out, which is fine for some songs, but lazy as a general approach–unless you truly believe that your songs shouldn’t end. Today I am going to bring up a few favorite song endings–all from songs by California musicians (or musicians who lived at some point in California), since I am watching the news of the terrible wildfires and thinking of friends and others who are suffering right now. I made a token donation to the Wildfire Relief Fund, but I wish I could do much more.

One way to end a song is simply to stop, maybe with a few percussion beats at the end, maybe without. A brilliant example of this is “Borders” by Granfaloon Bus (from their album Good Funeral Weather), which has to do with the borders of many kinds–inside people, between people, and in time, in the course of life. The refrain has a beautiful cadence that alternates between the “you” and the “I”: “You’re payin’, while I run, you’re still crying, well I’m all done.” The song ends with “done” and a few quiet drumbeats that come to a stop.

You can hear a similar kind of ending in a very different kind of song: 20 Minute Loop’s brooding, increasingly frantic “Everybody Out,” where the repeating chorus or culmination is “If it don’t stop, if it don’t stop,” and then it just stops with that! This video is from a 2008 performance at Bottom of the Hill.

Another way of ending is by going into a new mode, often instrumental, that comes to its own conclusion. A favorite example is from one of my favorite songs, “Green Glass” by Carrie Bradley, performed and recorded by her band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. Watch the whole video–it begins with a historic mishap where the one string on Dan’s butterfly bass breaks. The song is intense with words–they go fast and urgently, leaving you chasing after the strands as they fly by: “In the belly of a bar, on a back street, there’s a couple of people I’d tell you about if I weren’t in the habit of just thinking out loud…” Wow. That’s just the beginning. “Small bar, back street, mostly residential, nothing to worry about, nothing much to do. A blue neon sign in the window says Burgies on Beacon, and the street lights brood. The blue light features bugs, floating around, like craters, like something in your eye, like astronauts, like black holes, like black stars….” A man and a woman meet, and they get each other’s jokes, there’s something there, and eventually the woman says, “Isn’t there something between talk and sex, is there a place between obsession and apathy?” and he says, “I know a place like that, it’s, uh, 216 Center Street, Apartment D12, it’s up to you,” and she says, “I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about green glass in a junkyard, I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about ordinary flies in a blue light,” and then the song lyrics end, “and he says, ‘I know that, it’s up to you,’ and he left.” So you have this moment where the thing that they both understand is hanging there in the air, about to happen, and the music takes it over.

Where even to go from here? How about Dieselhed’s silly, majestic, iconic “B A Band,” about how some day they won’t be a band? And indeed, they are no longer a band together; they long ago continued on to other musical projects. At the shows, the lighters came out for that song–they waved in the air, like the phone lights last night in Budapest when Idea played “Sötét van.” This song–which features Jonathan Segel on violin–combines two kinds of endings: the crescendo (a common and effective way of ending a song: building up to a wild intensity and then–in some cases, but not here–crashing into the final note) and the coda, which in this case goes forward in time: “Now I’m just sitting here on my barstool / bragging to the barman about a show we once had in Fort Bragg / if my stories seem a little bit thin / I’ve got something brewin’ deep within.”

I haven’t even gotten to other kinds of endings, like returns to the beginning, or switches to a cappella singing (as in Platon Karataev’s “Elevator“), but this sure was fun. I’ll leave off with “Elevator” itself. No explanation needed. If you have favorite song endings, or ways of ending a song, please mention them in the comments. And let us hope the fires end soon.

For earlier posts in the song series, go here.

This and That

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A beautiful, long vacation is coming to a close. I don’t remember when I last had such a stretch of time. It was a long time ago.

Yesterday I finished reading Sándor Márai’s novel Kassai őrjárat (Košice Patrol) in Hungarian. It’s the second novel I have read in Hungarian; the first was Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, which took much longer. Kassai őrjárat, Márai’s meditation on his return to Košice a few weeks after the German invasion of Paris in 1940 (and a few months before Hungary joined the Axis powers), is both beautiful and perplexing, both prophetic and off the mark. It is clear that at this time he did not know what Germany was doing; he believed, or his narrator believed, that if writers and other artists lived up to their responsibility, and if European nations could both work together and retain their individual identity, Europe might enter a new and glorious phase. He saw the writers of his generation shrinking away from their importance; he saw pseudo-writers, concerned mostly with fame and career, filling the gap. He saw the decline of the book from a sacred object to a saleable item. But he did not see what was coming–or, probably, much of what was going on right then and there–in the war.

But even with the blind spots, it is an absorbing, moving book. Maybe the blind spots made it even more so. None of us sees everything that is going on at a particular time. At best, one of us might offer new information, perspectives, or synthesis. But anything any of us observes or reports is incomplete. The imagination fills in the rest, for better, for worse, or for a mixture.

Besides reading, writing, and translating, I have gone on many bike rides and evening runs. When I moved to Hungary in October 2017 (almost three years ago), I looked forward to getting on the bike and going wherever I wanted–on a long or short trip, on bike paths, regular roads, or other routes. In this I have not been disappointed. Today I biked out to Millér and then followed a dirt road for a long time. It was my first time on that particular dirt road.

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Another beautiful part of this summer has had to do with Shabbat. My own synagogue, Szim Salom, has been online throughout the pandemic; members have been taking turns leading services, and only twice a month have the rabbi and I led. But these occasions have been sweet and strong, even with all the technical difficulties. And I have attended B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel online services as well. The time difference makes that a bit strange but no less lovely; on Friday I tuned in to B’nai Jeshurun at midnight (6 p.m. in NYC).

My Hungarian is still far from fluent (in the true sense of the word), but it made some leaps this summer. I think back to a year ago; the progress has been substantial. At that time, I understood a lot but could express myself only slowly and haltingly, with limited vocabulary. Now, in more and more situations, I can express myself and respond to others without hesitation.

The summer has also been filled with music; I listen to a lot at home and went to two concerts: one by two members of Platon Karataev, and the other, last Friday, by Marcell Bajnai. This Saturday evening I intend to go hear Marcell’s band Idea (formerly 1LIFE) in Budapest.

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There is much more to say about the summer and other things, more than I can bring up right now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dominó and Sziszi, who have brought so much to these days. See them below. And now the season is turning, and I look forward to returning to school and picking up the tempo a bit.

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Song Series #9: Breaking Through Time

queen

It is common, when listening to a song or album that you haven’t heard in a long time, to find that it brings back an era of your life, maybe an era of history. It can be fun to listen to old favorites for this reason. But there are songs that also transcend their era (or the era when we first listened to them) while also capturing something of it. Over time, they show their newness, which does not go away.

What do such songs have in common? They are bold and beautiful at once, and there’s nothing quite like them. The boldness may be quiet or brash, but you can feel it. It becomes part of you as you listen.

An obvious example is “We Will Rock You” by Queen. It appeared on their 1977 album News of the World. It needs no explanation. The foot stomping and the a cappella voices, the anger and the promise, the irresistible melody and beat–all of this made it a song that I heard again and again without even owning the album. I probably heard it in high school first, without knowing what it was. In college it got played at parties and dances. Bands covered it. People started singing it out of the blue. Many years later, in 2008, when I was teaching at an elementary school way out in East New York, Brooklyn, my students struck up their own version of it on the bus ride back from a field trip. I can still hear them singing the chorus (which consisted of the name of one of the students, who was the fifth grade class president, I think, and who was well liked and respected).

The next song, in a very different mood, is the Smiths’ “Half a Person.” Originally released in 1987 as the B-side of the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” it is also included on their compilation album Louder Than Bombs. I first heard it at the Daily Caffé in New Haven (where I heard a lot of music for the first time). I bought Louder Than Bombs and listened to it over and over–the song and the whole album. “Half a Person” is so beautifully melancholic and semi-young. It seems to be about a teenager’s confusion and wandering, but it feels older, probably because of the reminiscence in it. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail….” It’s perverse and poignant at the same time. And even today, when the narrator of the song would be quickly written off as a stalker, the song gives a glimpse of the person’s soul and circumstances. “That’s the story of my life….”

Since I seem to be proceeding decade-wise, I’ll continue with Beck, whose genius I didn’t appreciate at first. When “Loser” was all over the place, and then when Odelay came out, there was so much talk about Beck that I couldn’t listen to him. Later, with his Mutations and Sea Change, I started to listen, and now I am listening to those albums I missed early on, as well as later ones. What is it about Beck? It isn’t just his versatility, his ability to take different directions in his music. It isn’t only his craft either, though he knows how to compose a song that you will want to ride all the way through, anticipating each shift and break. There’s more to it than that, something I want to get to know.

His song “Where It’s At” (from Odelay) was all around me for years before I knew that Beck wrote it.  I think it was on many an mp3 playlist at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater–it got played there in intermissions, dance parties, etc. But that’s not the song I want to include here. The song I have chosen is “Girl,” from his 2005 album Guero, because it so messed up and perfect at once. I love how the first “Hey” comes a split second after the “try” of “nothing that I wouldn’t try.” I love the attitude of the song–downcast, dorky, disturbing, mischievously wry, and, towards the end, celebratory. The video stands out too, with its series of fold-in scenes, a tribute to MAD Magazine.

The last one I’ll mention today is Sonny Smith, whom I first heard in San Francisco in 2000 (when he had been around for a few years, putting out tapes). During the break, I ran up to Carrie Bradley, who was headlining the show that night, and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left; Sonny was sitting next to her and I hadn’t even noticed. I was so flustered that I couldn’t say anything. Later we became good acquaintances; I edited some of his stories, many of which I published in my literary journal, Sí Señor; he played at two of the Sí Señor celebrations. Over the years I got to listen to his music as he formed Sonny and the Sunsets, toured the world, put out album after album, wrote a musical (The Dangerous Stranger), pulled off the 100 Records project, started a record label (Rocks in Your Head Records), and did so much more that I lost track. What Sonny has in common with Beck is a relentlessness, a desire to try new things, and a knack for a darn good song. What’s different is all the difference between them (a lot). It is difficult to choose a song to feature here. But I’ll choose “Pretend You Love me” from Sonny and the Sunsets’ 2012 album Longtime Companion. Why? Because it’s so sad, yet it lifts up as it goes–in a way that is not tied to time and place, even though it brings back various memories at once. (For contrast, and for another Sonny great, listen to “Well but Strangely Hung Man.”)

That will be all for this post, since I soon head into Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev acoustic duo!

This is the ninth post in my Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Listen Up: Platon Karataev

platon karataev

Photo by Tamás Lékó / Phenom’enon.

One of the most exciting things about music–any style–is the feeling, when you listen to something exceptional, that you must both take time with it alone and bring it to others. When you tell someone, “You have got to hear this!” you mean, “The music will not stay secret–and even if it is well known already, it will become even more so, right now.” Even if you’re just one of thousands of listeners, or hundreds of thousands, you have to do your part.

Many songs, many compositions have had this effect on me, but now it is the Hungarian band Platon Karataev. I was introduced to their music indirectly, through online recommendations of Marcell Bajnai, the guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter of Idea. At first I was intrigued by their name (after the peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace whom Pierre Bezukhov comes to know in prison, and whose attitude toward life inspires his own transformation). Then, once I started listening, I kept returning, and then something took hold. They have elements of The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, and Grandaddy (especially The Sophtware Slump), but their style is their own, with unabashed intellect and feeling and gorgeous sound. Their new album, Atoms (released just last month), whirls both inward and outward. According to the band’s own description, “This album is about searching for our innermost selves, and also about questioning everything. The title, ‘Atoms’, refers to the idea that just like us, each song on this album is an individual shivering atom on its own.”

They usually sing in English. Usually I prefer to hear Hungarian bands sing in Hungarian–not only for my own immersion in the language, but because English has become the language of streamlining and mass access. Many songwriters write in English in hopes of reaching a wider audience. While that’s understandable, it’s a loss to the Hungarian language (and sometimes to English too). But when Platon Karataev sings in English, it’s different, because they bring something unique to the language. Take, for instance, some of the lyrics from “Aphelion” (one of my favorites on the new album):

I’m a paraphrase
Of silence as I’m floating over nameless days
With sanguine eyes
And blue lips I lie on God’s chest I’m paralyzed

If there’s such a thing
A spiral of nothing
Well, it pulls me down

Hearing this for the first time on the radio, you might think they’re singing “Ophelia” instead of “Aphelion.” That would work, too; the whole song could easily be sung to Ophelia by Hamlet. But it’s “Aphelion,” the outermost point in a planet’s orbit–that is, when it is farthest from the sun. The song takes you into private and cosmic pain. (By the way, Earth’s 2020 aphelion was yesterday. )

Another of my favorites–and so brief that I have to play it over and over again–is “Ex Nihilo,” the first song of Atoms. It starts out with the chorus, “Ex nihilo nihil fit,” which catches the ear because of the rhythm of the syllables and the way the end becomes the beginning. This is one of those songs that you would want both in a philosophy or physics class and on a desert road trip. But not for background music, ever.

I know why I love these songs and the others on Atoms. They have everything: sound, hooks, lyrics, character, guts–and together they form an album. But it’s harder for me to explain what’s great about “Elevator,” for instance.

On the surface, the lyrics sound ordinary:

You can call it anything, but that was love
When we were happy just because we shared the blanket.
You can call it what you want
You can call it anything, but that was love.
That was pure Love.

But if you listen carefully to the rhythm, the lilting of “You can call it,” you find that the genius is right there–taking simple words and setting them to time and tune in an absolutely memorable way. That, and the “elevator” part, which takes you by surprise, and the way the song progresses–the tight, surprising structure and the a cappella ending. All together, “Elevator” has what many songwriters long for: the feeling that every second belongs and must be heard and sung along to, again and again.

And that’s what songs are, isn’t it? These short musical stretches of time that you want to repeat and sing along with, because, like the character Platon Karataev in War and Peace, they bring something inside you to life.

You can find Platon Karataev’s albums and songs on their website, as well as on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, and elsewhere. Photo credit: Tamás Lékó; photo originally published in Phenom’enon. Months after posting this, I replaced the “Aphelion” and “Ex Nihilo” videos with the Live at Gólya versions, so that you can see and hear these incredible performances.

This is the first post in a new series called Listen Up (different from the Song Series), in which I will write about things worth listening to. Next up: Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly of Platon Karataev). When I started this series, I didn’t realize this, but Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Hart,” one of my favorite songs in the world, has the words “listen up” in the lyrics. So let “Hart” be the origin in retrospect.

Update: Here’s a wonderful interview in English with Platon Karataev’s Gergő Balla.

  • “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

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • 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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