The photo at left shows the B. Altman department store as it looked in 1924, occupying the block between 34th and 35th streets, 5th Avenue to Madison Avenue. Some New Yorkers of my chronology may remember being dragged around Altman’s in an eternity of torpor while their mother looked for a blouse to match her blue slacks.
Here’s the same building in 2009. It’s been turned into the CUNY Graduate Center on one side and Oxford Univ Press on the other. I attended a talk and performance there on September 17. It was titled, “Bob Dylan: American Poet. The Musical Settings Inspired by Dylan’s Lyrics.” The focus of the evening was the work of composer John Corigliano, and of New York musician Howard Fishman. Mr. Corigliano has taken the lyrics to seven songs and set them to his own music, to create a song cycle he calls “Mr Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.” Note the very careful preposition in that title, which ambiguously links the work to Dylan. Howard Fishman may be familiar to some of you through his performances of The Basement Tapes material. Greil Marcus, who requires no explanation, moderated a discussion with Corigliano and Fishman, then a pianist and a soprano performed songs from Corigliano’s song cycle, followed by Fishman’s performance.
Here is something concrete and immutable and eternal that John Corigliano and Bob Dylan have in common: an Academy Award. They also have Pulitzer prizes in common but I don’t know if you get an object for display with that award. In his conversation with Marcus, Corigliano told the story of his artistic relation with Bob Dylan: he was not familiar with Dylan’s songs, as he had been listening to contemporary classical music in the 1960s, although he was “fascinated” by The Beatles’ music, which he found “natural and ingenious.” He admitted it may have come to pass that as he sat in a coffeehouse in the early 1960s, “sipping his cappuccino,” Bob Dylan could indeed have been singing within earshot, but Corigliano did not *hear* the song being performed. Folksinging entails “simple melody,” and “the song stays the same—verse, chorus. verse, chorus.” A folk song “does not change emotionally verse to verse.” The apparent monotony of folk songs deafened John Corigliano to distinguishing any one song, and therefore he came to Bob Dylan’s work “with innocence.”
What Corigliano wanted for his project was “an American poet.” A “great poet,” but a certain kind of great poet: “a great poet who speaks to everyone.” Something brought Bob Dylan to his attention, and he “sent away” for a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.
He found the lyrics of this man’s songs poetic, and set about using the lyrics of seven songs, and his own music, to “tell a story of political awakening.” The “Prelude” is Mr. Tambourine Man, followed by what we know as Clothes Line Saga but which was referred to as Clothes Line Blues, then Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower, Chimes of Freedom, concluding with the “Postlude” of Forever Young.
Corigliano wanted an “amplified soprano” voice to perform his compositions. He wanted the effect of and opera singer’s “technique” without the sound of operatic singing. He talked of the amplified voice being more “natural” than the unamplified performance of an opera.
Corigliano and Greil Marcus talked about Masters of War and Clothes Line Saga. Marcus mentioned Viggo Mortensen’s cover of Masters of War at a Howard Zinn tribute, in which Aragon’s performance “cut the song free” while still retaining its “vehemence” and “desperation.” Corigliano sought “ways of treating emotionally dense material” by “play(ing) against it.” The music is “distant (distinct?) from the savagery of the words.” He talked about the importance of the last line of Clothes Line Saga: the shutting of the door on the political reality of the world outside–then the door opened again to let the wind of political awareness come blowin’ in.
Howard Fishman and Greil Marcus talked about I’m Not There. Marcus’s description of the song was Big Letter True, and gorgeous: he talked about the inaudible lyrics as conveying textures of feeling that make the listener feel that everything is at stake for all of us: the singer, the woman in the song, me listening. Howard Fishman was so taken with the song that he wrote lyrics to fill the gaps in Dylan’s rendition. Also a devotee of Marcus’s Old Weird Republic, Fishman sought approval from the authoritative critic, sent him his new version, and Marcus apparently gave Fishman the thumbs up he desired.
OK, Not Ideas About The Thing, But The Thing Itself: singer Amy Burton and pianist Stephen Gosling performed four of the songs in Corigliano’s project, Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind, Chimes of Freedom, and Forever Young. Ms. Burton sang in a lovely operatic soprano, doing her best to get the words across currents of music that swelled and dropped and lingered and halted in the way of contemporary classical music. She sounded in every way like an opera singer. In Chimes, she emphasized with great vigor the word “not” in the 5th line, so we could definitely appreciate the irony of a warrior who refrains from fighting. She lengthened and flailed with alarmingly effective histrionics in the verse cataloguing the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandon’d and forsak’d, so there was certainly no mistaking the great flashes of these chimes of freedom for the outcasts of the world. Forever Young was set to a comfortable melodic structure, Ms. Burton sang it straight, and I hope her friends will be begging for her Forever Young at weddings, anniversary parties, and brisses, which is right where it belongs. I had to leave before Howard Fishman’s performance, and I can say that I did see him play at Suze Rotolo’s reading for her memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time, and his covers were professional and faithful.
That I simply do not have a taste for John Corigliano’s music is neither here nor there. That he began this project with a conclusive disparagement of the entire, apparently inexpressive, genre of folk music, a claim that many of us in the audience could have challenged right then and there with our own iPods–that is also neither here nor there. Ignorance and arrogance can certainly precede good art, and they often have. That a 71 year old American musical artist is not familiar with the tune to Blowin’ in the Wind–that’s a tough one, but, I want people to take me at my word, so we will take Mr Corigliano at his.
It’s the whole implicit propriety of the experience that I hated. The whole effete conferral of legitimacy, the presumption of significance, the gloss of authority given by Marcus’s presence, and Corigliano’s utterly complacent tone—there just was no sense that one artist was hungry for something he found in another artist’s work and wanted to grab it fast. Corigliano condescended to the moral depth he hadn’t expected to find in Dylan’s lyrics, yet, as a musician sensitive to poetry, made no mention of the musicality of the words, the patterns of sound that are still present in the printed lyrics. He wanted a great and inclusive poet to transfuse his work with greatness and inclusivity, and perhaps for some listeners the bloodless operation was a success, and they didn’t notice there was no love and theft at work, none at all.