Blasts from the Present and Past

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I have a lot to say in a short time, since tomorrow morning I leave for Germany, and then a few days later for the Netherlands. Then I come back on January 1, bring my cat to the animal hospital for surgery on January 2, and work on some translations over the weekend before returning to school. But three blog posts are on my mind; I hope to write at least two of them today. First up: last night’s concert.

Yesterday evening, after Shabbat in Budapest, I went to hear 1LIFE open for Kiscsillag in Törökszentmiklós. They had actually played in Budapest on Friday evening, at the famed Akvárium Klub, but I couldn’t go, since the Friday night Szim Salom service (including the kiddush and meal) didn’t end until after 9, well after their concert was over. So I was determined to make it to this one; to get there in time, I had to leave Budapest on the 4:28 train. I had bought the concert ticket in advance and had reserved a room at a guesthouse (the Almásy Vendégház, a lovely inexpensive place), since there are no late-night trains back to Szolnok. It was more than worth it; 1LIFE played a terrific show, the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ is one of my favorite venues, and I enjoyed Kiscsillag too. I was left thinking about the differences between the two bands.

Kiscsillag–a famous Hungarian alternative rock band with witty lyrics, zesty musicianship, and many musical influences–drew a crowd of excited, enthusiastic fans who danced, jumped, laughed, sang along, interacted with the band members, and rollicked all around. The atmosphere brought back strong memories of Dieselhed shows in San Franciso. The music wasn’t really similar–if anything, Kiscsillag reminds me of Cake, though with more melodic vocals and a more driving sound–but the overall feel in the room was just like what I remember. Twenty years ago, I loved going to hear Dieselhed; I went whenever I could. Their songs had a mix of silliness and melancholy, their music would stay in and on your mind. Lyrically and antically, the band members wielded irony; the audience had a sense of “getting it,” of being part of the show. By irony I mean (in this case) looking askance at the world, putting a wedge between the music and yourself, so that the audience takes it as entertainment.

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Brilliant as it can be, I am not as drawn to that kind of irony as I used to be (and even back then, I had my limits–I never liked Gogol Bordello, for instance). I can enjoy it a lot–and believe I will enjoy Kiscsillag lyrics when I take some time with them–but when it goes overboard, it loses me. One reason I like 1LIFE’s songs and performances so much is that they don’t put a barrier between themselves and the music. They are fully in it. Granted, they are performing; their songs are art, not direct speech, and they play them with gusto and  superbly crafted sound. They’re serious when performing but also have lots of fun. Some of their songs are lighter than others–and sometimes the heaviness of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the music, or vice versa. The lyrics mix forthrightness with enigmas of various kinds; you come to understand them in different ways over time. There’s irony in them sometimes too. But the band doesn’t lean on irony, and I find that compelling and refreshing. They let themselves say what they want to say, through their songs and performance. Last night they seemed relaxed and revved up, still filled with the experience of the previous night’s concert (which, I gather, was fantastic). They played some of my favorites (with some slight changes and variations) and some of the less familiar ones; several of the highlights were “Sötét van,” “Kopog a szív,” and a song whose name I don’t know but that has a refrain of “Ná–ná ná ná…”

The Kiscsillag show had lots of beauty, probably more than I caught. My favorite song was the one sung by the keyboardist, Dávid Szesztay, “Ott ahol akarod.” I want to get to know their music better; I need time to learn what’s in it. My point here is that different bands (like writers, actors, and others) have profoundly different understandings of what music does, what it is for, and what is most important in it. As a listener, you come to know yourself gradually; over time, you get a clearer sense of what you are seeking out and hearing. It’s good to stay open, to avoid writing off any particular kind of music. No matter what the type, there’s something good to be found in it, maybe even a surprise or revelation. But it’s also good to find your way, even if others don’t understand or agree with it. Irony in music (or its absence, or something in between) is not just a matter of style or taste; it holds a worldview, a rhythm, a language.

All in all, it was a great evening–my first time going to a nighttime rock show in Hungary, and a comfortable adventure at that. There were people of many ages there, from kids to grandparents. The house music playing through the speakers was fantastic–one ear-catching song after another, such as David Gilmour’s “Faces of Stone.” I had a conversation with a young man from Törökszentmiklós who, as soon as I told him I was a teacher, addressed me as “Tanárnő” (literally, “woman teacher,” a respectful form of address) and tried to treat me to a beer (I insisted on a Coke instead). We had a short conversation; he had never heard 1LIFE, but he told me Kiscsillag would be the better of the two. I found that amusing; I told him that I had come expressly to hear 1LIFE but would stay for the later band as well. Then, in between the bands, a grandmother of one of the 1LIFE members (whom I have met many times before) approached me and gave me Christmas cookies! She had brought them for me, knowing I would be there. I was delighted and touched. A few minutes before the end of the Kiscsillag show, I left and went back to the guesthouse. At the crack of dawn, I took the train back to Szolnok.

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I made a few minor changes and added two photos to this piece after posting it.

A Great Afternoon in Törökszentmiklós

IMG_9234I went to Törökszentmiklós today for the first time ever (I have passed through it by train but have never set foot in it until now). The occasion? A band contest, AZTaQ, hosted by the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ (Ipolyi Cultural Center) and featuring 1LIFE and others. The contest–one of many taking place around the country–is specifically for amateur bands: that is, those whose music is not commercially available (through big record labels, distributors, etc.). In addition, they must perform only their own music. The bands are judged on the basis of their playing (that is, how well they know their instruments), lyrics, uniqueness, and overall stage picture.

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I learned in advance: each band would play only a short set, and the exact timing was uncertain. That is exactly how it was; the sequence was not announced in advance (at least not to the audience members), and each band had a thorough sound check before performing. This, in a way, made it even more fun; there was time to relax into it. I was only worried that if it went very late, and if 1LIFE ended up being the last band, I wouldn’t get to hear them at all, since I would have to catch the last train, which was to leave Törökszentmiklós at 8:56. But this didn’t happen; they played fifth, and after the sixth band the event came to a close.

I have never been to an official band competition. Festivals, yes; concerts, yes; but no competition with judges and points. The bands who played today had been selected out of a pool of applicants. What surprised me was the relaxed, friendly atmosphere; the people running the event were there for the love of it and seemed to be enjoying themselves all the way through. They helped with setup, breakdown, and soundcheck; took many photos; and tapped their feet during the songs. I have to go back to this place.

I went primarily to hear 1LIFE (and Dana & the Dreamcatchers, who, as it turned out, did not play today), but I was curious to hear the others too: Lélegzet, Dorchipelago, SteelO, Caephis, Perfect Pill, and Nest of Plagues (Nest of Plagues didn’t play today either). Exciting things are happening in Hungarian rock music. Bands upon bands are forming, writing new songs, trying out new sounds and forms. The six bands that played today differed sharply from each other, not only in their styles, which ranged from heavy metal to something R&B-like, but in their entire approach to music.

I do not want to describe the performances, since the contest is still underway. This much I can say: I now know of more bands that I would like to hear again, and 1LIFE was fantastic, hands down. Their sound was glorious, they played with full commitment and presence, and you could feel the audience loving the songs. They finished with a ripping, passionate performance of “Maradok ember.” That in itself made the trip worthwhile.

As for Törökszentmiklós, I look forward to visiting it again.

Update: 1LIFE won first place! Congratulations!!!

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I took all three photos in Törökszentmiklós. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

No Ordinary Song

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The Hungarian band 1LIFE released their debut CD, Nincsen Kérdés (“There Is No Question”), in February 2019. Here are some thoughts on one of their songs, “Maradok ember” (“I remain human” or “I will stay human”), one of my favorite songs in the world.* My translations and interpretations are imperfect; fortunately you can listen to the song itself. The music is by 1LIFE; the lyrics are by their guitarist, lead singer, and lyricist, Marcell Bajnai.

 

As with their other songs (for instance, “Kapcsolj ki!“), the words and music carry each other. The lilting, descending melody, wistful lyrics, and layers of sound (guitar, bass, drums, and piano or keyboard) make room for each other but also move tautly together; each detail holds the rest. The song begins,

lehetnék hajó, te meg
lehetnél a folyó
úgysem engednéd, hogy benned
elmerüljek én

This translates approximately as

I could be a boat, and you
you could be the river
you would never allow
me to sink in you

This is an image of possibility: two things that could exist in relation to each other–gracefully, strongly. The music seems to play it out; it is as if the lyrics were the boat, and the music the river. Yet none of this has happened yet; the scene plays out in a possible future.

The first word of the song, “lehetnék” (“I could be”) is the first person conditional of the verb “lesz” (“to become” or future “to be”) with the potential suffix “-het”: lesz + -het + nék = lehetnék. The song’s fifth word, “lehetnél” (“you could be”) is the second person singular. They suggest becoming and imagination.

The grammar helps to convey the relationship between the two things. The boat is not preceded by a definite article (or any article at all), but the river is. Thus the first image of the pair is not specified–it’s a boat (or ship), any boat, or an archetypal boat–but the second thing is specific, existing in relation to the first. This pattern–of verbs and definite article–persists through the subsequent three pairs of images in the first verse. (Yet part of the initial pattern gets broken: the “úgysem” segment occurs only twice. I like this about the band’s songs in general: patterns are detectable but not overdone, and they change at just the right time. “Kapcsolj ki!” is also outstanding in that way.)

At first the images and even the action seem common: just as people hold each other up, the river will not let the boat sink. I think I have heard this metaphor before. But there’s an ambivalence: is the river protecting the boat from danger and disaster, or keeping it from what it wants to do? Is there some kind of danger and loss in the protection? The next stanza extends the puzzle:

lehetnék felhő, te meg
lehetnél as eső
úgysem engedném, hogy végül
zápor legyünk

I could be a cloud, and you
you could be the rain
I would never let us end
up as a downpour

It seems, at first glance, that the cloud is holding things together, preventing the downpour from happening–but the rain is already falling, and so the cloud could be holding back from the action, refusing to join in, refusing to become “us,” even though it is made of the same matter as the rain. There might be some separation, some breakage, in this restraint.

Even here, the meanings have not been revealed; we don’t know what the boat and river, cloud and rain are, except that they express relations of some kind. Things take a turn with the next stanza, where living beings (as opposed to inanimate matter) come into play:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és ígérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

This picture seems peaceful, except for the suggestion of a threat: that the bird needs to hide from those pursuing it. It’s idyllic and fragile at the same time. But then the next stanza casts new meaning on what has occurred up to now (or the possibilities that have been suggested).

lehetnék bolond, te meg
lehetnél a király
mondd csak, minek is játszanék, hisz itt
mindenki bánt

I could be a fool, and you
you could be the king
just tell me what else I could play, since here
everybody hurts

Now it seems that all of the images from before–boat and river, cloud and rain, bird and forest–are roles being played, like the fool (or jester) and king, and that no matter what part you play, you do not escape the basic pain and your own ability to hurt others. As I understand it, “bánt” is transitive, so the hurting is inflicted as well as suffered.

But then comes the chorus, which seems joyous, almost:

nem leszek több, mint aminek látsz
nem leszek jobb, mint amire vágysz
maradok csendben, maradok ember
nem leszek szebb, mint ez a világ
nem leszek bölcsebb mint az apám
maradok csendben, maradok ember

I will not be more than what you see
I will not be better than what you desire
I remain quiet, I remain human
I will not be lovelier than this world
I will not be wiser than my father
I remain quiet, I remain human

Is this the true victory: staying human, staying quiet, not succumbing to the pressures toward extremes? If so, this song seems to stand up against the hyperbole of our times, the pressure to be the best, the first, the loudest, the fastest. (It could even be a retort to U2’s “Invisible,” whose chorus has been translated into Hungarian as follows: “Több vagyok, mint akinek ismersz, több, mint aminek látsz. Nagyobb vagyok, mint akinek gondolsz. Testben élek. Most még nem, de egyszer majd meglátsz.“) Or maybe it is not protest, but an admission, a promise, or a simple statement of truth. (I originally translated “maradok” as “I will stay”–but because it can also be understood in a present sense as well, I changed it to “I remain.”)

The second verse–only half as long as the first–gives a new dimension to the puzzle. It returns to the first two pairs of images, but not the second two. Now, instead of looking ahead at possibilities, it looks back on what has happened.

te voltál a folyó, és látod
én voltam a hajó
vigyáztam de te mégis
partra vetettél

You were the river, and you see
I was the boat
I was careful but all the same
you landed on the shore

te voltál az eső, és látod
én voltam a felhő
azt mondtad, hogy minden rendben végül
viharrá lettél

You were the rain, and you see
I was the cloud
you said that all was well at last
you turned into a tempest

All the cautions and protections come to nothing: the boat ends up on the shore, and the rain turns into a storm. Also, the becoming has come to an end; the primary verb is now “voltál”/”voltam,” the past tense of “van.” The phrase “viharrá lettél” caught my attention: “vihar” (“storm, tempest”) is of Slavic origin, and it appears here in the translative case, “viharrá,” which gives a sense of transformation (“into a tempest”). From what I gather, the translative case has a slightly archaic or poetic feel. And then there’s “lettél,” the second-person singular past form of “lesz,” the verb I brought up in the beginning. It’s a past future of sorts: in the past, you became.

The forest and bird, fool and king, do not return, but they do not have to; we can decide for ourselves how they end up–how we end up, since we are they. How far do we hide? What and whom do we play? At what cost? To what end?

Then comes the chorus again, several times, along with interjections of “és látod” (“and you see”) and “és hát” (“and well”), and changes of musical texture. What does it mean, staying human? What does it consist of? Maybe being human has to do with two opposite things: protecting each other and yet failing to fully protect or be protected. Or maybe we play parts, well or poorly, while human pain and joy take their own course. Or we lighten our lives and mend the breaks with interjections (“well, you see”).

These words, patterns, melodies, and layers make “Maradok ember” no ordinary song. I sense that these musicians have much more coming, but right now they deserve to be heard.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Enchanted Forest (1945).

*Some background: One of the band members was my student (in a class that met once a week); he has now graduated. I write about this song because it (along with the rest of the album) has had an effect on me and because I would like others, particularly English speakers, to know about it. It’s a magnificent song, and I am grateful for it.

Update: I have made edits to the piece, including the translation, as recently as July 23. Since writing it, I worked out a cello cover of the song, which I played in a little concert at school on April 29. On July 25 and 26 I played it again, this time at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Here is an excerpt from the July 26 performance (at the closing ceremony of the 2019 Summer Institute). The next day, 1LIFE played at East Fest Mezőtúr!