Conversations with Ilan Stavans: Osvaldo Golijov
from WGBH TV
Osvaldo Golijov: I believe that music is a way to map, in sound, the human soul.
Ilan Stavans: Do you approach the world musically? When you enter the room the first thing you register is sounds?
Golijov: No, not really. I register people, and the interaction between people and the texture of life in a room or in the street, and the sounds will be the reflections or the distillation of those behaviors of those interactions and relationships.
I'm a student of Astor Piazzolla in the sense that I realized in listening to his Nuevo Tango that the phrasing of the bandoneon had to do with the way in which people spoke in Buenos Aires. You know, this way of being a little, how would I say, too full of themselves and so forth. You know, so speaking with the side of the mouth, and then the phrasing of it, ta ra ta tin tin. So in that sense, it's not that I hear music, but I can hear how life can be transformed into music.
Stavans: And once you start putting together in your mind a piece of music, how does it emerge? Do you see? Do you hear snippets of it, portions? Does it all come together at one point? Do you need inspiration?
Golijov: Yeah, all of the above (laughs). Sometimes it is what people think it is, which is just a tune, pops. But sometimes the tune comes last. Or you have to really arrive to the theme, to the melody so to speak, after you have, sort of a narrative journey that you want to accomplish in the music. And that's exactly what used to happen to Beethoven who used to have an architectural idea, so to speak, and then arrive to the theme based on that architecture or on that journey that the piece would go.
Stavans: And you're also known, Osvaldo for not considering your pieces as finished.
Stavans: They are performed and then you go back and change them. Would you describe a performance or the music that is read in a music as a version or as a draft? When does it become a finished piece?
Golijov: It depends on the piece.
Stavans: When you're dead?
Golijov: Yeah, when I'm dead, I cannot change it anymore. And it makes people really nervous. But I mean, I am lucky and happy that I have enough great performer friends that put up with all these ideas that things can change. Although not every piece I feel that is unfinished. But there are pieces that I am still curious about. I want to make them better. And the others are already alive and happy as they are or dead.
Stavans: Is it really the word better or perfect? Can you reach a point where a piece in your mind is perfect? Nothing could be changed?
Golijov: I don't know, I don't think I'm even interested in perfection. But I'm interested in vitality. And if I can make the piece more vital, I will. But it's not perfection because sometimes imperfection is very vital.
Stavans: And attractive?
Golijov: And attractive yeah.
Stavans: You grew up in Argentina, the child of eastern European immigrants. Was there music in your home?
Golijov: Yes. My mother was a pianist. Then she gave up her concert career because we are four siblings.
Stavans: Did she devote herself to the kids?
Golijov: Yeah, no, she just became a piano teacher. So music was, I mean she kept practicing all her life. So I learned all the classical repertoire from her. My father was a physician, an orthopedic surgeon and he loved music too. From him I also received, as much as from my mom, because he had a deep love for Beethoven, especially for Tchaikovsky.
And he had a good instinct about what composers are central. How they deal with the big things of human existence and which ones are just more decorative. But he also had a huge knowledge of tango and one of the most beautiful moments of my life, is not as a child, but when he was in his deathbed, we spoke a lot about tango.
Stavans: So there was a crossroads in your childhood of Argentine music particularly tangos, but also a klezmer music, eastern European Jewish music and classical music?
Stavans: Was there a sphere or a time for each of them or did they intertwine?
Golijov: Well, I played the piano all my life and started composing very early. But also I sang in the synagogue chorus and I played in the synagogue and arranged also since childhood, so that was there.
Stavans: Was it a religious family?
Golijov: It was an interesting family. My mother grew up in an orthodox household, Jewish orthodox household.
Stavans: In Eastern Europe?
Golijov: No, no, she was born in Argentina. So her family was more of the yeah religious, not so educated in the sense of we think for the better, but religious, humble people. Whereas my father came from a Jewish humanist, and even atheist background and socialist and so forth. So my household was this combination between the two.
Stavans: What languages were spoken at home?
Golijov: Spanish and Yiddish.
Stavans: Yiddish, The language of eastern European Jews?
Stavans: Did you speak Yiddish?
Golijov: I did. Very fluently until I was 10 or 12 and then gradually as my grandparents died and so forth, I started to forget it.
Stavans: Tell me what in your mind is evoked by the image of eastern European Jewry in 19th century, 18th century up until the Holocaust, 1939 to 1945? Do you feel connected to that period?
Golijov: Well, yes. But connected in the sense that I grew up in a combination of worlds. I went to Jewish school but also I went to public school in Argentina. So, I went to two schools everyday. So I still have amazing Christian friends, and amazing Jewish friends from childhood.
As regards to the Jewish world, it was a transplantation of Poland, Russia and so forth brought to La Plata, in this very relatively small town in Argentina.
And I saw these people that dressed like differently; I mean with their hats. And the synagogue was right next to the basketball court of the community, so many times you know how you need 10 people to say certain prayers in the synagogue and I would be playing basketball with my friends and there would be only seven old people left so they would just bribe us: "here, we give you cake and some pickles and just stay for the service" and so forth. But I mean I know that we have in a way, very similar backgrounds.
What it means to be raised in Argentina in this kind of environment is both a connection to that world that you refer to but also the possibility of re-imagining it, because we are not in Poland, we are in La Plata, Argentina. And it is in a way what happened with Borges, right? I mean he could as a writer, incredibly cultivated writer, he could own all the European tradition but he could also reinvent it, because of the distance.
Stavans: It gives you kind of a permission or liberty to reinvent a past and to inherit European culture and also Latin American culture and make it your own?
Golijov: Absolutely! Yeah. Yeah, you don't have that burden history. You are not walking in the ruins of a village in Russia; you are in Argentina.
Stavans: Did you experience anti-Semitism as a Jew in Argentina in La Plata when you were young?
Golijov: Personally, very mild, but yeah.
Stavans: Slurs? Verbal?
Golijov: Yeah, yeah, but in a way, the best and the worst kind, "Oh but you don't look like the other Jews," "I wasn't talking about you, you are normal." So I would say that I could sense an endemic anti-Semitism. Of course during the dictatorship, I think as the dictators they hated anything that was intellectual, so to speak or have freethinking. I guess Jews are famous for being outspoken and so forth. And the dictators were particularly, particularly-
Stavans: Anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish?
Golijov: I think so. Yeah, yeah, institutionally so. So, it's a complex answer.
Stavans: What role did the holocaust play in the shaping of your identity and of the Jewish argentine community. Did the memory of the six million that perished become an integral part of how you were raised?
Golijov: Yes, yes, but more than that I think there was, first a very alive Jewish community there. That was worried about what is happening there. How to be Jewish there. And second also the connection with the rebirth of Israel and so forth. So I don't think, I may be wrong here but I do think that the Holocaust was not as big a part of growing up Jewish in Argentina as I think it is growing up Jewish here. I think that here there's an almost a totemization of the Holocaust and I don't think that that was the case there.
Stavans: You left Argentina in the early 80s went to live in Israel for three years where you studied music and had a life in Jerusalem.
Stavans: What was your exposure to Israeli culture? How did it impact your music? Did it make you see things differently?
Golijov: Yes, I mean Israel and particularly Jerusalem, which is another quite small town. It really bursts with music from all over the world. I mean first of all you have these main cultures, the Jewish, the Arab and the Christian with all their music and then within each one of these civilizations. You know you have the Christian Armenian, Christian Greek, Syrian Christian and Russian, you know orthodox Christian.
Then you have all the Arabic world. Then the Jewish immigrants coming from places like Eastern Europe and Yemen and Morocco and so forth. So it's to me was like Alice in Wonderland. I'd just really wander through the neighbors and hear music. Well you know, you've been there. So you know how in a little street, there could be three or four different synagogues for instance. And then in Islam the calls to the Muslim prayer. And then you go to a church in the Old City. It's just too much.
Stavans: Just defining it in terms of Judaism, what role does music play in liturgy in the synagogue? Do you see it as playing a substantial role because you're describing the noises of the street, the noises of the synagogue, are you talking about prayer, are you talking about music in other ways that are integrated into religion?
Golijov: I think that music in the different religions is very different. When you enter a synagogue, be that eastern European, traditional or Moroccan tradition, to take two examples, what is very Jewish is the semi-chaos that reigns.
Stavans: People talking
Golijov: People talking but also somebody against the wall like blaming God, who knows, and somebody else just mumbling and so forth, and creating this beehive almost. And then suddenly all coming together in a unison melody. Whereas if you go to a church, there's this almost cosmic order you know, this very organized ritual. And it's very interesting to me that the Christian religion came up with much better liturgical composers than the Jewish tradition. But it's more interesting the folk quality of the Jewish music which is much more undisciplined and anonymous.
Stavans: Do you believe in God?
Golijov: You threw me out there. I desperately want to believe in God.
Stavans: What is the connection between God and music?
Golijov: The connection, you can call it God... Music is one of the answers to our perpetual question as people as to whether there is a transcendence of life. Related to God or not. But we all, I mean, nobody likes to die thinking this is it you know. There has be something you know not necessarily physical.
And music is connected to God in the sense that also connects you to the memories of the dead and to the future. For instance, music that you heard with somebody that you love, or that phrase of a Schubert piece that I would play with mom, Four Hands at the Piano. It's connected. I don't have to go to the grave of my mom to be with her.
I can play that piece or put it in a record and I am there. And, composers, you know a beautiful piece by Bach, written in the 18th century, can still make you cry. So he's talking to you. And so forth. So music, I don't know if God is there. God would be even too limiting so, but music really triumphs over time.
Stavans: I'm asking you because one of your wonderful pieces, The Dreams and Passions of Isaac the Blind, rotates around the image of Kabala and Jewish mysticism in Eastern Europe. And Kabala suggests that the world was created through the alphabet and that it was written before it was created. I guess my question is how is music connected to nature? Do you see music as part of creation and as part of the way nature dances and rotates and talks to us?
Golijov: Yes, for instance, let's see. Now these days there's this incredible potential for sciences and DNA. And what is DNA? It's the combining of a limited number of elements. Music, you have a scale, a motif.
For instance Bach writing all those unbelievable pieces with just four notes that were the equivalent to his name, the B-A-C-H right? Or Beethoven wrote most of his late quartets based on just one motif, rotation, permutation of a limited number of elements. How from the tangible combinations of letters, notes, genes and so forth, how we reach the intangible, you know the transcendental. So, yeah.
Stavans: Would you describe yourself as an intellectual composer? As a composer that first thinks and puts together the idea of a piece and then executes it? Or is the motion more of a role player?
Golijov: Neither. (Laughs). For me, music that primarily doesn't go to the heart, so to speak, it's not interesting. Although I think that as a composer you have to construct; I mean you have emotion. You're struck by an emotion. You want to put it into music. Well when you want to put it into music, you have to think. Sometimes you don't have to, sometimes it really comes. But sometimes in order to create a certain emotion, you do have to think. Especially in classical music. If you write just a beautiful song, then maybe it just comes like that. But if you write a two-hour long piece, you cannot just go like this. It's like building a cathedral and not thinking.
Stavans: Your pieces, The Passion According to Saint Mark and Tenebrae and the Dreams and Passion of Isaac the Blind and pieces that you've written on Federico Garcia Lorca, work it seems to be as combinations of different rhythms and traditions that you integrate and turn into something new. You were talking about the role model of Borges, a feeling that European culture, all of western culture was his and that he could do with it as an Argentine what he wanted. Do you sometimes feel, Osvaldo that these different traditions need their respective spaces and that combining them is polluting them, as some critics might say?
Golijov: I am aware of contamination and pollution. But I think that you know pollution and contamination are bad for living but are great for music. You know jazz, which is what America I think contributes to the world of, and history of music is the result of contamination of the interaction of people brought against their will here and creating this hybrid. I believe that music is a way to map in sound the human soul.
I mean who are we? We experience love, heartbreak, loss, happiness, joy, just pure fun and so forth. Now different cultures are almost experts in parts of this. So for instance if I want to write a piece that deals with sex and power, I guess tango is made for that. I mean tango is about that. If I want to tap into melancholy I think certain strands of Jewish music or Fado, the Portuguese music, have been exploring that area of the human soul. And so forth and so forth. So combining; but we are more than that. Plus we live in a world where you know in the morning, at noon, you may eat spaghetti and at night sushi. I mean we are already that contamination. We are. And to pretend that we live in a world where Chinese people don't know what American people are doing is false.
Stavans: So cultures really grow by borrowing from others and by mixing in, at least in today's world?
Golijov: Yes, and also I feel that culturally, the most interesting things today, I'm not saying always, but today are the intersections. Not anymore what happens in an isolated village in Africa, but what happens if one of those people come to New York?
Stavans: The exposure.
Golijov: Yeah the exposure and what happens there. And also because it's true to who I am. I'm not someone that stayed in La Plata. I lived in Jerusalem and now I live here. So I am all those people. The child that grew up in La Plata, the young man that wandered in the streets of Jerusalem, and the grownup man that is interacting with all what is happening America and the world today.
Stavans: But that is precisely the point that I want to go to that with all this cross-fertilization that you embrace, you always present it from the perspective obviously of who you are and that's inevitable. How different would your music be if you had never left Argentina? If you had after '83, '84, if you continued being there?
Golijov: I don't know but I'm really happy that I left. I think that for my personality. I think that other people... You know it's like in philosophy; Kant never left his town, right? And other philosophers wandered around. I'm a wanderer. I think it may have to do with being Jewish, of knowing that my family never stayed for more than three generations in a place. So for me, it was good to leave and to be exposed and to embrace the world.
Stavans: How does a composer at the very beginning of the 21st century that has already left us a solid mark, remain current? How does one stop from repeating oneself, or from returning to the same images or to the same sounds, and to the same voices? How does one remain a traveler?
Golijov: That's a fear, but it's not one of my primary fears. I have all kinds of fears, but that's not... I know that that I am exploring different things. I think that life is so huge. And for instance I think I did explore faith, the possibility of transcendence of life, in the Passion.
I want to explore everything. I want to explore the simple joy of friendship in a piece. It's difficult to explain in words, but I know that there are true universal experiences that can be explored in music. Like each one of Shakespeare's plays explores a different issue, right? So as long as you know what your music is about, what particular feeling or combination of emotions, I think that there's a good chance that you're not going to repeat yourself.
Stavans: It's been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for coming.
Golijov: Thank you Ilan.