Translating pop music into more ambitious musical forms is a risky business that sometimes produces surprising results. Who would have guessed, for example, that Twyla Tharp’s recycling of Billy Joel’s songs to tell the central story of the Sixties generation would be such a compelling and moving theatrical experience–an effect greatly heightened by having those songs reproduced note by note on stage by the world’s best tribute band. Once you’ve seen it, you’re forced to admit that Joel (who you might have previously taken lightly, as I did) writes really intelligent songs that display a wide and deep musical versatility. It’s one of those ‘aha’ moments like seeing Fleetwood Mac and realizing that without the undersung Lindsay Buckingham’s fabulous guitar work and arrangements, they’re pretty much another lounge act.
On the other hand, who would have thought that a stage musical built around the music of Bob Dylan would reveal him to be a writer of archly pretentious lyrics of little musical grace, played with three majors and a minor?
But, I digress. What we’re talking about here is Philip Glass’s Book of Longing – A Song Cycle Based on the poetry and Images of Leonard Cohen, which was performed this summer at the Lincoln Center Festival and has just now been released in a 2-CD package by Orange Mountain Music, Glass’s own music label. I’m a person who knows the difference between W.H. Auden and literate pop songwriters like Cohen and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, but the combination of Cohen’s wry, spare words and Glass’s wry, spare settings creates something that approaches a higher art form. Not quite Auden/Britten but something not embarassed to be seen in that neighborhood. I’ve played it a dozen times and keep discovering witty surprises and hidden delights. All the piece needs is a video by Yasujirō Ozu (or, his still-living contemporary disciple Jim Jarmusch) to be the complete multimedia package.
I also realized, for the first time, that A Thousand Kisses Deep is probably the best song ever written inspired by oral sex.