Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Denial of Depth

Depth. Unfortunately I forgot to bring a copy of Raymond Williams’s Keywords to Riga, but it must be in there. If one of the three people who will read this has a copy, look it up for me.

It’s a one-word platitude, the most efficient textual gateway to the many spatial metaphors that have allowed so much of nineteenth-century Germanic idealism to maintain its grip on the categories through which we think about art in 2008. And it played a predictably prominent role in David Hajdu’s recent review for the New Republic of a recent collaboration by Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen.

I should lay may cards on the table: I am responding to Hajdu’s analysis, not his opinions, but the work he reviews, entitled Book of Longing, impressed the hell out of me when I saw it performed at the Barbican in London this Fall. To invoke another one-word platitude, I would even say I was moved by the performance, at least in the sense that by the end of the first hour I felt possessed by an understanding I couldn’t articulate. Perhaps it was a dose of that aural sublime that musical minimalism is always so successful at invoking in performance, in which case I imagine I’m guilty of the usual critical lapse that comes over me when I listen. Perhaps it had something to do with frustrated expectations - I was sure going into the concert that the piece would be garbage. But there was something else, too; an excess; and Hajdu’s review got my hermeneutic gears turning.

I’ll quote Hajdu extensively, to give a sense of the crux of his criticism:

“The Cohen-Robinson song “A Thousand Kisses Deep” [referring to a previous song with the same lyrics] is a wafting R&B lament – hypnotic, though diminished a bit by the recording’s Euro-pop synths and cheesy programmed drums. The Glass setting of the same lyrics, “You Came to Me This Morning,” is rigid and strident when it should be lyrical; the chords jerk about awkwardly, and the melody follows, too closely, in kind. At more than ten minutes in length, the song, like much of Glass’s music, seems endless - a thousand kisses long, but skin deep.”

“…there are larger problems with this music, and they are the enduring vexations of Philip Glass’s work: its glibness, its mechanical character, its seeming arbitrariness. The music is, on the whole, frigid. It does not evoke or stir much feeling, and this is a failure close to sin in work connected to Leonard Cohen.”

“…The singers Glass employs on Book of Longing scarcely help. Glass composed the melodies to fall in the lower parts of each singer’s register, an approach sometimes used to discourage concert artists from over-singing. Yet the four here all over-sing, articulating the lyrics with a formality and a theatricality wholly inappropriate to Cohen’s casual, intimate language. The effect is comical, sadly…”

The reason I found this review so stimulating is that I agree with all of Hajdu’s characterizations, and yet find them all salutary. In his disavowal of the piece he sums up many of the reasons that, both in the immanence of listening and upon critical reflection, I find it fabulous.

For Hajdu, Glass’s composition is a betrayal. It renders intensely emotional lyrics “skin deep,” robbing them of their “feeling.” The trope here, used most frequently in criticisms of cover songs or re-adaptations of lyrics, is familiar enough, especially in responses to Glass – a square, cold-hearted intellectual robs an “artist” of the ineffable humanity of his work. Performative authenticity is reduced to flat, emotionless monotone in a misanthropic intervention that blithely ignores everything “natural” about the original.

It’s a critical trope that has kept a lot of popular music critics employed over the years. These self-appointed defenders of “soul” will reject almost any critical intervention into the “authentic” emotionality of an original, of a “true artist,” with little concern for the disingenuous spirit in which these categories might be deployed. (Culture Industry, anyone?)

I’ll try a different reading.

This piece was about the depthlessness of “depth.” It was moving because it so thoroughly negated the disingenuous emotionality – the “soul,” perhaps – that conventionally makes canned music seem “deep.” In this negation, however, it affirmed something we might not have noticed before about Leonard Cohen – namely, that his utter inability to carry a tune, and his producers’ apparent fascination with dated synthesizers and drum machines (a fascination Glass shares), lend an almost sultry apathy, or at least ambivalence, to his delivery. We hear it in the recordings of Cohen’s voice that pop up throughout the piece. The chintzy rhyming couplets, to use Cohen’s own words, “sink like rocks” in his gravelly cadence, which straddles the mythic personae of tortured poet and seasoned nihilist – Coleridge and Kafka, Otis Redding and Frank Zappa. But which way do they sink? To the depths of meaninglessness? Of Depression? Of “profundity”? Most likely the latter – the chintzy rhyming couplets sink like rocks to the depths of profundity.

In other words, Book of Longing negates itself at every turn, leaving the listener with a flatness, an excess of nothingness, a barrage of platitudes. It’s Glass at his very best, and no, I’m not reading with or against the grain here. There is no grain. Nor is there an author.

For Cohen, meanwhile, it highlights something we might not have seen before: like Bob Dylan at his most “soulful” and overwrought, his music gives us room to question the efficacy and authenticity of melodrama even as it spins it out ad nauseum. Both Cohen and Dylan are unquestionably full of shit in the must salutary way, and we are all the richer for it. Glass, meanwhile, continues to inhabit a shit-filled persona of his own, disallowing all but the most depraved and absurd of idealist readings.