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The Sound of One Hand Composing

Book of Longing
Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen

As anyone who has ever balanced a salad spinner on his or her nose for two days could tell you, the secret of getting into The Guinness Book of World Records is to invent your own category, and the same principle applies in the arts. Distinctiveness, which is something different from distinction, tends to lead to recognition. Accordingly, we have among the most celebrated composers of the past four decades Philip Glass, who plays the electronic keyboard but whose virtuosity really lies in the creative dis-assembling and re-assembling of category. Educated in the Western concert tradition at Juilliard, he first attracted attention by playing unconventional, Eastern-sounding music on amplified instruments in art galleries, and he has gone on to produce hundreds of genre-defying pieces of work—operas without drama; symphonies based on the themes of rock albums; foreground-stealing background scores for horror movies, documentaries, Woody Allen pictures, and other films; collaborations with Nobel laureates and pop singers. Glass is the rock audience's conception of a classical artist and the classical audience's conception of a rock star. He is America's idea of an open-eared "world" composer and the rest of the world's idea of an American musical rebel.

In 2007, Glass had his seventieth birthday and paid only nominal attention to the occasion, at least publicly. There was no major retrospective like the city-wide celebration of Glass's tribesman Steve Reich that dominated the New York concert scene when Reich turned seventy in 2006. Glass toured the country and a few spots in Europe with his ensemble, performing a concert called Book of Longing, and he dismissed the birthday amiably when he was asked about it in interviews. "I'm not a great worshiper of the past," he told The Guardian. "Even this year I've been too busy to look back, although people seem to want me to."

Near the end of his birthday year, though, Glass released a CD of Book of Longing. It is a collection of vocal settings of verse by Leonard Cohen, and, in both its words and its music, it looks forward, as well as back and around, in yearning laced with strains of self-absorption, dissipation, and aimlessness. A collaboration between kindred souls--two arty, carnal, aging Jewish-born Buddhists—the album would be a fitting valedictory for either Glass or Cohen.

As an artist, Cohen has always been more conventional, less prolific, and much more affecting than Glass. A published novelist and poet of moderate note before he took up songwriting in the mid-1960s, Cohen had coveted status as a real writer at a time when musicians such as Bob Dylan (though not only Dylan) and an emerging class of rock critics were beginning to think of popular song lyrics as literature. Cohen could barely play the guitar; he constructed his long, elliptical, lyrical, wordy songs with simple folkish chord patterns; and he could not sing at all—he delivered his songs in a kind of atonal parlando. These musical limitations acted to reinforce Cohen's authenticity as a poet; they gave his music a masculine fragility; and they foreshadowed, even more than Dylan's ragged early work, the brooding anti-professionalism of later bedroom-studio artists such as Conor Oberst and Robert Pollard, who have zealous followings today. Like Glass, Cohen has always had the cachet of someone functioning outside the parameters of musical category. He is the pop world's idea of a literary figure and the literary world's idea of a pop songwriter.

Glass worked with Cohen's words for the first time in 1984, when he set Cohen's elegy to a departed friend, "There Are Some Men," to an angular melody for a cappella chorus. One of three choral pieces Glass composed for a concert to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Quebec, Cohen's birthplace, "There Are Some Men" appears on a CD of Glass's early vocal music, Songs From Liquid Days, which, in addition to the choral work, includes settings of lyrics by the pop and art-rock songwriters Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Paul Simon, and Suzanne Vega—the Rat Pack of BAM. A precursor to the Glass-Cohen Book of Longing, the Liquid Days album is not the coming together of pop and avant-garde sensibilities that one might expect, but a testament to the composer's force of personality, ego, and will. Each of the quasi-melodic, droning pieces sounds much like the other, and the songs come together only as a statement of indifference to the creative personalities of Glass's ostensible partners.

Looking back on the work that he has done with various lyricists, stage directors, film-makers, and choreographers over the years, Glass has said he sees collaboration as the "engine" that has advanced his music. But what sort of advance is it that occurs through creative domination and the subsumption of others' artistic identities to one's own? This is the campaigning of a cultural imperialist. Its point is not the free trade of ideas, but creative conquest.

Glass says that he wanted for years to compose more music to Cohen's verse but had to wait while Cohen pursued a spiritual quest at the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy in southern California. Cohen spent five years, beginning in 1994, in retreat; ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, he took the name Jikan (Sanskrit for silent one) and served as an assistant to the teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, cleaning and cooking meals and, in his abundant solitude, writing more verse and drawing pictures. This period has enhanced Cohen's mystique in recent years—in part, I suppose, because Cohen not only abandoned worldly life but in time abandoned that abandonment and returned to us as a resuscitated hipster with a jaunty cap drooped over one eye. Cohen's biography provides a long drop-down menu of cool images, from underappreciated poet and novelist to mystic and lustful old uncle.

About two years ago, at the composer's request, Cohen gave Glass the unpublished manuscript to a collection of 167 poems and song lyrics—many of which dealt with Cohen's experience on Mount Baldy and his return to secular life. In "Roshi at 89," for instance, Cohen writes wittily about his teacher:

He's sitting in the throne-room

on his great Original Face

and he's making war on Nothing

that has Something in its place

His stomach's very happy

The prunes are working well

There's no one going to Heaven

and there's no one left in Hell

Like much of Cohen's writing, this is better sung, even talk-sung, than read. Book of Longing, which was published in 2006, also includes dozens of pen-and-ink drawings by Cohen, the bulk of them grotesquely unflattering self-portraits or sexy female nudes. As Cohen later explained, he drew what interests him.

Cohen was thrilled by Glass's attention. "It's like Bach asking if he can use your lyrics," he told a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. "It's his seventieth birthday, and he's just a kid with a crazy dream." What Glass proposed was a multimedia song-cycle performance piece derived from Cohen's verse and drawings, a dream planted by Glass's muse in consultation with a consortium of institutional funders whose needs clearly played a considerable role in shaping the work. As the credits in the booklet to the CD of Book of Longing note, the production was commissioned by the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity, the Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts, the Lincoln Center Festival 2007, the University of Texas at Austin Performing Arts Center with support from the Topfer Endowment for the Performing Arts, and several other such institutions. Festivals and their like, after all, are in the business of festivities—events, not mere artworks, produced to elevate the populace, bring together artists from a range of spheres, impress everybody, boost tourism, and demonstrate the capacity of the arts to justify big donations.

In its stage incarnation, which toured the eight commissioning festivals in 2007, Book of Longing featured Glass, his ensemble expanded by a few instruments (including two string players), four vocalists (on the CD, soprano Dominique Plaisant, mezzo-soprano Tara Hugo, tenor Will Erat, and bass-baritone Daniel Keeling), and the voice of Leonard Cohen (speaking text on recordings), as well as Cohen's drawings, which were projected on screen as visual counterpoint to the piece's twenty-two songs, instrumental interludes, and brief spoken-language sections. The two-disc CD set presents the selections in the sequence in which they were performed, in rough clusters of five or six pieces of various types: one love song, one ballad, one autobiographical, one spiritual, one comic, perhaps a spoken thing. There is no narrative line, just a notion to mix things up, although that idea is novel enough in Glass's work, much of which treats music as a static presence, essentially shapeless and uniform in texture.

Many of the sets of verse that Glass chose from Cohen's book sound as if they had been conceived as lyrics, and two sets were in fact words to songs co-written by Cohen and Sharon Robinson for Ten New Songs, the solo album Cohen released in 2001, two years after he left the monastery. Glass's hubris and Cohen's acquiescence in Glass's enterprise were such that both men were willing to forget about Cohen and Robinson's nicely wrought and appealing songs. To listen to the Cohen-Robinson songs and then hear what Glass did with the same words is to be dumbstruck by the coldness of Glass's music. The Cohen-Robinson song "A Thousand Kisses Deep" is a wafting R&B lament—hypnotic, though diminished a bit by the recording's Euro-pop synths and cheesy programmed drums (performed by Robinson, who played most of the instruments on the album and sang along with Cohen on most tracks). The Glass setting of the same lyrics, "You Came to Me This Morning," is rigid and strident when it should be lyrical; the chords jerk about awkwardly, and the melody follows, too closely, in kind. At more than ten minutes in length, the song, like much of Glass's music, seems endless—a thousand kisses long, but skin deep.

The Cohen-Robinson "Boogie Street," a highlight of Ten New Songs, shuffles and sways like the boogie number it is supposed to be. Robinson's drum machine clicks out an irresistible groove, and Cohen croons the catchy tune with a wink. But the Glass version, "A Sip of Wine," is ponderous and grim, despite the fact that Glass's melody traces the broad contours of Robinson's tune; and the singer, Tara Hugo, pronounces "boogie" with the same discomfort that Gary Cooper displayed when, as a haughty professor who hires a showgirl to help him learn slang, he has to utter the same word in the movie Ball of Fire, made in 1941.

It is to Glass's credit that Book of Longing is a work short on the idiosyncratic musical devices that Glass has employed to excess throughout his career. The seemingly endless repetition, the incessant chugga-chugga-chugga rhythms, the busy arpeggio figures common to the vast majority of his compositions, no matter their genres, occur in these song settings but do not overwhelm them. Still, the music is unmistakably Glass's. As usual, Glass works with a fairly small palette of musical materials—minor keys, for the most part, simple chord patterns, predictable melodies that tend to follow the roots of those chords like connect-the-dot lines, and spare arrangements geared to his ensemble of longtime compatriots. The songs in Book of Longing are, without notable exception, elemental and fairly conventional.

Those are not, in themselves, failings. But there are larger problems with this music, and they are the enduring vexations of Philip Glass's work: its glibness, its mechanical character, its seeming arbitrariness. The music is, on the whole, frigid. It does not evoke or stir much feeling, and this is a failure close to sin in work connected to Leonard Cohen. In his writing, Cohen is often cryptic—indirection and irresolution are important parts of what poets do—but he is elementally concerned with feeling. "I'm angry with the angel/Who pinched me on the thigh/And made me fall in love/With every woman passing by," he writes in "This Morning I Woke Up Again." And "I loved you when you opened/Like a lily to the heat/I'm just another snowman/Standing in the rain and sleet," he writes in "You Came to Me This Morning."

The singers Glass employs on Book of Longing scarcely help. Glass composed the melodies to fall in the lower parts of each singer's register, an approach sometimes used to discourage concert artists from over-singing. Yet the four here all over-sing, articulating the lyrics with a formality and a theatricality wholly inappropriate to Cohen's casual, intimate language. The effect is comical, sadly—in the same way that Steve Allen used to get cheap laughs by standing at a podium and reciting rock-song lyrics in stentorial tones.

In multiple ways, then, Book of Longing yearns in vain. "When I was a young boy, I worked in my father's store, where he sold records," Glass recently told The Guardian. "I listened to a lot of music and liked nearly all of it. People forgot to tell me that some stuff was better than others." Musical egalitarianism is one thing, indiscrimination another; and someone seems to have forgotten to tell Philip Glass the difference.

This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.