Edinburgh 6: Some Legendary Figures United in Edinburgh Collaboration

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Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (6) – The Poet Speaks: Homage to Allen Ginsberg. Philip Glass (piano), Patti Smith (vocals), Edinburgh Playhouse, 13.8.2013 (SRT)

Phlip Glass and Patti Smith in The Poet Speaks, photo Stephanie Berger
Phlip Glass and Patti Smith in The Poet Speaks, photo Stephanie Berger

There is a strong contemporary music theme to this year’s EIF, and this concert united two legends of modern American music in a tribute to their friend, the equally legendary Beat Poet, Allen Ginsberg. It might seem like an odd pairing, partnering Philip Glass, one of the godfathers of American minimalism, with Patti Smith, the most famous women in punk, but it works well because of the intensely genuine personal chemistry between the two. At one point, Smith admitted that she listened to Glass’s music while writing, and she asked him for a pen because an idea had come to her backstage while she listened to him playing.

The Poet Speaks is billed as a personal tribute to Ginsberg. Smith reads some of his poems while Glass accompanies her on the piano. On the (still fairly few) occasions where they have performed it the running order has been very flexible, but during tonight’s show, at least, Ginsberg’s poetry was by no means the dominating force. Some key works like Wichita Vortex Sutra and Aunt Rose did feature prominently, but Smith also read a few of her own poems, which I found even more moving. I loved her impassioned, anti-materialist voice in Notes to the Future (“No one is insignificant!”) and her heartfelt tribute to a dead naturalist in The Blue Thangka. She also did a few of her own songs which got the whole theatre rocking, and she ended with a reassuringly egalitarian “Power to the people” encore. It’s interesting, in fact, what a great range of ages and backgrounds this event appealed to. Fans of minimalism were there for Glass, fans of punk were there for Smith, and fans of poetry were there for the Ginsberg, and I’m sure there were more than a few former rockers who were re-living their mis-spent youth of the 1960s. It also gave Smith plenty of opportunities to reflect on poetry that had meant a lot to her as a girl: she read some favourite excerpts from Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses from a copy which she had bought in a bookshop in Edinburgh across the road from his birthplace.

Glass’s gently undulating piano line complemented the poems without being intrusive, and the three piano pieces he later played as a suite had his typical trance-like, hypnotic effect on the listener though, somewhat typically for Glass, he seemed to keep each one going for that little bit too long, so as to fall into the trap of repetitiousness. Nevertheless, the evening united some legends in a collaborative venture which, even if ultimately it didn’t add up to all that much, was a worthy comment on what can happen when artists come together.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson