It's all right, Ma, I'm only singing...

Bob Dylan's songs may not be as ambitious as the music of the great composers, says Ian Bostridge, but the expressive quality of his vocals could teach classical singers much about performance
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The Independent Culture

A lot of pop music lasts because it is nostalgic and summons up an era. In that respect it is just mood music. Bob Dylan's records are more than that. He shows that you can have the highest aspirations for popular music both in terms of performance and in terms of the sophisticated, multi-layered lyric. There are a lot of very great singers in popular music who do not have very good voices - Fred Astaire had a weak voice, he was a great singer - Dylan, in a way, has a dreadful voice. But as a singer his ability to bend and stretch the melody in a very expressive way and to sing in a sort of counterpoint to it while not seeming to pay much attention to it, is extremely persuasive, almost despite itself. In general terms, he shows the importance of how performance can lift material. Musically his material is not always that interesting, but he does things that, though you would not necessarily want to hear anyone else do them, works for him. Very often he will work with a very simple melody, but weave around it with his rasping voice and somehow he makes it so that it is as if the words are distorting the melody and I find that incredibly subtle and just impossible to imitate.

A really good example of that is my favourite Dylan song, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright". I do not know how planned it was, it seems very improvised when compared to what somebody like, say, Frank Sinatra does, who you feel is calculated to the last tiny detail. I do not know how much of a perfectionist Dylan was, but there is no sense of him being a technical singer. If you detach ownership of his lyrics from Dylan, his ability to use words as a communicator is quite remarkable and without peers in popular music.

As a writer of lyrics, as a performer and as a musician, Dylan is at the very top; questions about dumbing down (the tired "Is Dylan better than Keats?" debate) just do not apply in his case. He is not, after all, Destiny's Child! Dylan gave American music, largely rural even up to the 1960s, an urban dimension, mixing folk, blues and country idioms in a way that was new and different - the mixing-up of genres, the willingness to experiment, is a feature of all good, creative music. The music I like best in the classical tradition does something similar. Schubert often uses a folk-ish idiom and folk colours and that was part of the excitement of the music at that period.

He also made people ambitious about lyrics; he certainly influenced The Beatles into producing lyrics as suggestive and multi-faceted as his own. A song like "Norwegian Wood" is obviously very Dylan-influenced. And even those songs of his own that are very specifically tied to their time such as "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" are so full of amazing imagery that they're not just "historical" pieces, they still live, still have the power to communicate with the same musical integrity and emotional directness.

Classical singers could definitely learn from him in terms of using different colours in the voices. More importantly, Dylan demonstrates that in singing the voice is not really what matters. It is partly a question of taste - sometimes very famous classical singers are the singers with the voice beautiful and that is what matters. But when communicating with an audience through song it is not - or should not be - about some absolute standard of vocal quality. What is important, as Dylan shows, is the way you use what you have got. That is a real point of interest with singers: seeing how they use what they have got within the limitations of what they have got. Benjamin Britten said he hated voices that were too beautiful because he found them rather sickening, like they were rather like overripe fruit. He wanted to hear a grain in the voice. If Dylan does not have that, who does?

One of the problems with classical singing, an issue you come across more often in opera, is that you go on and you are worried about how you are singing and you forget that in the end it is the opera that matters - the story, the drama, the music together - and whether you sing beautifully or not is not always the most important thing. With Dylan, there is often an attractive "don't-give-a-damn" sincerity because he knows it is not about image and surface and self; the fact that he was prepared to go on touring and be pretty dreadful for so long in the Eighties and Nineties is surely proof of that.

But it is also that song has its own qualities that transcend the boundaries between classical and popular music. Hearing Irmgard Seefried sing a song is a similar experience to hearing Dylan sing in terms of one's engagement with the singer. Precisely because she is strugg- ling with her voice there is something incredibly touching about it. With Dylan I often imagine I hear the same struggle. Musically, his songs do not have the same quality of complexity or greatness, as, say, Schubert's Die schöne Mullerin but in terms of music that moves you and makes you think and that can give you a true aesthetic experience, Dylan surely delivers.

There is, after all, good popular music and bad popular music, and we ought to be able to make judgements between them. It can sometimes be difficult to make those distinctions, because Dylan's own material is musically unambitious. But barriers can be broken down: in the classical music of the 20th century and subsequently there has been much more emphasis on timbre and the non-theoretical harmonic aspects of music. That makes it easier for us to see things on a continuum rather than thinking, for example, "there is 'German' music - highly theoretical and highly complex - and there is 'pop' music". Stravinsky's music is all about repetition and colour and it is very brilliantly done and a million times more brilliant musically than Bob Dylan's, but in both we can appreciate the importance of timbre and repetition. In the end it is not that popular music is inherently inarticulate and second-rate, simply that it is as likely to court pretentiousness as sophistication. But it still means, thankfully, that there are people, like Bob Dylan, working in popular music who want to produce personal and intense statements.

This article will also appear in the November issue of 'Gramophone' magazine, on news-stands on 14 October. Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' featuring Ian Bostridge has been shortlisted for the 'Gramophone' awards' record of the year: the awards ceremony is on 12 October at the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891)