San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Everything about Leonard's 2006 book of poetry and Anjani's album
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Anne
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San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by Anne » Thu Oct 11, 2007 1:09 pm

San Francisco Chronicle
Review: Philip Glass takes on Leonard Cohen. Big mistake.

Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The whole Philip Glass celebration had been going along so nicely, too.

First there was a lovely, intimate recital in Herbst Theatre, with the composer himself participating. Then there was the premiere of the inconsistent but often potent "Appomattox," still running at the San Francisco Opera.

But on Tuesday night, the third shoe dropped with a fetid, soul-deadening thud onto the stage of Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, and there was nothing to do but avert one's eyes and ears in disbelieving horror.

"Book of Longing," which opened the new season at Stanford Lively Arts, is an evening-long song cycle that weds Glass' music with the words of songwriter Leonard Cohen. It comprises nearly two dozen numbers, performed without intermission by a quartet of singers and an eight-member instrumental ensemble, and there is scarcely a moment in the piece that doesn't inspire shame.

Long, tedious, witless and numbingly repetitive, "Book of Longing" is a sort of perversely virtuosic display of awfulness. The only thing keeping it from being utterly negligible is its unshakable air of grandiose self-importance.

That air, as well as much of the awfulness, stems chiefly from Cohen's lyrics, a stream of undercooked apercus and barely veiled self-regard. The texts encompass love songs, political commentary, Skid Row posturing and more, all of it channeled through a filter of pretentiousness.

The pretentiousness may contribute to his reputation as an artist, but beneath his long-standing pose of a sensitive hipster, Cohen retains the sensibility of a frat boy on the lookout for a sexual score. The text of one interminable song, "The Night of Santiago," could be rendered more succinctly as "I met this awesome chick one time and we, like, totally did it."

Yet even that might have been tolerable if Cohen's use of language were not so impoverished, his writing such a morass of monosyllables and clunky end-rhymes. One representative couplet can stand in for the rest: "The Paris sky is blue and bright/ I want to fly with all my might."

I guess there are some who could hear that and, like Homer Simpson, murmur appreciatively, "Mmmm ... poetry!" The rest of us can only blanch.

Cohen's doggerel in turn brings out the worst in Glass, a composer who should never be given a pretext for writing foursquare rhythms in neat four-bar phrases. The unexpected has never played a very large part in his aesthetic, but I don't think he's ever written anything as predictable as "Book of Longing"; you can practically tell from the opening strains of one song how the next one will end.

Tuesday's performance was the one the piece deserved. The singers, Dominique Plaisant, Tara Hugo, Will Erat and Daniel Keeling, seemed to be staging a competition to see who had the patchiest top notes, the breathiest phrasing and the weakest pitch (verdict: four-way tie).

Conductor Michael Riesman, a stalwart veteran of Glass' work, couldn't sustain a strong beat. The production, staged by director Susan Marshall, involved the projection of a series of Cohen's line drawings: endless self-portraits, endless naked ladies, and a saltshaker.

But was there nothing to recommend, you may ask, nothing at all to savor? Well, Glass did insert a series of instrumental solos, and freed from Cohen's influence, the performance leapt briefly to life (one soloist, bassist Eleonore Oppenheim, delivered her assignment with particular eloquence).

And in one song, "How Much I Love You," Glass writes a beautiful instrumental figure for woodwinds and strings in parallel thirds that serves as a welcome reminder of how ravishing his music can sometimes sound. If it were sung expressively and in tune, that one could make a serviceable outtake.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.
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lizzytysh
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by lizzytysh » Fri Oct 12, 2007 12:05 am

With all of his hyperbole, this is a very humourous rendering of a review, even if I didn't agree with most of it, which I do [edited to add that clarification!].

I, of course, didn't have the adverse reaction to Leonard's art and poetry that Joshua obviously did. Nothing goes with a naked lady quite like a salt shaker... except, maybe, Leonard Cohen. I'm sure we've all heard that said at least once.


~ Lizzy
Last edited by lizzytysh on Thu Oct 18, 2007 3:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Baldwyn
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by Baldwyn » Fri Oct 12, 2007 12:24 am

Nothing goes with a naked lady quite like a salt shaker...
Fascinating. As a huge processor of salt (I run...a lot), I can't stop all the imagery. Suddenly, my electrolytes seem unbalanced.
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lizzytysh
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by lizzytysh » Fri Oct 12, 2007 12:42 am

:lol: :lol: :lol: ~ Don't blame me, blame Joshua ~ :lol: :lol: :lol: . A runner's perspective... there could be a bumper sticker hidden in there somewhere ;-) .

Speaking of Joshua, regarding the rhyming... it's not that Leonard is simplistic in the way he writes... it's that no matter how simple or complex the poem or song, Leonard is a stickler for rhyme... and that's all there is to it. What comes out of that rhyme sticks with you. One also ought to remember that it wasn't Leonard who selected what would be used in this production. It was Glass who perused Leonard's work and pulled from it as he chose.

In the writing of Book of Longing, Leonard was also very much focusing on that "humanity" aspect of himself... considering it from the perspective of the lowest common denominator of our human wants and desires. Not a whole lot of complexity required for it. Any poem sounds better read aloud by Leonard than read through the mind's processing center by the reader.

With Leonard's art, I loved the way he experimented with various styles that have found success historically. I love how beautifully he was able to render his thoughts and images into art pieces.


~ Lizzy
"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
~ Oscar Wilde
cortez
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by cortez » Fri Oct 12, 2007 1:36 am

Ouch! That Chronicle-guy realy got it in for Leonard. Sounds almost personal.

Corterz.
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lizzytysh
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by lizzytysh » Fri Oct 12, 2007 2:17 am

It could be more a matter of personal taste. Some might be more inclined than others toward nudes of women and poems about the seduction process, therein; definitely not Joshua's cup of tea.


~ Lizzy
"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
~ Oscar Wilde
Red Poppy
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by Red Poppy » Fri Oct 12, 2007 2:19 am

"it's that no matter how simple or complex the poem or song, Leonard is a stickler for rhyme... "

Not sure I agree that's true, Lizzy.

Mind you, the couplet chosen was not the most imaginative I've ever read, I think you'll agree. Having said that, I'm always wary of reviewers who choose one snippet and say it's exemplary when in fact it may be anything but.
Then again I've neither seen nor heard the pieces and I'm not a big Glass fan. His work strikes me as being half empty rather than half full - musically, of course. ;-)
Last edited by Red Poppy on Fri Oct 12, 2007 2:06 pm, edited 2 times in total.
cortez
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by cortez » Fri Oct 12, 2007 6:57 am

Frankly: The only thing I can think of that Leonard and Glass have in common is a frequent use of the chord A minor.

Cortez :)
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lizzytysh
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Re: San Francisco Chronicle Review of Glass Book of Longing

Post by lizzytysh » Wed Oct 17, 2007 2:21 pm

Hi Cortez ~

I don't know the exact sound of "the chord A minor," but I don't think I need to, to say I tend to agree with you :) ... and that Leonard's application of it is, of course, preferable to me. All a matter of taste.


~ Lizzy
"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
~ Oscar Wilde
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