Can music bring us unity? How Osvaldo Golijov’s ‘Ayre’ is what we need now
By Mark Swed
There are few corners in the history or geography of music — highbrow, lowbrow, any-ol’-brow — in which folk songs haven’t insinuated themselves. They remind us of who we are. They tell our stories. They purpose the times of our lives. In love, they are for wooing and weeping. They can incite battle as well as warn us of war’s futility, celebrate victory and mourn defeat.
In the wake of a distracting election, as we find ourselves a nation impossibly divided, placing identity — be it racial, religious, regional, generational, political or gender-based — above unity, folk songs have a singular lesson to impart.
This is what Osvaldo Golijov has to say about his 2004 song cycle, “Ayre,” which focuses on folk songs from Andalusian Middle Ages. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in reasonable, if imperfect, harmony, culturally influencing one another. “With a little bend, a melody goes from Jewish to Arab to Christian,” Golijov is quoted in the CD booklet for soprano Dawn Upshaw’s premiere recording of the cycle.
To hear that in a lullaby, to hear it in anger or rapture, is an aha moment. “How little you have to change to go from one culture to another,” Golijov once exclaimed at a performance of “Ayre,” “maybe even nothing.” A singer’s accents can be enough.
“Ayre” is not folk music, but it’s infused by it. Its model and companion piece is Luciano Berio’s “Folk Songs,” written 40 years earlier for Berio’s wife, the remarkably imaginative Armenian American soprano Cathy Berberian. In no work is the power of folk song more apparent. By making arrangements of songs from various countries, the Italian avant-gardist didn’t so much break ranks with the progressive radicalism that had transformed music as he did open it. This then made possible Berio’s next major work, “Sinfonia,” an earlier subject of this “How to Listen” series.
Any and all songs were adaptable for Berio. The third in his “Folk Songs” is one of Berberian’s favorite Armenian serenades, a hymn to the moon. The final piece in Berio’s song cycle is a wild Azerbaijan love song that Berberian discovered on an old 78 rpm recording and, without understanding a single word, sang as though it were the sexiest thing in the world. Now, of course, these are warring nations.
Golijov used Berio’s chamber ensemble with some 21st century updates, such as a laptop and a hyper-accordion, the instrument rigged to employ digital signal processing. Texts are in Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino, Spanish and Sardinian. They and the songs don’t necessarily come from Andalusia; rather they take up the theme of cultural and political coexistence, holding up our era to history.
Vocal and musical styles cross centuries and continents. You often don’t know where you are or even who wrote what. Golijov adapts ancient music with all the tools of Postmodernity. He sometimes writes his own music or writes music to go along with other music that makes everything sound like him. He shares Berio’s deadline issues. Berio was finishing “Folk Songs” right up the moment of its premiere at Mills College in Oakland. Golijov didn’t begin “Ayre” until the month of its premiere. Not having time to finish, he asked his friend Gustavo Santaolalla for two numbers.
The heat of the moment is part of what electrifies “Ayre,” which means air or melody but here implies the musical air we breathe. Golijov happened to be at the time the most talked about composer in America for his exhilarating musical multiculturalism. Born in 1960, he grew up in Argentina in a family of Eastern European immigrants and was enamored equally with Astor Piazzolla’s New Tango and New Klezmer. He went on to study music in Israel and then in America with the mystical avant-gardist George Crumb, who also has taken to arranging folk songs lately.