Although they work mainly outside the musical mainstream, composers of classical music occasionally find ways to impact popular culture. In the 1930s, French radical Edgar Varèse shocked the world of high culture with pieces such as Ionisation, which featured a bombastic percussion ensemble attempting to capture musically the scientific innovations which revealed humanity to be just a speck in a vast, relativity-driven cosmos. Varèse’s reckless freedom inspired a number of would-be rock stars, most notably Frank Zappa, who at age 15 telephoned the composer to share his youthful admiration. Another composer who has drastically changed the landscape of popular music is Steve Reich, who rebelled against the dry formality of traditional classical music by using minimalistic techniques and layering simple sound samples, thus inspiring a whole generation of electronic musicians. Today, Reich’s music remains a touchstone for sample-driven music: producer Madlib even borrowed a quotation from the composer’s early piece Come Out on the track “America’s Most Blunted” from 2004’s acclaimed hip-hop album, Madvillainy.
If Varèse and Reich have anything in common, they were both able to tap into larger cultural currents. Whether Varèse was exploring the scientific advancements of the early 20th century or Reich was contributing to the societal rebellion of the 1960s, both men were able to write music that somehow resonated with the spirit of their times. In the early 21st century, an era driven by forces of globalization, a composer who stands ready to make a similarly significant cultural contribution is Osvaldo Golijov (pronounced GO-lee-hof). Already attracting attention from major media sources such as the New York Times, the music of this Argentinian-born composer is notable for the way it blends a wide variety of cultural influences. Thanks to a pair of new recordings on the Deutsche Grammophon record label, this music is beginning to reach an expanding number of listeners.
In September of 2005, Golijov’s work Ayre had its recorded premiere on a Deutsche Grammophon disc, quickly drawing worldwide critical acclaim. The work, a song cycle commemorating the competing cultures and religions in medieval Spain — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — featured texts in medieval Spanish and Arabic. If the diversity of the texts was impressive, the breadth of Golijov’s musical vision was even more so. The music was a remarkably diverse hybrid of traditional and popular compositional styles, drawing on instruments ranging from flute and clarinet to hyper accordion and laptop-programmed drumbeats.
The latest Deutsche Grammophon release of Golijov’s work features the 2003 opera, Ainadamar. The work was inspired by the story of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was killed in 1936 by fascist forces at a fountain known as the “fountain of tears”, the English translation of the title of the piece’s Arabic title. The opera is set in Uruguay in 1969, and it uses several events in the life of Catalan playwright Margarita Xirgu, a friend of Lorcan, to examine the poet’s death.
The recording of Ainadamar, which features a cast of top-notch soloists and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Spano is excellent. Musically, Ainadamar contains many of the elements that make Ayre such a successful piece. The opera features the wide range of musical styles and instrumentation one would expect from Golijov, including a mix of orchestral and folk instruments and computer-managed sound samples. Especially prominent on this album is the influence of flamenco music, as evidenced in the sometimes-frenzied guitar playing and singing and in the unusual instruments such as the Spanish cajón. Golijov weaves these elements seamlessly into the work’s musical fabric, which also contains traditional orchestral playing and operatic vocals. The result is an opera which is simultaneously exhilarating and haunting, evoking the rhythms and melodies of Spanish folk songs while painting a vivid musical picture of conflict, death and grief.
In a musical scene notorious for snobbery and disdain for popular trends, Golijov stands out. Whereas many classical composers distance themselves from the masses, fearful of soiling their art, Golijov reaches out with both hands and finds art in the soil. Musically, Golijov goes where few other composers go and listens for what most people will never hear. Most importantly, though, he possesses the ability blend the disparate elements he finds in his musical explorations into coherent and stimulating wholes. As works such as Ayre and Ainadamar demonstrate, Golijov has the uncanny skill of dealing in many musical styles without ever being trapped by the conventions of different genres. In an age of globalization, such a skill is a reflection of high societal ideals and is most definitely deserving of the attention of intelligent, conscientious music listeners around the world.