Thursday, February 23, 2012
800 Words: Where's Osvaldo? A 'Lament'
(The beginning of La Pasion)
This isn’t a post to wring hands about watching Osvaldo Golijov, a personal hero of mine, be accused of plagarism. It’s simply to lament him. Golijov, like me, came from a Yiddish speaking immigrant family with many relatives who perished in the gas chambers, and with extensive family connections in Israel, America, and Argentina. He is ‘my composer.’ When I listen to Golijov’s music, I don’t hear anything exotic, I hear something that sounds like home.
When I first heard La Pasion Segun San Marcos, I genuinely concluded that this was the great composer of our era: my century’s Bach or Beethoven. This was a piece of music that completely changed the way I thought about music. Just to be sure that I wasn’t letting my personal tastes get in the way, over the years I’ve convinced at least half-a-dozen friends to listen to the work in its entirety. And in nearly every case, the reaction seemed as wildly enthusiastic as mine.
Finally, here was a piece of music that spoke with absolute directness to my life experience and worldview in a way that very little other music does. Much as I love both Mozart and James Brown, I listen to them and hear the soundtrack of somebody else’s life. Some music, like the music of Viennese Classicism or Motown Soul, feels like the music of people I might have liked, but it’s not my music. When I listen to Golijov, as only also happens when I also listen to some Mahler, some Janacek, some Bartok, a bit of Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, some Benny Goodman, a bit of Sinatra, a bit of Johnny Cash, a few Leonard Cohen songs (often if not sung by him), a bit of Heberw cantillation, some Black Spirituals, and a few songs by the gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, I hear my own life reflected back and the reaction that is absolutely visceral. I can’t explain why this is. This is not a matter of taste, because taste would imply a critical reaction. It is a gut-level conviction that this music is absolutely right. Perhaps it helps that some these musicians are Jewish, but hardly all of them are (Mussorgsky was a genuine anti-semite) and there are plenty of Jewish musicians who don’t have this effect on me. But even among the rare few that do, I don’t know if there is any, not even Mahler, who have the same effect as Golijov.
And that is why I’m beginning to find the decline of Osvaldo Golijov heartbreaking. For years, I’d been holding out hope that Golijov will find his way back - surely, I reasoned, there would be more music to add to the soundtrack of my life. Declines like Osvaldo Golijov’s aren’t supposed to happen to musicians. Unlike poets or filmmakers, the ability for a composer to create one masterpiece is usually commensurate with the ability to create hundreds. Once you write your first masterpiece, you’re generally expected to carry on doing the same until you’re dead. Composition is an asocial, labor intensive activity, and history is littered with great composers who wrote their way into an early grave. Music lovers love to speculate about what great masterworks might have been written had Purcell, Mozart, Weber, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Bellini, Lili Boulanger, Gershwin, each lived to ripe old ages. It’s usually taken for granted that each would have bequeathed the world with three times as many masterpieces as they left us. It’s rarely mentioned as a possibility that their music might have gotten worse. And many of the ones who don’t decline simply stop writing music. While Rossini, Verdi, Elgar, Sibelius, Ravel, and Rachmaninov all lived to ripe old ages, they each spent decades of their golden years without releasing a note of new music. If they had something new to contribute, it must have been special indeed.
Most every film expert agrees that film is a young man’s medium: the list of directors whose later efforts pale in comparison to the earlier ones is endless: Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas are just the most famous in a list of contemporaries that has to include William Friedkin, Peter Bogdonavich, Oliver Stone, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Demme (and that’s not including directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, Woody Allen and Godard whose later work has champions and enemies in equal measure. Most English professors would agree that Wordsworth, Whitman, Tennyson, Pound, Frost, and Auden all exhibited diminishing returns as they reached dotage. But how many clear cases are there of composers who similarly exhibited a similarly unambiguous decline? I can think of...William Walton, Leonard Bernstein...and now Golijov.
Of course, it may be far too soon to say. Golijov is only 51 and may yet have some of his greatest masterpieces ahead of him. But every year, it’s becoming harder and harder to believe it’s coming. First he pulls out of his Metropolitan Opera commission (in all fairness, his collaborator died), then he misses deadline after deadline, then each new piece becomes still more derivative of the piece that came before. One day, I’ll write something about the fact that Golijov’s approach music is much, much healthier than his accusers. But all this plagiarism accusation does is to hit home that it's increasingly unlikely.
The Evan Tucker Soundtrack (a snippet):
Mahler Symphony no 3: Scherzo -
Janacek: Cunning Little Vixen Finale
Mussorgsky: Song of the Flea
Bartok: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 13 (Humor)
Stravinsky: Petrouchka (Fourth Tableau)
Leonard Cohen: Who By Fire
Benny Goodman: Sing, Sing, Sing
Johnny Cash/Leonard Cohen: Like a Bird on a Wire
Leonard Bernstein: Candide (Make Our Garden Grow)
Frank Sinatra: One For My Baby
Nina Simone: Sinnerman
Yossele Rosenblatt: Shir HaMaalos
Taraf de Haidouks/Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances
Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind