I’m a jazz and pop guy through and through. I don’t listen to much classical music. I’m a passionate music lover, just not a particularly deep one, or at least I’m not well-informed about music composed before the 20th century. I can’t read music, so I’m limited in how well I can pick out subtleties in even the music I cherish. With few exceptions, I still have a hard time telling apart certain jazz saxophonists who solo on the same cut. When I write music criticism, which is rare, I always feel like I’m sculpting in clay with broken thumbs. Music is hard enough to write about if you know what you’re hearing—it’s the one art form that you can’t accurately describe in visual or tactile terms; saying that a song feels like summer roses, but woefully inadequate. If you’re like a relative know-nothing like me, it’s near-impossible.
Somehow, despite my limitations, jazz has never seemed daunting but, rather, inviting to me. Go figure. Classical music, however, intimidates me. This lack of comprehension isn’t something I’m proud of. I think the anti-elitist elitism of rockism is idiotic. It’s just a fact—I don’t know classical music. And, as much as I try to be anti-rockist, I find the strident anti-pop tendencies in much of classical music criticism to be just as off-putting.
For reasons unexplainable, however, I’ve been taken by one composer in particular. Half of my classical music collection (okay, okay, about eight CDs total) is taken up by his work. How did this happen? I say the reasons are unexplainable but, actually, I’m going to give it a whirl.
Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, is a writer I read regularly, even though I often don’t know a damn thing he’s talking about. His prose is witty and elegant, giving life to worlds—opera, string-based music, medieval choral work—in which I’m interested in exploring, but for which I don’t have a working map. When he gushes about someone, I pay attention.
In 2001, he wrote a piece on Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Passion of St. Mark that dazzled me. The key quote came midway in the piece:
Pasión poses a question: How might Bach have composed if he had been born in Latin America toward the end of the twentieth century? Most likely, he would have steered clear of the late-modernist abstractions of Rihm; every bar of Bach’s output is marked in some way by the airs and dances of his day. His first order of business might have been to learn the mambo. In any case, Golijov’s work begins with a hypnotic montage of Latin sounds: Brazilian shakers and musical bows, conjuring an ancient world; eerie moans from the accordion, representing the voice of God; then the entry of the chorus, braying in Africanized Spanish over batá drums. The listener is thrown into the middle of a Lenten street festival, with three processions of singers converging in an antiphonal clamor.
I can recognize certain Bach pieces, but I’ve got no idea who Rihm is. But the idea of Golijov’s Passion as an urban cacophony, both percussive and melodic, appealed to me strongly. The composition insinuated pop and folk motifs into a long-form, challenging classical structure. Its starting points—Caribbean pop, polyrhythms—were familiar to me. The collage of musical ideas—and collage is an idea I tend to like in art—seemed like something I would love.
So, Golijov stayed in the back of my mind. I suppose I could have just ordered the set through Amazon, but I didn’t. I thought it would be more serendipitous if I found it myself, or if I received it as a gift. Every trip to the music shop began with a quick check of the classical section for Golijov.
After two years of searching, I found it.
By this point, I accepted that I had built up my expectations so high that the album was bound to disappoint me. I turned on the CD fully expecting to dislike it, to feel stupid for not liking it more, to put it aside after a single listen.
Around the time of “The First Day,” sung mournfully by Luciana Souza, I realized that The Passion of St. Mark was better, much better, than I could have dreamed. It’s a piece of the streets, no question, but it’s one that finds the hidden glories of back alleys, of rain-slicked streets, of young mothers chatting on their doorsteps. A Cuban son gives way to angelic choruses, which in turn must contend with screeching and churning violins that replicate the sounds of car honks and insect chirps. At the end of “I Wish to Forswear,” a melancholy, solitary trumpet fit for Miles Davis gives way to a quartet of female voices carrying forth its melody.
But it’s not madness. It’s a cohesive work of art, full of violence and fury and grace. It’s a Passion that eerily feels like it could have happened amidst the dirty street and human aroma that Christ lived in. Each tonal shift feels natural, but always surprising. When Judas plans to betray Jesus, his plan at first sounds like a boast—a Cuban love song out of the 1950s—but ultimately, almost imperceptibly, becomes a chorus of lament, a self-laceration.
Oddly, I can’t listen to Golijov’s Passion too often. I’m listening to it as I write this, but I’m on the verge of tears. It’s not something I can listen to as I wash the dishes, or read, or do anything else. No matter. I love it.
On a business trip to Vancouver in June 2004, I found Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk in a classical music-only shop run by the nicest people imaginable. (Seriously. Go to Sikora’s if you’re ever in the city.) The pieces therein, unlike the Passion, aren’t intended for a large-scale orchestra. They’re performed, with equal parts swagger and humility, by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. (Toronto’s finest!) Again, we hear a melding of disparate styles—flamenco with klezmer (Golijov is Jewish.), avant-garde thumps and cracks alongside gorgeous, simple refrains. The last piece is the five-part “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” It throws in seemingly everything Golijov must have heard in the streets of Buenos Aires, but it’s no kitchen-sink multi-culti fest, but instead a vibrant thing, shivering with sorrow.
All of this, I suppose, is in part a long preamble to Salon’s take on the composer. It’s worth reading both for its biographical context and for its insight into Golijov’s music. I was struck by how playful he is.
[The Kronos Quartet’s David] Harrington says he first learned of Golijov, especially his devious side, by reading the composer’s program notes for “Yiddishbbuk” from its inaugural performance in 1992 by the St. Lawrence Quartet. In the notes, Golijov writes that the germ for the piece was the first line from a collection of apocryphal psalms, “Yiddishbbuk,” that Franz Kafka had been reading at home in Prague: “A broken song played on a shattered cymbalon.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time reading Kafka,” says Harrington, “and I’ve never read that quote. So I called up Osvaldo and I said, ‘You know that quote you attribute to Kafka in the program?’ There was a silence on the telephone, and he said, ‘Actually, I made that quote up.’ Then we started talking about the tradition in Latin American literature from Borges on of inventing things that authors have said and, well, we’ve been friends ever since!
Did he really make up the Kafka quote? “Absolutely,” says Golijov. “David was the only one who figured it out.” The fake quote and psalms title remain in the liner notes to the acclaimed 2002 recording of “Yiddishbbuk,” and continue to be cited by music critics around the world as a slice of Kafka’s biography.
This playfulness is evident in his music—from his willingness to mash together genres, from his ability to veer sharply from one mode to another—and it’s this mix of play and seriousness that makes me love Golijov. When I go to the music store, I still head for “Classical” first, to make sure there isn’t a new recording of his work. That’s something, I guess.