Ring of Fire

Indulge me in a thought experiment.

We’re at a high school in a wealthy exurban district. It’s standardized test season. The stakes are high: Competitive merit-based scholarships hang in the balance. But all is not as it seems; little do the teachers know that a ring of students have organized a scheme to cheat on the exam. One student in particular is the beneficiary of this scheme. He’s no fool, and he probably could have achieved a very strong score on his own if he hadn’t been so busy with other obligations, but in this case he’s leaning heavily on answers provided by his friends. His buddies all do OK—none of them wind up digging ditches after graduation—but this particular student, who boasts not only formidable test results but also a compelling and exotic narrative of the sort that admissions personnel can’t resist, wins a hefty scholarship to attend a prestigious school.

When the ring is eventually exposed, the promising trajectory our successful student seemed to be on is spoiled, maybe permanently. His friends are in trouble too, but in the context of the scandal they come off looking more like saps than like diabolical cheaters. However, mustn’t we ask whether the system that stratifies rewards and opportunities so pitilessly, one whose legitimacy is supposed to rest on its meritocratic process but plainly doesn’t, deserves to have most of the fingers pointed at it?

I don’t like Osvaldo Golijov’s music. I think his musical identity-politics synthesizes and presents a phony solution to the real political problems of globalization. (Almost all writings by or on Golijov, including the Amarillo Symphony program note Rob Deemer mentioned in his comprehensive and very fair post last week, will bolster this impression.) However, in the past I always had to give him his props: He did well for himself in a field whose upper echelon admits very few. The institutions who raised him up on their shoulders and offered him lavish paydays saw something in him, evidently, that they found value in. For better or worse, they wanted Golijov.

But they didn’t get him, as it turns out: They got his well-meaning friends, who must be even more embarrassed than Golijov by this whole squalid thing. The foundation of the mainstream contemporary music economy is that famous composers can get enormous consortium commissions because arts organizations acknowledge them as singular, integral creative subjectivities. In other words, large classical music organizations—businesses accountable for dozens if not hundreds of livelihoods apiece—are willing to deal with a composer who misses deadlines and blows off projects because he putatively has something unique and meaningful to say that a (relatively) wide audience ought to hear. My hope is that this situation prompts arts organizations to have a good hard think about this notion: It would probably be much cheaper, not to mention fairer, to commission Michael Ward-Bergman next time.

11 thoughts on “Ring of Fire

    1. Phil Fried

      Sadly, I must disagree. The perspective at said “salon” is not level headed at all. Rather it is a strictly one sided affair. Fine.

      Nor do I find it interesting when supporters rally round the flag or when detractors,well detract. This isn’t the first time that; “what you see is not what you get.”

      Nor will it be the last.

      I suppose it might get my dander up to have it implied that even “stolen” music is much better than any “original” serial music. Nope.

      On the other hand what of all the professional enabling of famous songwriters to create concert music and opera? Naturally these folks don’t read or write music. Nor are they actually inspired to compose these works themselves. They have handlers. Then we get to read the reviews critiquing the orchestrations that they did not create, harmonies they did not write, vocal lines that “professionals” also made for them.

      Is this any worse?

      Reply
    2. Philipp Blume

      Level-headed… I suppose so, but I think it’s quite tangential to the point. Sure, Bach, Handel, and Mozart borrowed and/or appropriated things. Our standards of originality and, by extension, of plagiarism, have changed, i.e., evolved since the days of Bach and Handel.

      The Josquin example strikes me as utterly ridiculous. Mr Townsend thereby cites an example of a publisher committing fraud in order to score a sale – so are we supposed to excuse fraud because there are precedents for it?

      The ‘Originality is overrated’ argument is a pretty thin gruel too. When people ‘steal’ to the extent that Mr Golijov has in this instance, then they call it a cover version or an arrangement or a transcription, i.e., they come clean at the very outset of the process. Mozart stealing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ (your example) was called a set of variations.

      Your image of the composer ‘writing a new tone row’, in turn, is what’s known as a straw man, and a blatant one at that. How do you square that, and your use of the phrase ‘copyright Nazis’, with your term ‘level-headed’?

      Reply
    3. Nathan Shirley

      I was referring to the post as being level headed, not my own comment!

      I think I see where you both are coming from, but there seems to be a crucially overlooked point. Golijov had full permission to use the music he used. The original author is not upset nor surprised, and (from what I’ve read at least) none of the people involved in commissioning this music have been surprised or disappointed. Golijov doesn’t hide his use of other people’s music, it is known that this is what he does. Anyone approaching Golijov for music would certainly be aware of this. Would they not?

      Reply
      1. Phil Fried

        “Golijov had full permission to use the music he used.”

        There is certainly nothing wrong with making money off the work of others. Nor becoming famous by the work of others. Truly, who would turn down that opportunity to be presented by major orchestras? Not me. Anyway ghostwriting or for us ghostcomposing is a well know professional activity (mostly associated with films and popular music). It seems that brand names can count more than the product.

        As far as I can see the only problem is; does he fairly compensate his subcontractors?

        Reply
      2. Philipp Blume

        No, I did not overlook that point. Plagiarism is defined not by whether one has permission from the ‘original author’, but by whether one (as the unoriginal author?) cites one’s sources.

        Reply
  1. Colin Holter

    Anyone approaching Golijov for music would certainly be aware of this. Would they not?

    They might or they might not – but Brian McWhorter and Tom Manoff certainly seem not to have been aware of it. If anything, that Golijov’s cheating could be an “open secret” among boards of trustees and artistic directors suggests that even more is rotten in the world of high-stakes classical music than we thought.

    Reply
    1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      This is a great point, Colin. There’s the question of what information Golijov should divulge, as well as which he MAY. But equally important is what other involved parties care to take into consideration. Any negative feelings toward the composer eventually extend beyond to the commissioning organization, particularly when the latter is aware of any public image problems.

      Reply
  2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Thanks for the article, Colin. And Rob’s summary last week was a nice encapsulation of the whole thing.

    Frankly, I’m a little surprised by how big an issue this is. While I don’t especially think it’s ok to send off a piece like that without giving credit where credit is due, it’s not unheard of. At worst, in a legal sense Golijov just seems a little dumb for not thinking of this prior to the incident.
    The other side of the issue is the extent to which this tarnishes his artistic credibility. All stylistic judgments aside, it is pretty shoddy work to have reached a point where the great organizations of the world as asking for your work and all you can submit is something between a “based on-” piece and a cover. It speaks poorly to one as an artist if he finds himself in such a position and relies so heavily on the work of others. Golijov is a composer of enormous skill, and that has been recognized, but this is a habit which reflects a certain unwillingness to create.

    But again, why is this a big issue? Because we are witnessing a star’s fall from grace. The stakes were high, so everyone gathered around to watch, which is pretty shameful of us as well. Everyone seems to be jockeying for the claim to the first judgment passed against Golijov or his detractors. He’s not infallible– we can see that from his artistic predilections– but we’re only going for the throat because there is more blood there. On the other hand, those rallying behind Golijov are protecting…. what? The disintegration of intellectual property? The right of the creator to freely take and give? The onus on the commissioning organizations to more clearly lay out terms?

    This is all just sad, and we’re only making it worse– both for Golijov and ourselves.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      Mischa, you are right about the fall from grace … what you’ve said in that entire paragraph. Especially the latter is a point I’ve been trying to get across.

      But another important point that you’ve highlighted is that there are tens of thousands of composers with “enormous skill”. If that were the true criterion, any decently educated composition graduate would be there with Golijov.

      What’s come into question should be whether he is a composer of enormous imagination and originality. Maybe once. His music is not to my taste, but many have found his earlier works powerful. Yet repetitively depending on the work of others in the present time seems to be the issue many of us can’t get our heads around — nor how the orchestras involved must have believed they were buying Golijov’s imagination and originality, not someone else’s.

      There’s a lesson in that. Something about betrayal, something about imagination, something about the creative well that I, at least, feel has been a little bit polluted.

      Dennis

      Reply

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