A Glass half empty is topped up

by Penelope Debelle, The Age, March 1, 2008

Philip Glass has replaced the void left by the death of beat poet Allen Ginsberg by forming a collaboration with Leonard Cohen, writes Penelope Debelle.

Adelaide, Australia -- After the death in the late 1990s of beat poet Allen Ginsberg, American composer Philip Glass needed a new poet in his life.

<< Soprano Dominique Plaisant sings from Leonard Cohen's Book of Longing.

Ginsberg, an acid-dropping Jew turned Tibetan Buddhist and a contemporary of Bob Dylan, was one of the new voices of 1960s rebellion and hope in America, along with Timothy Leary and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He liked to string words together in unusual ways to surprise the mind into new understandings and he wrote long poems full of insight, sex and madness. Born in 1926, he was older than Glass but they met in a New York bookshop and began collaborating. Glass set Ginsberg's voice to music and together they created an operatic cycle of poems called Hydrogen Jukebox, a quirky phrase from Ginsberg's best known work Howl.

When Ginsberg died of cancer in 1997, Glass was desolate.

"I felt that my poetry partner was gone and I just didn't know what to do," Glass said by phone from his home on Manhattan's East Side. "I didn't work with any poetry for a long time."

Glass, 71, a brilliant and influential composer who was inspired by the powerful repetitive structures of Indian rhythms to create a distinctive modern sound, has a long history of collaboration with some of the great artists of his time.

He has worked with songwriters such as Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, Linda Ronstadt, Brian Eno and David Bowie and is a prolific composer of film scores including Kundun with Martin Scorsese, Koyaanisqatsi with Godfrey Reggio, the orchestral score for Notes on a Scandal and The Truman Show which featured him performing at the piano. He knows Woody Allen well and worked for a long time with Ravi Shankar.

Clearly he was not in need of a friend. But his work with Ginsberg had been complex and emotional and took Glass to the heart of inspirational composition and social comment.

Glass, an American Jew of Lithuanian heritage, whose father owned a record store, studied maths and philosophy before graduating from the Juilliard School of Music and moving to France where he discovered new wave cinema and the excitement of avant-garde art. He was in his late 50s when Ginsberg died and was by then a vastly experienced composer who had written a trilogy of operas celebrating religion, science and man.

He tried performing with punk poet and singer Patti Smith who was a close friend of Ginsberg's but it was a mutual admiration of the work of another without the creative combustion. He lacked the deep relationship with her that he had with Ginsberg.

Then along came Leonard Cohen, the dark and inscrutable genius behind eternal songs like Bird on a Wire and Hallelujah that have been recorded so many times their origins have been all but forgotten. Cohen thinks he and Glass first met around 1997, the year that Ginsberg died. At the time Cohen was on a deep spiritual path and was a full-time resident of the Mount Baldy Zen Centre near Los Angeles. A year earlier he had been ordained a Zen Buddhist monk and took the name of Jikan, meaning "Silent One".

They spent an afternoon and an evening together at a friend's house in Los Angeles looking at a loose-paged book of poems that Cohen brought along. The poems were the precursor to his first major published work in two decades, Book of Longing. Like Ginsberg, Cohen framed often simple ideas in ways that were shocking, erotic, illuminating and beautiful.

"When we came back after dinner he wrote some more poems and it was such a delightful time we spent together on that occasion that we decided we had to do a piece," said Glass. "I asked him if I could set some of his poems to music and he agreed. I asked if he wanted to help and he said, 'no, no, I just want your music with my poetry'."

They talked over how they could stage the work and Glass expected to hear from him soon after. Instead, Cohen disappeared back into the Zen monastery where he would rise at 2.30am and don heavy traditional robes to meditate and study with the Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi. It was six years before Glass heard that he was back. Glass emailed Cohen and 20 minutes later a reply bounced back. Cohen would be in New York in two weeks and wanted to meet.

The serious work began that led to the world premiere in Canada last June of the Glass/Cohen collaboration Book of Longing which was co-commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of Arts where it has its Australian premiere next month. When Glass met Cohen, his book of poems was about to be released and the Came So Far For Beauty tribute concert at the 2005 Sydney Festival was being planned. His immersion in Zen had closed some kind of circle within him and his creativity was rekindled.

"We talked at length about what his participation would be," Glass said. "He didn't want a performing role but he agreed to be there from time to time."

Glass read the book of poems and absorbed it over a few weeks and decided there were categories that were autobiographical, about loss, about romance, about his teacher and a category of longer epic poems that Glass calls ballads. Some of the poems were included on Cohen's 2001 collaboration with Sharon Robinson, Ten New Songs, and have been reimagined and renamed for copyright reasons so A Thousand Kisses Deep on the album becomes You Came to Me This Morning and Boogie Street becomes A Sip of Wine.

Cohen recorded all of the 150 poems in his book and left Glass to choose those he wanted to include. Glass says he created the stage piece like building a tent, using the ballads as the big poles that provided the main structure then after each big pole inserting a personal poem or a love poem or poem about a spiritual path. Cohen approved the choices and Glass then composed the music and made a demonstration recording in which they altered some of the order but kept the general shape The whole had to be kept, on Cohen's insistence, at 90 minutes although Glass preferred 120. They agreed on 93 minutes and Glass began auditioning singers.

He expanded the ensemble concept used with Ginsberg of oboe, saxophone, percussion and keyboards to include a string section with violin, cello and double bass and Glass will be on stage at the Adelaide Festival playing keyboards.

"I wanted a different sound and I thought this was the sound that would go with Leonard," Glass said. "In the same way they were different, I wanted the music to be different."

Some of the poems are spoken just by Cohen sounding more like a prophet than a poet and are accompanied by the vocalists, two male and two female, who sing to Glass' music on a stage decorated with Cohen's paintings and drawings of birds and Japanese stamps. Cohen helped audition the singers, among them tenor Will Erat and soprano Dominique Plaisant, and stayed close to the project while it came together to the satisfaction of both

"It was fairly straightforward," said Glass. "I had him to work with and he was very responsive and we were very close in that part of it and it's turned out OK."

Cohen was the poet Glass was looking for and, like Ginsberg and Glass himself, Cohen was a Jewish man on a spiritual journey. A publicity shot of Glass and Cohen taken for Book of Longing shows two slightly grumpy Jewish men in their early 70s, ordinary but for who they are. Glass could not be happier about it.

"I wanted to have a poet in my life again," says Glass. "In a way, the similarities and differences between Allen and Leonard are so interesting to me."

Glass grew up with an atheist father but his background was Jewish rather than Christian and Judaism was the familiar backdrop to his childhood. He became involved with Tibetan Buddhism in the early 1970s when the first Tibetan refugees fled to the United States and in 1987 he co-founded Tibet House with Robert Thurman (father of actor Uma) and Hollywood star Richard Gere. It is a journey that has no end and in a Scott Hicks documentary of Glass that also premieres at the Adelaide Festival, a reporter is shown saying to Glass that he read he was Buddhist.

"I read the same thing!" says Glass with a guffaw. "You might say I'm a Taoist, I'm a Hindu, I'm Jewish, I'm Christian. I mean it's true I'm interested in all of these things but I can't say that I'm exclusively anything."

What Glass shares with Cohen, and with Ginsberg, is the ambivalence of being Jewish in their upbringing but having worked deeply with Asian teachers.

Glass may not call himself a Buddhist - to claim Buddhist status would show a lack of wisdom - but his involvement with Tibetan Buddhism has been rich and interesting and his wife reveals in the documentary that he makes Buddhist offerings each day.

So the cultural references in Cohen's work are very close to Glass' own because their paths have been so similar.

Glass says any westerner who comes to an eastern tradition in adulthood always retains a part of themselves that would not be there if they were born into the tradition. This ambivalence is neither a bad nor a good thing.

"I don't think it's a question of failure," he says. "It's the reality that you grow up in a certain way and you have tremendous experiences and influences in your life. It doesn't make it bad, it's just the way it is, it's just the reality. And you see it all the time. You see people coming into these spiritual paths with their own personal history and it can be very different."

Glass is a surprisingly down to earth man who lives in the real world. Director Scott Hicks, a confessed Glass tragic since his son took him to see Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi in 1984, spent two years making a delightfully revealing documentary of Glass that shows the artist living and working in happy domestic chaos. At 71, he is married to his fourth wife Holly, they have two young children and spend part of each year at a remote holiday house on Nova Scotia. Hicks, who was encouraged by Glass' management to take on the documentary to commemorate Glass in his 70th year went back to basics and filmed an intimate portrait of Glass that bounced off the warmth of their personal relationship.

Hicks who will launch Glass: a portrait of Philip in twelve parts at the Adelaide Festival arrived at the Nova Scotia house with no budget for the documentary and only a lightweight portable HDV camera that he intended using as a stopgap until the money was in place to hire "a real cinematographer". After hanging around for a while Hicks pulled out the camera and began filming Glass making pizza and talking about his work.

The 12 chapters look at the various facets of Glass' life and catch him in conversation with Woody Allen and reminiscing about Ravi Shankar. He is filmed riding a bike and taking a ride on the rickety Coney Island roller-coaster, a ritual Glass has been doing annually for 50 years.

"I didn't want to make a film that was reverential about Philip and his work ," Hicks said. "I knew him as someone who was funny, warm and open. He is interested in people, interested to know what you are doing and he likes to gossip. All that surprised me and I wanted the film to show that side of him."

The documentary follows the production of Glass' first major opera for almost a decade, the 2005 premiere of Waiting for the Barbarians, based coincidentally on the work of Adelaide writer John Coetzee, the South African emigre. It also captures the writing cycle of Symphony No 8. Hicks had earlier captured him meticulously writing notes in pencil over the previous year. It was a major orchestral composition and Hicks sat there with his portable camera closely trained on Glass, who was oblivious to everything but the sound of the notes heard only in his head coming to life in the hands of a New York orchestra.

He had spoken to Hicks during the film about the mystery of the composing process. "I think of it as one of those rivers that's running underground," he says in the film. "And you don't know exactly where it is, but you do know it's there. If you try to find it you might not."

Hicks captured Glass hearing the result of his composition the first time. At the end, the conductor asks Glass what he thought. "Yeah," he says, with a small smile, "that's it."

If you go

The Adelaide premiere of Book of Longing is at the Adelaide Festival Theatre March 14-15.

Glass: a portrait of Philip in twelve parts screens on March 9 (introduced by Scott Hicks) and March 10.