Sunday, May 5, 2013

"I'll know my song well before I start singing"

Bob Dylan got it right in "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."
Almost everything you hear these days in praise of outstanding performing skill in artists emphasizes their "talent." Even artists in midcareer are showered with compliments that set them apart for their extraordinary talent. Odd that the same word that accompanies a pat on the head when they are 6 or 8 or 15 may shadow them still when their artistry is in full cry.

How different they must be from the rest of us who merely have to work hard and get lucky to achieve success and recognition! The implication is often that a talented person -- having been given so much (and a talent was originally a monetary unit) -- need only disburse that gift with a certain amount of focus and persistence to attract acclaim.

But an artist's focus and persistence involves more than returning again and again to the well of talent and drawing up from it brimming buckets of pizazz and impressive spectacle. I want here to praise the habit of preparation, of hard, thinking labor,  as the necessary ingredient in performances that wow us and sometimes leave us limp in admiration.

I'm choosing an unusual source to help me celebrate the artistic virtue of being prepared. Fifty years ago this month, Columbia Records issued "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."  The LP was to be heard everywhere during my freshman year in college. Never having owned a copy, despite my interest then in folk music, I knew several of the songs almost by heart. The most impressive, partly because it jibed with my youthful unease at the direction the world appeared to be heading, was "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."

Modeled on the question-and-answer structure of the British folk song "Lord Randal," it catalogs in vivid, apocalyptic imagery a likely outcome of all the dire events of the early 1960s. Over its seven-minute length, Dylan's song also mimics the numerological obsession of the canonical Apocalypse in the last book of the Christian Bible. And like Revelation, it often struck me  as borderline tedious, as much as it fascinated me.

Near the very end, as the poet imagines himself standing on the ocean and about to sink, he offers this odd reassurance, which never failed to excite me: "But I'll know my song well before I start singing."

Not "before I stop singing," mind you -- a variation you'd have every right to expect from someone about to vanish beneath the engulfing waves. And then there's the mystery of what song is being referred to: the one we're hearing now or some future song learned and delivered at the apocalyptic moment?

"But I'll know my song well before I start singing." That line puts a stamp on the artist's authority for delivering his vision. Though I never subscribed to Dylan fandom -- and lost track of almost everything he did starting with "Blonde on Blonde," a favorite of serial substance-abusers -- Dylan's authenticity as a seer seemed hard to question thereafter.

And now, a half-century later, the line comes back to me as a talisman to my best experiences watching artists work onstage. In classical music, jazz, theater and dance, knowing one's song before one starts singing is indispensable. And it doesn't mean dogged rehearsal and "getting it right" in the narrowest sense of craftsmanship. We have all seen studied performances that made us squirm with boredom.

"Knowing your song well before you start singing," for an artist, means knowing its quality and your suitability to represent that quality. Of course, not all art comes close to projecting the visionary gleam in the eye of the beholder of Apocalypse.  Nor would we want it to.

And this rock-solid knowledge doesn't require the artist to sacrifice spontaneity. So much wasted effort has gone into overanxious avoidance of "museum display" performances that a certain flailing too often takes the place of thorough preparation.

Belief in the freshness of the artistic product as you deliver it is part of the preparation. The best kind of spontaneity  is the product of both study and conviction. Preparation is the vital link between the artist's excitement in starting the process of engagement with a work and the audience's excitement in receiving the result.

Eric J. .Olson: Among the memorable portrayals.
Best of all, "I'll know my song well before I start singing" is a promise that the artistic presentation in front of you is not the end. (That's partly what makes Dylan's line so remarkable as it sets its seal on a vision of the universal finale.)  We sometimes speak approvingly of an artist's giving his/her all, but why should we want that? We might superficially wish to imagine there is nothing left to give, but when we have witnessed a stellar performance, we properly expect there is more to come someday, that there is a future "song" to be delivered with the same degree of commitment and payoff as what we have just experienced.

Preparation and promise, spontaneity and study: The best artists allow us to have it all, and leave us with such memories as Zach De Pue playing the Korngold concerto, Rob Johansen in "After Paul McCartney," Eric J. Olson in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," Thomas Hampson singing Mahler, Constance Macy in "Lost: A Memoir" and Ryan Artzberger as Ebenezer Scrooge.

And if there is eventually a hard rain that's a-gonna fall, we will be well served by our best artists right up to the end.