At Hillel, Composer’s Scores Speak Psalms

Osvaldo Golijov discussed the origins of his multicultural music

The work of composer Osvaldo Golijov represents a fusion of musical traditions—Golijov is a Jewish Argentine musician with an Ivy League degree in composition. At Harvard Hillel on April 2, Golijov explored the roots of his multi-faceted musical style in a discussion with Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg. The talk integrated performances of Golijov’s works by his longtime collaborators, the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

Born in La Plata, Argentina, to Eastern European Jewish parents, Golijov was raised listening to traditional chamber music, klezmer, and Jewish liturgical music. But growing up in La Plata exposed him to the rhythms of Argentine culture, and he was influenced particularly by the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. Golijov then chose to study music abroad, including in Jerusalem and at the University of Pennsylvania, where he completed his Ph.D. in composition. He has since worked with celebrated artists and groups such as Yo-Yo Ma, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Boston Symphony.

In the discussion at Hillel, he said he believes that studying different cultures has given him more perspectives on how to express emotion in music. “There are many musical languages. Certain cultures have explored certain areas of the soul more thoroughly than others,” he said. Delving further into the creative process behind his works, he said his goal is to translate distinct emotions directly into music. “It is when sobbing becomes a melody,” he said of his pieces. “It makes a raw, uncooked visceral expression.”

The St. Lawrence String Quartet is closely involved in developing the style of Golijov’s compositions, he said—both in conveying his sentiments and in adding new touches. Since the early ’90s, Golijov has worked closely with the quartet, and his Grammy-nominated 2002 CD “Yiddishbbuk” celebrated 10 years of partnership with the acclaimed group. “They are my friends. I trust them,” he said.  He explained that what he writes in the score—dynamics like pianissimo, for instance—can actually be played in many subtly different ways. He lets the quartet’s musicians develop these nuances, he said, based on their own impressions of the music. “It is very hard for a string quartet to play something that they are not convinced by.”

At Hillel, the St. Lawrence String Quartet played excerpts from “Yiddishbbuk” and Golijov’s new work “Qohelet.” Golijov, Steinberg, and the quartet discussed Jewish themes in the musical works. “Yiddishbbuk” memorializes the internment of three children at the hands of the Nazis—hence the sounds of sobbing, Golijov noted during the discussion.

The piece was also inspired by lines from apocryphal psalms. Steinberg recited excerpts from some of the psalms, then inquired about the influence of these traditional works on Golijov’s pieces. “I wonder if you were even worried about how these themes are at present without having spoken word,” Steinberg said. Golijov replied that once he had written the piece, he intended the inflections applied by the players to bring out the emotions in the psalms.

The members of the quartet spoke about the importance of their playing technique in capturing the feelings Golijov intended. “It’s important how the bow is handled. If you don’t really go for it, it has a different sound,” violinist Geoff Nuttall said. “It gets to the point that you’re so zoned into your training that you have to push the boundaries as a professional. Then [Golijov] starts to hear the notes that he wanted.” To demonstrate different ways of handling their instruments, Nuttall and the musicians then played multiple interpretations of the same passage of music.

Elaborating further on the development of his musical style, Golijov also mentioned people and moments in his life that have shaped him as a composer. He noted that his great-grandfather, an organ player, was the most influential person in his life. This inspiration is audible in some of Golijov’s works with larger ensembles, such as the piece “She Was Here,” in which the horns and clarinets play long, organ-like notes.

Golijov also said he appreciates other groups performing his works. He made reference to how often and how successfully Shakespeare’s works have been reimagined, and he said he encourages different interpretations of his music and of music in general. “There are so many ways to say, ‘To be or not to be,’” he said. “Music is a dialogue with the entire culture. It is a two-way street.”

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