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Bob Dylan's Songs Get A Symphonic Setting

Composer Steve Hackman (R) has crafted ambitious symphonic and choral adaptations of some Bob Dylan standards.

Bob Dylan may be history’s ultimate embodiment of the folk singer raising his lone voice against injustice and calling for change. But what if those famous lyrics were sung by a hundred voices? What different kind of power could they have?

That’s the question New York based composer Steve Hackman set out to wrestle with as he constructed choral settings for songs by the American bard. He’ll conduct them in a performance by the Nashville Symphony and the Symphony Chorus on January 26, including “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “All Along The Watchtower.”

Hackman told WMOT: “I tried to choose those songs that I thought were essential and then really just improvised around them and treated them as departure points”

Reached on the road, Hackman said the work took form after Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Hackman’s manager pitched the idea of enlarging the sonic settings of Dylan songs to the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the work was commissioned. 

The project seemed tailor made for Hackman, whose specialty is fusing the repertoire, techniques and audiences of popular and classical music. He’s created works that commingle Brahms and Radiohead, Tchaikovsky and Drake, and Beethoven and Beyonce. But Dylan was harder, he said, because unlike those other pop artists, he was not especially a fan. 

“To be honest at first it was not happening,” the composer said. “I wasn’t relating enough to the material. As a singer, I was deterred by his voice, which I think so many people are. So after a month of that I thought something needs to change here.”

That change, he said, was to study harder about the social context of the time and dig deep into the connections between Dylan and the many revolutions going on in America.

“That was the access I needed. And that’s when the floodgates opened and I heard him completely differently.”

That’s the goal for the audience as well. One critic raved about the performance in St. Paul, MN last spring, citing its “operatic resonance” and his “radical, ricocheting rethink” of certain Dylan songs. 

More information and tickets can be found at the Nashville Symphony’s site here.

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