Friday post: Nobel prize for Bob Dylan?

File under: the culture outside classical music

Bill Wyman, a writer and thinker who started out as a rock critic (and no, he’s not the Rolling Stones’ bassist) had a powerful piece in the New York Times last Sunday, urging that Bob Dylan get the Nobel Prize for literature.

dylan blogWhich, from a classical music point of view, hits us right on a fault line. Dylan? Pop music? Nobel prize? Isn’t the very idea an assault on art.

Well, no. Not to anyone who knows Dylan. Bill (he used to write for me when I was music editor of Entertainment Weekly) makes strong arguments, both rebutting the idea that pop music (and therefore Dylan) is by nature nothing but commercial, and also wonderfully describing what Dylan has done as an artist:

Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience. His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.…

He was first, of course, a singer of folky loquacity, and a serious student of the music’s antediluvian influences: what the critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America.” To this he wedded the yawp of the Beats and the austere intellectualism of the Symbolists. Drugs didn’t hurt, and passing but pungent imagery shows that Mr. Dylan had absorbed the Bible as well.

That disruptive mélange gave us the imagery and power of songs like “Chimes of Freedom” and “Desolation Row,” of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Visions of Johanna,” among scores of others. He has displayed a mastery of everything from the political jeremiad (“It’s Alright, Ma [I’m Only Bleeding])” to the romantic epic (“Tangled Up in Blue”), and lines like “Money doesn’t talk, it swears” show his way with the lancing aperçu. Mr. Dylan is neither a saint nor a moralist. Epic anger and personal petulance erupt out of his lyrics. But so do tender mercies, extravagant and deep love, self-castigation and what turns out to have been no little wisdom.

Everyone in classical music — everyone in the arts — should think about this. What is art, today? And, almost as important, what do our fellow citizens of the contemporary world think art is? How much do we isolate ourselves if we insist Dylan couldn’t be art, or not art on a Nobel level, not simply because others disagree with us, but because we don’t, in our hearts, really get why someone would so strongly disagree.

One reservation I might have is that Dylan’s lyrics, to me, aren’t written poetry, but oral poetry. That is, they have their full power when you hear him sing them, more than when you read them. Extending the Nobel literature prize not simply into pop music, but into oral literature, would be a step to consider. But now that I think of it, how exciting to return poetry to the voice, to hearing. Homer, anyone? I’m still sympathetic to anyone who doesn’t want to go that far (and Homer, after all, reads fabulously) , but I think it’s exciting.

File under: presenting music, presenting yourself, making classical music contemporary

Pianist/composer Gregg Kallor has a music video, designed to promote his new album. Because one movement of a piece on the album evokes the energy of New York, Kallor went to the 88 artist-designed pianos scattered all over the city (in a project created by Sing for Hope), and played that movement.

The video moves, visually, just as much as the city itself does. Energy! Which is also in the music. Though I loved a moment of repose, when we look into the water, at the wake behind one of the Staten Island ferries, and everything calms into a quiet eddy.

I don’t know how widely the video will be watched — just 466 views on YouTube as of this morning — but it puts Kallor, his music, and, in a way, all of classical music in a contemporary light.

But a caution to all of us. Promotion is key to a video like this. We need to think just as hard, maybe even harder, about how to get people to watch it as we do about what it should be. Because if people don’t see it, its promotional value is pretty much muted. Maybe you’ll touch a few people in the media, but you could do far better than that.

Though maybe Kallor and his publicist have plans for the video I don’t know about. I hope so.

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  1. ariel says

    Must be a slow day at Juilliard or too much Verdi….Dylan as a Nobel candidate – laughable
    and Kallor video – one thinks second rate old hat music and run of the mill video will need all the promotion it can get but there is an audience for almost everything …..