Composer Philip Glass has just enough of a mix of pop culture caché and serious classical cred to make the premiere of his Book of Longing last night one of the ’07 festival’s top must-be-seen-at events. After all, the man’s face is plastered on every available surface across the peninsula; he’s more recognizable than Bono at the moment, at least in our corner of the world, and a lot less talky. It’s his Being John Malcovich moment in Charleston, and Spoletians were happy to indulge themselves, and him, at Wednesday’s Sottile Theatre premiere, which was packed to the rafters with the full spectrum of literati, glitterati, culturati, chatterati, movers and shakers, networkers, social climbers, big cheeses, hoi polloi, and even people who actually know who the man is.
I can trace my fanhood back about 10 years or so — although Charleston Ballet Theatre choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr could give the date you more accurately, because it was at the premiere of her dance “Poetry Written with a Splash of Blood,” performed to a similarly named 10-minute work of Glass’ from his score to the 1985 film Mishima that got me hooked. (I’m gonna place it below for your strictly noncommercial listening pleasure until someone tells me to take it down.) The haters will always thrash Glass for what they consider the too-easy reductionist absolutes of his quote-unquote minimalist compositions, which, to their minds, simply repeat the same notes and lack melody. But minimalism is a characterization Glass has struggled against all his life. I’d argue that three chords and three and a half minutes of mindless lyrical sludge – or 99 percent of modern commercial radio – is infinitely more minimal than anything Glass pooped out on his worst day at the keyboards. And I dare you to listen to this clip and say it’s not melodic.
But I’m rambling. Wednesday night’s premiere was part art exhibition, part rock concert, part literary poetry reading, and part theatre event. It was the festival moment everyone’s been waiting for, and if it wasn’t the most ostentatious production in the festival this year, its creators – Glass and songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen – aren’t either. Behind the stage, a gray wall full of drawings from Cohen was backlit and anchored by a giant projection screen in its center, on which a series of paintings and sketches from his book of poetry played over the course of the evening – remarkably sophisticated portraits of old men (including many of himself), nudes, furniture, and guitars. An ensemble of seven musicians, including Glass on keyboards, accompanied four vocalists, who sang Cohen’s poetry as if it were lyrics set to Glass’ polyphonic, spiraling orchestrations.
“I finally understood that I had no gift for spiritual matters,” sang bass-baritone Daniel Keeling, dressed in an chest-baring shirt and light jacket, lounging in an easy chair next to his mic stand when not singing. The four singers all often walked off stage altogether and returning in the middle of a song, and their stage appearances were carefully directed, as when they all removed their shoes and jackets and sang from their chairs at the edge of the stage. Cohen’s poetry/lyrics and the prose he scribbled beside many of his drawings were often playful, as in a song about reincarnation: “My mother isn’t really dead. Neither is yours. Do you see the insects? One of them was once your dog. But do not try to pet the ant. It will be destroyed by your awkward affections.” Beside a drawing of a nude in seeming ecstasy: “Do you believe me now?” Next to one of the many sketches of a guitar: “Life is a drug that stops working.”
See Book of Longing, if you can. Glass (who’s looking more and more like an aging Harold Ramis) is a living legend, and the 90-minute concert work is a delight and a pleasure, even if it won’t change your life. On the other hand, sometime life-changing moments are just 10 minutes long.
A few audio clips from the performance follow:
And a lively post-Longing conversation with lively audience members Katie and Lowry: