Musical blackspots – we all have them. Composers, styles or musicians of which we may have read much and plan to explore – and yet whose music remains tantalisingly beyond our grasp due to factors such as time or inaccessibility. For John Corigliano that blackspot was the music of Bob Dylan, yet through a suggestion from a close friend he was able to turn that to his advantage. In search of an American text for Sylvia McNair to sing, the composer was introduced to the lyrics of Dylan’s songs, crafting his responses into a substantial and ambitious 35-minute song-cycle.
American composers have a history of working with pop musicians – Philip Glass with David Bowie the most obvious example – but this would appear to be the first time that song-bound words have been extracted and cast in another composer’s style.
McNair performed the piano version in 2000, since when it has been orchestrated and the voice amplified, to avoid operatic projection.
The seven poems make a powerful, involving work, though it proves difficult initially listening without the original tunes close-by in the listener’s head. Anyone familiar with Dylan’s music will nonetheless be fascinated to chart Corigliano’s response in the wide-eyed ‘Prelude: Mr. Tambourine Man’, its refrain conveying the “jingle jangle morning” with a twang.
The real musical substance of the cycle, however, is found in the following five monologues. Most striking is the unbridled fury of ‘Masters of War’; the snap of the text teamed with jarring woodwinds briefly suggesting Britten’s settings of Wilfred Owen in “War Requiem”. The emotional core is found in the lengthy yet concentrated ‘Chimes of Freedom’, providing a natural resolution for the work but carrying the weight of Dylan’s text with an impressive gravitas
Corigliano does occasionally manipulate the text for his own means, with a deft cut here and there and the occasional meddling with sequence, but this is not to the detriment of Dylan’s sentiments and is presumably done with his blessing, the two having communicated ahead of the work’s composition.
What would be most interesting to learn is Dylan’s response to the work. Its range of orchestration here justifies the amplification of Hila Plitmann, who can be clearly heard throughout, her pronunciation always immaculate if occasionally subjected to an exaggeration of accent.
Corigliano keenly follows a tradition set by Aaron Copland in his “12 Poems of Emily Dickinson”, and, with strong accompaniment from JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, largely succeeds.
The orchestra comes into its own in the ‘Three Hallucinations’, based on the composer’s score to the 1980 Ken Russell film “Altered States”. ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Ritual’ are directly lifted, the former featuring whirring oboes and percussion while the latter develops into a cacophony of sound. The recorded sound is particularly dry initially; although in the eye of the storm, an Ivesian setting of ‘Rock of Ages’ featuring piano and keyboard, that problem is resolved.
The Dylan settings remain the big draw, however – and for fans of the writer-composer-singer and American music generally, they are a fascinating and rewarding listen. Texts are included with Corigliano’s booklet note.