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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Arts & Letters

Music as Theater of the Imagination: Osvaldo Golijov in Conversation

Osvaldo Golijov has captured listeners’ imaginations in a way that few other contemporary composers have managed. Superbly layered, Golijov’s work—which often centers on themes of identity, exile, and loss—has quickly surged to the forefront of new “classical” music, and it has been rapturously embraced by performers, critics, and audiences alike in an astonishingly brief amount of time.

It was only four years ago that he made his major breakthrough with the US premiere of his stunning oratorio, La Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion According to St. Mark). This spectacular, multidisciplinary piece—which encompasses elements from Afro-Cuban dancing and a Brazilian capoeira performer to the Jewish Kaddish prayer of mourning—re-envisions the Christian Passion narrative through both a Jewish and contemporary Latin American lens.

Born in Las Platas, Argentina, to parents of eastern European Jewish heritage, Golijov spent his childhood surrounded by Bach, Jewish liturgical music, and the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla. As a young man, he moved to Jerusalem and fell in love with great Arab singers like Oum Kalthoum and Fairuz. Now living near Boston, the 45-year-old uses these long-time influences and new inspirations as colors in his own highly nuanced and incredibly fresh compositional voice.

Earlier this spring, Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series hosted a month-long festival of his music, The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov, which included performances of his chamber opera, Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears), a meditation on the life of Federico García Lorca; an evening split between many of his small chamber pieces and arrangements for string quartet, played by the Kronos Quartet, and his song cycle Ayre; La Pasión según San Marcos; and an evening with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, in which the ensemble performed his pieces, Yiddishbbuk and The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. In addition, Lincoln Center gave greater context to Golijov’s work by presenting a number of concerts that explored the composer’s musical roots, which span Argentine tango to klezmer. (Full disclosure: I wrote the program notes for the performances of both the Kronos Quartet and St. Lawrence Quartet; during the festival, I also chaired a panel discussion with Golijov; Peter Sellars, the renowned director who staged Ainadamar; and Oscar-winning composer (of the music for Brokeback Mountain), musician, and frequent Golijov collaborator, Gustavo Santaolalla.)

Those who are not aware of but would like to explore Golijov’s music should not miss the ongoing Golijov recording project currently being undertaken by Deutsche Grammophon (DG). There are certainly other notable recordings of Golijov’s music, including—to choose just two among many—the Kronos Quartet’s 1997 Isaac the Blind (Nonesuch) and the German label Haenssler Classics’ 2001 issue of the Pasión. DG, however, has made a commitment to record three albums of Golijov’s music, and the first two fruits of this endeavor were released recently.

The first, a Grammy-nominated recording of Ayre, features Dawn Upshaw, the soprano for whom the piece was composed. It is a kaleidoscopic setting of a range of poetry for which Upshaw and the instrumentalists (who call themselves the Andalucian [sic] Dogs) shift among personas, darting between, say, ethereal evocations of medieval Spain and a mournful recitation of the work of the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. The second, released just last month, is of Ainadamar, and the three lead roles are sung by the artists who created them: Dawn Upshaw as actress Margarita Xirgu, Kelley O’Connor as García Lorca, and Jessica Rivera as Xirgu’s student, Nuria. They are joined by members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Robert Spano, another artist who has been a longtime advocate of Golijov’s work.

Before the Lincoln Center festival began, Golijov and discussed his evolution as a composer, his deep relationships with the musicians with whom he collaborates, and the constant shifts he makes between the cultures closest to his heart. I’ve been revisiting the music that is being included in the Lincoln Center festival, and one idea I’ve been thinking about quite a bit is music being made and experienced not just as music, but also as theater or ritual experience. Of course, I think that’s true of the Passion and also of Ainadamar, but I’m wondering if that idea plays into your other works.

Osvaldo Golijov: Yes, but in the end, maybe the best theater is the theater of the imagination, with music that is not staged. In that sense, I think that Ayre is very theatrical, as is Isaac the Blind. Yeah, definitely, I feel that my music is theatrical, but not necessarily tied to physical characters and situations. I don’t know, sometimes it’s philosophical theater.

gw: So Ayre is not necessarily tied to a narrative, then.

OG: No. There is a musical narrative, but I don’t think it follows any literary or non-musical narrative.

gw: But when you do write things that are more theatrical—say, either Ainadamar or film scores [including that of the upcoming film by Francis Ford Coppola, Megalopolis]—is that a fundamentally different approach to writing?

OG: Well, for instance, in an opera, you have the words, right? And the characters as well. That’s different, because the words guide you. I do believe in musical narrative in other pieces, but I’m not following a script, so to speak, in words….What I mean is, all good composers, I think—even the ones that people say write absolute, pure music—use a narrative: symbols, or situations, or characters. It’s the reason that noble music is in E-Flat major, in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony or Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, or that Haydn’s sunrise music is in D major, or whatnot. People associated keys or gestures with theatrical images; in the contemporary world, the vocabulary for these images has expanded, but it’s pointless to ignore it.

gw: Those resonances are still there.

OG: Oh, yeah. Those resonances from the past are there, but also there are new archetypes.

gw: And when you say new archetypes, what are you thinking of?

OG: Well, there’s the evocative power of certain sounds, right? Not necessarily ones that I use, but, for example, electric guitars imitating motorcycles. Or, in the new John Adams opera, Dr. Atomic, the countdown—you know, things that didn’t exist before, but now are in the collective subconscious. And you use them—you cannot ignore them.

gw: Do you think those sorts of new things have the same universality, or even that the old points of reference have universal meaning?

OG: Well, things always rely on conventions, or accepted conventions by a group of people. That’s why certain private codes never make it to the audience; mystical composers have their own codes. They hear one thing when they hear their music, but the public hears other things.

gw: That presents an interesting conundrum of sorts, I think. Certainly, the sound of a motorcycle would be universal—anywhere in the world it would be recognized at this point. But I wonder about certain gestures or inflections. In your music, for example, if there’s even a hint of flamenco, and its feeling of duende [deep emotion], would that have the same sort of resonance to an audience at Lincoln Center that it would, for example, to an audience in Spain or Argentina?

OG: No, I think that they’ll have different reactions, but there’s a certain core reaction. These emotions are like a field, you know? They generate a field. People in Lincoln Center will be one part of that field and people in Spain somewhere else. But they’ll be somewhere in the same field, I think—I hope so.

gw: So much of your work deals with identity, and the idea of embracing multiple, personal identities. So what does identity—cultural identity, religious identity, or even musical identity—mean to you at this point?

OG: [laughs] I don’t know. That’s why I keep exploring it! But I think it’s not just about me or my identity; it’s about us and our identity. It’s more and more not about the quote-unquote “purity” of identity, even in folk traditions. Today, there are very few isolated places in the world. So identity is a very fluid concept, and, in my music, it’s not about “flamenco,” it’s about using three seconds of flamenco because a certain emotion is needed. I modulate between cultures. I use cultures and identities in the same way that other composers might use tonal areas. Like, let’s modulate from C major to E major, like Mahler would do, or maybe C minor to E major, which is an amazing modulation. Why? Because C minor was death, and E major was heaven, paradise.

So, today, we use other means to go from the fear of death to heaven. It’s not simple—what Mahler did wasn’t simple [laughs]—but, again, since that understanding is not shared anymore by people, you have to find how people associate the fear of death today, by which kind of musical gesture. How do you modulate to another place? So that’s why I shift. I mean, that’s my way; I’m sure there are a million other ways. Maybe if I were a better composer, I would be more consistent within one language.

gw: I know that you grew up listening to all kinds of music. What are your earliest musical memories?

OG: My earliest musical memories are from Bach: hearing my mother playing the Bach Partitas for keyboard. I remember playing under the piano when she practiced. And I also think about the Yiddish songs that she and my grandparents and great-grandparents used to sing—all that is mixed together. It’s very hard now to say which was first.

gw: The pieces being programmed on this festival were all written within about 13 or 15 years of each other, no?

OG: Thirteen, yeah.

gw: Looking at them in such close juxtaposition, do you think that the performances are going to inform each other?

OG: I think so, yeah. The earliest piece is Yiddishbbuk, which is very concentrated. That was when I was thinking that music should sound like an open wound, so to speak—very essentialist and condensed, concentrated, distilled. Then the next piece is Isaac the Blind, which is completely different in a way, like long narrative, more general and maybe less pure, more inclusive of everything, of humor, of all kinds of moods and atmospheres that I didn’t have just two years earlier.

gw: So, was that piece really a turning point for you?

OG: It was in the sense of saying that art and music should not only express the continuation of the late Beethoven quartets in their depth and seriousness, but that every generation is allowed every mood: humor, sexiness, all kinds of so-called “lighter” emotions. Those feelings make us more human, more complete. And Beethoven himself didn’t start with the late quartets! He wrote the Fifth Symphony first, right? He earned the late quartets. In conservatories and in universities, it was always, “Oh, yeah, where do you go after the [Beethoven] Grosse Fugue?” It’s like, “Hello, I’m not at the end of my life.” You know what I mean? [laughs]

So, then, a piece like Isaac the Blind is more like Schubert, you know? Instead of a very directional music that goes from Point A to Point B to Point C, it allows for detours, for getting lost in the forest a little bit, stopping to have some water, looking at the birds, falling asleep—it’s a really different way of narrating.

gw: And, of course, I would imagine that the Kronos Quartet evening, which includes stuff like your arrangement of the Bollywood song, “Aaj Ki Raat” [written by R. D. Burman], and works you collaborated on with the Mexican rock band Café Tacuba, illustrates that point even further.

OG: Yeah, it’s exactly the same, but better. [laughs] I learned that, yes, it’s possible to have that kind of generosity and the wandering spirit, but maybe Isaac is too long. So, in Ayre and the music with Café Tacuba and all the other stuff that I did a few years later, I learned how to give the impression of expanse without taking so much physical time, how to give that illusion. Really, I learned how to manipulate time better.

gw: Another interesting facet of this festival is that it juxtaposes your music with a performance by clarinetist David Krakauer and his group, Klezmer Madness!, as well as two tango shows, one of classic tango featuring the singer, Cristóbal Repetto, and a very modern one by Gustavo Santaolalla’s group, Bajofondo Tango Club.

OG: I think this shows that nobody works in a vacuum. We all influence each other. These concerts review my sources, so to speak, even though I didn’t grow up listening to David Krakauer—he’s taking klezmer to a new place, but the root is the same root from where I started. The same is true of the tango performances.

gw: Obviously, this festival brings together a lot of people with whom you’ve collaborated over the years.

OG: Yeah, a lot of people who helped me, because my music wouldn’t be anywhere without these people. My music was created specifically for these people. Other people today play it really great, but I needed these people for that music to be born. When I write a string quartet for Kronos, it will be a completely different string quartet from what I write for the St. Lawrence, even if they can play each other’s quartet. But for that music to be born, I need to know who is going to bow—I know how David Harrington [from Kronos] bows, as opposed to Geoff Nuttall [from the St. Lawrence]. Different musics come out of that knowledge.

I don’t think that my music comes from me, but rather that I absorb, I process, and I give back. I absorb from my surroundings, and my surroundings are my friends, the performers….I wonder, for example, what Stravinsky would have been like if he weren’t working with Nijinsky, and if Nijinsky wasn’t showing him how to do the steps, to jump on two feet. It’s a mistake to think that it only comes from the soul of the composer. I mean, yeah, maybe it comes from there, but before there, it was somewhere else.

gw: So, working with these musicians is a crucial part of your artistic process.

OG: I know I am lucky. Beyond lucky….For example, I feel that I’ve learned more from Kronos than from my composition studies. I always feel that they are my composition teachers. I wouldn’t have written the Passion if I hadn’t worked on [the 2000 Nonesuch album] Caravan with Kronos. They are so crazy. They said, “Oh, let’s play with [the Romanian gypsy band] Taraf de Haïdouks.” Before, I would think, oh, yeah, maybe I could notate certain things from Gypsy music, but it’s always going to be quote-unquote “concert music,” you know what I mean? They are my teachers. They helped me to lose my fear.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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