John Corigliano: Mr. Tambourine Man: The Seven Songs of Bob Dylan / Three Hallucinations

[16 December 2008]

By Kyle Deas

In high school I dated a girl who, while she was sweet and smart, had simple tastes: She liked knitting, playing the piano and reading George Eliot novels. One day she mentioned (perhaps unwisely) that she had never seen a James Bond film nor read any of Ian Fleming’s novels. She, in fact, had only the scantest knowledge of who James Bond was. “Is he some kind of superhero?” she asked.

John Corigliano is similarly clueless in the area of pop music. He claims, in the liner notes of Mr. Tambourine Man, to have never heard a Bob Dylan song before. According to Corigliano, a friend sent him some of Dylan’s lyrics, and he decided to set them to a classical-style song cycle, complete with vocals from an “amplified soprano”.  The result seems similar to what my ex-girlfriend might have come up with had she tried to write a James Bond novel: a piece lacking any spirit of the original, though just recognizable enough to be considered sacrilegious. 

The music itself warrants admiration. Moody and constantly shifting, the album throughout should attract interest and occassionally grip listeners. Hila Plitmann, the aforementioned soprano, has a lovely, soaring voice. But of the seven songs here, two (“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “All Along The Watchtower”) are almost universally known, and the rest are only slightly less famous. The originals have become too deeply ingrained, and as a result, the whole exercise comes off as being rather silly.

Dylan’s lyrics (or “poems” as Corigliano doggedly refers to them as) don’t help matters either. Dylan’s quick, mumbled delivery often give the impression his songs are short, but when every syllable is operatically elongated, this misconception vanishes. “Clothes Line Saga” doesn’t venture past the three-minute mark on The Basement Tapes. Here, the track runs almost seven, and listeners must suffer through the refrain (“How many times?”) for far too long.

Corigliano, however, manages to get out of his own way on “Postlude: Forever Young”, making it the exception to the rule. The song, nearly a capella, finds Plitmann thankfully toning down the vibrato to deliver a performance that, while closer to pop than classical, nevertheless classifies as spooky and beautiful. When the orchestra enters, it becomes a soft, gentle and subtle counterpoint. Overall, the track mesmerizes.

The disc tacks on the score of Altered States, a film in which William Hurt plays a psychologist obsessed with the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. He begins subjecting himself to never-before-tested agents in order to achieve more vivid hallucinations, and not unlike many of his colleagues, he goes to far. His extreme trips result in him de-evolving into increasingly primordial creatures: first a monkey and then a swollen, blob-like creature not unlike some of the more repulsive monsters fromResident Evil . Only the love of his estranged wife (who unexplicably spends most of her screen time topless) can bring him back to reality.

In short, the film best describes as wierd, to say the least, but it has moments of brilliance. (Corigliano earned an Oscar nomination for the score in 1982 and would later win 14 years later for The Red Violin.) One listen to the “Three Hallucinations” (named for the sequences each accompany in the film) confirms with ease why he was nominated: The songs are unsettling but melodic, with themes appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly. The first piece, “Sacrifice”, starts as a low, string-led piece before being interrupted by an unlikely, though ferocious blast of oboes; the track then transforms with bombast into something akin to “Rock of Ages” by the end. “Hymn” expands on the themes of “Sacrifice” but, frankly, bores in comparison. “Ritual”, two-and-a-half minutes of classical overdrive, closes the album, and it finds every instrument taking turns batting around the main theme.

Though an intense listen, the inclusion of Altered States puzzles and merely serves as filler. Inclusion on an anthology makes more sense, but then again, when one has the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at his disposal, one must make use.

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