Classical Music Buzz > Sequenza21/ > Down the Rabbit Hole of “Sidereus”

Composer Osvaldo Golijov

Today marks a week since Tom Manoff and Brian McWhorter attended an infamous  performance of the Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus by the Eugene Symphony Orchestra in Eugene, Oregon. The duo’s story – that they recognized substantial sections of another piece, Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich, in Mr. Golijov’s work – has, by now, practically become legend in music circles. Nearly every outlet covering Classical Music in the country, from The New Yorker to various individuals’ twitter feeds, have focused heavily on the ethics of Mr. Golijov’s musical borrowing.

To me, the question of whether what Mr. Golijov did is right or wrong doesn’t matter. We know from Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s well-circulated statement that he and Mr. Golijov have a standing agreement allowing the Argentinean-born composer to use material from Barbeich as he sees fit. Additionally, Mr. Golijov admitted to using Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s melody in a promotional interview leading up to Sidereus‘ first performance by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in October 2010. The discourse needs to shift its focus from Mr. Golijov’s culpability  and target the implications of this scenario – what does the Sidereus crisis  symbolize?

Superficially, one of the most inflammatory aspects of this story is the fact that Mr. Golijov is an incredibly famous composer and Mr. Ward-Bergeman is not well known. But, what is being overlooked is that the piece Mr. Golijov produced isn’t very good. In my opinion, Sidereus does not fulfill a level of imagination and perspicacity concomitant to the rest of Mr. Golijov’s output. People are saying the orchestras who commissioned Sidereus didn’t get what they paid for because Mr. Golijov borrowed from Mr. Ward-Bergeman. This isn’t true: the orchestras who commissioned Mr. Golijov didn’t get what they paid for because he didn’t write a good piece.

With this said, we shouldn’t dwell on why Sidereus misses the mark – Mr. Golijov is neither the first nor last great composer to put together a stinker. More important is examining the situation that led him to work at a level below his typical creativity. To this day, we know Mr. Golijov struggles with deadlines, and we also know he often juggles multiple projects at once. To my eyes, it is clear what happened: Mr. Golijov felt overwhelmed by his commitments and needed the help of Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s piece to fulfill an obligation.

Succumbing to pressure like this isn’t damnable – though, the disingenuous communications regarding Mr. Golijov’s lifting of Barbeich are quite problematic, as I will discuss later. However, other composers have done similar things with impunity, whether that means orchestrating one piece into another, or – in the case of Matthias Pintscher’s orchestra piece Toward Osiris – fulfilling one commission by throwing together sketches of a different, ongoing project. If we want to be constructive, instances like Sidereus should not indict the composers involved, but, instead, should operate as indicators of broader problems inherent to the system that produces these large commissions.

Tom Manoff, when I approached him for further comment, agrees that the conversation surrounding this controversy should no longer focus on Mr. Golijov. “I prefer in this moment not to talk about this in relationship to Golijov,” he told me right off the bat, “But I will respond to your other questions.” I asked Mr. Manoff, who is a composer in addition to his work with NPR’s All Things Considered, how he views the Sidereus situation as a musician, and he told me he sees this event as a symptom of the misguided star system driving the world of American Art Music.

The danger he identifies, “is the dumbing down of a music culture that now has a Hollywood Movie Blockbuster model. We hire this star and put him or her with this script (musical work) and we’re guaranteed success.” Mr. Manoff’s point is instructive: orchestras, and other presenting organizations, face enormous financial strain, and catering to donors’ direct tastes or a more general assessment of their audience’s interests by hiring well-known soloists and composers is a perfectly reasonable method to secure short-term ticket sales and other contributions.

Unfortunately, this model thrusts too much responsibility of production into the hands of too few musicians. As Mr. Manoff points out, orchestras gravitate towards a small group of stars, but I believe that cadre of super-famous composers is too small to support the demand of these institutions. Unwittingly, this system of depending on big-name composers has produced an oligarchy whose members seem to struggle in meeting the demands of their supporters. Sidereus is prime evidence of this, not because it is a flawed piece of music, but because its flaws show how hard it is for these esteemed, privileged composers to do their best work under the rigors of the system.

Clearly, we cannot enliven new generations of lovers of Art Music by investing in hastily or otherwise weakly written compositions. It is in every musician’s best interest that the new works supported by orchestras and other groups be the highest quality music possible. Naturally, risk is always involved in commissioning a new piece of music or work of art, but there is probably a way to fix things such that composers are still recognized for their craft and achievements, but not forced to carry the load of all major commissions.

I suggest orchestras, for example, start to branch out and work with lesser-known composers. This would relieve some of the workload on top-tier composers and, most likely, improve the quality of new music across the board. Hungry, obscure composers would attack their new opportunities with vigor and alacrity, while the most highly respected minds in our community would have the freedom to produce music commensurate in ingenuity to their reputations.

The obvious counter-argument is big-name composers attract audience members, but is this really true? Mr. McWhorter and Mr. Manoff, two very ‘informed’ concertgoers, didn’t go to Thursday’s concert to hear Sidereus: they went to hear a colleague play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Also, I’ve never heard the case that pieces of new music by famous composers drives orchestra or opera attendance. Even if that were true, wouldn’t the difference in cost of commissioning a fairly unknown composer instead of an Osvaldo Golijov defray the box office losses of not having a (supposed) marquee living composer on the program?

Idealistically, I feel the long-term gain of having more good music presented in front of American concertgoers is worth the risk of an initial drop in attendance. I admit to being naïve: I have overlooked the self-evident financial and political realities intrinsic to the process of commissioning a piece like Sidereus. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the opportunity for transparency and change opened by Mr. Golijov’s controversy. Why not try to learn from this crisis? Why not analyze how the paradigms that shape the culture of Art Music in our country led to this unfortunate occurrence? Why not identify improvements to the system that will benefit every composer from house-hold names to unknown recluses?

Last Thursday, while Tom Manoff and Brian McWhorter were looking forward to the night’s fateful performance, I was talking to Kurt Stallmann, a Houston-based composer and professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. We discussed his close collaboration with saxophonist Steve Duke on his new work Change Course. Dr. Stallmann owns the fact that he depended on Mr. Duke’s insights as a performer to make this largely improvised piece happen. And, the knowledge that they had worked together made the music more breathtaking when I heard it the following Saturday.

If Mr. Golijov had been so transparent about his collaboration with Mr. Ward-Bergeman on Sidereus, wouldn’t this conflagration of anger and opinion be tempered? Although Mr. Golijov described using Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s melody before Sidereus premiered, he undeniably downplayed the extent to which Barbeich‘s material vivifies his work. Sidereus is, essentially, a fantasy on Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s theme, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The finances of the Sidereus commission would have had to change, obviously, if Mr. Golijov had responded openly with the fact that the piece is little more than an arrangement of Barbeich, but, at least, the orchestras involved would have known upfront they weren’t getting a 100%, or even 50%, Osvaldo Golijov composition. Mr. Golijov could have generated goodwill instead of hostility by converting the borrowing he needed to do to complete Sidereus into an opportunity to showcase a lesser-known composer whose work he clearly admires.

Discussions of what Mr. Golijov could have, should have, done continue to reverberate because he has not made a statement to quiet them. Based on earlier interactions with the press, Mr. Golijov’s current taciturnity is uncharacteristic. Anne Midgette of The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that, in earlier conversations with her, Mr. Golijov, “freely admitted”, to relying on the work of others to get projects finished. More compelling is the article Brazilian journalist Lucia Guimarães produced in response to last Thursday’s concert, of which I obtained a translation.

In the piece, Ms. Guimarães shares part of a telephone conversation she had with Mr. Golijov about his string quartet Kohelet, commissioned by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. She confronts him about his use of a traditional Brazilian melody in the piece, and he responds contritely. According to my translation, he expresses regret about using the tune without acknowledging its origins and mentions Stravinsky’s rampant quotations to show how, in the past, composers have redefined music they appropriate through the prism of their musical perspectives. Mr. Golijov tells Ms. Guimarães, “each piece of music comes from another piece. There is nothing that originates from nothing.”

This final quote is the most telling part of their exchange. It suggests both that interacting with third-party music is a regular component of Mr. Golijov’s compositional process and that borrowing, quotation and other kinds of musical citation are quintessential to his artistic beliefs. Alas, we are left to speculate about his feelings on this most recent event. Using Ms. Midgette and Ms Guimarães’ accounts as circumstantial evidence, we can infer that Mr. Golijov is very sensitive towards this, but we won’t know anything certain until he speaks publicly.

Osvaldo Golijov’s career isn’t ruined, at least not in my opinion. Certainly, he is up against several obstacles of his own creation – his reputation for missing deadlines, this Sidereus situation, not to mention the yet unexplored borrowing of Barbeich in a different piece of his, a commission from WNYC called Radio (listen here and decide for yourself) – but all is not lost.  As is my wont, I’ve found an analogy to this crisis from the world of sports: the steroids controversy in Major League Baseball. Players found to be using steroids were rightfully chastised as cheaters, which – let’s face it – is what a lot of people think Mr. Golijov is. Though these players’ integrity diminished, the fans’ respect for them decayed, many were able to restore their place in the hearts of Baseball lovers and resurrect their careers by being honest about what they did.

You may disagree with the compatibility of this analogy, but I feel confident the pressures that forced Baseball players to use Performance Enhancing Drugs are completely analogous to the sense of overwhelm that may have led Mr. Golijov to borrow so extensively from Barbeich in Sidereus and Radio. I really think the best way Mr. Golijov can help himself is to come out and talk about these pieces, his relationship to Mr. Ward-Bergeman and how much collaboration means to him and the way he views music. His taking responsibility for his actions is the first step to peeling back the system of prestige that leaves him and others overworked and, ultimately, revising the culture of American Art Music such that composers at all levels of notoriety have the opportunity to produce the best music possible.

Garrett Schumann is a graduate student in Music Composition at the University of Michigan. Read more of his ‘Observations’ on the world of Contemporary Music at his website:

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