The Passion of
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.