Cohen’s Book of Longing comes alive through Philip Glass
Claremont Courier - February 25, 2009 by Sandy Fasano and Tom Fasano (Photo: Lorca Cohen)
In the 1990s Bob Faggen, professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College was shopping at Wolfe’s Market. As he stood in the deli section asking for a one-quarter pound of roast beef, he noticed a gentleman with a distinctive deep voice, contemplating whether to buy the red potato salad or the German potato salad. Mr. Faggen looked at him with a feeling of recognition, and then suggested the German potato salad.
“Are you Leonard Cohen?” Mr. Faggen asked.
“Yeah, man,” the gentleman replied.
After introducing himself, Mr. Cohen went on to explain he was currently living at the Mt Baldy Zen Center. Coincidentally, Mr. Faggen lived in Mt. Baldy, so they exchanged phone numbers and quickly became friends.
This week, through the efforts of Mr. Faggen and the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, Claremont will host the southern California premiere of Philip Glass’s “Book of Longing,” a song cycle based on Mr. Cohen’s 2006 book of poetry.
The concerts will take place at the Garrison Theater, a short distance from the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, the site of a new exhibition of Mr. Cohen’s art that through drawings and verse illuminates the Mt. Baldy chapter of his life. One of the reasons the Garrison Theater makes an ideal choice for the concert, according to Mr. Faggen, is that it faces Mt Baldy.
Mr. Glass has been on tour for the last two years performing “Book of Longing” with his ensemble. However, the Cohen art exhibit has been shown only in England and Canada concurrently with the performances.
The “Book of Longing” exhibit spans over 40 years of Mr. Cohen’s work and showcases art from his drawings and journals. Mr. Cohen has numbered, dated, signed and titled each of the images, which are also embossed and stamped with his official “Order of the Unified heart” seal.
Many of the poems in Book of Longing were written at the Mount Baldy Zen Center during his 5-year stay there. While the monastery is a place of meditation, there is a Zen saying. "Like the pebbles in a bag, the monks polish one another." It was a very busy place for Mr. Cohen as he produced his art and woke early to do the cooking for residents.
“I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed, I’m back on Boogie Street,” go the lyrics to his song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” Boogie Street, Mr. Cohen believes, is how we are all hustling every day. When we go into our homes we are looking for a respite from the rest of the world. Yet in the monastery, Mr. Cohen explained in a 2006 NPR interview, the private space is eliminated because of the constant presence of other people.
Book of Longing” as a musical composition almost never happened.
“I knew Leonard Cohen casually,” Mr. Glass explained in a telephone interview from Houston. “We had attended concerts together and in 2001 I had spent a few days in Los Angeles where Leonard and I exchanged phone numbers. Leonard brought over a stack of poems—they were unpublished—on individual pages and read all of them to me. I thought that I would collaborate with Leonard at the time, but then he disappeared into the monastery in Mt. Baldy for five years, and I forgot about it.”
One day Mr. Glass read about Mr. Cohen in the newspaper. “Leonard had come back to the regular world we live in,” Mr. Glass said. “So I sent him an e-mail saying I heard you were back. Twenty minutes later Leonard sent e-mail back to me. I thought that was amazing because it usually takes people two weeks to reply. That was fast.”
The two men decided to collaborate, but Mr. Glass didn’t know how this would work at first. “Leonard is a songwriter and had written a lot of songs, but when I asked him about it, he said he didn’t want to do the music. He wanted to hear what I could do,” Mr. Glass explained. Apparently, Mr. Cohen’s only request was that the music be no more than an hour and a half long.
“This was hard for me,” Mr. Glass explained, “because there were over a hundred poems. So I finally narrowed down the poems I would use to 26 or 28 poems that I would work with. I was able to get the performance to one hour and 45 minutes, and Leonard was happy with that.”
The process of composing the song cycle was truly collaborative. As Mr. Glass explains it, “When I was working on putting the poems to music, Leonard sent me a recording of him reading all of the poems in the book. I thought this is a professional recording and I wanted to put his voice within the performance.”
The overall effect Mr. Glass was searching for was the one many of us have when reading poetry. “I wanted the experience to be as if a reader were flipping through a book of poetry,” Mr. Glass said.
The performance itself can be compared, according to Mr. Glass, “to the staging of a piece of music in modern theatre.” It incorporates music, recorded voice, utilizing Mr. Cohen’s art as a backdrop.
Mr. Glass will perform on one of two keyboards with an ensemble of 8 musicians and 4 singers. “The same ensemble has been performing together since the premiere in June of 2007,” Mr. Glass said. “We perform for two or three weeks and then take two or three months off. Everyone is very committed to the piece.”
Tickets can be purchased at the Garrison Theater, located on the Scripps College Campus, 231 E. Tenth Street. Box-office hours are 6 to 8:30 p.m. before each of the 4 scheduled performances: February 25, 27, 28, March 1. Books and CDs will be available at the performance. Leonard Cohen limited-edition prints are available by e-mail inquiries only: email@example.com.
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