Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A logical project in the world of Glass

Glass: Book of Longing
Leonard Cohen, Philip Glass Ensemble
Orange Mountain Music #43

Phillip Glass has done what I having been hoping an accessible American composer would do for years, which is to create arrangements for the poetry of Leonard Cohen. While Phillip Glass may not have been my first choice (I’m a bigger supporter of John Adams as far as minimalism is concerned, but I’d really much prefer to see what Frederic Rzewski is capable of), but I’ll take what I can get. Plus, most of the poems that Glass sets to his music have not been recorded by Cohen previously which made this set too high of a priority item to not buy right away.

The arrangements are what one would expect from a Phillip Glass score, syncopation, hypnotic repetition, emphasis on pleasing musical textures, no real surprises there. His vocal settings are wisely less operatic in nature than say his operas or his symphonies that involve singers. Some Cohen fans may find the singing style a bit out of place, even outright wrong at times, but what is being sung is the real star of the show. The song cycle is at its best though when no one is signing at all. The portions of the disc where Cohen acts as narrator and simply speaks his poems either with or without any accompaniment are the most rewarding (I just love they way he talks).

The elements work well together, Glass’s music never draws too much attention away from the main focus of the piece which is a skill that Glass is exceptional at… there‘s a reason why he gets so much work as a film score composer. Also, Leonard Cohen albums have been cursed by having some of the absolute worst arrangements I've ever heard in my life (He’s never had a George to his Ira) so having an adequate composer at his side is a huge bonus. Some of Leonard Cohen’s own songs have been crippled by unintelligent arrangements and horrendous overproduction in the past, it’s so nice to have a disc that supports the lyrics instead of masking them. There is never a point where the music distracts from the words, which is a great relief to an established Cohen fan.

Overall though, I would have much preferred the text to be spoken by Cohen rather than sung by members of the Phillip Glass Ensemble. Nothing against the singers or the style, just the way Cohen talks is so much cooler than the way some singers sing.

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