15 October 2008
Philip Glass performed his new composition based around the poetry of Leonard Cohen Saturday night at the Sydney Opera House. Although not a typical show for me to attend, Book of Longing was an inspiring and well-paced look at both the mind of a starkly-isolated man as well as a minimalistic genius.
Before ever hearing Philip Glass' music, or the music of his colleagues, I mistakenly equated "minimalism" with "music for the compulsively bored." In fact, it has more to do with subtle variations and creating shifts that scrutinise repetition. It's less boring than it is intriguing, less tedious than it is exciting. Minimalism is a strange term- anyone unfamiliar with that genre who witnessed the show Saturday night would have described it as anything but minimal. An eight-piece ensemble performed the intense pieces while four vocalists sang Cohen's poetry.
I initially thought the singing would be distracting and too interpretive, but was mostly wrong. Cohen's poetry (and lyrics) are introspective and self-absorbed to the point of isolation. At times Cohen's recorded voice boomed over the music and projected self-portraits, usually prompting a laugh from the audience. Quips are only part of Cohen's work, but one which Glass must have considered most true to him and him alone. For all the longer poems, the vocalists took duty- both in solos and choruses. The choruses proved more effective, as it left less to the vocalists' personal interpretations and more to the commanding nature of the words themselves.
The music was best when fast-paced, on schedule for doomsday. Set in a minor key, my favorite piece revolved around pacing drums and an urgent chorus that called to examine the players in the Holocaust as puppets. A later song, musically similar but taking on the subject of God's intentions to let Cohen philander as he so chooses, was another of the highlights. Glass also wrote solo instrumental pieces for the cello, violin, and tenor saxaphone, which were well-placed in the otherwise vocal-oriented performance.
As a performer, it appeared that Glass largely elected to sit this one out. As a 71-year-old man and unequivocal genius it's his right to do what he wants. Glass sat in the background, hand on chin, observing his performers throughout most of the show, only occasionally offering but one helping hand to the keyboard on his side of the stage. As I know little about classical performance, I'm not sure how involved the composer gets, or how much of his duty calls for him to perform at all (most composers are dead when their work is performed anyway). Perhaps Glass felt obliged to be seen, if only as a still-life, for the sake of the audience. Perhaps he enjoys the spotlight. Perhaps he has arthritis. I had only hoped I'd see a little liveliness with his presence.
What hints at Glass' knowledge and experience in live performing, however, was not in his presence, but within the measure of the set. Solos and Cohen's recorded quips interjected the varied moods of the lengthier compositions, thematically set around love, lust, religion, age, and decrepitness both morally and structurally, all laced with Cohen's brevity and bravado. If anything, the 100 minutes felt too short, or maybe just enough, to glimpse, if only marginally, the genius of two of the most well-respected musicians living today.