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In Defense of Osvaldo Golijov – Updated*

Boy, the mob is out to get him. 

A "scandal" has broken about the credited incorporation of a section of a piece used with permission by another composer into a new work with Osvaldo Golijov. My thesis statement here:  Classical Music is Lame as it has nothing better to talk about.

I thought I might add my thoughts about this controversy as it has turned into a true mob scene with aims at character assassination of a very nice guy who was recently responsible for bringing Philip Glass' suite from The Hours to the Chicago Symphony MusicNOW Series (not the "real" orchestra season, as the major orchestras of America still refuse to acknowledge the Philip Glass is alive).  This act of programming took courage and music fans in Chicago are indebted to him for it.

The discussion has turned from "Golijov used of a section of a piece in his piece," to "he's done this before" to outright accusations of plagiarism, fraud, and intimations that he plagiarizes because he can't meet deadlines despite the fact that other composers regularly don't meet deadlines on high profile commissions. 

It's a disappointment that there are major journalists involved in the fray including Alex Ross of the New Yorker and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post.

Both journalists document the story. Midgette concluding with:

"I don’t think that what Golijov did with Ward-Bergeman’s piece is actually plagiarism if it happened with the original composer’s approval. But I do think that this is part of a pattern that is (clearly, since this “Siderus” episode may spiral into one of those viral media frenzies) going to be increasingly problematic for him in the future — to say nothing of diminishing him as an artist."

Ross saying:  

"Yet, whatever the sources, Golijov’s output in recent years has paled next to “La Pasión,” “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” and other works from a decade or more ago. He has repeated familiar gestures, submitted works shorter than expected, and, on several occasions, failed to deliver commissions on schedule. His many admirers are hoping that he recovers his creative energies in his Violin Concerto, which Leonidas Kavakos and the Berlin Philharmonic are scheduled to perform in April. It was announced for an L.A. Phil première last year, but, in a now too familiar story, Golijov did not finish it in time."

Midgette is contributing to the "viral" internet element yet takes no responsibility for doing so.  The Ross report is consistent with recent problems that I've experienced in his reporting.  Often his favorite living composers are spared similar judgment despite equally egregious "borrowing."  In fact those artists are trumpeted as being totally original voices who will live forever and those composers he thinks less of are dismissed.  In one incident Ross published a piece on film composers a few years ago and he assaulted John Williams:

"Williams re-creates more often than he imitates; he is an accomplished pasticheur, able to make music of any image thrown his way. As such, he is a master of his art, even if he has no style to call his own."

A great many people would disagree with the idea that Williams does not have his own voice.  Not only did this show a contempt of the medium and the tradition of film music, it also showed that he picks and chooses his targets with inconsistency.  Williams is an accomplished pasticheur but John Adams is not?   For that matter Boulez is not doing pastiche of Schoenberg?  Arguably one could say that Philip Glass is copying a style pioneered by Bernard Herrmann in the 1950s.  

Igor Stravinsky: "Good composers don't borrow, they steal." In the extreme, Charles Ives was very clear that his music didn't belong to him or anyone else to the point where he didn't copyright it and spent money suing anyone who attempted to copyright his music. The exchange of musical ideas throughout time is fluid.  Especially in our time classical music has gratefully reached a point where, like pop music, one can, without shame, talk about one's influences.  As Ross correctly states it's only in the post-Beethoven world that has informed many people's perception of a pure sort of art.  I have news for everyone:  there is no such thing as pure art.  On this front Beethoven did much more harm than good.

I'm not sure what inspired this vitriol, and I don't know any of the pieces in question, but I do know that  that in this post-post-post modern world, composers don't reinvent the wheel, they contextualize. Most of the arguments being provoked by this discussion will point out exactly what's wrong with our perception of exactly what music is in our society.  We should use as the starting point in our conversation with: Though no art is truly singular or original, it is a search for beauty in the human experience and seeks to enrich people's lives. 

Even if such a piece of pure music did exist in a vaccum, it would exist in the listener's mind against the context of all the other music in the history of the world.

The body of work Golijov has created over the years should put him beyond this type of nonsense. And to besmirch someone publicly or to simply intimate that he steals other's music is wrong. 

Plagiarism charges can be dealt with in court.  Whereas the damage that this controversy might cause will follow Golijov for years and years.  The benefit of the doubt should rest with him, and in the meantime everyone should keep in mind that in fact no music is truly original.

Richard Guérin 

* Feb.23, 2012

I have now heard the works in question and I'm even more resolute in my defense of Golijov.  Firstly the Ward-Bergman piece seems to me very much influenced, dangerously so, by Yann Tiersen. Secondly, Golijov had previously used this WB piece in his 2009 piece Radio for WNYC's Greene Space.  It's a catchy ditty.  Both Sidereus and Radio use the WB piece as a launching point.  I heard Respighi, another rip-off artist's, Rossiniana this morning. I wonder what sort of scandal enveloped that premiere. 


10 thoughts on “In Defense of Osvaldo Golijov – Updated*”

  1. Richard, Great response to this nonsense about Golijov. Philip’s music, & musical style are constantly ‘borrowed/stolen’ to the point of not being able to keep up with it. I used to get very angry about this, now there’s so much of it I shug it off & tell myself that using PG’s style or his actual music is the highest form of flattery. I agree that villianizing Mr. Golijov, means that music critics can’t find anything else to write about.

  2. Richard, can I just ask – in your update (after you actually listened to the pieces in question) – what do you mean when you say the Ward-Bergman is ‘dangerously’ influenced by Yann Tiersen?
    I only mean that I’m interested in what it means for a piece to be ‘dangerously’ influenced by something when you are writing such a spirited defence of another example of what I imagine you would term ‘influence’.
    I wonder, too (again, after listening to the works) if you still stand by the comment at the top of your post that Golijov’s work ‘incorporates’ (not: ‘orchestrates’) a ‘section’ (not: ‘virtually the entirety’) of another work?
    Finally, I’d just point out that whether or not Golijov had permission to use the other composer’s work has very little influence on what is upsetting people. Had Golijov’s programme note said “I’ve orchestrated a piece by a friend, and placed it within the context of my orchestral setting”, then I imagine the response would have been nil. But to submit a work as an ‘original’ composition that ‘borrows a melody’ in fulfilment of a contract for an ‘original composition’ – when in actuality a large part of the music is not your own (e.g. if I orchestrate a Debussy Prelude, even if I add some notes and an introduction, my name doesn’t go at the top) doesn’t this seem to you, even the tiniest bit, disconcerting?

  3. To your last point: no it’s not disconcerting again because he had permission and unless you or I are able to see the commission agreement, it’s speculation that it’s supposed to be a truly “original” work.
    John Corigliano won his Pulitzer Prize for music in the last decade by filling a commission with an “arrangement” of his 15 year old string quartet. Are people equally outraged by it not being original?
    To this day people think the Righteous Brothers wrote unchained melody, which was actually the theme to a film called Unchained composed by Alex North. Maurice Jarre won awards for it when they used it in the movie Ghost and I heard it pop up in a Michael Nyman string. Quartet.
    I didnt see Glass credit the sibelius theme he used in Glassworks. Nor did i see j.j. Abrams credit Glass’ Truman Sleeps in his theme for Fringe. That recent Coldplay song that went no.1 was clearly a tip off of Joe Satriani (you tube Coldplay Satriani) and that sold millions. That’s a case where it actually matters. Theres no money in this Golijov affair.
    I’m not advocating for plagiarism, I’m saying it’s more complicated and fluid than that. In London “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Wizard of Oz” is playing. I don’t see the authors’ names on the marquis of that. That’s a work still protected by copyright. These are complicate issues so to damage someone’s reputation like this is not only irresponsible, it’s libelous.

  4. Richard – No offense, but, your rebuttal would have been far more credible if you would have actually listened to the works “before” criticizing the critics (who did their homework). This controversy is not about “character assassination,” as you put it. Nor is it a controversy about stylistic originality (something tells me you haven’t even read the critic’s articles fully). I agree with you that no one is doing anything “new” in the true sense of the word. In fact, you could argue that there are only a handful of composers in the history of music who were truly “original” in terms of creating works/concepts that had no stylistic precedent or didn’t imitate the structures of previous works. Therefore, when we use the term, “original” in our everyday language (especially in the legal sense), it refers to a work that, although it may have a similar sylistic quality of previous works, has a new arrangement of pitches, rhythms, harmonic progressions/changes, textures, etc. that the composer can call his/her own.
    So, what has everyone fired up in this case is the fact that a famous, celebrated, and honored composer accepted a HUGE sum of money to write an original work (i.e. commission) and ended up turning in a work that was a mere orchestration of someone else’s piece (peppered with a brief into., a brief transition, and a brief ending). In addition, the complaint is that the composer tried to pass this orchestration job (which was a significant part of the piece) off as his own by only giving a brief, vague mention of a melody he used by the composer. Which is misleading, again – if you listen to the music – he takes more than the melody, he takes the rhythms, the actual key, accompaniment gestures, and chord progressions verbatum. This is more than a mere “springboard,” Richard. This is an orchestration job of someone else’s work passed off as an original, commissioned piece. If you or people like you can’t see the ethical/moral problem with that, then there is no hope for the classical music world.

  5. Rick,
    I did listen to the work and updated my post, and in fact I read all the criticisms.
    I know and concede that it was basically an arrangement of WBs piece, which Golijov first published as Radio, a piece which he premiered at WNYCs Greene Space back in 2009. I know all this. Im not denying the content. Im saying number one that the issue is between the commissioners and the composer, and number two that this type of stuff happens all the time, its actually not a bad thing.
    Again, Im not arguing for plagiarism, but discovering this stuff – hearing other peoples work and influence is actually part of the fun of listening to music. Its not cynical to say at this point that knowing that tonal composition pretty much ran its course by 1910 – everything tonal since then has simply been a repackaging of the same ideas. Where does one draw the line? Philip Glass himself said in an interview with Ira Glass back in 2009 that Im doing the same thing everyone else has always done, Im just good at disguising it. If you talk to more musicians you might discover a greater sense of this attitude.
    Ive heard of copyright suits being thrown out in court, when to my ears they are direct lifts.
    This is not about Golijov. Its about the free exchange of ideas. I was being ironic when I said that the WB piece is dangerously influenced by Yann Tiersen. Ill say in in plainer language. The Ward-Bergman piece is HEAVILY influenced by French composer Yann Tiersen. So if the commissioners sue Golijov and WB, I think Yann Tiersen should also sue. Then where do you stop? How far does the line of influence go?
    There are thousands of examples here. The net result of this incident is that Golijovs reputation has been damaged. He told me that the only answer to this whole thing will be his music. But if we have to call out Golijov and feign outrage – then I insist on consistency and we need to thoroughly attack people who copy.
    Take your pick of a point in history, any composer, and we can launch a full scale investigation.

  6. Frankly I doubt that Golijov can even read music, so slipping in a bit of this and that is no surprise. When modern composers have nothing to say, they either repeat themselves or “quote” extensive selections from other works. Glass himself cuts corners all of the time to meet his commissions so I’m not sure why we’re jumping on the hate Golijov bandwagon. Elliot Carter he’s not. If he was it would have been brilliantly done.

  7. To me the matter coems down to this: if someone iis brave enough to insert somebody else’s work (with permission) into their own – more power to them. This shouldn’t be looked down upon. If it works – it works.

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