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Philip Glass goes to Mt. Baldy and other literary pilgrimages

April 16, 2009 |  1:20 pm

Zen-center

Do composers have time for field trips?

Philip Glass did, between performances at Claremont McKenna College in February and March of his orchestral sequence based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen’s “Book of Longing.”

Robert Faggen, a professor of literature at CMC who runs the Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center (a humanities institute that sponsored the performances), accompanied Glass, the singers and several musicians to the Zen Center on Mt. Baldy, where they listened to a lecture by the monk Roshi, who had been Cohen’s master during his five years there (Roshi, in fact, figures largely in Cohen’s “Book”).

Philip-glass The next evening, at the final performance of “Book,” Glass and his performers were surprised — and delighted — to find 12 of the center’s monks in the audience. “It was inspiring to everyone,” Faggen says. “The monks loved the performance, and Philip was deeply moved.”

Glass’ visit to the place where Cohen wrote much of his “Book” had been significant to the composer. It was his effort to make a connection between Cohen’s poetry and the environment in which it had been created.

“The trip was about a bringing of things full circle for him,” Faggen explained. “To be able to visit the monastery was special enough, and then, to be in Roshi’s presence and experience a lecture by him — that was beyond any expectations.”

Are pilgrimages to literary locations always so momentous?

(More after the jump)

Novelist Pat Conroy has frequently told interviewers about his experience as a young man of visiting Thomas Wolfe’s home in Asheville, N.C., with one of his teachers. The teacher encouraged him to pull an apple from a tree there and bite it to understand the relationship between art and life. What is that relationship, really?  Recently, our reviewer (really she’s much more than that to us) Sara Lippincott described following in the footsteps of Herman Melville in the South Pacific. Did tracing his steps add anything to her reading of “Omoo” and “Mardi,” the books Melville drew from these travels? “It made me feel close to him,” she wrote, but she also suggested how distance from him and his times, not to mention the comforts of a cruise ship, made it difficult to grasp the experience behind those two books.

Can someone have any sense of a work of art from simply visiting a place? Or does this all turn into a silly form of literary tourism?

In Glass' case, perhaps his experience was enhanced by the fact that this place where Cohen wrote his “Book” hasn’t been turned into a museum or shrine — it’s a thriving, vital monastic community today. Faggen said the field trip to the Zen Center occurred near the end of the monks' deep retreat. The lecture with Roshi was a highly ritualized, formal experience that was solemn and intimate: All the monks, dressed in black, had assembled in one of the center’s smaller rooms. The group from Claremont had a chance to experience the atmosphere in which Cohen immersed himself. How could one fail to be moved by this?

Have you had any worthwhile literary pilgrimages?

— Nick Owchar

Photo credits: Zen Center dormitory by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times; Philip Glass by Chad Buchanan / Getty Images

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