Arts·Video

This vintage organ lets you play a symphony of Leonard Cohen's poetry

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have turned Cohen's words into a playable machine — and they say it's almost like getting a personal message from Leonard.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have turned Cohen's words into a playable machine

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have turned Cohen's words into a playable machine — and they say it's almost like getting a personal message from Leonard. 2:02

"God your life is interesting, I never stop saying," growls the voice of Leonard Cohen from a vintage organ as artist Janet Cardiff listens for more.

There isn't a ghost in this machine, or any of many others that Cardiff and her partner and collaborator Georges Bures Miller have built over their career together. The pair have been producing some of Canada's most compelling sculptural and sound installations for over thirty years. But like the Poetry Machine they've constructed from a vintage organ, an array of speakers and hundreds of snippets of Leonard Cohen's recorded poetry, many of their pieces have a haunting effect.

(Kaveh Nabatian)

"I like the way that audio has such potential for memory. It's like smell. Pictures are a different type of thing. Audio really takes you back into a certain person," says Cardiff of their unique archival instruments. "It's kind of like the I Ching," says Miller, noting that the experience of playing with the machine is like getting a personal message from Leonard. The effect of hearing a juxtaposition of various lines from different stages of Cohen's writing career produces an element of mystery and surprise. "The poems are so incredibly comic and playful," Cardiff says as she plays one phrase against another.

Cardiff and Miller spent months editing and mapping audio of Cohen reading his own poetry onto a refurbished organ's keys in their studio in rural B.C. Their studio sits on rambling acreage near Grindrod in the Okanagan, where bears threaten the couple's gardens during cherry and plum season. "Last year we put up a radio playing Stompin' Tom Connors playing all the time and that scared the bears away," says Cardiff as she gives filmmaker Kaveh Nabatian a tour of the land.

The highly anticipated Cohen-themed exhibition opens Nov. 9 and runs until April 4, 2018. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

The Poetry Machine has since travelled across the country to Montreal, where it has joined 40 other contemporary artists' works from around the world for the Cohen-inspired A Crack in Everything exhibit at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal.

CBC will also be broadcasting the tribute concert that took place in Cohen's hometown in November, Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen, on Wednesday, January 3rd — you can watch it at 8pm (8:30pm NT) on CBC Television or online at cbc.ca/watch.

Play the machine at the Musée ​d'art contemporain de Montréal until April 9, 2018.

About the Author

Carrie Haber is a senior CBC television, radio & podcast producer based in Montreal.

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