Quotation of the day

…while I work on a larger post about what classical music would look like if it really did connect with the world around us.

Bono on Bob Dylan, from the current issue of Rolling Stone:

When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.

I read this today to my Juilliard class on music criticism. My question to them (and to everyone in my blog community): How often do any of us ask if a classical artist is telling the truth?

(Historical note: interesting, to see two soul singers (well, Womack was a guitarist, too, and a songwriter) talking about Bob Dylan. Cooke died in 1964, so this was very early Dylan they were hearing. This also would have been around the time that Cooke was writing and recording “A Change is Gonna Come,” in which, after years of recording light pop hits, he certainly did tell the truth. Just now, after writing that line, I’ve learned from Wikipedia that Cooke was directly inspired by Dylan. Cooke’s widow later married Bobby Womack. Did they listen to Dylan at home?)

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Comments

  1. Jason says

    Well, the comparison really isn’t fair, because Dylan and Cooke wrote their own songs. Classical musicians are always singing what someone else wrote — and usually someone long dead at that. So a classical musician can be no more truthful than an actor reading Shakespeare, and just in drama the truth lies with the author/composer, and not the interpreter. We merely ask if the actor/singer was “convincing”.

    Maybe the problem is that too few classical musicians also compose?

    So classical music is inherently less truthful than rock? Many people would say it feels that way. (I’m not going that far.) But in fact truth is a standard criterion for good acting, applied regularly by theater people and theater critics. That’s one thing Method acting was about — finding emotional truth. “Convincing,” if you ask me, sets a low standard, and we shouldn’t accept it. And how can something be convincing if it isn’t truthful? Sounds like the way we judge so many politicians: “I know he’s lying, but I like what he says.”

    I do think classical musicians should compose. There’s nothing to it. Just sit down and open a vein (as Red Smith so famously said about writing words). But seriously, no special talent is needed. You just have to do it. If composers can do it, violists can.

    But, returning to where we started, I think we should understand what we’re saying if we make excuses for classical music. “Oh, it can’t do what rock does because of X and Y.” People on the outside don’t think in those terms. They just encounter classical music, and if it doesn’t meet the standards they’re used to, they’ll think something’s missing. I don’t mean that classical music should be expected to function exactly like rock; that would be silly. But if it falls short in some giant way — if it doesn’t seem as truthful as rock — then we’re in big trouble.

  2. says

    Hi Greg,

    I’ll bet Peter Guralnick knows the answers to these questions.

    He’s a wonderful writer on blues and R&B, who wrote what’s now the standard biography of Elvis, in two volumes. I wonder what he thinks of classical music?

  3. Deborah Fleitz says

    Greetings Greg:

    This is an excellent topic, particularly in terms of my own interest in all things vocal, whether classical, pop, Broadway. I disagree with Jason that a classically trained singer cannot be truthful while interpreting music and lyrics written by someone else. Whether in concert, recital or on the operatic stage, I am drawn into someone’s performance ONLY if they are truthful to themselves, which in turn serves the words and music. I am bored when a performer depends on artifice, empty gestures and over-the-top vocal histrionics.

    Some examples of artists who have been truthful in performance, and therefore have affected me deeply, are Maria Callas, Teresa Stratas, Christa Ludwig and Marilyn Horne. If the performance is not always beautiful vocally, that’s fine as long as it speaks truth and emanates genuinely from the heart and soul of the performer. This quality is what truly affects an audience.

    Some pop artists whose voices have spoken truthfully to me include k.d. lang, Betty Buckley,early Barbra Streisand, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bernadette Peters. I have eclectic tastes :-)

    Keep up the excellent blog, Mr. Sandow!

    Why thanks, Deb! And thanks for your thoughts. I could make my own list of truthful singers, and like yours, it would cover classical music and pop. Truth is a category that transcends genre.

  4. Jason says

    Wait a minute, Deborah, how does a Maria Callas performance speak the truth to you? Do you believe that she (Maria) really was jealous over the guy playing Mario? Or is it that the emotion in her voice seems appropriate to the part, because she might be drawing on some real (yet completely unrelated, and vastly different in scale) heartbreak in her past?

    I think that’s fundamentally different than Sam Cooke singing in his own words about segregation, which he experienced personally. I’m not saying that what opera singers do isn’t perfectly valid, but to equate the two things under the rubric of “truth” seems wrongheaded to me. To quote Sir Laurence Olivier, “What is acting but lying and what is good lying but convincing lying?”

    And what are classical musicians if not actors?

    Jason, maybe there’s factual truth and emotional truth. I’m sure that writers on aesthetics — and philosophers of music — have tried to parse all these distinctions, and define exactly what kind of truth Maria Callas embodies. But just because I can name the kind of truth Sam Cooke is telling in “A Change is Gonna Come” doesn’t mean I find Maria Callas any less truthful when she sings Norma. As opposed, let’s say, to Renée Fleming, whom I don’t often find truthful at all.

    But this is a good discussion, and I’m glad you’re making your points.

  5. Jason says

    I won’t compare classical music and rock in general, but I will say that if we are going to place an exaggerated importance on the category of “truth”, then singer-songwriters in any genre will always have a distinct advantage over those musicians who play someone else’s music, at least in our current cultural context. Compare Jewel and the Spice Girls to see what I mean.

    Does that mean one can’t like the Spice Girls? Absolutely not — but if you start ascribing “truth” to their performance, you will have a fight on your hands.

    And this is the inherent problem: when we hear a performance or a piece of classical music that resonates with us personally, we start tossing around adjectives like “true”, “authentic”, “honest”, etc. — in other words, we use universal concepts to describe a personal preference. And they stick, because we can usually find someone who agrees with us (I am reminded of when Beethoven pointed to a stack of Handel scores and said “there lies The Truth”, or some such; possibly the progenitor of all this).

    When you suspect a politician might not be telling the truth, you can go to factcheck.org and find out. Truth is a relatively absolute category in politics, in as much as people care about it. But in music, it’s significantly more subjective than that.

    Case in point: I hate Maria Callas. HATE her. If someone says to me “I enjoy listening to Callas,” my attitude is: fine, knock yourself out. But when I hear someone say “Callas’s singing embodies the Truth!”, this raises my hackles, because you’ve moved her performance out of aesthetics and into the realm of morality. Not only is my musical judgment being called into question, but my moral judgment as well: I implicitly can’t handle The Truth. This was a neat rhetorical trick perfected by the Romantics in order to quash dissent (“wow, if I don’t like Brahms, something must be wrong with me!”), but continuing to rely on it in our significantly less monolithic world risks destroying the meaning of “truth” altogether.

    So to anyone who says “this performance was truthful/authentic/honest”, I ask: what are you really trying to say? Can you get beyond the codewords to express what really drew you to that performance?

    All too often the answer I receive is “you just don’t get it”, as though I questioned their belief in God. And in a rational society, I think that’s a problem.

    (Ironically, I think people today are better at explaining why they believe in God (or don’t) than they are at defending their musical tastes. Otherwise there wouldn’t be Jehovah’s Witnesses…)

    Very interesting, Jason. Really clarifies a lot of the issues in the air here.

    I don’t know if I agree about writing own music vs. singing songs by others. What about cabaret and jazz singers, who don’t usually write their own material? Billie Holliday? Bessie Smith? Barbara Cook? And it wouldn’t be hard to find people who write their own songs but aren’t unlike the Spice Girls. Billy Joel and Bon Jovi would be frequent targets for that, though I like both. But late in the ’80s when I was a pop critic I heard innumerable hard rock bands in LA who were as phony as the Spice Girls, even if they wrote their own songs.

    Authenticity is a troubled concept, I agree. Very facile to cite it, very hard to say what it means. Ultimately, though, I think that arts judgments involve morality. Or else why would they matter? Ultimately we’re all making judgments about what’s important in life. Though of course we’re also arguing about perception. And I’m in no way endorsing vulgar moral putdowns — you don’t like Callas, so you’re a bad person. Bullshit.

    I might put my own “truth” judgments like this. Does something feel like real life to me? If someone’s singing classical music, for instance, do I think the emotion they’re conveying is as deep and rich and individual and textured as emotions are in real life? (With, for instance, changing affect as thoughts shift; or does the singer simply have one generalized emotion that doesn’t change as the words of the song or aria change?)

    I don’t claim that there would be universal agreement on who does or doesn’t do this. Or on who we like, which is not the same judgment as asking whether someone is truthful or not. What could be more truthful, subtextually, than a Hitler speech?

    Here’s a vivid instance of emotional truth. Chaliapin, rehearsing Boris Godunov in Paris, singing in Russian, a language not understood by others at the rehearsal. And the opera wasn’t well known. In the scene where he sees a ghost in the corner, they stopped the rehearsal, because they genuinely thought that Chaliapin saw something in the corner that frightened him. I grant that this is not the kind of thing that commonly happens, and that it’s a rather vulgar measure of truth. I don’t think, for instance, that Callas (whom I love) is distressed at the moment when she indelibly sings about distress. Though whether she draws on a deep well of distress would be another question.

    You mentioned Olivier in an earlier comment. He’s the epitome of a British style of acting that aims at simulation, not truth. As exemplified by the famous anecdote about him torturing Dustin Hoffman in — which thriller was it? I’m forgetting the name. Hoffman, using method acting, worked himself into a genuine frenzy to get the emotions for the scene, and Olivier offered a memorable putdown of that.

    But then Olivier’s acting has a different effect on my than Marlon Brando’s, let’s say. There’s much to be said for both (and Olivier’s method might offer better prospects for longevity), but still there’s a difference.

  6. zimm says

    Truth?

    Is there more “truth” in a Kiss song, because the band wrote the song, than in Frank Sinatra singing a standard?

    No.

    Bob Dylan, Beethoven, Beverly Sills, Sam Cooke, Shakespeare….it’s all entertainment.

    Just as much “truth” in Al Jolson singing “Swanee” as in Robert Johnson singing “Crossroads”. Both were written, recorded and performed for exactly the same reasons : to entertain & the make a couple of bucks.

    Bob Dylan : “I’m just a song and dance man”.

  7. Leaf says

    Hard to imagine folk getting all het up over this hardy perennial. Huxley once said that the closest Humanity gets to the Ineffable, silence apart, was by way of music. Putting words to the notes (Operatic/Soul or Rockist) might make it more comprehensible but it doesn’t necessarily make it any more truthful. Surely. Equally the conversation betwixt Cooke and Womack was one of artist to artist, trying to understand the swing of the pendulum between form and function? You like Callas, I like Waits, he likes Porter and she’s for Emmylou. As my brother once reprimanded me, ‘I was unaware that music is a competition.’ The only question, surely, is how form and function can best support each other whilst make a living within the vagueries of the market place? A tricky balance that’s made all the harder by all those who sit outside and pontificate from the stalls. Is there any more truth in “I walk the Line” than “Vissi d’Arte”, regardless of who’s singing? The rest is merely a question of taste and the passing of time in idle yakking. Pleasant but hardly definitive.

  8. says

    I don’t know, Greg, I’ve heard lots of truthful performances from professional performers intepreting other people’s music I found this video of an opera performance that was absolutely, 100% jaw-droppingly truthful and emotionally convincing. It’s a simple recitativo accompagnato followed by a da capo aria, and the singer is so emotionally invested in the work that the audience spontaneously applauds the da capo. Watch and enjoy.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kC_u_q-iND0

    Oh, did I say opera? I meant Broadway…it’s from Dreamgirls.

    Hope I didn’t give any sign that I disagree with you!

    Funny you mention Dreamgirls. When I saw the original show on Broadway, way back when, I thought it could have been an opera, and in fact showed how we could use operatic composition techniques with music in a Motown/pop/Broadway style.

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