Osvaldo Golijov
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Golijov's gospel truths
 

Golijov's gospel truths
by Peter Conrad
from The Observer


Hailed as the first great new composer of this century, Osvaldo Golijov draws from many cultures to produce his highly original and thrilling works, says Peter Conrad. So why did he balk when asked to reimagine the Passion?



Ever since Orpheus placated the Furies by singing to them, we have relied on music to pacify a dangerous reality. But can harmony soothe the noise that now bombards us from all sides — explosions, sirens, commercial jingles and mobile phones? Osvaldo Golijov, whose work will be performed in the UK for the first time later this month, sets out to do nothing less. He is a composer who believes in the redemptive power of his art, and proposes lyrical solutions for racial strife in Europe and the war between civilisations in the Middle East. As yet little known here, Golijov is acclaimed in America, admired by critics, who marvel at his intellectual ambition and moral intensity; adored by audiences, who respond to the rhythmic pulse and melodic uplift of his scores.

Golijov is the embodiment of our global, garbled times. He grew up as a Jewish gaucho in Argentina; his Romanian mother's family was strictly Orthodox, though his Ukrainian father was an atheistic communist. He now lives in Boston, where, as he told me when we met there during a blizzard in December, new immigrants from Brazil ebulliently jostle with the Irish oldtimers. His children learn Chinese at school and snack on pizza, nachos and sushi (though not all at once). Influences from all his composite worlds overlap in Golijov's music. The erotic swagger of Astor Piazzolla's tango bumps against the grieving threnodies of Jewish worship; gypsy bands from Romania play beside African drummers and raucous Mexican pop groups.

The man in whom these cultures collide is slight, with a skullcap of hair balanced on a large, fragile head. Even in a city whited out by snow and ice, he radiates a generous Latin warmth. But unlike most musicians, who don't need to be articulate, he has the combative mettle and vexed conscience of the Jewish intellectual. At first, as he told me, he bristled when conductor Helmuth Rilling suggested he compose a version of the Passion: 'I said, "Ask some Christian!" I grew up in a society that was endemically anti-semitic, and that prejudice was almost sponsored — no, I should say condoned — by the Catholic church. I couldn't imitate Bach, with his almost Talmudic approach to the Gospels.

'So I imagined my Passion as a popular celebration in a Latin-American slum, with Jesus as a sort of Che Guevera, a political martyr, not the son of God. We rehearsed at a community centre in a poor neighbourhood of Caracas, where people had never heard such music. But it spoke to them, to the security guards and the gangs of kids loitering on street corners.'

The success of the St Mark Passion, to be given its UK premiere at the Barbican, made Golijov's name. It is a sonic riot, violently elated; the Catholic ritual makes room for a demonstration of Brazilian martial arts, though it ends with a song of mourning intoned in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Christian solemnity is unsettled by the doubt and anger that underlie Jewish faith. 'I have a profound envy of Bach,' said Golijov, 'or of Messiaen, who spent all those years as a church organist in Paris. I'm always trying to understand why it's easier to be a great composer if you're Christian than if you're a Jew. There's the power and glory of the church, the splendour of the architecture. And Christianity offers comfort, whereas the Jews have never forgiven God for making them spend 2,000 years in exile. We have to wrestle with the angel, like Jacob.

'I remember the temples I went to in Jerusalem. You don't have a choir singing in unison, like in a cathedral. It's a semi-chaos, with some people meditating and others mumbling into their shawls and a few screaming out or wailing and shaking their fists at the sky. And there's no Catholic ceremonial to sort out all those quarrelling voices. That's why the Passion is so anarchic.'

He laughingly acknowledged the self-destructiveness of this kvetching, which sabotages an early piece called K'varakat written for the Kronos Quartet and a synagogue cantor. 'The voice is serene and accepting, like a shepherd playing his flute. But it doesn't last — Kronos comes in and kills the cantor!' The music grows agitated and argumentative. The strings slice like swords and God once more is questioned and challenged.

Though Golijov is a great talker, he recognises that music exalts and transcends words. Hence the melodic outpourings of his opera, Ainadamar, excerpts from which will be heard at a separate Barbican event. Here, the orchestra even ventures to translate into sound Lorca's description of a delirious sunset above Granada. For Golijov, lyricism retains an element of mystery or miracle; as the sages declare in the cabbala, song releases the vital breath trapped inside mute printed words. 'It's like the illuminated capital letters in medieval manuscripts, where the scribes added all those festoons and ornaments like vines to something that otherwise would be dead. When the Romans burned the Torah, the letters disappeared in smoke, but the spirit flew free.'

This mysticism is on friendly terms with the latest technology. The Metropolitan Opera in New York wants to give Golijov a commission, but negotiations have been complicated by his fondness for amplified sound. His song cycle, Ayre, enrols a laptop in its small orchestra and requires Dawn Upshaw, who is more than equal to the challenge, to compete with three layered recordings of her voice. 'We can't ignore the microphone and the way it allows non-operatic voices — Sinatra and Billie Holiday, Lennon and Bob Marley — to express emotion. I love it when you can hear singers breathe.' With electronic help, you can eavesdrop on silence or on those oscillations of air that eventually form into a song.

The earthy Afro-Caribbean percussion of the Passion or the stamping flamenco of Ainadamar make a direct, exuberant appeal to the body. But Golijov's music has other, loftier responsibilities: it is a form of secret knowledge, conserving memories and helping us to come to terms with tragedy and loss. His Yiddishbbuk is a collective obituary, honouring three children gassed by the Nazis along with his heroes, Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Bashevis Singer; in Tekiyah, composed for a Holocaust memorial film shown on BBC2, a clarinet endlessly modulates a slight, innocuous motif, as if reciting its own list of names, each variant commemorating an irreplaceable individual.

Golijov applied the moral to his own case. 'I used to play a lot of pieces for four hands with my mum, and now she's dead a few bars of Bach can bring her back to me. Music really can overcome time and defeat death, because it makes memories portable. After only 80 years, my family's history in Argentina is over. The last of my sisters just moved to Spain, so now how often will I go to the cemetery where my parents and grandparents are buried? That matters less because they're still alive for me in the music I associate with them. Melodies are combinations of pitches, just as human beings are rearrangements of DNA.'

The portability of music also enables it to slip across borders. In Golijov's score for Sally Potter's film, The Man Who Cried, he bends venerated melodies and launches them into foreign cultures: the heroine's lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is re-scored for a gypsy accordion, and an aria from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is sung — very plausibly and plangently — in Yiddish. Ayre recreates the multiculturalism of medieval Spain, with Christian, Jewish and Arab texts.

The cycle begins with anecdotes of war between Moors and Christians and incorporates a reflection on exile by a contemporary Palestinian poet. But the last song, a long exploration of Ariadne's labyrinth, in which Upshaw's voice repeats a refrain suggested by the soliloquy of the trumpet in Miles Davis's great album, Sketches of Spain, arrives at a resolution of the conflicts.

I wondered whether music really has the power to reform us and to rectify our dissonant world. 'Yes, yes, it does,' Golijov said at once. Then, remembering how the Nazis loved Bach and Schubert, he added a proviso: 'It makes you better, but only while the music lasts.' If you attend his London concerts, you might prove him wrong. I suspect that the benign, exhilarating influence will last a good while longer.