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Mixing it Up: The Passions of Osvaldo Golijov

Mixing it Up: The Passions of Osvaldo Golijov
By Aaron Retica
From andante.com

As La Pasión Según San Marcos premieres in New York, Aaron Retica reveals how — and why — an Argentine-Jewish composer recast the Gospel and found its rhythms in Latin America.

Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentine-Jewish composer whose two-year-old St. Mark Passion makes its New York debut this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, would not complain if I called him a shameless opportunist. I know this because that's how he described a number of his musical heroes to me when we spoke just before his setting of La Pasión Según San Marcos began a North American tour a couple of weeks ago. "Louis Armstrong. Stravinsky — he did everything," Golijov said. "Piazzolla, the tango, the Beatles, Miles Davis, Ellington, they were shameless opportunists. Leonard Bernstein! I wish he were alive, he was getting better every day."

Golijov's opportunism in La Pasión is a musical embodiment of T.S. Eliot's famous dictum, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal," (which Stravinsky claimed was also true of composers). La Pasión sets Mark's version of Jesus' last days in an apocryphal Latin American plaza, in Cuba and Brazil simultaneously — if that's possible — and in Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina, too. La Pasión's 75 onstage performers, more than two thirds of them singers, cycle through 34 pieces that draw from samba, Steve Reich-like instrumental incantation, bossa nova, Gregorian Chant, rumba, son, the Russophile wedding music of Stravinsky, guajira, flamenco, tango, the wailing chords and melismas characteristic of Golijov's own Klezmer and Yiddish-inflected earlier work, and even a touch of Bach.

There is also a lot of physical movement in La Pasión. The fact sheet in the press kit understates the case when it records that "the work involves dance, and the choir is mobile during several points during the performance." One of the many Latin string and percussion instruments that give La Pasión its propulsive feeling is the Brazilian berimbau — a gourd and bow that are played alongside a basket shaker while the percussionist dances in a writhing capoeira style. If this seems confusing, all you really need to know to understand where Golijov is trying to take us is that when Mark, in dialogue with the chorus, describes Judas' betrayal of Jesus, he does so in a spectacular mambo, sounding much more like the bitten off, throaty mid-century Cuban singer Benny Moré than like Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau.

"The idea is that the story is told by different narrators that you see if you live in Latin America," Golijov, who is now based in Newton, Massachusetts, told me. The staggering Schola Cantorum de Caracas, which plays the role of the chorus in traditional robes, chanting, clapping, and stomping its way through the piece, is the most striking manifestation of this concept. The more than fifty member Schola can lift its voices up to sing toward God, but it reveals its sinuous character best when it snarls in the manner of a harsh old madrigal, one of the ones in which witches caterwaul.

There are parts in La Pasión for a number of soloists, both within the chorus and outside it (much of this singing is handled brilliantly by the flexible Brazilian jazz musician and composer, alto Luciana Souza). The voice of Jesus rotates from chorus to soloist and back again until the crucifixion, when Jesus, in Souza's voice, asks why his father has abandoned him. At a number of crucial moments in La Pasión, Golijov digs underneath his Spanish text to find original Hebrew and Aramaic words, introducing newfound emotions, paradoxically, by crying out in the ancient tongues. In this he is following Saint Mark, who wrote in Greek but left "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" in Jesus' native Aramaic.

In La Pasión, God's name is then taken up by the chorus, which breaks apart Jesus' question and uses these phonemic building blocks as the foundation for kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which is another way for Golijov to musically dramatize the Jewish undergirding poking through Mark's gospel, which was written long before the other three and was therefore more directly connected to the historical Jesus. Golijov's Kaddish begins with the same guitar-and-percussion-driven theme that opened La Pasión, slowed down very slightly, and minus the small replica of a Latin American brass band which had heralded Jesus' coming to us originally. In other words, we are moving forward narratively but we are also tracing circles musically, revamping, as we go, our image of who Jesus really is.

The notion of Jesus as a figure in a pageant, as the iconic projection of a whole society of storytellers, many of whom are very poor, can sometimes make La Pasión seem like a musical illustration of liberation theology, the Catholic teaching that Jesus was a political prophet in service to the downtrodden. Although Golijov has compared his Jesus to Che Guevara, when I asked him about this idea, he said, "I have my problems with liberation theology. It's a great movement but it's not native to Latin America. It's basically joyless. What's incredible to me about Latin America is its amazing joy even in the face of shit. There is something deeper than the irritation — this idea of keeping the faith alive, celebrating despite all the odds." Musically, this is expressed in the Afro-Latin rhythms that underscore La Pasión , which are not deployed as mere palette-expanding local color; nor do they appear quite in their own right. It is in his use of these rhythms that Golijov is most revolutionary.

The idea of introducing folk music themes and to a lesser degree techniques into classical composition is centuries old. Relatively recent examples that seem to have at least tangentially influenced Golijov include the clapping songs at the opening of Verdi's Falstaff, the Slavic chorales in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Stravinsky's Les Noces , the melody collecting of Dvorak and Bartok, and the incorporation or imitation of the minor keys of European minorities (Gypsies and Jews) by Brahms, Liszt and Mahler. But even though many of these types of pieces call themselves dances of one kind or another, they tend to mine national folk cultures for thematic material, not overall rhythmic organization.

Perhaps the best way to understand what Golijov is doing is by analogy with the mid-century rise of Latin Jazz in both North and South America, when Dizzy Gillespie, to take one example, brought not just the flute and the marimba but the conga-playing Chano Pozo and Candido Comero into his groups. Crucially, Gillespie responded to hearing Latin players as a composer as much as he did as a trumpeter. He used their percussive phrasing not as ornamentation but as a structural principle, first and foremost in the convulsive hybrid, "Night in Tunisia." The dominant element in Latin Jazz is just this rhythmic playfulness. Gillespie made up new patterns to follow out of both imaginary and actual musical collisions. That's Golijov's procedure exactly; his music must sway before it can denote.

By fully embracing these rhythms in La Pasión, Golijov also makes their absence musically compelling. For example, in the aria "Lúa descolorida" (Colorless Moon, which will be sung at BAM by Dawn Upshaw), Golijov uses a soprano-and-strings setting of a 19th-century Galician poem by Rosalía de Castro to depict Peter's emotional isolation after he has denied, amidst the gathering storm, that he knows Jesus. In a certain sense, this is the most traditionally classical moment in La Pasión because there is no percussion to counteract Peter's desolation. His total dancelessness freezes him as he sings, "Colorless moon, I know that you do not shed light on sadness as sad as mine." Yet, at the lowest point, after the soprano's voice is silenced, a violin very quietly makes a gesture of renewal, a Mexican-influenced trill, a return to dialogue that cannot be expressed in words, which brings the soprano back, singing with greater strength as she recovers the faith she thought she had destroyed.

When I first interviewed Golijov four years ago, he spoke about envying Christian composers their serenity. Now, he told me, laughing, "In the aria of Peter, I was able to become a true Christian. I am happy that in the Pasión I was able to get rid of the Jewish angst. Things that invade my Jewish music, an element of hysteria that I am not proud of — I think I was able to cast it aside." Readers who might want to hear that frantic Golijov, who lies right beneath the surface of La Pasión in any case, should get a hold of the St. Lawrence String Quartet's recently released "Yiddishbbuk," an all-Golijov CD, which concludes with a riotous interpretation (featuring clarinetist Todd Palmer) of "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," Golijov's justly celebrated klezmer quintet. If you would like to hear a still transfigured but poppier expression of the Latin side of Golijov's roots, you can find it on the Kronos Quartet's latest CD, "Nuevo," most of which was arranged by Golijov.

A few observers have suggested that this kind of ambidexterity is backhanded proof that Golijov's music is the work of a dabbler, something you could hear on any Latin American or Eastern European street corner (why exactly this is an insult is beyond me). When I asked him about this critique, Golijov said, "My credo, so to speak, is very little ideology—no ideology. Look what happened with Hitler, with Stalin. Look what happened to music... I don't believe that classical music should be abstruse on its surface. Mahler, he's totally understandable." In the folk sources that he works with, Golijov added, "What I love is the complete lack of bullshit. What are the elements of folk? No false transitions. It goes as quickly as possible. Devoid of artifice. Propulsive. So much contemporary composition is so solipsistic, so self-referential, no wonder people get bored. I have a PhD and I get bored. From folk I learned, this is how you tell a story in music. All the examples share a quality of urgent musical narrative." What classical composition can bring, Golijov suggested, "is the journey, the architecture, the scope. Folk and pop don't have it." The Pasión "is not a history of music. I believe in the geography of music and I am a traveller who is not in the business of convincing anyone. I'm happy that I wrote this and that I explore love, faith, and death in the idioms that I felt were necessary for those things."

Golijov's exploration of this "geography of music" yields a dense concentrate. Sure, La Pasión is a musical mixture, a concoction that intertwines Christ's death and a lingering memory of Judaism's fierce, overprotective God with the mythical and musical force of Latin America. When you hear La Pasión, though, it gets right inside you, finally uniting agitation with grace, a mestizo coupling that resonates more deeply than anything pure ever could.

© andante Corp. October 2002. All rights reserved.