15th April 2022
15 minutes read
To Crave the Edges of Speech
15th April 2022
15 minutes read
Reflections on Cz.K. Sebő’s New Album
Listen with me to Cz.K. Sebő’s How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, my favorite album of 2021. This is not a record review. Instead, I hope to take you with me as I explore the questions: What does it mean to crave the edges of speech? How does this album answer my craving? Through Hungarian and English, through music and sound, the songs carry me to a place where language fizzles and cracks, a place where I have longed to be.
Cz.K. Sebő is the stage/recording name for the Hungarian musician and songwriter Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, one of the founding members of the band Platon Karataev, who has been releasing his own songs since 2014. Cz.K. Sebő’s music—that is, the solo music of Czakó-Kuraly and, more recently, the music he makes with his bandmates Benedek Szabó (Galaxisok), Soma Bradák (Platon Karataev, Galaxisok), and occasional guest musicians—falls within the general “alternative folk” or “indie folk” genre, with elements of dream pop, rock, electronica, and bare song. Melancholic, sometimes sad, but also profoundly happy, it moves back and forth between English and Hungarian and the accompanying musical idioms.
Czakó-Kuraly’s songs are steeped in American folk rock music ranging from Blaze Foley to Bob Dylan to Damien Jurado. He seems musically at ease in this faraway home. His songs in Hungarian have a slightly different musical feel, if only because of the language’s rhythms—but Hungarian musicians and bands such as Ben Leavez, Kristóf Norbert, Kaláka, Vágtázó Halottkémek (Galloping Coroners), and his Platon Karataev bandmate Gergely Balla may have influenced him in both languages. In many ways the album—his first LP, after years of EPs and singles as well as three Platon Karataev albums—wanders between the two languages and across their common terrains.
The album holds a third and a fourth language too. The third language is the music itself. Music is language only in a metaphorical sense; it comes close to language, does many things that language does, but belongs to its own realm. Still, let’s call it a language for now, with hesitation and qualifications. The fourth language of this album is human speech that goes beyond language, beyond anything rationally understood. Such speech comes forward within the album’s opening seconds but only shows its meaning over time.
The first word of the first song (“Opening Gibberish”) is “Time.” Time what? “Time looks like.” Looks like what? I don’t get to find out, because the words start mumbling their way into joyous melisma, into wordless, hymnlike soaring and dipping. Words crop up here and there: I catch something like “to the star,” “how you stay,” “my love,” “when a cold,” “the change,” “write it down,” “we found,” but it matters less and less what they are. Instead, I have the sensation of singing a song that I don’t quite remember. The melody is with me—melodies have a way of lingering—but the words are mostly gone, except for a few that have latched onto the melody in places. I am somewhere far away from electronic devices—or, if near them, unable to look up the song’s lyrics. Maybe they aren’t to be found online. But I sing the song anyway, craving it, wishing I could bring it back in full, yet somehow knowing it better than ever before, through its bones. This song brims with love of songs, yearning for songs, desire to find a song that has been lost. The sounds—the solitary voice, the background chorus or electronic organ—suggest something almost celestial. But it is too soon for the skies.
With the second song, “Chamomile,” I stumble onto danceable ground: the slipper-footed beat, the sleepy voice: “Warm sweetish chamomile in my mouth, / I wanna taste this feeling till the sun comes up, / Sticky honey drops falling on my fingers. / Linger on while my eyes’r shut and I listen / To another simple song that I just have written.” The near-rhymes of “fingers” and “linger,” “listen” and “written,” and even “listen” and “another simple” create a texture of thoughts and moods falling onto each other and blending. There is humor to the song: the melodic phrase of “just have written” (and later of “festival season,” “wanna name here,” and “dancing solo”) twists in gentle musical laughter. It’s a song about intermediary states: being awake and asleep, wanting to call it a day but not wanting to stop, wanting to be among others yet wanting to be alone. But there is no big struggle or agony in this ambivalence; it just ambles around, with a beautiful break at one point, until it comes to an end. When I think back on the song, I don’t know exactly where it took me, but I crave to be there again, in that earthly-dreamy realm.
The songs often look into the depths from an angle—not straight down right away (though that too, at times), but from the side, where things start to shimmer. They take me by surprise, even after I have listened to them many times. The third song, “Someday,” begins with a folk guitar melody, soon joined by robust bass and drums and casual, conversational lyrics.
I still see the first time you played my guitar on the couch
I know it’s fucked up, but I still remember the smell of your hair
I think I’m over you but when I’m drunk I keep on telling my friends
She’ll be alone someday
You’ll be alone someday
Yes, there is something fucked up (and familiar and human) going on here: telling your friends, “she’ll be alone someday.” At first it seems that the speaker is wishing aloneness on the one who is with him no longer. “You’ll be alone someday” carries hints of “I am alone right now, and you’ll see what that’s like eventually.” But as the song progresses, and as the phrase “You’ll be alone someday” (which becomes the chorus) repeats and repeats, it starts to turn outward toward me, the listener. I will be alone someday, more alone than now. I want that truth just as I want the sounds and incantations that go along with it, the thrilling fade at the end, where the bass comes into prominence, then recedes, and a fizzle carries the rest into silence. I want to be reminded of mortality and aloneness, because it’s a strain to deny them all the time. Well, the album will not only remind me of them but steep me in them soon.
After “Someday” comes the first of three interludes: a mumbling, muffled walking-and-thinking song, slightly Elliott Smith–like, whose lyrics I can barely catch at first but which capture a familiar state of mind: of talking to myself, adjusting myself, unmuddling where I am and where I want to be, calling an end to the bullshit, making my way home. But there is so much more to discover in this song: the emphatic slowness of “I’m surrounded by derisive people” in the midst of “So I wake up in a park, getting drunk never makes me feel young, getting drunk only makes me feel ahead of all the selfhoods that I had, ding-ding laughter, i’m surrounded by derisive people, enough enough enough….” Soon the words leave off, and the piano—played by guest musician Levente Kapolcsi-Szabó—take over, rising slowly, lifting me up from all the busy stuff in my head, celebrating the departure, the act of saying “enough enough enough.”
This leads into the album’s first song in Hungarian, “kétezerhúsz” (2020), a song that slowly, unswervingly walks through despair. In an interview with the KERET Blog, Czakó-Kuraly said (in my translation here), “I say of many of my slow songs that they are happy, but I don’t deny it: this is a sad song. It’s about the year behind us, more or less. 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 interesting to what extent 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).” The song begins (in a slow, subdued folk vein): “Talán megfulladok / De nem egyedül, hanem együtt veled, / mert a világunknak vége, / az utolsókat rúgjuk” (“Maybe I will drown / Not alone, though, but with you, / Because our world is over, / We’re in our final throes”). Gradually the song moves through its sadness into a hesitant, tentative optimism without any kind of comfort. I imagine waves lapping through it; maybe this is because I have watched the video so many times (with its footage of desolate Coney Island in winter). I am grateful that the song is not easy; I crave its bareness.
More bareness, albeit blanketed, lies ahead. The next song, “First Snow,” to me one of the most beautiful songs on the album and in Cz.K. Sebő’s repertoire, begins with craving and yearning of a sort not often admitted in the world: “Woke up like a stone / I always wanted to be / A gravestone covered with snow / The first snow of the year.” The music itself feels like falling snow and the sun glistening through here and there. The longing to be “a gravestone covered with snow” does not sound suicidal to me; it has a different meaning that will come through later, over the course of the album. The song has to do with the end of a relationship, an end that could be felt in the very beginning, though the two didn’t realize this at the time. Time in this song doubles over onto itself: past, present, and future, memory and prophesy intertwine (“But did you know / that I’ll be just a stone / above our long-buried love”). I come to this song again and again not only for the lyrics, not only for the gentle sound, but for the precise placement of the words, the spaces between the words. It reminds me slightly of Laurie Anderson; there’s a chilly, almost robotic sparseness to it, but something tender too.
In terms of mood, these songs could be considered the low point of the album; in terms of beauty, one of its peaks. To understand these songs, I have to take them as they are, in their full bleakness. I can’t modify them or explain them away; this comes as a relief. I have nothing to say by way of comfort or reassurance, nor do I have to. Nothing is asked of me but the listening; this brings up yet another craving, which will lead to the final one. It is a craving for relief from the pressures of speech, especially mitigating speech. A craving for the places where I can listen.
Now I will move along a little faster, up toward the craving that I set out to explore. The next song, “Space Between Us,” suggests something on the upswing, a kind of release and departure; the second interlude has the feel of a rotating wheel or music box, reminding me of the musical transitions in Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, and maybe not by accident. We live in a mad world indeed, where things turn upside down and despair may actually lead to hope. The next two songs, “Keveset olvasok” (“I read little”) and “Pure Sense,” overwhelm me with their joy. The former, although it whirls by and around me, asks me to slow down and take in each one of the words; the second asks me to join in the experience, the “pure sense of being.” Where does this joy come from? Maybe it comes straight out of the earlier sadness: out of receiving things as they are and as they reach me.
But there is still more to come: a final interlude and the last two songs of the album, “Felzizeg” (approximately “It Buzzes Forth”) and “Debris.” Just as in the previous two parts of the album, one is in Hungarian, the other in English. But now it seems that they are both in the same language, which is no language at all; though they have some of the most beautiful lyrics of the album, you do not have to understand the words to understand them. The album has reached the edges of speech, which is where I wanted to be all this time without knowing it. Just as before, the words sizzle and mumble and soar, but now I embrace this state instead of trying to break through it. Language always deceives somewhat, in that it classifies things as this or that, happy or sad, hopeful or hopeless, dead or alive. But in these final songs of the album, the opposites come together and crack; I see and hear something beyond the polarities, something I have longed for. “Felzizeg” feels like flying, “Debris” like a cradle somewhere out in the cosmos; both end with the sound of water, maybe the sea, a sound that laps its tongue, a language that says everything and hushes.
As a writer, translator, and teacher, I am committed to a life of words. I turn words over and over, questioning them, looking into their etymology, hearing them from different angles. But I often recognize, after setting my most accurate words down on paper or screen, that I have told only a partial truth and a clumsy one at that. This happens in conversation too. Among people I feel mostly unknown. Some people know me better than others, but there’s much more to me—and to them—than comes through. Yet the album knows me. In this cracking of language, I too am cracked open and glimpsed.
I now want to listen to the album again, following the paths all over again to this place. So to wrap things up here, I will return to two songs that I brought up before, “First Snow” and “Keveset olvasok.” What does it mean to have “always wanted to be / a gravestone covered with snow”? As I listen to “First Snow” now, I hear it as something other than a death wish. A gravestone has an inscription on it, a summation of a life. But when covered with snow, this inscription disappears. The life is now unbounded. A gravestone covered with snow is released from language with its birth and death dates, the confines that stifle a person day after day.
As for “Keveset olvasok,” the more I listen to it and read it, the more I love its verbal rhythms, repetitions, and motions, its way of lifting me obliquely into eternity. It is untranslatable, but let me at least show why. Here is the first verse:
Az egyetlen tanár
Nem értem mit beszél
It means, approximately, “I read little / I sweat little / I blaze flameless / I die every day / Everything goes around me / Everything’s topsy-turvy / I don’t understand what / The only teacher is saying.” But the rhythm has already been lost here, as well as the emphases. In the original, the first two lines begin with “Keveset” (“little”), so let’s try this again: “Little do I read / Little do I sweat / Flameless I blaze / I die daily death / The world swirls around / It turns on its head / I don’t understand / What the one teacher said.” This version has more rhyme and rhythm, but the meaning is altered, and the rhythm doesn’t even match that of the song. In addition, it loses the play of quantities: “keveset,” “mindennap” (“everyday”), “minden” (“everything”), and “az egyetlen” (“the only”), which sets up the song for the infinity that comes later, “révbe-révbeér” and “minden időtelen / a lélek időtelen” (“It comes home to port” and “everything is timeless / the soul is timeless”). Translation can only serve as a step to hearing the song on its own terms.
That is the singularity of these songs: that they exist only in their language, whatever it might be. But they also move out of themselves. Little by little, in hints and angles at first, and then in a pouring of light, they point to a language beyond language, where I can join in the singing, sing out the song of my soul, the song I have craved all my life, even without knowing the words.
Diana SenechalMore about the author