The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has an interview in Rolling Stone that is confounding some people for bringing back that whole religion thing.  You can’t read it online without a subscription, but David Zahl at Mockingbird posts some highlights:

Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see “Rainy Day Women” as coded about getting high.

It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts…

People thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?

Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has..

[When you talk about] transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?

Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like incarnation–or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time…

So live performance is a purpose you find fulfilling?

If you’re not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don’t get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed…

You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time–can you tell me more about that?

The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during soundchecks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision.

When you say religious songs…

Newly written songs, but one that are traditionally motivated.

More like “Slow Train Coming”?

No. No. Not at all. They’re more like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”…

Has your sense of faith changed?

Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who’s to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God’s hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation…

Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.

Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know?

There is more at The Transfiguration of Robert Zimmerman, or Just a Closer Walk with Dylan | Mockingbird.

The interview has other revelations, or at least disclosures, about Dylan and his work.  For example, we see that he is still irked at the  folk purists who charged him with betrayal when he started playing an electric guitar:

These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified…

This comment about the relationship between the artist, emotion, and the audience is a revelation:

The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.

Exactly!  And this is what many would-be artists don’t realize.  Art of whatever kind is not about just vomiting up your inner emotions.  Music, poetry, fiction, acting, painting, film, and other art forms require intense discipline, concentration, and objectivity.  An artist can’t just go up and go berserk in front of an audience.  (Performers who seem to do that are just acting.)  Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s.  What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

Thanks also to David Zahl for appending this sampler from Dylan’s new album, Tempest:

Bob Dylan is back

Bob Dylan has a new album, Tempest, and it sounds really, really good.  From Washington Post music critic  Chris Richards:

For his 35th studio album, “Tempest,” Bob Dylan wanted to write religious songs and ended up hopping a freight train to the apocalypse.

Couching images of end-times America in old-time American melodies, the 71-year-old has delivered his most compelling release in more than a decade. That’s faint praise for anyone who gave up on Dylan after the Carter administration, sure, but find me another rock demigod crafting tunes this violent in their golden years. You can practically hear the guy tapping his toes in puddles of blood.

But before Dylanologists had heard a bloody note of it, it was the album’s title that made them gasp. “The Tempest” is considered William Shakespeare’s swan song, which might mean that. . .

No, no. Dylan pointed out to Rolling Stone that Shakespeare’s “Tempest” was preceded by the word “the.” Dylan’s “Tempest” is just “Tempest.” Hadn’t one of the greatest lyricists in American song taught us anything about attention to detail?

Regardless, that retirement-rumor kiboshing comes as a relief, because Dylan has found some fresh gravitas in his withering voice. His pipes sound more trashed than ever, so he pulls right up to our ears, making these sinister songs feel eerily intimate. It was a tactic he hinted at with “Christmas in the Heart,” a collection of snarled holiday carols from 2009. The band keeps everything tender and mild while Dylan softly sneers something terrifying.

Listen for it on “Narrow Way,” a nimble jump-blues number that sounds like it survived a nuclear winter. “This is hard country to stay alive in,” Dylan rasps. “Blades are everywhere, and they’re breaking my skin.”

“Duquesne Whistle” employs a similar trick. It’s a classic American train song, its chirping steel guitars channeling hope and wanderlust. Dylan pushes so much wind through his throat that his voice starts to resemble the affectionate roar of Louis Armstrong. But instead of signaling the freedom of a fresh start, this train whistle is “blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart.”

It gets better, which means it gets worse.

“Tin Angel” recounts a love triangle that ends in gunshots and stab wounds. “Early Roman Kings” takes the 1 percent on a bluesy, five-minute frog march. And over the patter of “Pay in Blood,” Dylan yanks a refrain from his pocket and flicks it open like a rusty switchblade: “I pay in blood, but not my own.”

via – The Washington Post.

I’ve got to get this one.  I’m curious about the characterization of these violent tunes as “religious songs.”  (See this for a discussion of the album’s Christian themes.)  Has anyone heard this album yet?  You can buy it here:

From playing music to collecting records

I remember when I was little–this would have been the late 1950s when television sets were still novelties–my parents would have friends over for dinner.  Afterwards, the adults would all gather around the piano, with my mother playing, and they would all sing.  I recall going through the mountain of sheet music that my mother had bought over the years.   Lots of big band and what are now labeled “standards,” but also boogie-woogie, jazz, and blues.  I should have  realized how cool she was.

Readers of old books will notice how people way back then entertained themselves home-grown concerts in the parlor.  And Patrick O’Brian
got the period detail just right, as he usually did, when he has Captain Jack Aubrey playing the violin with Stephen Maturin on cello as a way to relax before a big sea battle.  In the 19th century, people would go to concerts, but they would often take a copy of the score with them.  Through the first half of the 20th century, songwriters made most of their money not from recording royalties but from sales of sheet music, such as my mother would buy.

Charles Rosen, in Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature, points out that most classical music was written for people to play, not just to hear.   In a review, book critic Michael Dirda makes his point:

In several essays Rosen emphasizes how much of our older serious music was never meant to be presented in a concert hall. Most of the early keyboard repertoire was intended for private or semi-private delectation. “Only two of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas were played in Vienna in public during his lifetime.” Similarly, “Few members of the musical public today know that if we wish to experience Schubert’s song cycles as Schubert’s contemporaries would have heard them, we must imagine them as being sung to a few friends.” Certainly the deepest pleasure of music derives from an engagement with its making, by working through a printed score. One might argue that Bach’s “Art of Fugue” gives more satisfaction to those who play it than to those who hear it.

As Rosen stresses, up until the 20th century, many people in a concert audience would have learned a musical instrument, usually the piano, and thus might have already played the program on their own. Even symphonies were widely available in piano reductions for four hands. Such listeners were consequently grounded in an active understanding of the score. Alas, “learning to sing and learning to play the piano have been supplanted today by collecting records.” In short, a once-informed audience has gradually been displaced by those who fetishize virtuoso performances but don’t actually understand or fully appreciate the music.

via Charles Rosen, ever refining our approach to the arts of the past – The Washington Post.

Another mass shooting, this time by a fascist rocker

Another mass shooting, this time at a Sikh temple in Wade Page in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee.  Six people were killed and three were wounded, including a policeman who is in critical condition.  The killer, who was fatally shot by a police officer, was Wade Michael Page, a fairly well-known guitarist in the fascist rock scene.

Some of you may remember that in my book on fascism I discuss the fascist aesthetic–the thrill of violence, the release of dark inner impulses, the Nietzschean exaltation of the will and the rejection of moral restraints, etc.–and how this manifests itself in certain strains of punk and metal music.  I also tie into the skinheads.  I don’t recall there being at the time a specific rock genre that I was aware of explicitly connected not just to white supremacy but to Hitler’s National Socialism, but there is now.  (There are photos of Page posing before a Swastika.)  But despite the apparent absence of Christian faith in his life, he is being called a “Christian terrorist“!  People need to read my book to see how fascism is completely and utterly opposed to Christianity and, specifically, to the Bible, which fascists condemn as a “Jewish book.”  That is, some of them may laud “Christian civilization,” but their agenda is to turn Christianity into just a cultural religion, one that gives divine sanction to the culture, which means eliminating Christianity’s catholicity, otherworldly salvation, moral absolutes, transcendence, and other so-called “Jewish”–that is to say, Biblical– elements.  Of course, there are people today from across the political spectrum who want to purge Christianity in some of these same ways, which is what my book warns against.

UPDATE:  It is odd, though, that the neo-Nazi would attack people from India.  Upper caste Indians are thought to be descendants of the original tribe known as the “Aryans.”  Or, to use the more acceptable term now for that particular ancient people group, they are the “Indo’s” in “Indo-European.”  In fact, the Christian theologian from India Vishal Mangalwadi, who published an Indian edition of my book, is concerned about a fascist movement in India, which exalts “Aryanism,” brings back the Swastika (which derives from that culture), and practices Nazi rituals.   Page doesn’t even know his own fascist racial mythology.

Gunman in Wisconsin was deeply involved in white-supremacist music scene – The Washington Post.

 

 

Who best approaches the spirit of Bach?

Masaaki Suzuki is a distinguished harpsichordist, organist, Yale music professor, and conductor who founded and directs the Bach Collegium Japan.  He is also a devout Christian.  Many thanks to Paul McCain and the various people he credits for unearthing this quotation from the liner notes to the first album of Bach Collegium Japan.   He is responding to the question of how the Japanese can play Bach, whose music comes out of a very different culture.  He says that better than having the same culture is having the same religion:

“… [T]he God in whose service Bach laboured and the God I worship today are one and the same. In the sight of the God of Abraham, I believe that the two hundred years separating the time of Bach from my own day can be of little account. This conviction has brought the great composer very much closer to me. We are fellows in faith, and equally foreign in our parentage to the people of Israel, God’s people of Biblical times. Who can be said to approach more nearly the spirit of Bach: a European who does not attend church and carries his Christian cultural heritage mostly on the subconscious level, or an Asian who is active in his faith although the influence of Christianity on his national culture is small?”

via News Flash: J. S. Bach was a Christian – Why Suzuki Gets Bach | CyberBrethren – A Lutheran Blog.

Here is an interview with Suzuki and a sampling of his music:

The St. Ambrose Hymn Writing Contest

Who says conservative Lutherans don’t like contemporary Christian music in church?  We do.  It’s just that we want the contemporary Christian music to be, you know, hymns, as opposed to pop ditties.  And we do need new hymns.  Towards addressing that need, I am happy to announce that some twenty-somethings in our congregation, St. Athanasius Lutheran Church in Vienna, Virginia, have organized a major hymn-writing competition.  They have raised a $1,000 prize and have arranged for publication.  For details and for just learning about what the big deal is about hymns, check out the website:  St. Ambrose Hymn Writing Contest.

Here are the parameters of the contest:

The Challenge:

Many of the Gospel readings throughout the historic Church Year lack hymns which properly exposit their true sense. It is the purpose of this contest to provide profound and artistic hymns for such unaddressed pericopes (that is, a set of readings given for a certain day). Therefore, the challange of this contest is as follows: to compose a hymn which discerns and declares the meaning of the chosen lectionary texts and properly expresses the congregational response to the work of our Lord in the Word.

The Texts:

The hymn should concern itself with the following texts, with a focus on the gospel reading:

Zephaniah 1:7-16
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

The Prize:

The winner of the contest shall be awarded $1,000. The winning hymn will be publised by Liturgy Solutions, which will be granted first right-of-refusal to the hymn upon acceptance of the prize money.   The author/composer royalty to be paid by Liturgy Solutions will be 50% of all receipts from sales and any other profitable uses of the hymn (public performance for profit, radio broadcast, etc.).”

So the texts the hymn is supposed to elucidate deal with the Day of the Lord, Jesus coming back like a thief in the night, and the Parable of the Talents.

Yes, I have been asked to be one of the judges, but I will show no favoritism to the tunes of Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, or other artists that I can go on and on about on this blog.  (Well, if Bob Dylan enters the contest with a lectionary hymn, he might have an edge with me.)

But, seriously, you can use an existing hymn tune, if you like, or you can compose your own.  The words will be key.  You know those numbers at the bottom of each page in a hymnbook?  7.7.7., 8.6.8.6, 10.10.10.10.  Those are the number of syllables in each line.  That’s important to know in writing words to go with a particular tune.

Anyway, enter!  Try it.  You need not be Lutheran to win.  There is a thousand dollar prize!  The deadline is December 1.  Maybe your hymn too will be sung in future centuries.