Philip Glass: Leonard Cohen and me
What happened when a classical music iconoclast encountered the king of miserabilist pop? The composer Philip Glass reveals how his friendship with the songwriter inspired a poetic new work
Published: 03 October 2007
I don't know how Leonard [Cohen] and I arranged to meet exactly, but nine years ago we planned to spend the afternoon together. The afternoon turned into dinner and it turned into the evening, and we spent the whole time reading a book, which, at that time, was just loose, unpublished pages of poetry. It was, in fact, the Book of Longing [Cohen's collection]. We were in a very typical Los Angeles house with a backyard and a swimming pool, and we just sat on the grass and he read the poems.
Leonard reminded me that, actually, more than 25 years ago I had set some poetry of his to music for a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the city of Quebec, and that was the beginning of our being in touch. We're two men in our early seventies, ancestors from Jewish Poland and/or Lithuania or wherever, from the late 19th century, now Anglophone North Americans, both interested in forms of Buddhism.
But there's another side I can triangulate, too. Another poet I worked with was Allen Ginsberg, another person from a similar background but older than both Leonard and I by 10 years or so. When Allen died I felt that I had lost a great friend and collaborator. But then at some point it occurred to me to be in touch with Leonard again. One of the differences between them was that Allen wanted to be a singer but really wasn't. But Leonard is a singer and a poet, and that interested me tremendously because I found handling the English language as a medium for a song extremely difficult.
When I began running operas I began using Ancient Egyptian and Italian, anything but English. When I finally plunged into the English language I only wanted to work with people who would know about writing songs – songwriters. So I got lyrics from David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon, and I felt that they would lead me into the English language, and the ability to set it. But what appealed to me about Leonard was that he was both authentically a songwriter and a poet, and had actually realised both métiers. If I'm going to work in English I need a poet. And not just a poet, but a poet who understands the voice.
When I first saw the book, nine years ago, it wasn't in any particular order. It was just a stack of pages. What I noticed was – and I've noticed this in poetry in general – that you don't necessarily read a book of poems from the beginning to the end. You dip into the book here and there, and after a while you realise that you've probably read the whole book and it can take a while because it's a rather, you know, casual way of reading, and whether it's ee cummings or Shakespeare or Ginsberg or Leonard Cohen, it can be very satisfying to read poetry that way. So the first thing I wanted to do was to recreate somehow the sense that you were reading a book in a spontaneous way.
The second thing was that I began to analyse the poems, and as we went along I formulated four or five different categories of poems. The first one was what I called the ballads – the big, sprawling poems of three or four pages – and I thought that these would be the pillars of the work. Then I had another one I called "Love Poems"; another category I called "Dharma Poems", poems about spiritual practice; other poems that were just personal history poems, about Leonard himself. And there was another category, which I called "Rhymes and Limericks" – I love those little ones.
The other thing that I wanted to do was to combine the limericks, the little pieces, with solo pieces for instruments. I thought, not only would the poems be connected to the music, but they would be separated, with poems and music next to each other. So I thought of the pieces being in five cycles, and each of those cycles, there would be a love poem, there'd be a ballad, a personal poem, there'd be a Dharma poem, there'd be a limerick, and so on. So I had already begun to formulate the shape.
Then I copied the poems and began to move them around, trying to keep those categories as I thought of them until I came up with a workable form. It wasn't the final one – the final one, as often happens, came at the very end. Just when I thought I had it right, I changed the whole thing again. Leonard had kindly recorded the book for me because I wanted to listen to the rhythm of the words. To my surprise, he actually recorded the whole book, so I could pick out the ones to fit with the instrumentals. Those are very intuitive matchings. Why one instrument goes with one poem I have no idea, except that they seemed to me to be appropriate.
We have four singers, who also have solos and duos and trios and quartets, and in the ensemble you have five major solo instruments (flute, oboe, violin, cello and double bass). So it was a question of working out the whole shape of it, letting it grow out of a familiarity with the work, what I intuited as the intention of the work, and what I gave myself as the goal of the musical presentation. I would read the poem over and over again until I heard the music, then I would write down the music and go onto the next one.
Sounds easy, doesn't it? It is easy if you've been writing music for 50 years, but there'd be a big difference if I had tried to do this when I was 30 or 40. What you get, the gift of age, along with fatigue and disease and all the other things, is the technique and knowledge of how things can work together. And so I knew enough about music to know how to make it work, and I also had absolute confidence in the poems. To me, every poem in the book was a potential song. From the rhythmic style of the writing, from the inner rhymes and the outer rhymes, you could sing almost any of them.
In the end, what I did is a largely incomplete setting of the book. There's not a lot of polyphonic writing in the ensemble because that would have destroyed the ability to hear the words. I didn't want the book to be between the audience and the singer, so I eliminated everything I could that would separate the words from the audience.
There's an erotic dimension to the piece, too. When you talk about the yin and the yang, you always have one foot in the real world and one foot in the other world, and that's always been the situation of the visionary or the shaman – to have one foot in the real world and one foot in the world of dreams. And the real world is certainly the world of Eros, the world of the senses. To be fully human is to be both in the world of the senses and to be in the world of imagination at the same time. The pull of Leonard's work, the gravity and the power of the work, is to pull you in both directions at the same time.
Look at the pictures. I mean, the guitars, the girls, the horses – what else could one ask for? I have been asked, am I understanding the poems in the way they were intended? It's funny, in many ways Leonard and I haven't talked about these things very much. Leonard's attitude towards what I do was very generous. He trusted me, said: "Just do it." With the poems I was given a terrific gift. Leonard had already gone through the whole process, he had found the structure, he had found the words. It was like being given flowers and asked to arrange them in a vase, only the flowers were already there.
What changes is that at a certain point a piece of music gets an inner rhythm, it gets an inner voice that you can't describe. If you could describe it you would have done it already, and that comes with, I'd say, at least eight or 12 performances, and when you get up to 30 you get into another level. And therefore, pieces that are done only a few times may never have realised their potential. With luck, this piece will have that opportunity and I think it will grow.
Philip Glass; 'Book of Longing', Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (0870 040 2000), 17 & 18 October; Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 20 October.