Osvaldo Golijov seems to know no musical boundaries. He negotiates styles, genres, and aesthetic directions with no attachments whatsoever, joggles high and low-brow material, mixing in the vernacular, ethnic, exotic. His refined, comfortable manner carries the weight of the European art music tradition with elegance and oomph. Proudly carrying the torch of an important thread of Argentinean contemporary composers, he has developed a voice that seems to be heard everywhere these days, from the concert stage to the big screen.
He grew up in La Plata, Argentina, a third-generation Eastern European Jewish transplant, within the multicultural fabric of post-war Argentina that Golijov compares to being in New York in the turn of the 20th century. The son of two academics, a physician and a concert pianist, he was exposed to both secular and liturgical Jewish music, as well as to the sounds of the piano and chamber music repertory on his mother's side, and the symphonic repertoire and tango on his father's side.
"Tango was everywhere," he points out, but it was not a simple matter. "It was controversial, even at home."
His mother liked the avant-garde kind, the Nuevo Tango, most popular by Astor Piazzolla, whereas his father preferred the traditional tango.
"Dad could intellectually appreciate Piazzolla, but he was among the people that rejected him for ruining the purity of tango."
For the classically trained, Piazzolla was not intellectual enough. For tango musicians, he was too far out, and for tango lovers, he simply did not belong. Within a few years however, as European performers like Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, and the Kronos Quartet started promoting his music, the Argentinean classical establishment embraced him, and he became the hero that took tango away from a dead-end. "It's the old story of nobody being a prophet in their own land."
Piazzolla was a revelation to the young Golijov: a living, breathing, local composer, who could bring together Stravinsky and Bartok with the sounds of the street. "He became my portal to all music," says Golijov. His phrasing and counterpoint are not just technique, but a "representation of life itself as he experienced it in everyday life."
The act of extrapolating techniques from art music and giving them a new meaning through new, unusual melodies and rhythms, was a breakthrough for Golijov, as he discovered the possibility of the "theater of life, distilled into sound." Though he enjoyed rock and jazz music, especially Emerson, Lake & Palmer, it was Bartok that overshadowed them all.
Then came the National Reorganization Process — the "official" name for the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 — which forced Golijov to leave his homeland. He was 22 at the time, living in a small college town. "It was extreme," he recalls, "and everyone knew someone that had 'disappeared.' After what had been a great childhood, having to flee to avoid repression, turmoil, killings, was an experience that stays with you forever."
He found himself in Jerusalem next, with so many other young people from all over. His time there was formative. He studied with a Russian teacher that gave him a strong theoretical and technical background, but more importantly, he was discovering the Arab music, the non-Ashkenazy Jewish music from other regions, and all the Christian liturgical music that flowed freely in the city.
He then went to the United States, for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with renowned American composer George Crumb. "America was a total culture shock at the time. But I loved studying with Crumb," Golijov reminisces. "He was open to everything, and had a great way of raising your level of awareness of musical elements that are not 'factual' like pitch and rhythm. He was all about the symbolic power, the evocative power, all the kinds of associations that sound itself can give you. He spoke of an idiom that functions by pure association, rather than by logic."
Golijov experimented with modernism in those days, drawing musical influences from Stravinsky and Bartok and literary associations from the writings of Argentina's own Jorge Luis Borges. Then in 1992 he made a sharp stylistic turn with Yiddishbbuk, a three-movement string quartet work, inspired by the Yiddish tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer, with drawings and poems by children in concentration camps, which he feels is the seminal piece that turned the cards for him. In hindsight, even if now it feels like a small object in his rearview mirror, Yiddishbbuk validated the possibility of writing visceral, hyper-expressive music without having to justify himself. He also felt very fortunate that the St. Lawrence String Quartet, a strong champion of his music ever since, went for it with abandon and conviction.
"I was lucky it was a string quartet and not a symphony," he chuckles. "It's much easier to convince four people to do something they're not used to than 100... They really went for it, and I think it was because although they have to do technical things that are unusual, these things come from a philosophical, ideological and stylistic need."
He realized that music could work in ways besides the Beethovenian idea for development, logic and argument, by simply putting things together.
"It's like a movie," Golijov explains. "My movie would never be based on a book ... it would be a pure movie, where sometimes the story disappears."
This realization allowed him to go beyond modernism, beyond the need for absolute concision and concentration, the way of vast expansion, in ways that Golijov compares to Schubert, apparent in his next major work for string quartet and klezmer clarinet, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. The work sets moments of textural stillness and timelessness against fits of fragmented, angry music interwoven with substantial sections of traditional Jewish feast and dance music.
Golijov admits that his music is concerned with spirituality though it's hard to pin it down with words. Nostalgia, too, is a part of life "when necessary ... I don't agree with modernists that dismiss nostalgia. It's a universal feeling, and music that deals with universal feelings, to me, is worthy of respect."
Composers have always looked outside the main canon of classical music for inspiration and renewal, importing folk or exotic musical elements, and in recent years jazz, rock and pop sounds. Golijov adds to the list. Besides the obvious tango, he pulls in Afro-Cuban and capoeira dancers, flamenco guitars, Turkish rockers, and laptop musicians. Only he does not refer to these styles in a vague, transformative way. Instead he imports them verbatim, including the performers themselves, in folk dress and all.
"I just do it," he exclaims. "I don't necessarily think about it while I'm doing it, but looking back I realize that I use these musics as symbols, as my own way of connecting with the audience, when I take them somewhere else. When you work with abstract material, especially today, it's very hard for the listener to follow the 'how.' Where is the theme and where are the variations? Working with all this 'other' musical material resembles 19th century tone poems, where something external is brought in to give sense to the narrative.
"We don't understand sonata form today, it lost its meaning a long time ago. You have to find other ways to create a musical journey, and this is my way of doing just that. The idea is that every imported music has symbolic charge, and, if you use it in the right way, you can recharge that symbol with new meaning, or even destroy its meaning by juxtaposing it with other symbols, creating constellations. This creates a narrative."
This juxtaposition is most evident in Golijov's dramatic works, where traditional forms like oratorio and opera become carnivals of heterogeneous world music, colorful, kaleidoscopic feasts for the senses. When asked whether he does this to make the works more approachable, Golijov explains that his aim is to "just do what needs to be done" in the particular piece. Tell the story, without concern with what is appropriate or not.
In the case of La Pasión según San Marcos, his oratorio on the Passion of Christ, he wanted to give the main line of narration to the collective voice of the people of Latin America, the only carriers of Jesus' message.
"There was no need to duplicate the conventional structure of Jesus, the Evangelist, and the chorus. I wanted to tell an honest story about what happens to the Passion, when it comes to Latin America, where you're dealing with slaves, when an entire continent, people, and culture are oppressed. What's left of the Passion message, how is that message transformed?" Gabriel Garcia Marquez' The Autumn of the Patriatrch was a model for this collective monologue, a novel way of telling a well-known story."
Golijov expects the audience will perceive what he intends, even if they don't have all the information to make the connection between the imported musical objects and their symbolism. He quotes Robert Lepage: "Never overestimate the audience's culture, but never underestimate the audience's intelligence."
He claims his aim is not to create a populist work by bringing in the vernacular but to attempt to portray things accurately, like a documentary filmmaker. "These are the sounds you would hear, the transcendental music of Latin America, primarily Cuban and Brazilian," he says. "You look back at the entirety of the 20th century, and what do you see? Serious composers like Ginastera, whom I admire, are minor figures, one of the many Bartoks that turn up in every country, whereas someone like Piazzolla, Villa Lobos or Revueltas, and even more so, Jobim and Chucho Valdez, are regarded as figures that really took music to a different place."
Yet, it's usually composers from a learned background that care to consolidate these disparate elements, not pop or folk musicians. There's still an elitist, trained intellect making these decisions, some would argue with less-than-noble intentions, as if looking at these ingredients with the intentions of a gourmet chef. "I like the idea that things are in a different states of cooking," Golijov admits. "Sometimes you bring in the raw thing, and sometimes it becomes a part of the orchestral fabric. Sometimes they're just spices, but sometimes they transform the 'soup.' I think my classical training has given me a sense of architecture in the large scale."
Asked about how he negotiates these disparate elements on a temporal level to serve the narrative, Golijov responds with the idea that time doesn't have to be rigid, but can incorporate different levels of fluidity. "I try to encompass all the gamut of human experience. Sometimes time stops, or it moves. Sometimes it's dream-like, sometimes, it's colloquial. I'm thinking of late Beethoven, when all that rigid architecture starts to dissolve, and he gets very loose with structure. Shakespeare does the same in The Tempest. I like this fluidity between different perceptions of time. The story will guide you."
Golijov seems to be more tuned to topography than time and historical lineage in his views of music. To him, Steve Reich is a neighbor of Perotin, but far away from his contemporary Elliott Carter, and Flamenco closer to Stravinsky than to the music of France. History is the history of ideas, and those explored in a particular era may disappear only to resurface 300 years later.
Narrative and dramatic structure are recurring themes in any conversation with Osvaldo Golijov. It comes as no surprise that he was recruited by Francis Ford Coppola, a filmmaker known for his particular taste in music. Golijov scored Coppola's recent film projects, Youth Without Youth and Tetro. "He is so sophisticated, such a true visionary," he says of Coppola. "He is not afraid to take chances, to bring out the weird in how he sees things; he's not afraid. He's a child in many ways, always playful and naughty."
Coppola heard Golijov's Passion and approached him to work with him. "He sent me this beautiful, handwritten letter, and invited me to his winery in Napa Valley, where we spent a week together going over the script and having an amazing time."
Golijov will no doubt continue to play with the big boys. His musical brand is relevant and powerful, and his palette will most likely keep up with a realistic glance at our surroundings, like tuning a radio to different stations. Where other composers would look down upon some of the airplay, to Golijov it's all fair game. "It's a contemporary thing," he says. "Like sitting at a world café, or walking into a subway car with all kinds of different people and languages."
Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is Assistant Professor of Composition at the College of Charleston