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Bitter Search: Philip Glass Performs “Book of Longing”

by Michael Jack Lawlor | 27 November 2010 |

On Saturday, February 28, 2009 Philip Glass performed “Book of Longing” – a song cycle based on the poetry and painting of Leonard Cohen – at the Garrison Theatre on the Scripps College campus in Claremont, California.

The performance was the fourth in a series of five concerts that marked the Southern California premiere of the composition, which had previously been performed in Toronto and London. The Claremont performances were significant because the Garrison Theatre sits below Mount Baldy, the place where Leonard Cohen practiced Zen Buddhism for many years. In a lyric from the libretto entitled “I Came Down From the Mountain”, Cohen declares:

“I finally understood
I had no gift
for Spiritual Matters.”

Philip Glass presented Book of Longing as a multi-media event. Cohen’s self-portraits, still-life drawings, and sketches of nude women were projected on screens framed in a giant lattice, like a Piet Mondrian painting.

The music was performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble. Glass played keyboards, Gloria Justen played violin, and Wendy Sutter played cello. Four vocalists sang Cohen’s lyrics in sprechstimme, a style of declamation between singing and speaking that added a haunting quality to the ambivalent candor of Cohen’s words.

“I know you had to lie to me
I know you had to cheat
To pose all hot and high behind
The veils of sheer deceit
Our perfect porn aristocrat
So elegant and cheap
I’m old but I’m still into that
A thousand kisses deep”

Solos by Gloria Justen on violin and Wendy Sutter on cello evoked a dissonant soundscape in which the reverent tone and ambivalent humor of Cohen’s poetry resonated.

Ms. Sutter played an Ex-Vatican Stradivarius built in 1620 by Nicolo Amati and remodeled by Antonio Stradivari. Musicians in the 18th century played the cello in the Sistine Chapel. Georges Chanot, in the 19th century, painted a pair of angels, one holding a tamborine and the other a harp, on the front. On the back he painted the Vatican flag, the papal hat and two dolphins.

The $650,000 Ex-Vatican Stradivarius is loaned to Ms. Sutter from Morel & Gradoux-Matt, a New York firm that specializes in the restoration and repair of stringed instruments. She plays the instrument on Glass’s recent recording “Songs and Poems for Cello.”

The Ensemble also included an oboe, double bass, bass clarinet, flute, piccolo, and English horn; as well as saxophone and percussion.

Glass included recordings of Leonard Cohen’s voice in the program. At one point during the concert the Garrison Theatre was filled with the sound of Cohen’s voice pronouncing a word rarely heard in the United States: “commonwealth.”

The text containing the word “commonwealth” was not listed in the program or printed in the libretto. Cohen was quoting from a poem entitled “Villanelle for Our Time” by F.R. Scott (1899 – 1985).

F. R. Scott was a Canadian poet and professor of law at McGill University in Montreal. An advocate of socialist reform in Canada, he was a founding member of the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR) and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The LSR and the CCF were founded to pursue economic reform and alleviate the suffering caused by the Great Depression that began on October 29, 1929.

Scott and Cohen were members of what has come to be known as the Montreal School of Poetry.

The LSR and the CCF were critical of the privatization of public companies and the transfer of public money into corporate bank accounts after the second world war. Leonard Cohen’s recording of F.R. Scott’s poem sounded fresh and relevant in the context of the financial phantasmagoria of 2009:

“From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.”

At the end of the concert as people left the building a middle age woman complained to her husband and another couple that Leonard Cohen is “derogatory toward women.” Her companions did not respond. She laughed self-consciously. The couples walked in silence to their SUVs. The ancient stars winked and quivered in the black sky.

“The ponies run the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep”



2 Comments

  • jon said:

    this sounds superb. cohen is my great literary hero and seeing his transfiguring live performance two years ago left me humbled at the altar again. i went on pilgrimage to hydra a few years ago: http://www.jontattrie.ca/Hydra.htm

    “At the end of the concert as people left the building a middle age woman complained to her husband and another couple that Leonard Cohen is “derogatory toward women.” Her companions did not respond. She laughed self-consciously. The couples walked in silence to their SUVs. The ancient stars winked and quivered in the black sky.”

    lovely moment captured.

    leonard explained my 20s to me with Take this longing; my 30s are exposed with Thousand kisses deep.

    thanks for sharing this experience.

  • Michael Jack Lawlor (author) said:

    Thanks Jon. Your story about visiting Hydra is very interesting. Lots of great detail. I loved the sentence, “Only tourists sweat in Greece” as well as the transition that is set in motion by images of coffee, money and a book: “I finish the sweet Greek coffee, drop some euros on the table, put the poetry in my backback, and leave the village.” Nice photo of Hydra too.

    I saw Leonard in concert four times in California last year (San Diego, LA twice, & San Jose). I thought the “The Gypsy’s Wife” & “The Partisan” were very powerful live. Javier Mas is wonderful on the bandurria.

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