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 and played by Christoph Eschenbach and the NSO in December, 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.
Manoff, shocked, wrote a long blog post about this clear case of plagiarism. But although Golijov cannot be reached for comment, Ward-Bergeman did respond by e-mail, quoted by Manoff in his blog post: “I wanted to confirm that Osvaldo and I came to an agreement regarding the use of Barbeich for Sidereus. The terms were clearly understood, and we were both happy to agree. Osvaldo and I have been friends and collaborators for years.”
So is it plagiarism if it’s done with the benediction and full recognition of the composer whose work was supposedly “plagiarized”?
That people are getting outraged about this simply means that they are unfamiliar with Golijov’s modus operandi. Golijov works this way with other composers all the time, folding their work into his pieces with their approval.
Above: “Suéltate las cintas,” a track from Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle “Ayre,” was composed by (and credited to) the Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla. So is it “plagiarism” if the composer sanctions it? (Note that the Youtube video says the work is “by” Golijov.)
Gustavo Santaollala, a very successful Argentinian musician and producer, has worked with him on a number of projects, including “Ayre,” one of Golijov’s biggest hits, which credits Santaollala with two tracks; Santaollala was also the “sound designer” for a montage in Golijov’s opera “Ainadamar.” Now a Brazilian journalist, writing partly in response to Manoff’s post (and also cited by him), reveals that Golijov also used another composer’s music in the second movement of “Kohelet,” written for the St. Lawrence Quartet; that appropriation was without the composer’s approval, and resulted in the movement’s being withdrawn. (The article is in Portuguese, which I don’t read, so I will have to take Manoff’s word on this.)
In the case of “Ayre,” Golijov freely admitted -- I interviewed him, along with Dawn Upshaw, in a public talk sponsored by the New York Times -- that he had come under extreme deadline pressure and needed all the help he could get in order to finish. I always found it odd, not that “Ayre” was a collaborative piece, but that it is marketed and labeled “By Osvaldo Golijov” rather than as the pastiche it is.
Golijov was lionized, particularly after the success of his “Pasion segun San Marcos,” for synthesizing different kinds of music in individual pieces. I’ve pointed out before the irony that this is exactly the same thing critics excoriated Leonard Bernstein for in “Mass” decades before. Bernstein, like Golijov, was a composer who had trouble with deadlines -- some of “Mass” was written at warp speed while the piece was already in rehearsal -- and he also quoted from other works at times; The Word of the Lord, in “Mass,” was based on a Chilean protest song.
But Bernstein did make the music his own; it seems to me that Golijov, with his collaborative pastiches and what seems to be something of a block about actually writing music, is settling for a kind of buck-passing. (You can argue that weaving other people’s music into your own requires a certain kind of expertise, akin to what the writer with the pen name Q. R. Markham recently did with classic spy novels, as detailed in a wonderful New Yorker article; but Markham has been thoroughly discredited, his novel withdrawn.)
I don’t think that what Golijov did with Ward-Bergeman’s piece is actually plagiarism if it happened with the original composer’s approval. But I do think that this is part of a pattern that is (clearly, since this “Siderus” episode may spiral into one of those viral media frenzies) going to be increasingly problematic for him in the future -- to say nothing of diminishing him as an artist.