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Image by Rama: Creative Commons

Image by Rama: Creative Commons

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There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”
~ Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

For a number of years in the 1960s Leonard Cohen lived on the Greek island of Hydra. It was there, close to the glittering sea of the Saronic Gulf, that he found the solitude and space he needed for the poems, novels and songs he’d dreamed of writing after leaving his native Montreal. It was there that he discovered, in the white-washed and cobblestone village where he’d settled, a way of life and people that moved him deeply. And it was there on the island that he also met one of his great loves, Marianne Ihlen, forever to be remembered in songs such as “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long, Marianne.” Before going their separate ways at the end of the 1960s they shared their love of the island for years, and shortly before Ihlen died this past summer a friend read out a final note to her from Cohen, who wrote, “I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Cohen kept returning to Greece in later years, as well as paying homage to it in new songs, poems and interviews, acutely aware of how instrumental his time on Hydra had been to shaping his vision of the world, both creatively and personally. It had lent a sensuous grace to his words and music, encouraging a style of song that could be as intimate as prayer or as raw as a sea-storm sweeping over his island home, but it wasn’t until I moved to Greece myself that I understood something else that he’d gained from the country. It had showed him the splendour of light.

The light of Greece has long been praised for its unique and compelling properties. How it reflects off stone and sea with an unrivalled, crystalline gleam; how in high summer it can consume you so completely that you feel as though you’re swimming inside it, suspended in its tempered, liquid glow. It rivers across the mountains and plains of the country with incomparable clarity, as sharp as a blade but mysteriously deep and mesmeric as well. For centuries writers and artists have sought to understand its qualities and contradictions, devoting countless hours and painstaking efforts to its description through a range of inks, words, oils and watercolours, the elusive subject of their work having faded for the day long before they’d finished. And that’s part of its allure, that for all the beauty of its benediction, it’s also a light that easily hurts. There is an ache of longing and desire to it that can never quite be requited. To stand in a high mountain meadow or on an island in the Aegean as evening begins to fold the sun inside itself is to wish that moment to linger for as long as possible, to lengthen out like an endless road into the days ahead of you. The grasses and wildflowers are lent a glimmering lucidity, while the stones and sea shine with an untold and entrancing presence, something unspeakably beautiful but of course transitory as well. And it was this same poignant duality that Cohen’s music and writing offered in its most moving of moments – it was born of that desire for things to be stilled alongside an acceptance of the ephemeral. He was open to both beauty and its loss in this world, and his songs hold the ache of such bewildering light inside them.

To the tower of song, travel well – καλό ταξίδι.

How the light gets in

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The earth has its voices and songs. It has its own languages crafted over millennia through slow and patient processes, its dialects peculiar to geological regions or areas of weather, to places of particular precipitation. The earth has its voices and songs just as we have our own, a music born of place, notes threaded together by winds and tides, by land and water.

Avalanches thunder across steep slopes and reeds crackle in the cold like old bones. Rocks tumble into canyons, a distance measured by a long receding echo of stone hitting stone that becomes fainter as it falls. Grasses whisper with the wind, a restless conversation moving through a meadow. Trees sigh in a storm and dry leaves rattle across parched earth. Seedpods snap open in the sun. Rains fill a jungle with the beats of a million drums. Even the silence of snow is a song, in the same way that John Cage’s 4”33 is a song, something rich and articulate, a compressed aria of the sounds around us we so easily miss.

Ice covers the small lake this winter. It wears a shawl for the season as though it were suddenly ageing with grey beauty. Some days channels of black water open and close on it like eyes blinking against the light, while on others the ice borrows a speckled sheen that resembles the cryptic plumage of birds that nest in its reeds. And on some days the ice is masked by cloud, shrouded by fog or mist that unrolls like a dream after waking. Then the lake is only there in your ears.

The music is haunting and beautiful, shifting in ethereal and unknowable ways from one day to the next. There are songs that could come from a lost tribe of sea creatures stranded beneath the ice, a moaning and wailing from the depths. Sonar pulses rise through the cold winds, composed into a suite of strange and otherworldly sounds. The music can resemble water that is boiling, bubbling up in a pan the size of the lake. Or it might pop and ping, tinkle like ice cubes in a glass. There are days when it could be a xylophone being played, a cold fiesta on the frozen surface. The music is as varied as the shapes that water can take.

Leaving the lake behind for another day I see snow moving across the ice like a line of dancers dressed in white, a choreography of wind, a sinuous sweep that echoes the cold front pushing down from the north. It is the lake’s equivalent of the village festivals that roar through the summer nights, the wild blaring trumpets and irrepressible dances that turn in a circle to mark a season of plenty. The lines of snow weave and wend over the ice, like ghosts moving to the music from below, celebrating the voices of winter, hearing the songs of the world.

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