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Philip Glass: Book of Longing

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Album Review

In May 2006, Leonard Cohen published his first collection of poetry in 22 years, Book of Longing, having previously used some of the material as songs on his most recent albums, Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). The book touched on many of the themes he had explored throughout his writing career, including spirituality (he had spent part of his time between books as a postulant at a Buddhist monastery), eroticism, and self-deprecating humor. On June 1, 2007, at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, Ontario, composer Philip Glass premiered his song cycle based on Book of Longing, which is here given a two-CD recording. Cohen is present on the album speaking (not singing) some of his poems, and Glass also has set some of them to music, with singing by a soprano (Dominique Plaisant), a mezzo-soprano (Tara Hugo), a tenor (Will Erat), and a bass-baritone (Daniel Keeling). The obvious antecedent is Glass' 1986 album Songs from Liquid Days, which set lyrics by the likes of Paul Simon and Suzanne Vega, but perhaps a closer one is Cohen's album Death of a Ladies' Man (1977), his collaboration with Phil Spector. It's not that Book of Longing ever sounds like Death of a Ladies' Man, but the similarity lies in the mixture of two distinct styles. For better or worse, Death of a Ladies' Man sounds like what one would expect of the unlikely mixture of Cohen's droll, deep-voiced singing with Spector's elaborate production style, and Book of Longing is, as one might expect, a fusion of Cohen's poetic voice with Glass' distinctive circular rhythmic motifs. It is actually somewhat more respectful of the text than Songs from Liquid Days, although listeners still may find it odd to hear art songs in which Cohen's sometimes R-rated language is sung in a formal style by classically trained voices. These selections alternate with a series of tracks, notably "Not a Jew," "I Enjoyed the Laughter," "Don't Have the Proof," and "I Am Now Able," in which Cohen (without any musical backing) recites a very short poem either before or after a solo by an individual instrument (oboe, violin, saxophone, and cello, respectively). Fans of Ten New Songs and Dear Heather will hear some familiar phrases and references (e.g., "a thousand kisses deep" is the tag line of "You Came to Me This Morning," as it is of the song "A Thousand Kisses Deep"), although no complete song/poem has been repeated. Cohen may still be at his best as his own interpreter, but this is one of the more interesting and ambitious attempts to recast his writing in musical form.

Customer Reviews

Superb - and I expected to hate it...

Saw this piece performed on a whim at the Barbican in London. I have not been so moved by a concert in years. I was never much of a Leonard Cohen fan, and have always found Glass's dramatic work inconsistent. This piece simply blew me away. A sometimes tender, sometimes powerful treatment of images that resonate on a deeply human level. Cohen's texts have a forwardness and a simplistic quality that is so enriched by Glass's subtle musical inflections that it is hard to imagine a better collaborator for either artist. Unforgettable. Unfortnately, this recording leaves a bit to be desired (cello mic placed too close, vocal performances not as good as those in London), and the instrumental arrangements are different from what I heard as well - the percussion in this version is more elaborate, and often distracting as a result. Also the microtonal gong in this version interrupts the texture in a way that does not seem fitting. One listens for a few minutes, though, and the brilliance of the composition overwhelms the technical gripes - always a good sign. I hope a DVD will be released, since the physical performances and the projected images add an essential element. Either way, a must-hear.

simply remarkable

from the rare depth and emotion of Glass and L Cohen. this is something so moving. . . . so entirely and wholly moving.

A Masterpiece!

I was lucky enough to see this performed live in concert. This is the best concert I have ever seen and should not even be deemed a concert, but performance art. I was thrilled to download the piece, as it takes me right back to listening to the live performance. Excellent! It is definitely Philip Glass in all his glory. I Can't Make the Mountain is chilling to the core, there is more variety in this collection then many other by Mr. Glass.


Born: January 31, 1937 in Baltimore, MD

Genre: Classical

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Philip Glass was unquestionably among the most innovative and influential composers of the 20th century. Postmodern music's most celebrated and high-profile proponent, his myriad orchestral works, operas, film scores, and dance pieces proved essential to the development of ambient and new age sounds, and his fusions of Western and world musics were among the earliest and most successful global experiments of their kind. Born in Baltimore, MD, on January 31, 1937, Glass took up the flute at the...
Full Bio

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