Composing By Committee

I heard Osvaldo Golijov’s monumental La Pasión según San Marcos in Rome last week. The work, commissioned in 2000 by Helmuth Rilling to commemorate the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death, featured many—most, really—of the performers from the original premiere. Over the last eight years and dozens of performances around the world, the touring choir and soloists have reached a point that any composer would envy—they have internalized the music, singing and playing most of it by memory.

I was struck by the long, fruitful partnerships that Golijov creates with performers. Meeting him at Tanglewood several years ago as he was composing Ainadamar, I noticed how he was completely immersed in learning complex flamenco clapping rhythms from a few Argentine dancers who had come to visit. These rhythms would later appear, transformed, in his opera. A few years later, as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, I saw him listening silently, transfixed, as guest musicians from China, India, and Iran demonstrated their unique instruments. One could practically see the cogs turning in his head, dreaming of new possibilities.

The 90-minute long Pasión relies on a nucleus of superb Latin American singers, guitarists, and percussionists who have advised, assisted, even co-composed the piece. I find Osvaldo’s compositional process inspiring though problematic at times. In a way, he is simply following in the grand ole tradition of performer/composer partnerships—Brahms/Joachim, Prokofiev/Richter, Berio/Berberian. Golijov is certainly not afraid of learning from musicians, and his thirst for knowledge is palpable. It sounds so obvious when I write it, but the concept of humbly admitting ignorance is easier said than done. Many composers don’t wish to admit their lack of familiarity with an instrument and are afraid of asking. But my only reservation to his process comes when considering the fine line one crosses in such a close collaboration—an openness that may mean compromising a single voice or vision for a work.

5 thoughts on “Composing By Committee

  1. mryan

    Hmm . . .
    I’d like to ask what is so great about having a “single voice or vision” for a work? As far as I know, none of us grew up in a vacuum, and all of us are building our works on the giants of the past, no matter how revelutionary or ‘single voice’ we think we may be.

    We can either open up to the possibilities and ideas around us as this man has done, or cloister ourselves off with imaginary walls that can never exist, but only make ourselves smaller than we could have been if we had been able to swallow our pride. Honestly, where did we all learn how to write music if not from teachers, listening to other’s music, talking and exchanging ideas, etc. If we’d been brought up by wolves, we’d still be making the music of the pack.

    I’m not saying that we should let anyone make our creative decisions for us, but there is nothing wrong whatsoever in the slightest with being teachable.

    M Ryan Taylor

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  2. Kotch

    Well put, M Ryan. The unified whole is a concept of the past.

    About Golijov: I heard to Ayre recently. He had Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall from 8bb make their own percussion parts. He didn’t really know what was up. But that’s cool with me – art isn’t about what amazing things you can come up with on your own. It’s about setting the stage for amazing things to happen: having a whacky idea, surrounding yourself with brilliant people (much like in politics), etc. Miles Davis wasn’t the best trumpeter but the guy could write a tune and he sure knew how to surround himself with fantastic musicians.

    Now, the Golijov piece was much less than amazing. While listening, I kept wondering if it’s possible to exploit one’s own culture(s). [In Golijov's case, he belongs to 65 different cultures, which he and everybody else will never stop drilling into people's heads.] Sure, I’m jealous of that. But his Sephardic texts, flat-2 chords, etc. were very much on the surface, and were so fleeting that they lost their significance. He conjured up so many different folk songs, texts in different languages that he belittled each one. He reversed a common phrase by making the whole worth less than the sum of its parts. Everyone loved it. Alex Ross loved it. Justin Davidson loved it. Allan Kozinn loved it. I hated it. Multiculturalism is so commonplace at this point that its existence can’t justify itself; it needs a purpose, an explanation, a goal. And ‘world peace’ is just a little too broad a goal.

    So, while I’m all for Golijov’s creative process and interaction with his performers, I can’t say I think it’s working for him.

    Sound and Space (my blog). Please visit!

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  3. douglasboyce

    I for one, am not convinced that any work is ever best described as the result of the work of an individual. The notion of composer as sole/true creator has a great deal to do with the economics and prevailing notions of self, so much so that one doesn’t need to get to Kotch’s discussion of preference above) to argue against it; far more than aesthetic position or concern, what is being presented in the posting is an ontological theory of composition, but one quite out of step with current thinking on musical ontology.

    For the interested, read Constantine Brailau ‘Reflections on Collective Musical Composition’ in ‘Problems of Ethnomusicology’ (from Cambridge UP – easy to find) and pretty much anything by Cook or Agawu.

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  4. Kotch

    The problems with ethno…there are many, and I look forward to reading.

    I don’t know why I left this out earlier: what Golijov is doing, what Meredith Monk is doing, and others, is just getting people together and being a band. It’s about time classical groups started acting like bands. Plenty of chamber ensembles try really hard to be bands, but they play fully pre-composed pieces just like everyone else. Most bands get together and work out some material that someone comes in with – it’s not all set in stone before the first downbeat.

    So, while I’m not into his music or his hyper-cultural-fusion (wasn’t that cool in the 80s when Fred Jameson wrote about postmodern pastiche?), good for him for his creative process. I’m always pissed I play clarinet bc it’s a little hard to enter the Metal scene on Bb.

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  5. jonrussell20

    You’re right, it is hard to play metal on Bb; that’s why you should take up the bass clarinet:

    Reply

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