On Bob Dylan and His First Album

The first time listening to Bob Dylan’s songs in Blood on the Tracks (1975), I thought I could never be able to enjoy this kind of music. It sounds harsh and raw, too folksy, and heavily narrative. Then one day, while waiting for a class to begin, I suddenly craved the tunes in Blood on the Tracks. I had to sit down and listen to the first few songs of the album immediately. I have no idea why it happened but my liking for Dylan started just like that. His voice, his music hold a strong gravity that commands my attention. Like any great artist, he has the power to deliver us into a different world; a world so enchanted that we want to be a part of it: at times, we want to just be surrounded by the sound, let our mind flow freely, and think less. At others, we want to listen to it carefully, to see what’s in it that makes us want more.

I have wanted to write about Bob Dylan for a long time, but I don’t know how to begin, and I always wonder whether my writing could give him justice. I have searched for books and articles written about his music and started reading his biography. I have followed several guides to his works, which are usually a list of his most “important” albums. Then today I thought why not just listening to his music chronologically. Just as when I like some fiction authors, I will start reading their works, as many as I can; or when I like particular painters, I will look at their artworks carefully before reading any critical works. So my journey with Dylan begins by looking at his debut album Bob Dylan (1962).

bob_dylan_vinyl_front_cover

The released album features eleven folk standards and traditional songs, and only two original compositions: “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody.” He said in an interview in 2000 that he was hesitant to reveal too much of himself in this first album. Here, in the product of the twenty-year-old Dylan, already we encountered very Dylanian materials: the perfect synthesis of the voice and the instruments, the smooth yet strange harmony of sound and lyrics, the poetic of the lyrics emerged from his arrangement, a sense of ultimate freedom—from the narrative as well as the sound, and the unpretentious reverie—in short, all the materials were there, and a decade later, he will polish and push them to the next level. In this album was a young artist who was very confident of his talent and has started using his devices with ease.

As I listen to this album several times, I realize that what I like best in this album, as well as in his future works, is the incredible ability to evoke imagery using music and word, or more precisely, word here is nothing but one of the sound utilized in his arrangement—word is music itself. Imagery is everywhere in Dylan’s two original songs, and they are imagery of ordinary things, such as:

So one mornin’ when the sun was warm
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And headed out for the western skies
So long, New York
Howdy, East Orange (“Talkin’ New York”)

or

I’m out here a thousand miles from my home
Walkin’ a road other men have gone down
I’m seein’ your world of people and things
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings. (“Song to Woody”)

Mundane as they are, when being infused in the arrangement of Dylan, they hold irresistibly poetic power.

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MOZART’S OPERA, DON GIOVANNI (1787)

Truth be told, I find it is easier to understand neuron science than music theory. That’s to say, you are going to read a review of classical music by a very amateur listener. My music career ended tragically short at eight years old when my piano teacher, who, I kid you not, was a pedophile, ended up in jail for drinking and beating his wife. Though handicapped with knowledge in music, I couldn’t resign to the fact that there is one kind of arts I couldn’t understand at all. Besides, a friend of mine, a classical composer himself, enthusiastically encourages me to pursue the studying of classical music. So here I am, rambling to you about music, specifically about Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni.

Of all the genres in which Mozart worked, and he wrote in virtually all kind of genre of his day, his operas are usually celebrated as his greatest achievements. I think what makes his operas outstanding among his contemporaries’ is his psychologically complex characters, his ability to synthesize and transcend the boundaries of the comic and the serious, and the layers of meanings in his works (The only other person who was able to accomplish these in arts is of course William Shakespeare; no wonder his fame surpassed that of his more learned contemporaries such as Marlowe and Kyd). Regarding these features in Mozart’s operas, one may find Don Giovanni a good example of Mozart’s aesthetics.

Watching Don Giovanni is a well-worth three-hour of both learning and entertainment. If you have heard of the notorious libertine Don Juan or perhaps harbor the thought of becoming a lady-killer like him, the opera will give you insights. But in case you haven’t heard of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, basically he is a Casanova, and the opera is about his reckless conquest of women, including killing one old man on his way, and how the women revenge him. The legend of Don Juan and Casanova emerged in a time when Europe started casting doubts on the orderly, predetermined universe that governed the Western beliefs for centuries. The French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, scientific discoveries—especially by Newton, the Industrial Revolutions, the rise of political liberalism, etc. all contributed to the shaking belief. A century latter in Germany, Frederick Nietzsche would announce the death of God, which is probably Nietzsche’s death as well. But any way, Don Giovanni is the product of such a tumultuous period when people wonder what happens if one just throws away all conventions and moralities and follow their passion now that the world is not predestined, and no one will be punished in the afterlife. In other words, let’s all abandon the rational dull Apollonian lifestyle (the product of the Age of Enlightenment) and seek pleasure like the wild self-indulgent god of wine, Dionysus.

Despite the lengthy context above, I guarantee you the opera is funny and captivating on its own right. Mozart constantly juxtaposes the comic and the serious; sometimes lightness and gravity coexist within one scene. At the beginning of the opera, Don Giovanni slays the father of one of his women—Donna Anna, a woman who has just fought off his sexual advances. Nevertheless, immediately following the grave music of this scene is the playful vocal of Don Giovanni and Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, when Don Giovanni approaches a lady lamenting the abandonment of her lover. The lady, who sings in demanding vocal line, full of large leaps and covering a wide range, turns out to be one of Don Giovanni’s women, Donna Elvira. The next scene is one of the most comic scenes when Leporello explains to Donna Elvira she is just one among the hundreds of Don Giovanni’s women, so she shouldn’t be upset and demand Don Giovanni’s loyalty. Leporello shows her the numbers of Don Giovanni’s amorous conquests by nationalities: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1003 in Spain. He will praise a fair girl for her kindness, a dark one constancy, and a white-haired one sweetness; he will call a tall one stately and the tiny one dainty. In winter he prefers plump girls, in summer slim. He courts the elderly for the sake of adding them to the list, but his most favorites are the virgins.

Mariusz Kwiecien (center) in the title role of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."   Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on October 3, 2011.
Mariusz Kwiecien (center) in the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on October 3, 2011.

Bawdy, right? It is exactly this bawdiness that Beethoven criticized Mozart, saying Mozart had wasted his talent on the naughty sex operas. Also in this scene, Leporello’s playful voice emerges out of a heroic background music perhaps to bring out the irony of the situation: the sorrow of Donna Elvira contrasts with the indifference and cheerfulness of Leporello.

If you have heard of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, then you may find the opera extra-interesting because the master-servant couple Don Giovanni and Leporello resembles Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Leporello is clumsy, gluttonous, practical, and coward just like Sancho Panza, while Don Giovanni, in certain regards, resembles Don Quixote because both are adventurers and idealists. And it is this clashing of the opposite personalities of Don Giovanni and Leporello that adds humor to the opera. Music in Don Giovanni bubbles with energy because of sudden changes from slow to fast, from soft to loud, from major to minor within a single movement with preference for major mode. Under the influence of the Classical style, the opera’s harmony is simpler, and the melody more singable and less melismatic with more cadence breaking up the melody into segments and short phrases. And unlike the Baroque music which emphasizes the display of affectation, emotion in Don Giovanni is kept in balance; the opera unites emotion and elegance.

Youtube has several good performance of Don Giovanni in full, for example:

If you are a student of UT Dallas, the opera is also available at UTD library: DVD 213 and DVD233. So enjoy!