such a favorite.
He slowly speaks the opening words of a poem-song he wrote three decades ago, inspired by a poem by Constantine Cavafy, published in 1911, that records Mark Antony’s last night on earth. “Do not say the moment was imagined,” Cohen says – both of that ancient evening and of this Parisian night – “drink it in, exquisite music.” He removes his hat, extends a hand, bows gently. “Sharon Robinson, ‘Alexandra Leaving’.”
Downstairs, in the shop’s poetry corner, I come across a copy of C P Cavafy’s Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, whose commentary on “The God Abandons Antony” explains that the title is taken from Plutarch’s Life of Antony. The poem describes the last night on earth of Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s lover, as his troops desert him. As Mendelsohn notes, “All Alexandria knew that Antony’s cause was totally lost.” Subsequently defeated, and believing Cleopatra to be dead, Antony takes his own life. Plutarch’s account emphasises the importance of the act of hearing, a “vehicle for apprehending the true significance of what is taking place”. It offers a glimpse of the night in Alexandria, quiet and dejected, in anticipation of a coming tumult. Suddenly there was heard “the combined sounds of all sorts of instruments”, a sign that the Gods were abandoning Antony.
None of this is new to Robinson, who knows the origins of the song. From Plutarch, through Cavafy and on to Cohen, a timeless strand has been woven.
The connections between the song and the original poem are close. A beloved city (Alexandria, in Egypt) becomes a beloved woman (Alexandra), offering what Cohen has described as “a certain take on loss”. Words move from Cavafy’s poem to Cohen’s song, and they are central to the melody Robinson constructs, looking for what she calls “the flow of the lyric”. She seeks a chorus/verse structure in the words, sitting at her piano, imagining the lyric’s “mood”. A song might be contemplative, or “more aggressive”, depending on its emotional core. “The first few verses tell the story of a kind of procession, the leaving of Alexandra on the shoulders of the god of love.” The processional march becomes a theme, present and then gone. An image forms, like a picture with music afloat in the background.
In this case, the answer was clear – the last line: “Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving, then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.” The line is repeated, at the end of every third verse, so the poem was “already beautifully structured for a melody”. Invited to elaborate, she says it’s hard to explain: “there are numerous ways to skin a cat when it comes to writing a song”. Yet the structure is closely related to the number of syllables in a line, which in turn dictates the set-up of the melody. In this sense, she works backwards, from a culminating idea towards the front of the song.
A bit like an advocate in court trying to persuade a judge, I suggest. Sharon smiles, generously. Yes, as a songwriter she wants the songs to be heard and understood, to take the listener on a trip. “I suppose you could call that persuasion. You want them with you from the beginning to the end.” That requires an emotional thread, one that starts with the words. The process inverts the usual rule for mainstream pop music, which is to start with the music.
We return to the kitchen scene. She offers ideas for the melody, maybe more than one. Then she records one. “At the time, Leonard had a little boom box in his kitchen, we’d listen to it there, on a cassette.” As he listens, she can tell straight away his reaction. “He’ll just listen quietly. I can tell if he likes it, but there’ll be issues, and changes. Other times he’ll start dancing around, or something like that. There are a range of reactions. In the end, I just wait, for 10 minutes.”
The collaboration is based on a particular affinity, the word she chooses to describe a certain kind of connection between two people. “It seems to come from nowhere, neither party has anything invested in it, but it’s very real.” She pauses. “No verbal commitments, but a lasting quality, an intimacy that has a subliminal quality.”
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from an awesome article, here.