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The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov

Osvaldo Golijov

The L.A. Philharmonic’s recent “Americas and Americans” festival brought a series of performances intended to exhibit the mottled musical traditions that have bubbled forth in our continents’ cracked cookpot of cultures, faiths, topographies and arts. Befitting the festival’s theme, renowned Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos received its Los Angeles debut on April 24 and 25. Originally commissioned by the International Bach Academy, the piece had premiered in 2000 in Stuttgart on the 250th anniversary of Bach's death; it has recently been released on Deutsche Grammophon in a 2008 live performance from the Holland Festival by Orquesta La Pasión, members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and Schola Cantorum de Venezuela.

Over the phone from his home in Newton, Massachusetts, Golijov discusses his Pasión, his formative years in Argentina and Israel, and the future of a moving and genuinely new music for the people –– and for himself.

BLUEFAT: Upon receiving the commission to compose a piece commemorating Bach, what was your initial thinking about how to go about setting the Passions of St. Mark? I’m told that you were unfamiliar with St. Mark’s New Testament writings. 

OSVALDO GOLIJOV: The invitation was very clear, that this Passion had to be a Passion reflecting the way in which the story is lived and how the story has metamorphosed in Latin America. And Mark, being the earliest of the Gospels, is the prize of any theologies and philosophies, a very quick narrative of the events, without any sermon, so to speak –– almost a journalistic approach to it.
On the other hand, I asked the commissioner of the piece, Shouldn’t you have a Christian write this? He said, no, you will have seen this text as a Jew. And then of course I regretted saying that. [laughs] I realized that my perspective as an outsider, as a Jew growing up in a Catholic country and surrounded by Catholic friends, how I would perhaps have some perspective that being completely inside you may lack, like a little bit. I mean, it’s the difference in balance: how Rembrandt, not being Jewish but living among the Jews, how he was able to give a perspective to the Jewish soul in a way that the Jewish painters never did. It was the same situation of outsider/insider.

In what way would you link your music for this work with the spirit of Bach?

First of all, there are no similarities in “technique,” but he is monumentalizing material that is exercised simply. In the case of Bach, it’s the choral melodies, for example; in my case, it’s rhythms and grooves and instruments that are humble and are associated with day-to-day life in Brazil and Cuba, the two places in Latin America in which a new culture has emerged from the syncretism between the European, the native and the African people.

Can we say that the work contrasts the sacred and the secular?

Well, I don’t know if it’s secular vs. sacred, but definitely I wanted to write a piece that was transcendental but not pedant. [laughs] So the text itself was a compilation of many translations of the Gospel that are not erudite, not scholarly –– actually, I collected translations of the Mark Gospel that are usually sold in public transportation in Latin America, you know, by handicapped people and like that.  So I wanted the piece itself to be like that –– very seemingly simple; like the work of Jesus himself, it is understandable by everyone, but to try to secularize it, to give it a meaning that transcends that seemingly humble surface.

The Pasión must have been an unwieldy beast at first, as you’ve scored for solo singers and players, plus orchestra and choir. During the process of the orchestration, how can you get a clear picture of how such a massive thing will really sound? Was there a lot of revision of the scoring?

The good thing is that I had absolute freedom in instrumentation, so I didn’t note the parts for symphony and chorus. I knew that I had this chorus of Caracas that I had worked with and I loved, and I knew that they were able to sing great Bach but were also very wild about popular music. And then I started from the bottom up, with the instruments, with the three Afro-Cuban sacred drums, and then developed from there the instrumentation with one idea, which was the idea of ceviche –– you know, the food? You just put so much lemon juice on the raw fish, and let it cook in lemon juice. What that means is to avoid using any instruments that could cook, you know, that could make a power. So there are no flutes, no violas, no saxophones, no clarinets, no woodwinds. It’s limited to trumpets, trombones, a guitar that doubles on Cuban guitar, an accordion, a double bass –– it’s all extremities, very contrasting things.

And yes, once or twice a week for a year I did meet with the percussionists and some of the instrumentalists, and we would send cassettes to Caracas, and would get from them recordings back as the work was in progress. I traveled to Caracas two or three times, and we rehearsed and I composed as I was getting to know some of the most striking voices of their chorus. So [laughs] it was a very homemade process.

Were there challenges in getting the European players to get the rhythmical feel of the music right?

No, because I brought my own players. The only new people that we had in Europe were a couple of the brass players and strings. But everyone else had been rehearsing for about 10 days in Caracas. And it was very beautiful. I mean, the chorus cooked the lunches, and they sewed the costumes, and it was a very humble and beautiful process.

How has the work evolved? Since its debut in 2000, have you had the opportunity or desire to revise the work?

No, actually, because we worked so much before the premiere, and the work stayed the same, except that we understand it better. You know, before, it was as you call it an unwieldy beast; now, I hope it still presents the ferality of the beginning. The chorus perhaps is the same chorus, but I would say maybe only 40 percent of the original singers are still singing it. Anyway, new generations are coming into it.

A work like this feels like an invitation for audiences not familiar with “serious music.” There’s something for everybody in it. Was that a consideration on your part?

I was not really thinking of audiences then. I would say that my big fear was to present the piece to the chorus of Venezuela that would be perceived as an honest interpretation of the story, because, again, of having been written by a Jew and for people that are devout believers and have never worked with a Jew and also never interacted with one. And so who am I to bring them this interpretation? [laughs] I wanted to be honest with them. These are people who are most of the time from humble origins, and so I wanted a piece that would stick to them and also give new light to the story and come from their own lives. So I was not really thinking of what happens next.

I ask you that question because some of your other pieces, such as Ainadamar or Ayre, have deliberately counterpointed different cultural standpoints, as you do in La Pasión. While that seems like a natural thing for you to do, do you otherwise concern yourself with the expansion of contemporary classical music’s audience?

I don’t think about this as a conscious concern, but yes, it’s always a concern of trying to find the idiom, the constellation of idiom, the contrast of styles and genre that actually would go to the core of what the music is asking for.

You know, in the case of Ainadamar, the use of flamenco is not just to give the Spanish color, it’s to symbolize both the solitude of Lorca and the soul of Spain that fits him but also swallows him. Every time I use a “popular” style, there is a dramatic or musical need for it. I’m thinking, What is this about? And what does the piece mean?

Can you relate particular musical concerns you’ve explored in this work with your ongoing musical investigations? That is, do you recognize certain harmonic, melodic or textural means?

I think that the Pasión was a specific piece, and I kind of explored and exhausted what I wanted to say with that idiom. It’s a piece that is based on a journey that is primarily rhythmical and percussive, and in which harmony is for the most part very simple and is a function of rhythm. And now I’m more interested in more sublimated uses of genres and more in using the musical bricks in a symphonic way. I think I’m evolving. Who knows? [laughs] I love the Pasión, but it’s one thing when you want to write the “Ode to Joy” and make a real public piece, and another thing when you explore death or something like that. Right now I’m trying to explore more intimate and more personal things.

On a technical note, have you thought much about the rhythmic connections between salsa, tango and perhaps samba with rhythms found in klezmer and Eastern European Roma music?

Yeah! One of the most striking discoveries I made: In tango, before, the rhythm was very square rhythmically, very one-two, one-two; and then Piazzolla does it tang tang, tukka tah tah!, a 3-3-2 rhythm  that’s a signature for all new tangos after him. He felt that he brought that new rhythm because he grew up as a teenager on the lower east side in New York, where he learned from the Jewish wedding bands.

All these rhythms that seem to be “untouched,” like very pure, actually are all contaminated. You know, the tango has to do with habanera rhythm –– but then, everything has to do with everything, even more so today.

Can you give a little  insight into how your life in Argentina, and then in Israel, might’ve shaped your creative mind?

In Argentina, my mother was a classical pianist, and I sang in the synagogue and played klezmer –– and my father loved tango. So I already grew up without much distinction between the high and low, so to speak. And then in Israel, what broadened me was my discovery of the music of the Arabs, which was a whole new conceptualizing of music; I mean, the idea of the Arabesque, for example, where there is no theme and variation, but actually a state of perpetual variation, without theme.

And most importantly, more than the specific music styles, in Israel there was the idea of a constant state of semi-chaos and the emergence of states of unison, which I think shaped me in the way that my music, even when I write for orchestra, there’s no hierarchy. There’s a lot of, if not freedom, at least volatility. [laughs]

I hear a lot of Piazzolla in your DNA. He must have made a big impact.

Oh yeah. Well, first of all, it was the courage to use the bandoneon, you know. But even more than that, it was my realization that, when I grew up in La Plata, we were so far away from where the great composers had lived, and to see someone that was writing music at that moment when I was a child, and using the counterpoint of Bach and the rhythms of Bartok and Stravinsky in order to distill life in the street at that moment…When I would hear his rhythms, his phrasing, I could totally connect those to the way in which people walked or spoke or screamed and laughed or flirted, you know, the fabric of life in the city became music in his hands. And I love this connection between life and music. I hope in some way I continue with that.

What should a listener get from La Pasión según San Marcos?

Well, it depends. I mean, if it’s a listener for whom the piece is primarily about faith, about the message of the story and Jesus, hopefully that listener will receive a new perspective on how the story remains the same but is lived in a different way in Latin America.

And for someone who doesn’t want to think about the words, I hope the piece is a journey in which the rhythms of the continent create this sense of transformation. I hope that at the end of the 90 minutes there will be a sense of, if not the sacred, at least of the trancendence of music and life over death and noise.