Philippe Sands is an international human rights lawyer and, as it turns out, a real Leonard Cohen fan. I am a law student and, happily, a Cohen fan too.
We’re having breakfast at a café next to Frankie’s Pizza. Rockers in skin-tight leather and jigsaw heels are spilling out onto the street before us. Music and law. It’s a thrilling and odd combination, and it’s what’s led me to this conversation with Sands.
Sands is the author of East West Street, a memoir on the origins of international law. He is also the creator of East West Street—A Song of Good and Evil, a musical rendition of his memoir, that he will be performing at the City Recital Hall tonight.
Right now, Sands is scrolling through his iPhone, eager to find photographs from his day with Cohen.
Sands spends a great deal of time with musicians, particularly his childhood friend, opera singer Laurent Naouri. Their performance tonight is a dramatic piece, interwoven with music relevant to the book’s characters. For a Cambridge-educated Queen’s Counsel involved in high profile International Court of Justice proceedings, the Rome statute, and countless other cases, this is an unorthodox side project. But then again East West Street is itself brilliantly unorthodox.
Focusing on the origins of international human rights law, East West Street—A Song of Good and Evil lyrically weaves together the four stories of Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz; the creator of ‘crimes against humanity’, Hersch Lauterpacht; the man who termed ‘genocide’, Raphael Lemkin; and Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer responsible for the Gross-Aktion Warsaw of 1942, which led to the eventual murder of the other three men’s families.
The show further paints a historical portrait of the city of Lviv, the place of origin of Buchholz, Lauterpacht and Lemkin.
In investigating their stories, Sands uncovered Lauterpacht and Frank, on opposite sides of the courtroom, and the poles of Good and Evil, found solace in the same piece of music: Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Particularly its Erbarme Dich, a mournful song of guilt: “Have Mercy Lord, My God, for the sake of my tears.” The choral piece gives voice to Peter’s self-destruction in the garden, after denying Jesus thrice. There is sadness, self-betrayal, and a recognition too late of something holy and fragile.
“How is that even possible?!” wonders Sands. This moral tension is at the heart of A Song of Good and Evil.
“I’m very interested in what happens when we link words to music. Why is it that music transforms what happens in a space, and forms the intellectual and emotional response?”
Sands suggests there’s a musicality to the courtroom. “There’s something that happens, when you know the judges are with you, when you know they are listening. Something almost indescribable.”
There is a silence, a degree of attention, and there is a resonance. If you do it in the right way, it takes people to a different place. Words open up the imagination, we know from speaking in court, and I now know from being on a stage with some remarkable performers, you know that moment when the words alone create something in the room.”
Much of the production is spent on the Nuremberg trial itself and on Hans Frank. A scene where Sands imaginatively cross-examines the Hans Frank character is a standout, underscored by shaking strings and a stirred sympathetic confusion.
Sands makes it clear that he isn’t seeking personal reconciliation through these works. He asks many questions of his family story—some that he purposely leaves unanswered, questions that linger in the performance’s pulse. He seeks to let the facts of experience speak for themselves and for the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Sands says, “Understatement is more effective as a tool of advocacy. Being passionate and having strong beliefs about something doesn’t win you cases. I’ve noticed that also now as an adjudicator, the counsel I find most effective are those who put it in the most neutral, understated, sparse way.”
Understatement translates into silence on the stage and it is music, beautiful and glorious, that frames this silence.
Silence is present as a palpable thematic player, negative sound becomes a character given life by the sudden cut off of rising crescendos or the dark welling tones latent in the Erbarme Dich.
As dynamics build, the keys are stopped and the great absence of sound cuts at the air and leaves the audience in a grip, resonant with the silence of Sands’ grandfather Leon, and the guilt-induced shamed silence of Frank.
The silence becomes a space which the performers occupy with memory. It is the understatement, the small details that matter.
Which brings me back to Cohen and those photos on Sands’ phone. There’s one of Sands and Cohen, smiling, side by side. Cohen’s eye strays to the camera, like he’s got a secret to offer, and Sands looks like he knows what it is. There’s another: Cohen’s half-eaten apricot, on a coffee table. And finally, Cohen’s stage hats, eight of them, neatly organised into symmetrical white boxes. Spartan. Understated.
At this point Philippe tells me that his own voice – British, and melodically honed for court and stage – can be heard on Cohen’s Live in London album. He shouts out for “Famous Blue Raincoat!”.
I listen for it later and, sure enough, it’s there. Cohen laughs a deep familiar laugh, “I heard that”: he knows who the screaming fan is. He ignores Sands’ song request, and offers up Anthem instead. Fittingly, it’s the song that closes Sands’ show tonight. “Don’t dwell on what has passed away, or what is yet to be … there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”