Philip Glass/Leonard Cohen collaboration, 2007-

by Dick Straub

A few years ago, Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass had a prearranged meeting in Los Angeles. Leonard shared an early draft of his poetry book, Book of Longing, with Philip in an afternoon conversation that stretched into evening. According to Glass, Leonard read him most of the draft. In the program for his work, Glass writes that he found the poems “intensely beautiful, personal, and inspiring.” He continues, “on the spot, I proposed an evening-length work of poetry, music and image based on this work. Leonard liked my idea.”
Leonard’s book was published in the spring of 2006, and the Glass composition, he has called it a “musical cycle,” had its world premiere in Toronto on June 1, 2007. The work was co-commissioned by a number of art festivals and the University of Texas. Underwriters include the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity, Toronto; The Barbican Centre, London; Lincoln Center Festival, New York; Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Stanford Lively Arts, Stanford University. After three performances in Toronto, the work appeared three nights at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival and two nights at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival before moving to New York’s Lincoln Center. It sold out two shows in New York at the Rose Theater in the Jazz at Lincoln Center facility.

As of this writing (August 2007), the work is scheduled for October performances in Palo Alto, California (Stanford - one show), Wales (Cardiff - two), London (Barbican - one), Groningen, Netherlands (Noord Nederlands Orkest Venue – one), and Madrid (Madrid Autumn Festival – two). Shows have also been scheduled for the New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington between February 22 and March 16 2008. Glass has also stated his intention to release a CD of the work, hopefully in the fall of 2007.

Approximately 90 minutes long, and performed without intermission, the composition combines Cohen’s recorded voice reading his poetry, four artists singing poems to Glass’ music, eight instrumentalists with featured solos, and a beautiful set consisting of 15 pieces of Cohen artwork, with a large center screen displaying Cohen art pieces rotating and morphing with lighting effects. The singers and instrumentalists move about the stage in a stylish choreographed manner. In a Toronto interview Glass stated he expected the show to evolve with additional performances.

For the poetry, Cohen recorded all poems in the book, and left it entirely to Glass to choose which ones should be included. As evidence of the show evolving, in Toronto there were occasions when the poetry reading started too soon, and applause made it impossible to understand all the words. By the second Lincoln Center evening, that timing distraction had been fixed. Although it hasn’t been proposed officially, the poetry readings would make a wonderful additional CD, even without the music.

The current troupe, which also performed in South Carolina, Chicago and New York, consists of Glass on keyboard, with Michael Riesman conducting and also playing keyboard. Tenor Will Erat, mezzo-soprano Tara Hugo, bass-baritone Daniel Keeling, and soprano Dominique Plaisant deliver the lyrics. Musicians are Tim Fain on violin, Eleonore Oppenheim on double bass. Mick Rossi on percussion and keyboards, Kate St. John on oboe and English horn, Andrew Sterman on horns, and Wendy Sutter on cello. To date, vocalists have succeeded in performing with clear enunciation and convincing emotions, and instrumentalists have displayed remarkable virtuosity.

The producer of the work is Linda Brumbach, founder and head of Pomegranate Arts. Linda also has production credits for Hal Willner’s “Came So Far for Beauty, An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs,” which premiered in Brooklyn in 2003. That show also enjoyed sell-out performances in England, Sydney, and Dublin. Forming the root material for Lian Lunson’s documentary “Leonard Cohen - I’m Your Man,” those concerts, and having the film shown in theaters and available on DVD, have introduced many new fans to Leonard’s work. Undoubtedly, the legions of Glass fans that will enjoy Book of Longing present another opportunity for attracting new Cohen followers.

The production credits also include: set by Christine Jones, costumes by Kasia Walicka Maimone, stage direction by Susan Marshall and lighting by Scott Zielinski. Each production element contributes significantly to the overall impact of the evening.

A beautiful pocket-sized libretto designed by Michael Petit is included with the program. Displaying all the lyrics, it reveals the sequence of pieces as:

Prologue-I Can’t Make the Hills
I Came Down From the Mountain
A Sip of Wine
Want to Fly
The Light Came Through the Window
Puppet Time
G-d Opened My Eyes
You Go Your Way
I Was Doing Something
Not a Jew
How Much I Love you
I Enjoyed the Laughter
This Morning I woke Up Again
I Want o Love You Now
Don’t Have the Proof
The Night of Santiago
Mother Mother
You Came to Me This Morning
I Am Now Able
Roshi’s Very Tired
Epilogue-Merely a Prayer

The pieces, according to Glass, are grouped so that humorous self parody, romantic longing, spiritual striving, and other types of poems appear only once in each cycle. Similarly, the vocalists and instrumentalists appear in cycles. In an interview with the Canadian Press, Glass says he sought a sampling of Cohen's poems that touch on romance, biography, balladry, the dharma, limericks and rhymes. "I wanted the experience of listening to the piece to be similar to what happens when you look through a book of poems but you don't look at it sequentially," he says. "It's a random kind of thing but in the course of time you actually encounter all the different aspects of the piece."

The Libretto also contains a note, “with the permission of the author and the publishers, many of the titles as they appear in the libretto have been changed from their original form in the published book.” The title changes are perhaps necessary for varying copyright needs. “You Came to Me This Morning” was recorded by Leonard on Ten New Songs as “Thousand Kisses Deep” and is printed in the book with that title. It now has new music by Glass to accompany the lyrics. The original cast CD planned by the Glass production team will contain these new versions and both deserve unique copy protection. There possibly could even be a DVD, although Glass has stated more than once that none is planned.

Glass has appeared in public discussions of the work before performances in several locales. He was joined by Cohen in Toronto, and other joint appearances have been scheduled (Stanford and London). Glass has repeatedly noted that Cohen was wholly supportive of whatever approach the composer wanted to take – including putting new music to previously recorded Cohen materials. The vocalists also reported feeling fully supported by Cohen on the occasions he visited rehearsals.

Photo © Lorca Cohen
When an audience member in the New York discussion asked Glass why so many of the pictures were either self-portraits or naked women, he responded “it’s what interests him.” After the Toronto concert, Cohen was asked “is the music cabaret, theatrical, or classical?” He responded “Glassical.”

The 2007 concerts have provided an opportunity for Cohen fans around the globe to gather and socialize, as well as to enjoy the performances. Toronto saw friends from Florida, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Montreal, and other Canadian cites in attendance. London in October 2007 promises to be the largest gathering, with Cohen fans from New York, Finland, Germany, Holland, Italy and Ireland joining with many English fans for the Barbican show.

Here are a few professional review excerpts:

Toronto Star

Part chamber-music concert, part theatrical cabaret and part art installation, the Philip Glass-Leonard Cohen collaboration Book of Longing is a confusing work of considerable importance, and was met with appropriate warmth Friday night at its world premiere.

Chicago Sun Times

Franz Schubert, Robert Schuman and Gustav Mahler did it. So did the Who, the Beach Boys and Lennon and McCartney. They all wrote song cycles using ... poetry. So why should composer Philip Glass and fabled Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen be any different? In fact, they are not. And with "Book of Longing" -- which had its Chicago premiere Tuesday and Wednesday at the Ravinia Festival's Martin Theatre -- the two artists prove to be masters of the form.

Glass, now 70 , is the long-reigning emperor of modern classical music. Cohen, 72, has spent his career melding pop, folk and Euro-cabaret to his existential-meets-erotic confessional style. Here they have created a work of feverish passion and wily humour that has summoned the very best in each other. An audacious work with a massive magnetic pull.

New York Times

Mr. Glass appears to have found the project liberating: “Book of Longing” is the freshest, most supple and varied score he has written in several years.

Mr. Glass illuminates Mr. Cohen’s poetry with a chamber score that breathes naturally and gracefully. Settings for solo voice and vocal quartet alternate, and at times Mr. Glass’s melodies so thoroughly match Mr. Cohen’s rhythm and meter that they sound very much like the melodies Mr. Cohen writes himself.

New Jersey Star Ledger

His new collaboration with poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen is a legitimate departure for composer Philip Glass from his usual menu of broken chords, arpeggios and hypnotic, repeated progressions. His setting of Cohen's poems, performed in what could nearly be called a cabaret style, actually ends up sounding as much Cohen as Glass -- and not just because it's the Canadian's text.

New York Sun

With those poems suspended as lyrics within the composer's nuanced repetitions ... "Book of Longing" traversed themes of restless passion and unreachable opportunity — facets of the poet's dry humor and often mordant persona — while wielding a persistent erotic charge... Mr. Cohen's trenchant observations ... made for an evening both bracing and personable.

Finally, in a thread discussing the upcoming London show an ardent fan from Wisconsin (Joe Way), made this June 22 post to the Cohen fan forum:

I've been meaning to write a little about my impression of the Toronto production of "Book of Longing" but haven't had the time. And I envy not only the fact that you are getting to see it, but will be able to get together with other Cohen fans. I hope you have as great a time together as we did in Toronto!

I really enjoyed the production. First off, I should confess that I grew up listening to soundtracks of Broadway musicals so I have always enjoyed that dramatic style. It took me awhile to develop a fondness for singer/songwriters like Leonard because I didn't find them musical enough for my tastes. Obviously, I've overcome that particular prejudice now, but like the memory of a scent from childhood, the sounds of Broadway (or the West End of London) create a sympathetic ear immediately for me.

Philip Glass in his conversation with Leonard shared that he had divided the poems into different classifications-and I don't remember them all-but I believe there were five-dharma, Roshi, sexual, light/humorous and dramatic. I think that it was quite apparent that the overall dramatic structure was based on this mix. As an aside, I was seated next to my daughter, Kate during the conversation and she leaned over to me at this point and said, "That is so like a composer-they always have to re-classify and create their own structure." She was quite amused at his mannerisms and I think found them very similar to many composers that she has met in her musical career.

Another thing to remember about Glass is that he based some of his earlier work on sanskrit because it had a more predicable rhythmic structure. At this point I had meant to quote Leonard's answer when he was asked recently about the difference between poetry and song-but I don't have the transcript handy (I'll add it later), but it has to do with movement in time. Song has a very urgent progression-unless one is equipped to stop the singer, one needs to move along with it. Whereas, in reading poetry, the eye has the ability to linger and move back in time. Poets, composers etc. are all very attuned to this distinction. One only has to see the changes that Leonard makes when changing a poem into a song to recognize this. English has an odd meter to it.

What I particularly admired about Glass's treatment is that he adapted his work to fit the oddity of the poems. It takes a very fine musical craftsman to do this.

The dramatic highlight of the work was "I Came To You This Morning," which is the re-titled, "A Thousand Kisses Deep." He, of course, included every verse that Leonard used in the book. The poem is a tour de force in itself and the dramatic rendering served as the musical climax. Up to this point, most of the musicians and singers were featured with solo highlights. But in this piece, all were brought together in musical groups that emphasized the unity of the work. Compare what Leonard wrote about "A Thousand Kisses Deep" when he sent it to Jarkko to post on the Blackening Pages:

"This is getting pretty close. (...) The process has become rather comic. But I think we've got it now. It took the crisis of posting it to your site to force a clarification of the text (after three years of secret tinkering). There is an apparent violation of the metre in some verses (e.g. #4) but the old poets would have justified them with devices such as th'Holy Spirit, or th'Means. And these curiosities actually correspond to the accents of the poem when it is sung. This version represents a distillation of many, many verses, all of them tottering over the final line, A thousand kisses deep. I hope this is an end to it for a while."
If one goes back and reads the poem out loud it is apparent that "singing" it with any type of regular rhythm would be very difficult. By using different mixes of duple and triple time, Glass brought a cohesion to the music that was really quite astonishing. I really hope that it is brought out on cd as I can hardly wait to listen to it again to appreciate it even more.

I also thought that the production was very visually appealing with the projected artwork. I'm not really qualified to comment on the stage movement, but I found it interesting for the most part. Glass, himself, sat at an electronic keyboard and plunked a little bit. I suspect he is not a virtuoso in this respect, but it was interesting having him on stage. Occasionally, he would get up from the keyboard and move to an overstuffed chair at the front of the stage. I thought this was quite odd, but Kate solved the mystery for me as her seats were in such a place that it would have been impossible for her to see the soloists on one part of the stage had Glass not moved. When it came time for their solos, he sat in the other chair so that people could see them.

I realize that musically this is quite a departure from Leonard's own style, but I hope people are willing to be open to it. I suspect that it may grow on us more by repeated listening. I think that Leonard's comparison of the musical treatment of "Book of Longing" to the architecture of the Royal Ontario Museum as "that iceberg that plowed through the building" was meant to be a compliment to Glass. We truly come to appreciate any work of art through the filter of other works in a continual process of sifting and winnowing. There is also a continual development of a work of this nature. As Glass pointed out in the conversation, the version that you will see in London will be significantly different from the version that was premiered in Toronto. This is a process that Leonard goes through also. Listen to the album version of "Bird on The Wire" and then listen to a later live version as an example of this.

Above all, I hope you have a wonderful time together-for that is foremost in our enjoyment of art and life.

Joe Way

First and second photo taken from the program booklet of
the Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 2007

The concert is produced by Pomegranate Arts, Inc.

The complete work is now also available on CD - read more!

Thanks to Anne Mitchell for the libretto and other items
and to Arlene Dick for the 2009 poster!