“Felzizeg”: On the Onomato­poeia of a Song

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The Hungarian song “Felzizeg” by Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly), on his 2021 album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, evokes a sound in its very title.1 The word felzizeg cannot be translated perfectly; zizeg can mean “rustle, whirr, rattle, buzz,” whereas the prefix fel- in this context suggests “out loud, out of the silence.” “Felzizeg” is a song about sound, about the soul of sound. This essay will attempt to open it up for readers and listeners who do not speak Hungarian. Yet in some ways you need not know Hungarian to understand the song; it speaks its own language, through the guitar’s arpeggios, which for me evoke Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”; the sounds of rustling, whirring, rattling and pouring; the muffled soar of the voice.

“Felzizeg” is the penultimate song on the album, which moves through a series of emotions and states of being into near-wordless serenity. It was one of my favorites from the start, yet I barely touch on it in my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech,” which walks through the album.2 The song has unfolded for me slowly. It falls somewhere within the broad genre of alternative folk music, with elements of classical music and electronica. It is “alternative” insofar as the lyrics are at once tangential and central to the song. The words are somewhat blurry, like a rattling branch itself; they occupy only the early part of the song and then give way to the music and sounds. Even when spelled out, they reveal their meaning only over time. Yet they demand and reward attention. I will begin with them here.

The word felzizeg does not appear in my two-volume Hungarian-English dictionary, though zizeg does. Zizeg is one of numerous onomatopoeic Hungarian verbs, alongside susog (“rustle”), suttog (“whisper”), zümmog (“buzz, whirr”), dörög (“rumble”), vinnyog (“squeak”), kopog (“knock, patter”), and many others, most of which have a frequentative -eg/-og/-ög suffix. In my mind, zizeg suggests a slightly sharper rattling or rustling sound than susog; the rustle of susog is softer and vaguer, like summer breezes. The rustle and buzz of zizeg carries faint alarm, hints of mortality, a clatter of hooves far away. The fel- prefix suggests that this sound bursts gently out of silence, up out of the background.

But the word is best understood, or at least partly understood, in the context of the song’s first line, “Felzizeg a szaradó levelű juhar” (“The maple with its drying leaves is rustling/rattling/buzzing forth”). On its own, as a title, “felzizeg” tells us that something is rustling, but we don’t yet know what. The words—originally a poem by the songwriter, which he later found fitting for the song—are brief:

Felzizeg a száradó levelű juhar Nekünk csak viszket az idő Altatásban műtik ki a napot Az egünkről

Megremeg a liluló szürke táj, Vagy bennem remeg Ezernyi alvó hajtás Holtág mélyén alvó szívemet elönti a vér

A rough translation might read as follows:

The maple rattles its dry leaves aloud Time only tingles for us The sun under sedation is surgically Removed from our sky

The lilac-grey landscape trembles Or thousands of sleeping sprouts Are trembling inside me Blood floods my heart asleep in the backwater’s deep

To emphasize the proper words and to approximate the Hungarian rhythms, I would take liberties (while keeping the essential meaning):

It rattles, the dry-leafed maple, it rustles aloud, Time tingles for us, nothing more; The surgeon cuts the sedated sun And hauls it out of our sky.

It trembles, the lilac-grey landscape, Or the trembling is in me, thousands Of sleeping sprouts trembling; Blood floods my heart asleep in the backwater’s deep.

The poem points to our dim consciousness: our near-oblivion to forces of destruction and growth, the sun being removed and the thousands of sprouts growing. All of these forces resound in the rattling, rustling, buzzing of the maple, the word felzizeg. But I will return to the lyrics later, after considering the song’s music.

Guitar is the musical foundation here: arpeggios both restless and serene, continually rotating, opening, and changing, like a kaleidoscope. The chord sequence is both simple and beguiling. It keeps rotating through its sequence until the very end, when it rests on the leading note. The rotation creates an expanse of sound, mood, overtone, and rhythm. Different notes come forward and recede.

Over and under the guitar, different rustling sounds come and go: first something like a faint patter of leaves in the wind, then, just before the singing starts, a more insistent sizzling or rattling, which could be the first felzizeg itself, just barely preceding the utterance of the word. Then something like a buzzing of insects, a dull trill, a quasi-cicada. Something that could be either wind or water, and above it a celestial sound, and wind again, and then, with melodic whistling above, something like a bird diving into the water, a pouring of water and wind, a merging of sounds, a flutter of wings. These sounds all together become the felzizeg: everything is rustling, buzzing, pouring, rattling, singing.

The singing, which begins right after that first insistent rattle, has a muffled and soaring quality, a vast internality. The elongated first syllable, “Fel….zizeg” draws us into the rest. The words sing themselves out like a continuous, lilting utterance, without verses and without rush, until they come to an end and the guitar and sounds take over again. Nested in the music, the words succumb to sound. They do not draw attention to their meaning; you could listen to the song many times without knowing what they are, but the melodic sweep tells its own tale. I am taken into an eternity and infinity, something that goes on beyond me and in me, will always go on, and yet will also come to an end unresolved. The lyrics themselves are onomatopoeic, creating the textures of wind, water, and sky.

But only these? Only wind, water, and sky? No, there is more: the internal backwaters, the blood flooding the heart. The sounds, the sweeps, the gestures all happen inside me as well as outside. Nor is this motion all serene; something disturbs the air, something terrible and wonderful starts to rustle out of slumber. Prospero comes heavily to mind, as does Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” again: “A man, yet by these tears a little boy again, / Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves, / I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter, / Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them, / A reminiscence sing.”

The song, like the album as a whole, points to something beyond words, even beyond human sense and conception. It leaps beyond its own hints. But the listener does not forget them. The word “felzizeg” holds the song and vice versa. It gives me a new way of hearing the air: an alertness not just to the quivering, humming, clattering sounds around me, but to my own oblivion with its many layers. A thick hush wrapping around sound after sound. How little I know, how little I hear. Yet the maple tree with its drying leaves rattles forth.