Truth and Consequences

The very concept of artistic originality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Beethoven, composers considered themselves craftspeople. Mozart’s position in the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg was officially above the cooks but below the valets, and Bach produced a cantata a week for over two years, in addition to his other composing and performing duties. (When I think about this latter fact, it completely boggles my mind, because I don’t think I could copy a score and parts by hand for a cantata a week, much less with a quill pen, while actually composing the work itself.) While earlier composers were writing for specific occasions with no expectation that their works would survive that single performance, the Romantic era ushered in a newfound obsession with originality of voice and the idea of artistry as being born out of original creative obsession. This 19th-century notion of artistic value continues to hold sway.

It’s important to remember the central position occupied by the concept of the composerly voice in discussions of artistic merit when considering the current discussions around the borrowing within Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus. Already, many people have weighed in on the issues raised by Golijov’s indebtedness to Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich, including Rob Deemer’s “A Real Mess,” an excellent assessment of the situation complete with an easy-to-follow history of the commission on NewMusicBox, Anne Midgette’s “From Pastiche to Appropriation,” and Alex Ross’s “The Golijov Issue.” If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, I suggest that you read all of these well-reasoned and objective articles about a difficult issue: whether Golijov’s creative sins reach the level of artistic crimes. Of course, I’m not accusing Golijov of an actual crime. Indeed, it appears that he very careful assured himself of operating within the letter of the law, including crafting an agreement with Ward-Bergeman that remains satisfactory to both parties. Still, I maintain that Golijov’s approach to Sidereus was wrong and that the new music community should continue to pressure him to openly address the situation.

I have known Golijov’s music for over 20 years. When I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the music of their doctoral students in an orchestration/composition class led by Crumb and on their graduate student recitals. The skill and creativity among the student composers continually astonished me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the new works by such students as Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert, and Robert Maggio. To me, Golijov’s music stood head and shoulders above all the others, and I became such a strong fan that I even asked him for recordings of etudes that he composed for our class. When I stumbled upon the Kronos Quartet recording of his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, the way that he updated the Klezmer sound with beautiful extended techniques and evocative string writing renewed my adoration of his music. Soon thereafter, I began to read about his La Pasiòn and was happy to discover that his music was reaching a wider audience. However, when I finally was able to hear the piece for myself, I was left feeling very cold about the whole experience. I could understand how the collaborative nature of the work might excite others, but to me it felt like the Venezuelan and contemporary classical elements never cohered and that the whole was less than the sum of its parts. For me, all of his music that followed had a similar issue in that the pieces appeared to be style amalgamations rather than composed works. For years, I kept trying to find the spark that had first kindled my love for his music, but each new work left me feeling colder and colder.

La Pasiòn functioned as a collaboration in which roughly half of the artistry of the work derived from the incredible performances of the Luciana Souza and the Schola Cantorum de Caracas. The nature of the work seemed clear: Golijov brought these amazing performers into the concert hall sphere and surrounded them with musical materials that allowed them to express their excellent musicality. That they stood on stage and performed as part of the piece helped to maintain the central notion of the work as one that unified various, seemingly disparate elements.

To me, the central problem with Sidereus is that Golijov now seeks to hide the contributions of his collaborative artists. In essence, he utilized Ward-Bergeman as a ghostwriter in the tradition of Robert Ludlum’s posthumous novels or an “as told to” autobiography. This practice is widely accepted in literature and shouldn’t be problematic in the slightest, except in situations like Charles Barkely’s 1991 “autobiography” Outrageous, co-written by Roy S. Johnson, which Barkely maintains misquoted him in several passages. The distinction is this: no one ever would consider Ludlum for a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and no ghostwritten autobiography would be eligible for a National Book Award. Golijov has enjoyed extraordinary accolades from organizations like the MacArthur Foundation and the Grammy Awards, while not being honest about the amount of responsibility he bears for the works under his name.

At this moment, I must believe that Golijov was aware that his borrowing was wrong and that he tried to hide it. First, although he does credit Ward-Bergeman in a program note available on the Boosey website, he does so in a manner that is entirely misleading. Golijov writes:

For the “Moon” theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia. I then looked at that theme as if through the telescope and under the microscope, so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality. Like Galileo with the telescope, or getting close to Van Gogh’s brushstrokes.

To call this misleading is somewhat generous, for when you listen to the two pieces side by side the later work orchestrates the melody and accompaniment without changes to the melody itself, to the harmony, or even to the arpeggiation pattern, but with an additional introduction and coda. Golijov eschews such basic variation techniques as ornamenting the melody or interpolating passing harmonies between the structural chords. When I try to imagine the sort of compositional techniques Golijov describes in his program note, I keep returning to one of my favorite works of the 20th century, a piece that takes a traditional melody and puts it through exactly the sorts of processes Golijov describes, the second movement of Olly Wilson’ s masterpiece A City Called Heaven.

In addition, in 2009 Golijov “wrote” a commission for WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Inaugural Concert for Ethel and Michael Ward-Bergeman called Radio. In this interview and performance John Schaefer believes that the work was composed specifically for the event while Golijov nervously laughs a little as he credits Ward-Bergeman and Jeremy Flower as collaborators who “not only are performing but also were creating perhaps the best parts of the piece” (at the 55 second mark of the linked video). That he credits both of these artists similarly adds yet another disturbing layer, for it makes me wonder if the interesting electronics layered in the introduction of the piece, beginning at the 4:04 mark of the linked video, were created by Flower or by Golijov. When you listen to the now-famous music beginning at 6:44, you will undoubtedly realize that not only was Sidereus an unoriginal work, it was not even a new Golijov composition.

The fact that Golijov continues to change the title of the piece as it moves through its various orchestrations forces me to believe that he intended to cover his tracks, to hide the fact that he continues to recycle the works of other composers while taking credit for their work. I hope that he addresses these issues soon and that we continue to discuss the issues of what we expect when we commission an original work from a single composer.

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One thought on “Truth and Consequences

  1. mark shilansky

    FINALLY someone is calling O.G. on his B.S. I have felt the same way about much of his music. He is charismatic and garners excitement for his concepts, but rarely has the compositional chops to pull it off, usually mashing up differing genres, instrumentations, languages in less-than-successful ways, then is lauded as “The Greatest Living Classical Composer” by the Boston Globe.

    Reply

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