Tuesday, October 14, 2008


The day wouldn’t write
What the night penciled in

After six years gestation, The Leonard Cohen – Philip Glass poetry / music collaboration Book of Longing (2007) has been crisscrossing the globe for 12 months, and slipped through Sydney on the weekend, a beautiful Sydney weekend, on the way to the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

We went to the 6pm Sunday show. Why aren’t more things scheduled here on Sunday evenings, perhaps with the exception of the hottest of Sydney’s mid-summer nights, when nothing should be on, including clothes, before sunset? Glass gave a preconcert talk which we missed, blissfully unaware it was on, and blissfully finishing off a harbourside lunch with a creamy sago of the texture of meringue without the sweetness, lightly dressed with a passionfruit syrup. It should have been called endorphin pudding.

Unlike K, who listens to Leonard Cohen as an almost meditative experience, hearing the voice more than the words, I’m not a great Lenny fan. Too much Cohen and I start to feel like I need to kill someone, that’s Lenny or me. Mr Cohen didn’t appear, but sent his voice, his poems, his drawings and his psyche for what was to be a very personal exploration of one man and his search.

My introduction to Philip Glass, who readily acknowledges the influences of Ravi Shankar, Nadia Boulanger, and Steve Reich, was the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, one of those ‘if you remember it you didn’t see it’ affairs. I saw it three times in rapid succession, and more memorably, with his ensemble backing the film live during a Sydney festival some years ago. It epitomised Brian Eno’s description of minimalism : “a drift away from narrative and towards landscape, from performed event to sonic space”. Glass's enormous body of work is many things, and good accompanist is one of them. Probably it was film scores which most brought him into the mainstream (Thin Blue Line, Kundun), and it was a pretty mainstream crowd who came to this show. The hall was full except for the very upper rows of the closest side boxes where there would have been restricted view of the screen.

The Concert Hall stage was blocked in black, comfortably accommodating the eight musicians, and four soloists. Philip Glass was on keyboard. Leonard Cohen drawings hang at the rear around a central screen for further imaging. The effect was quite intimate for such a large hall, helped probably by us sitting mid stalls. It began like entering a private studio or study but by the end it felt like you were exiting a mind, this whole dark space ultimately became inside you-know-who’s cranium.

Cohen’s (“Anyone who says I’m not a Jew is not a Jew”) work is startlingly frank. He exposes himself and his struggle between attachment and release with a repetitive intensity, returning constantly to lust, music, death, sex, no death, rebirth, sex, round and round, Boogie Street to mountain and back. It was all very agitating, as well it ought be. It is after all a Book of Longing. Once when asked if he might turn his attention (from longing) to fulfilment, Cohen’s reply was “What has fulfilment got to offer?

Glass, no stranger to agitation himself, was ultimately the calming influence. His soothing rhythms and soft Buddhist precussions, with fine interludes on violin (a tilt perhaps at Cohen’s comments that the approach by Glass was like being asked by Bach if he could use your lyrics) and cello, amounted to a kind of therapy, reassuring but never hindering or intruding on the word. It was a well drilled performance, choreographed to fine detail, the mezzo of Tara Hugo the most willing of the vocalists to emote beyond the routine, although on reflection, that is counter to how Cohen deadpans his lyrics.

And just when you think he’s trapped in his vortex forever, there comes the

Epilogue – Merely A Prayer

Now I’m here at the end of the song
the end of the prayer
The ashes have fallen away at last
exactly as they’re supposed to do
The chains have slowly
followed the anchors
to the bottom of the sea
It’s merely a song
merely a prayer
Thank you, Teachers
Thanks you, Everyone

No comments: