Tuesday, May 29, 2012

This Famous Living Composer needs an Ego Check

It seems to be true that if you hit it big, you can become a jerk (or maybe you always were one), and people will allow it. This even seems to hold true in the rather tiny world of composing within the tradition of classical music, where there is usually no real money to be made for 99% of those attempting in one way or another to make some kind of living.

Photo: Oswaldo Golijov (perhaps the dude pictured on the music on the piano might be the next rip-off target, hmmm?)

This post is my take on the Oswaldo Golijov musical plagiarism debacle, scandal, or tempest in a teapot, depending on who you want to agree with. The story starts somewhere- but that beginning is kind of murky. You almost have to sleuth this one backwards in time and use something called a brain to get it right for yourself.  Mr. Golijov's simplistic explanation these days is not to be trusted- it's a fairy tale all about a melody and a few other strands of musical material he claims he and another person devised in the past and how it came to be used (over and over and over- hmm). Oh, by the way, Mr. Golijov is an uncle to half of Milli Vanilli.

Here's how things unfolded, as explained by Anne Midgette of the Washington Post

From pastiche to appropriation: Golijov and “Siderus”

"This week finds the composer Osvaldo Golijov dealing with accusations of plagiarism: his piece “Siderus,” co-commissioned by a consortium of 35 orchestras, premiered in 2010 in Memphis, appears to contain chunks of a work by the accordion player Michael Ward-Bergeman. The piece was played by the Eugene Symphony this past weekend, and two men in the audience -- Tom Manoff, a critic for NPR, and Brian McWhorter, a trumpet player -- were startled to recognize large chunks of Ward-Bergeman’s piece, which they happened to know intimately because they had worked together on a recording of it.”

You'll need to ead the whole article here (you can also Google “Golijov” and find plenty more news and opinions):

The highly respected arts commentator Alex Ross and many others have weighed in on the subject, some defending Golijov's pastiche and “borrowing” (citing the long history of such in classical music) while others have gone for Goliyov's jugular. These folks point out that he's done this before, and in addition he's abused the musical world by being late on fulfilling commissions, submits works substantially shorter than the agreed upon commission length and other offenses. After a period during which he ignored the situation, Golijov finally offered up a pale explanation and pretty much no apology. In regard to his tardiness in fulfilling commissions his only response was “Composers shouldn’t be judged by being late,” he said, “but by being good.” Wow, tell that to an orchestra's artistic staff, music librarian, publicity department, and so on. They'd be thrilled to hear that, eh?

I bring this all back up because current news reveals that a Golijov violin concerto promised for premiere in the Spring of 2011 and more recently scheduled for a performance in April 2012 has not been finished. The next scheduled performance of this phantom piece is set for Fall 2012. We'll see if it gets delivered in time for that and if it is just “Barbeich” and “Siderus” rearranged Pizzicato Polka style perhaps? In addition, more people are also discovering that the “Siderus” piece and its relationship to Barbeich” is actually preceded by a Golijov piece called “Radio” commissioned and paid for by a NYC group. So apparently this ”amazing” music is so important to the universe that it keeps appearing with different names, as a commission paid for over and over by countless foolish groups, etc. Or could there be a connection to the Mayan calender predicting the end of the world in December 2012? Will the celestial tones of Radio/Barbeich/Siderus reverberate around us all in the final moments of our existence? This, I believe, is why we should cut Golijov slack, my friends. He has been chosen by the universe to composer music for our end credits.

New thought flash- why do the titles of all these pieces sound like the names of Cirque du Soleil shows? And actually, don't the pieces sound like Cirque music?

One cool dude, composer David MacDonald, has actually put together a side by side comparison in real time of Siderus and Barbeich- oh my Lord, the pieces are in the same key and even the same exact tempo- amazing.

One other thing I am amazed by- all of the many consortium commissioning orchestras are (at least publicly) just accepting this piece and not a single one has complained out loud or, to our knowledge, asked for their money back. Could it be they are too embarrassed to want to say anything for the record- to admit they were too stupid and musically uninformed to know this was all happening? It actually makes me grin to think that this piece (which no matter the controversy- is pretty lame and musically inconsequential) was in honor of Henry Fogel, who made a big mess managing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra here in Chicago after Georg Solti retired. We are just now getting back on track after dozens of years of decline. Thanks to Fogel's successor, Deborah Card, and Riccardo Muti we're putting the recent dreadful and dreary Henry Fogel/Daniel Barenboim days behind us.

So as people yammer back and forth about whether Golijov's behavior was acceptable as a composer/human being/signer of a contract, etc. here is what people have forgotten to talk about and what I want to add to the discussion-- and what is actually more important than Golijov and his ego: how this affects all the many other talented orchestral composers who would have leaped at an opportunity to write a “new” (whatever that means, I guess) piece for thirty-five top orchestras and accept the lucrative fee that went along with that contract and job. This would be a dream come true for many very skilled composers out there, and possibly a breakthrough for someone who did it well. But no, the big gig and the big money goes to the “name” composer even if he is an asshole. He can gleefully rip off other people's pieces or slip them some money for their piece, stick his name on them, deliver them late and well short of the duration time requested like he doesn't care, and laugh all the way to the bank. I recall hearing recently about another big name composer who was two years late with a choral commission. Why didn't the choir just cancel the contract and demand that their deposit be returned? They had every legal right to do so. But they let the big name slide because I guess the big-name is so very ”special”. So my focus here is how do talented, but lesser-known composers feel when this stuff happens? Personally in the choral field I'm doing pretty well- so while this situation steams me quite a bit, I can't even truly imagine how much it steams talented and reasonably ambitious, yet still ego-healthy orchestral composers who  have difficulties getting their music known. Hmm, maybe I should ask a few of them- so I did ask one - and here are some of the thoughts of Thomas Dempster, a very fine composer, please visit Tom's website at www.thomasdempster.com :

The most-prominent and revered composers working in America today largely need to…
a) stop biting off more than they can chew regarding commissions and other such things by taking so many…
b) be brought back down to Earth and reminded that they are human as well and should therefore suffer with the rest of us…
c) not be given carte blanche regarding deadlines for important commissions when there are hundreds of us out there who write as-good (if not “better”) music champing at the but…
d) all of the above.

I’ve never particularly liked Golijov’s music or his compositional voice. It’s like someone spilled more dissonances on Manuel de Falla and mixed with B-level John Adams all while pretending to be Jon Brion or Howard Shore. But even then, I respected him. Ainadamar is a fantastic piece and should really go down as one of “the” operatic works of the next 50 years, despite what I think of it aesthetically or personally; technically, it works, and it's Golijov's voice, as best as I can tell. It's authentically his.

I have lost any sort of respect for Golijov after this debacle, though, and I hate what this could do to corporate and citizen sponsors of new-music composers, at least for the short term. This also makes all composers (or further reinforces the notion, false or not) seem like thieves or unoriginal. We’re original insofar as our influences become confluences: Americans who speak English all speak slightly differently from each other, and it’s those voices different from our own that pique our interest the most. We’re original insofar as our own voice has been shaped and is mature and can offer a rich vocabulary beyond the constabulary of neutrality that inhabits the vast majority of musical spaces. And Golijov went on and inverted that and created an affront to something we aspire to. Especially since Sidereus - his (or “his”) piece in question - is actually noticeably different from his regular voice, and the piece itself - beyond the, ahem, extended Ward-Bergeman “quotation” - is too sparkling, too riddled with consonance, too jagged at transition points to really be Golijov’s, in the biggest sense of the word. This is not a stylistic shift or a new development - this is Golijov affecting an accent, and he was called out on it.

Most troubling is the silence that emerged afterward. There were no discussions, publicly anyhow, among the consortium of orchestras that commissioned Sidereus to pull the performances or ask for a refund. Ward-Bergeman hasn't gone on record, and I question the ethics of that small-name composer if he was willing to part, for a price, with a piece of his, knowing he'd not receive continual credit or recognition, knowing he'd never be able to.

But then, we have to consider the cover song in pop music. To some degree, one artist buys out another through licensing and freely takes on the role of reconstruction worker to remake the song in his or her own voice. It may be a model shift or a difference in culture, but in art music, the quotation is short and well-placed; a quotation isn't the complete work spun round with someone else's name on it. There is no culture of a "cover artist" in classical composition - the closest we come is in having different ensembles and performers, but it's practically unheard of for a composer to "cover" another composer. And I largely don't think the art-music culture will ever embrace that.

Thanks to Tom for sharing his thoughts. And many composers who continually get passed over for good opportunities and commissions eventually tire of the situation and just quit composing, a really sad loss in my opinion. And I will say for myself, I hate Golijov's attitude about this- he has no respect for the performers or the organizations and makes all composers look like jerks. I resent having to being guilty by association because of him and others like him. I've never been late on a single commission and I have never rushed a piece just to finish one. We'll see how Golijov's world develops as hopefully, some people become wary of his behavior, but for now I just wanted to get my two cents worth in about how unfair this is to the many struggling composers out there who truly are trying to compose with a fresh, personal voice of their own.

Oh, by the way, lately I've seen some composer contracts that actually state that the composer signing the contract must write the piece him or herself. This looks to be one obvious result of the Golijov debacle, I guess. It's fine with me, but kind of evidence that what he did is now held against the rest of us. 

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