Tag Archives: Leonard Cohen

A Treaty with metaphor⤴

from @ blethers



I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

A Treaty with metaphor⤴

from @ blethers



I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

Cross-Pollination⤴

from @ blethers

I haven't posted for a bit. It's not that I haven't been sitting at my desktop: far from it. But from being someone who rarely uses earphones (they were so uncomfortable) and hasn't listened to much of what might loosely be termed popular music since the age of 18 (a while, then) I've spent most of the time doing just these two things. I always did love a good love song, back in the day, and I've always preferred what might be termed music to slit your wrists to ... And now I've rediscovered both, and as Facebook friends will hardly have failed to realise, I've been listening to Leonard Cohen.

I specified a sort of cut-off date for my interest in pop; it coincided with the rise of the Beatles and my discovery of Palestrina and Byrd and these two geniuses shaped my musical tastes for the rest of my life, I thought. Yes, there were other passions - Tippet, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, to name the composers on some of my early LPs - but the music I loved to sing, and to sing along with, belonged to the Renaissance. I developed a voice as similar to the counter tenor as I could, and my reading abilities flourished as I sang in an octet (The New Consort of Voices, for anyone who was around Glasgow Uni circles in the late 60s/early 70s) and the quartet that still performs today with only a change in the soprano line, the St Maura Singers. We started a larger choir when we moved to Dunoon - The Hesperians, from the women of which group the current 8+1 choir was born. There was a church choir, intermittently - it tended to suffer from church politics and eventually vanished.

All this was made easier, of course, by the fact that I'd married a musician who works magic with choirs. But living with a musician also tends to influence some - not all - of the music played at home. Because of that influence, I've learned almost all I know. But because the current choir, 8+1, sings everything from Ah Robyn to Mamma Mia, there's been a shift in my earworm availability, and one of our repertoire got stuck that way: Leonard Cohen's Halleluia. And it was seeing a video on Facebook/YouTube of a live performance by him, a recent live performance, that started me on the online trawl for other songs of this performer who was in his mid-70s at the time the recordings were made - and that's what I've been singing along with for the last two months.

So what made me want to reflect on this? Here's a thing. For the whole of July until today, we've had work going on in our dining room. The painter finished only this morning. The floor is varnished, the room is clean - and empty. It has a wonderful acoustic. So yesterday the two of us, Mr B and I, sang and recorded St Magnus' Hymn - the two-part 12th Century piece that begins "nobilis, humilis...". And after the first go, when I was singing at my usual mezzo pitch and straining slightly on the high E, I went down an octave and immediately sounded - and felt - better. This is an area of my voice that I've been unhappy with recently; helping out on the second soprano part has led to the neglect of the lower end of my voice, with the break at Middle C becoming more troublesome than it has been since I was in my early 20s. But yesterday it was fine, with an equal resonance taking me down to F.

Why? Presumably because the ageing voice of Leonard Cohen means he now sings in his boots, and that's what I've been singing along with. I've not been belting it out, just crooning, but that gentle exercise has been enough to make the difference. I feel somehow vindicated - that I've not wasted the tradesmen-minding hours listening on headphones, but have done something my laziness has too often stopped me doing when I've not practised vocal exercises. And I've learned some cracking new songs ...

Cross-Pollination⤴

from @ blethers

I haven't posted for a bit. It's not that I haven't been sitting at my desktop: far from it. But from being someone who rarely uses earphones (they were so uncomfortable) and hasn't listened to much of what might loosely be termed popular music since the age of 18 (a while, then) I've spent most of the time doing just these two things. I always did love a good love song, back in the day, and I've always preferred what might be termed music to slit your wrists to ... And now I've rediscovered both, and as Facebook friends will hardly have failed to realise, I've been listening to Leonard Cohen.

I specified a sort of cut-off date for my interest in pop; it coincided with the rise of the Beatles and my discovery of Palestrina and Byrd and these two geniuses shaped my musical tastes for the rest of my life, I thought. Yes, there were other passions - Tippet, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, to name the composers on some of my early LPs - but the music I loved to sing, and to sing along with, belonged to the Renaissance. I developed a voice as similar to the counter tenor as I could, and my reading abilities flourished as I sang in an octet (The New Consort of Voices, for anyone who was around Glasgow Uni circles in the late 60s/early 70s) and the quartet that still performs today with only a change in the soprano line, the St Maura Singers. We started a larger choir when we moved to Dunoon - The Hesperians, from the women of which group the current 8+1 choir was born. There was a church choir, intermittently - it tended to suffer from church politics and eventually vanished.

All this was made easier, of course, by the fact that I'd married a musician who works magic with choirs. But living with a musician also tends to influence some - not all - of the music played at home. Because of that influence, I've learned almost all I know. But because the current choir, 8+1, sings everything from Ah Robyn to Mamma Mia, there's been a shift in my earworm availability, and one of our repertoire got stuck that way: Leonard Cohen's Halleluia. And it was seeing a video on Facebook/YouTube of a live performance by him, a recent live performance, that started me on the online trawl for other songs of this performer who was in his mid-70s at the time the recordings were made - and that's what I've been singing along with for the last two months.

So what made me want to reflect on this? Here's a thing. For the whole of July until today, we've had work going on in our dining room. The painter finished only this morning. The floor is varnished, the room is clean - and empty. It has a wonderful acoustic. So yesterday the two of us, Mr B and I, sang and recorded St Magnus' Hymn - the two-part 12th Century piece that begins "nobilis, humilis...". And after the first go, when I was singing at my usual mezzo pitch and straining slightly on the high E, I went down an octave and immediately sounded - and felt - better. This is an area of my voice that I've been unhappy with recently; helping out on the second soprano part has led to the neglect of the lower end of my voice, with the break at Middle C becoming more troublesome than it has been since I was in my early 20s. But yesterday it was fine, with an equal resonance taking me down to F.

Why? Presumably because the ageing voice of Leonard Cohen means he now sings in his boots, and that's what I've been singing along with. I've not been belting it out, just crooning, but that gentle exercise has been enough to make the difference. I feel somehow vindicated - that I've not wasted the tradesmen-minding hours listening on headphones, but have done something my laziness has too often stopped me doing when I've not practised vocal exercises. And I've learned some cracking new songs ...

Cross-Pollination⤴

from @ blethers

I haven't posted for a bit. It's not that I haven't been sitting at my desktop: far from it. But from being someone who rarely uses earphones (they were so uncomfortable) and hasn't listened to much of what might loosely be termed popular music since the age of 18 (a while, then) I've spent most of the time doing just these two things. I always did love a good love song, back in the day, and I've always preferred what might be termed music to slit your wrists to ... And now I've rediscovered both, and as Facebook friends will hardly have failed to realise, I've been listening to Leonard Cohen.

I specified a sort of cut-off date for my interest in pop; it coincided with the rise of the Beatles and my discovery of Palestrina and Byrd and these two geniuses shaped my musical tastes for the rest of my life, I thought. Yes, there were other passions - Tippet, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, to name the composers on some of my early LPs - but the music I loved to sing, and to sing along with, belonged to the Renaissance. I developed a voice as similar to the counter tenor as I could, and my reading abilities flourished as I sang in an octet (The New Consort of Voices, for anyone who was around Glasgow Uni circles in the late 60s/early 70s) and the quartet that still performs today with only a change in the soprano line, the St Maura Singers. We started a larger choir when we moved to Dunoon - The Hesperians, from the women of which group the current 8+1 choir was born. There was a church choir, intermittently - it tended to suffer from church politics and eventually vanished.

All this was made easier, of course, by the fact that I'd married a musician who works magic with choirs. But living with a musician also tends to influence some - not all - of the music played at home. Because of that influence, I've learned almost all I know. But because the current choir, 8+1, sings everything from Ah Robyn to Mamma Mia, there's been a shift in my earworm availability, and one of our repertoire got stuck that way: Leonard Cohen's Halleluia. And it was seeing a video on Facebook/YouTube of a live performance by him, a recent live performance, that started me on the online trawl for other songs of this performer who was in his mid-70s at the time the recordings were made - and that's what I've been singing along with for the last two months.

So what made me want to reflect on this? Here's a thing. For the whole of July until today, we've had work going on in our dining room. The painter finished only this morning. The floor is varnished, the room is clean - and empty. It has a wonderful acoustic. So yesterday the two of us, Mr B and I, sang and recorded St Magnus' Hymn - the two-part 12th Century piece that begins "nobilis, humilis...". And after the first go, when I was singing at my usual mezzo pitch and straining slightly on the high E, I went down an octave and immediately sounded - and felt - better. This is an area of my voice that I've been unhappy with recently; helping out on the second soprano part has led to the neglect of the lower end of my voice, with the break at Middle C becoming more troublesome than it has been since I was in my early 20s. But yesterday it was fine, with an equal resonance taking me down to F.

Why? Presumably because the ageing voice of Leonard Cohen means he now sings in his boots, and that's what I've been singing along with. I've not been belting it out, just crooning, but that gentle exercise has been enough to make the difference. I feel somehow vindicated - that I've not wasted the tradesmen-minding hours listening on headphones, but have done something my laziness has too often stopped me doing when I've not practised vocal exercises. And I've learned some cracking new songs ...