December 3rd 2016


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COVER STORY Anti-discrimination law validates Safe Schools

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs on the way out, but her weapon (18C) must go too

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump White House

EDITORIAL Trump portends the start of a new political era

EUTHANASIA Late-night reprieve in SA Parliament

EAST ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwan and Japan look extinction in the face

SEXUAL POLITICS Victorian Liberals pledge to scrap Safe Schools

LAW AND SOCIETY No-fault divorce a tragedy of nuclear proportions

PARENTING Experts envisage lustrous future for infant graduates

POLITICAL HISTORY Folly with a touch of good sense: Colonel Sibthorp

ECONOMICS Trump as a symptom of the end of neoliberalism

MUSIC Vale Leonard: did we ever really understand you?

CINEMA Fantastical and beastly: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

BOOK REVIEW A Life well spent

BOOK REVIEW Catholic revisals

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS How the left whitewashed Fidel Castro

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MUSIC
Vale Leonard: did we ever really understand you?


by David James

News Weekly, December 3, 2016

The passing of Leonard Cohen and the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan have brought to prominence an intriguing phenomenon in popular music.

Both Cohen and Dylan have been fine songwriters, albeit with very different lyric emphases. But they both have (or had, in the case of Cohen) unlistenable voices. If one is to give them an “A” for their lyric power and a “B” for their crafting of melody, one would have to give them a resounding “F” for their singing.

Leonard Cohen

To musicians accustomed to striving for purity of tone and correct intonation, listening to such singers borders on the painful (the other culprit in this field, the uniquely awful Neil Young, is to this writer excruciating). They do not even attempt to develop convincing singing technique, which involves disciplining the diaphragm and achieving resonance from the head cavities. Cohen sang in muffled, unmusical tones from his throat. Dylan sings in a nasally whine that lacks depth.

Yet to their many millions of followers, this does not seem to matter. The songs have an extremely powerful effect on them. So, what is happening?

One possibility is that the fans are listening to the songs more as drama than music, as if the songwriters are acting as characters rather than musicians trying to impress with melody.

This is plausible in the case of Cohen, who played the part of a somewhat depressive, introspective American ruminating about the dark side of relationships, religion, politics and sexuality. His appeal was in part due to the universality of his mix of romance and pain; listeners are, in the first instance, enjoying the character. The music is only secondary.

Dylan does not so much play a character as the role of a Greek Chorus, commenting on the action. His appeal is equally dramatic, but one step removed for personal confession. Indeed, it is not easy to identify who Dylan the person is, in part because he has cultivated a mix of ambivalence and anonymity, and in part because his style of lyric writing has an element of literary artifice that makes the meanings more complex (the reason he won the Nobel prize for literature).

Another possibility is that listeners are enjoying the artistic effect of someone who lacks artifice. “Correct”
musical technique can sound homogeneous. Most classical performers sound the same; indeed, that is their job. It is only the ones who possess preternatural technique who stand out.

So, if uniqueness is the aim, then a certain kind of resolute tunelessness, performed with great conviction, can achieve an aesthetic distinctness that more musically proper performances lack.

Here there is perhaps an analogy with modern art. Some styles of painting – such as the abstract art of Jackson Pollock, which at first glance looks like finger painting – seem to be devoid of advanced painting technique. Some of the figures of Chagall, for example, deliberately resemble the drawings of children.

The point, at least in part, is to dismantle conventional artifice in order to explore new types of expression that do not depend on being well trained and technically advanced.

Perhaps a similar thing is occurring with singers like Cohen and Dylan. They are deliberately singing “badly” to evoke the common Man. Rather than being the performer dedicated to impressing, they are one of us.

A further possibility is simply that people are less than interested in the music and respond mainly to the words. From this perspective, Cohen and Dylan are more poets with some musical backing than musicians who use words. This is probably a more plausible argument with Cohen, who wrote a lot of poetry (although there is the small question of Dylan’s Nobel prize).

To my ears, however, they are (mostly) awful singers. Not as bad as industrial noise, but not entirely distinct, either.

At the same time, other singers have performed wonderful versions of their songs. Roberta Flack’s sublime rendition of Cohen’s Suzanne comes to mind, and of course there are the many excellent covers of his classic Hallelujah.

In the end, then, both singers convince as composers, but not as performers.

Of course, composers do not have to be good at singing. Brazilian jazz genius Antonio Carlos Jobim was an ordinary singer yet his compositions are timeless. In the same way, it is likely that Cohen’s songs will long outlive him, brought back to life by performers who can really sing.




























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