Saturday, January 9, 2010

Body and soul united - Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen's Book of Longing

If there is one good thing about buying Christmas presents for people when they’ve already got them, it’s that you end up being able to keep them for yourself.

And so it was that I managed to acquire a copy of Book of Longing, a double CD release of a song cycle of the music of Philip Glass and the poetry of Leonard Cohen, which I had bought for my friend Philip, a great fan of his Glass namesake.

Philip Glass has become a bit of a household name these days amongst people who like music that strides both the classical and the more popular genres but that still challenges conventional norms, is original and, without being easy-listening, is easy to listen to.

If you are at all familiar with Philip Glass, you will recognise Book of Longing as his work within a second or two of hitting the play button. The swirling phrases, where few more than a couple of notes repeat over and over, with subtle changes to time and beat that make even its catchiest moments almost impossible to tap your foot to, spread out across solid, diatonic harmonies that shift and change like fractured light, are all Philip Glass trademarks that make his music so instantly recognisable and so immediately hypnotic.

Glass has employed this style, and made it work, in a staggering range of contexts – such as his epic five hour no interval surrealist opera Einstein on the Beach, his almost (but not quite) conventional Violin Concerto, his movie music to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi/Naqoyqatsi trilogy, his David Bowie inspired first symphony and now this, his 2007 adaptation of Leonard Cohen poetry.

The music is performed by a small ensemble of musicians, with a soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass baritone providing the vocals alongside some spoken lines from Cohen himself.

The poems follow the grungy, slightly sordid paths, with their perennial struggle between body and soul, that you might expect from Leonard Cohen, vagrant songs that reach for the salvation of the stars from the damnation of the gutter – sometimes with a twisted humour, sometimes layered with lust, sometimes dark and depressed, always with a kind of gruff, almost naïve, immediacy.

It’s not a style that you would expect to lend itself easily to structured formality of Glass’s music, nor to the precisely articulated and intonated singing of an operatic quartet and there are times when you can’t help but notice that these poems were not originally written for this music.

But just because something is done differently to how it was originally planned doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and, as always happens with Philip Glass’s music, you find yourself getting drawn into it very quickly, captivated by its mesmerizing, magnetic pull. There are moments of slow, contemplative, gentle meditation; others of frantic, frenetic, whirlwind energy (like ‘Puppet Time’, for example – maybe the one poem in the whole cycle where you can hear Philip Glass in the words before you’ve actually listened to the mjsic); and some incredibly beautiful passages for the solo instruments, such as the almost Bach-like passage for solo cello, or the jazz-like chromaticism of the one for solo saxophone.

If you’re expecting regular, rough and ready Leonard Cohen, Book of Longing is sure to disappoint you. If you’re expecting regular Philip Glass you might at first be a little bemused to hear lines like “See what you’ve done to me/As if you give a shit/I used to live behind a line/But now I’m over it” sung to the measured Glassesque pulse. But if you are ready for some of the best poetry Leonard Cohen has written in his later life, set to some of the best music Philip Glass has written in years, this is sure to hold you captivated, and will probably lure you back for more.

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