Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen Book of Longing

[Orange Mountain; 2007]

Styles: irreverent chamber music
Others: Kronos Quartet, Frederic Rzewski, The Flux Quartet, Steve Reich

Philip Glass’ The Book of Longing is another unexpected turn in his prolific discography. Orchestrating a collection of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, the two-disc release finds Glass entwined in another of his pop-inspired compositions. Like 1986’s Songs from Liquid Days, which used texts by Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Paul Simon, and Suzanne Vega, or 1997’s Planctus, a song for Natalie Merchant, Book of Longing, for better or for worse, is raw meat to a critical audience of hungry wolves.

The song cycle is fresh off a live performance that left theater and music critics somewhere between charmed, baffled, and appalled by the ridiculous stage tactics and “heavy-handedness” of Cohen’s erotic poetry. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, after a performance at Stanford, called the piece “long, tedious, witless and numbingly repetitive... a sort of perversely virtuosic display of awfulness. The only thing keeping it from being utterly negligible is its unshakable air of grandiose self-importance.”

After the shock of these harsh words rubs off, it’s quite easy to see where they’re coming from. In judging a composer who has never played by the rules, one has to realize that Glass’ music, by default, refuses to be universally accessible. When it first premiered, critics called Einstein on the Beach hopelessly boring and repetitive; so when Kosman says that in The Book of Longing you can “practically tell from the opening strains of one song how the next one will end,” history gloomily repeats itself.

Is it so ridiculous to think Glass might be making music that is meaningful to himself without a ‘grandiose’ agenda of musical snobbery to back it up? Glass says he wrote the cycle because he found “Cohen's work intensely beautiful, personal and inspiring... for me, this is both a departure from my past work and a fulfillment of an artistic dream.” The music on this record, though aesthetically conservative on the Glass spectrum, is outwardly beautiful in its accommodation of Cohen’s poetic idiosyncrasies. The record uses an elite ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, including Glass himself on keyboard, indulging only rarely in the mathematical arpeggios and modulations of Glass’ past work.

To Kosman’s credit, some of these songs do initially sound as if they could be found in some turgid Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. But a closer inspection of this work reveals genius in hard-to-reach places. The decision to hard pan-left Cohen’s occasional spoken words figuratively and literally tickle the listener’s ear, and not unlike Einstein on the Beach, musical themes recur and develop in conjunction with the libretto. For those who care to actually listen, Glass has not forgotten any of the incisive compositional techniques that have earned him the virtuosic reputation he deserves.

Ultimately, though, like any of Glass’ works (Music in Fifths comes to mind immediately), it is the concept over the execution that proves Glass’ prowess. I can’t help but wonder how this work might have been evened out a bit with Cohen co-writing the music, but I recognize that this curiosity is still irrelevant to the project. Glass, like the best of the 20th century experimental composers, treats all art with the same reverence previously applied only to classical music. Had Glass collaborated with Cohen, this display of respect would have been compromised. The abrasive splendor in Cohen’s poetry and drawings are treated with an attitude that (apparently) some critics just can’t understand as anything more than pageantry.

So, since I’ve been ragging hardcore on other critics, I will say that the The New Yorker’s Alex Ross explains Glass pretty well, despite his pomp. Ross suggests that “Glass is really a composer in the spirit of the Baroque, producing music on demand, tailoring each piece to the occasion. He is the determined antithesis of the Romantic artist, the one who writes in suffering secret for a posthumous public.” It’s this urbane view on modern music that has proven Glass to be not only one of the world’s most diverse composers, but also one of the most conceptually ingenious.

Most Read