Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen at Stanford

On Monday, Peter, Neil and I went to see a “conversation with Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen” at Stanford. The next night, a performance of selections from Cohen’s poetry The Book of Longing set to Philip Glass’ composition was scheduled to be performed in the same theatre. Amazing, the tickets to the talk were free. I’d gone to Stanford to snag them the moment they were available, because I was sure every Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass fan in the entire Bay Area would be on line for them. So I was quite surprised to still find the theatre not filled to capacity.

Unfortunately, the moderator was too laid back for his subjects. I can only guess that the last time he did this, he had effervescent chatty people who didn’t need him, so he pretty much told Glass and Cohen to feel free to gab amongst themselves, like the close friends he expected them to be. Now, while it was clear the two artists respected each other and were pleased to have a composition in common, it also quickly became clear their collaboration was somewhat casual: Glass wanted to put to the poetry to music, and Cohen gave it his blessing. That’s it. Then Cohen, the more conversationally talented of the two, decided to be rather laid back himself, and Glass, driven as the New Yorker he is, felt compelled to fill the dead air. He went on and on about how he wrote the piece, how he cast the piece, and how he felt he had to rearrange the piece.

Even worse, the moderator hadn’t seemed to have done proper research on Glass and Cohen. He told them how fascinating he found it that they were both Jewish converts to Buddhism, and asked them to comment on it. Well, it turns out they’re both still Jewish, and not all that Buddhist. Cohen became intrigued with Zen Buddhism simply by encountering an incredible zen Zen Buddhist, and wanting the same sort of mindfulness himself. Since then, he’s practiced and participated in Zen rituals, but it seemed more about the state of mind than the religion to him. Then again, that’s just what a Zen Buddhist would say, isn’t it.

Glass, moreover, seemed quite surprised to find himself labelled as a Buddhist. He tried to explain the assumption by pointing out that he has a wide variety of friends and acquaintances, and if he needs to hang out with them, in order to do so, he may take on some of their practices. But by the same criterion, he said, he could be classified as a Hindu or Christian as well. He just came across as a very open-minded person, which really isn’t the same as Buddhist, no matter how groovy you may believe it to be.

By far the best questions came from the audience, who had sent them to the moderator in written form. Glass was asked whether the following apocryphal-sounding story was true. Shortly after Glass’ composition Einstein at the Beach has debuted, Glass was still driving a cab in New York to make ends meet. One evening, an older woman got into his cab and saw his cab license, which was prominently displayed. “Young man,” she said, “do you know there’s a famous composer with the same name as yours?” Glass said the story was actually true, but that, to his regret, he had never looked back to get a good look at the woman’s face. Since then, multiple women have claimed to be that passenger.

Another question from the audience, this addressed to Leonard Cohen, asked if he, like the questioner, had been alternately delighted and appalled, to find his song “Hallelujah” in the Shrek soundtrack. Cohen laughed, and said yes, but that it’s neat to see his music take on so many different forms.

Unfortunately, the moderator had left a scant 20 minutes for the audience questions, and the forum was over all too soon. Still, it was neat to see the two composers in person.

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