Cultured Clash: Osvaldo Golijov's Music of the Future

From Buenos Aires to Miami by way of Old Vienna, Osvaldo Golijov turns raw dance beats and classical forms into the music of the future.

Music Features Osvaldo Golijov
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For most of the past half century, the artistic tag “international”—and the “ism” that labeled it a cultural trend—held a vaguely unpleasant connotation. It began cosmopolitan and cool, but then the concept started to drift, eventually landing on the universal yet impersonal, the utopian yet faceless. In architecture, for example, at the tail-end of the International Style movement in the 1960s and ’70s, every city in the U.S. and Brazil and China suffered its cookie-cutter modern office buildings, the ugly fact of “internationalism” made real. Still, a few groovy jet-set buildings turned heads; those old promises continued to hold a measure of sexy optimism.

More recently, a different urge took hold. Food culture led the way, with wine and cheese makers promoting their product’s terroir—the soil and climate and cultivation techniques that
create distinctive flavors, where no two hillsides duplicate the same subtle organic conditions. When every suburban subdivision looks alike, eating food grown in a specific soil with the sharp taste of an exotic place becomes a balm for the soul.

We seem at a precarious point now, balancing these two dominant cultural trends. And no musician makes more from a unified global view and the gritty dirt of the street than an Argentine of Eastern European-Jewish parentage who grew up with tangos, flamenco, Yiddish klezmer and Bach, and—after studies in Jerusalem and Philadelphia—found a home in Boston and a fervent international following. At 47, Osvaldo Golijov has created a catalog of music that comes from many specific places yet speaks with a one-world voice.

Thus, at a time when everything in our society seems niche, and the niches are getting narrower, Golijov (pronounced GO-lee-hoff) is a musician headed in the opposite direction. He’s got a knack for the urgent gesture and for generous expression, not to mention a cosmic sense of serenity. His experiences, and perhaps eagerness to please the listener, come from a perpetual outsiderness, as a Jew in Catholic Argentina, as a Hispanic in the U.S., as an innovative and carefully cultivated populist composer in an art form that clings to traditions, some of which have grown stale.

“Osvaldo finds inspiration in a lot of places people don’t think to look,” says David Harrington, leader of the Kronos Quartet, a San Francisco-based ensemble that has made a career of discovering global sounds and translating them into concert music, from the Roma to Sigur Rós.

The native clash of cultures, Golijov says, framed his aesthetic. At a synagogue service in his hometown of La Plata, about 35 miles from Buenos Aires, someone would be screaming seated near someone who was meditating; during Holy Week he
remembers “crazy Catholic festivals mixed up from Spanish and Italian processions but moving at a salsa rhythm. There was a lot of rum and a lot of dancing.”

For Kronos’ joyride album Nuevo (Nonesuch), Harrington asked Golijov to transcribe a stack of Mexican pop songs, channeling each number’s essential energy for string quartet and adding layers of fuzztone or funky percussion. One of the original tracks, “K’in Sventa Ch’ul Me’tik Kwadulupe,” started as an obscure recording from a tiny church in southern Mexico. Golijov heard music in the murmurs and tinkling bells of the peasant women, and used it as a foundation, overlaying the quartet and more percussion. Like much of Golijov’s music, it’s lovely and haunting and comes from someplace real.

A sensational Deutsche Grammophon album from 2005, Ayre—or “melody” in medieval Spanish—retools folk tunes from southern Spain, where Christians, Arabs and Jews once coexisted on somewhat peaceful terms. One song is a sweet lullaby where the mother sings of roasting and eating her son. It’s gorgeous to hear, and terrifying to think about. “And on Ayre goes, veering precipitously from one emotional extreme to another,” summarized the wonky British magazine Gramophone, “in a style that embraces post-minimalist modernism, cinematic tone-painting, musique concrete, folk-like sincerity and the brash beats of electronica.”

For Golijov, it’s about finding the language or, more precisely, the vocabulary, to say what he wants to say. “It’s like OutKast, who switch from Broadway to hip-hop to ’70s pop to express what they want at each moment,” Golijov says. “That’s what great classical composers did until the mid-20th Century, and that’s what music should be doing now. There’s a huge language, but I’ve never understood why we use too small a portion of it.”

Whether by instinct or strategy, Golijov’s music is different from almost all others on the classical scene today. It’s served in morsels: Even his grandest works—including an opera—are really a string of euphoric or sorrowful songs, one hitched to the next, as satisfying and nourishing as an evening of tapas at a wine bar, one small plate at a time.  

“There’s a quiet vitality, a carelessness, of doing what feels good at the moment,” he says. “I don’t have pretentiousness that what I write will hang around. I want my music to nourish the spirit for people right now.”

The best place to start? La Pasión Según San Marcos (Hänssler)—which has triggered massive audience reactions wherever it’s been performed—is a retelling of the Passion of Jesus from the gospel of Mark. Premiered in 2000, the work slammed shut the door on abstract and abrasive International Style music in favor of street-level honesty and raw, unfiltered sounds.

Golijov’s approach was telling: Instead of starting with a copy of the New Testament (which he didn’t own anyway), he culled street language from the religious pamphlets handed out by
disabled beggars throughout Latin America. There’s a small orchestra somewhere in the sonic mix, but La Pasión’s exceptional strength derives from the blocks of percussion and the inflamed singing. Golijov assigned a distinct musical style to each section of the story. Jesus’ arrest is chanted above earthy Cuban drumming; scenes of betrayal and Pilate’s sentencing get a flamenco treatment, hot and dangerous; the Agony in the Garden sounds to gossamer Brazilian percussion from Bahia; and so on.  

Golijov’s biggest music, in size and impact, is the opera Ainadamar, the Arabic word for the “Fountain of Tears,” where poet Federico García Lorca was murdered by the fascists
during the Spanish Civil War. The CD captured two Grammys and brought the composer his first mainstream attention. The opening is devastatingly effective: Horsehoof gallops take on a jaunty rhythm that widens into a flamenco dance, which transforms into the chilling rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. Later, you tap your foot and feel sucked into the mambo groove, even as voices sing of torture, love, loss and enlightenment.

The composer’s immediate, visceral appeal is vastly different than that of today’s elite classical masters, who require a concentrated investment on first listen. Instead, like good radio pop, Golijov’s music gives you plenty to hold on to from the start. And, as an added virtue, deep listening reveals complex layers and unexpected sounds.

“I wish we were today at a point where movies are,” he says, “where you can do something really weird and everyone knows what you’re doing—where the creators speak the same language as the audience. There are a lot of composers who miss the larger tide of our culture. I want to write music that connects.”

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