February 10, 2008


A Conversation with Osvaldo Golijov (Habitus)

Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine Jew with a global imagination, is one of the most celebrated composers in the world today. The New York Times suggests that Golijov is “profoundly shifting the geography of the classical music world, dumping the old Eurocentric map.” He has crafted his own vernacular from his experiences in Argentina, Israel, and the United States—along with his learned grasp of the Western tradition and an expansive ear for pop and folk sounds from around the world.

In 2000, he was commissioned to create a Latin American interpretation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos, based on the Gospel of Mark, boldly recasts the story of Christ’s death with Cuban drums, flamenco guitars, Brazilian dance and percussion, cantorial melodies, a choir and soloists singing Spanish and Aramaic texts. The piece ends with a melancholy setting of the Kaddish. It’s both an inward turn and an empathetic leap from a composer who has taken what he calls a “step towards the Other.” [...]

Many people describe Argentina as a place where you can take ownership of the European tradition from afar, with a kind of freedom to re-imagine.

Right. Borges said something about being absolutely aware of tradition but not having the burden. You have the ability to reinvent it.

The reason I became a composer was probably [tango composer] Astor Piazzolla. His way of approaching music—he was not afraid to be both high and low, popular and classical. I understood right away that Piazzolla wasn’t simply using notes, he was distilling all of life in Buenos Aires: the way people talked, walked, flirted, fought.

He skirted all of the big European existential questions. But we didn’t have to ask ourselves those same questions. We did not attempt to destroy the world. [laughter]

People like Piazzolla or Borges could own all of Western culture, but they could approach it with playfulness. What was exciting for me in Piazzolla was not so much his tango roots, but his transmutations of Bartók, Stravinsky, and life in the streets into a new and vital music. [...]

How about the synagogue where you grew up?

It was officially Orthodox, but it was very chaotic and sui generis. Anarchy is always lurking in Argentina. The synagogue was in the same building as the basketball court and the Jewish community center. I would be playing basketball on a Saturday and they would come ask us to help complete the minyan.

We used to play street hockey in the parking lot at the Orthodox Temple in our town and when they couldn't make a minyan they'd ask for volunteers. Nick Furis always went.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 10, 2008 6:35 AM
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