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Commissioned by The Carnegie Hall Corporation through the generosity of The Maria and Robert A. Skirnick Fund for New Works at Carnegie Hall
A Counterpoint of Cultures
by Ara Guzelimian
"Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that - to borrow a phrase from music - is contrapuntal."
- Edward Said, from Reflections on Exile (2000)
Osvaldo Golijov's life and music reflect an enormously complex personal geography. Born into an Eastern European Jewish family transplanted to Argentina, he was profoundly influenced by his years in Jerusalem, that unique crossroads of overlapping, intertwined, and conflicting cultures. His work grows naturally out of these experiences, true to music's ability to be deeply rooted in a specific place and, paradoxically, at the same time to transcend borders and cultural boundaries. At his childhood home in Argentina, Golijov heard European chamber music, Jewish traditional chants and klezmer melodies, as well as encountering the new tango pioneered by Astor Piazzolla. A crucial turning point in his career as composer came in the form of a commission from conductor Helmuth Rilling to write a large-scale musical telling of the Passion story in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000. La Pasión según San Marcos combines the vibrancy of Latin American musical traditions and Jewish liturgical chant while remaining true to the spirit of the Bach Passions.
Soprano Dawn Upshaw has been an important muse and collaborator for Osvaldo Golijov. His first work for her, the beguiling song Lúa descolorida (1999), was subsequently incorporated into La Pasión and, in another orchestration, forms the centerpiece of his Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (2002). She created the title role in Ainadamar (2003), Golijov's first opera, written with the playwright David Henry Hwang and based upon the life of Federico García Lorca. That same year, Carnegie Hall invited Dawn Upshaw to curate a two-year series of programs for the legendary auditorium as well as to help inaugurate the new Zankel Hall, an innovative underground performing space designed to embrace a wide range of musical traditions. It was perhaps inevitable that both the soprano and the hall would turn to Osvaldo Golijov to create a work that celebrated the artist and the new venue.
The initial inspiration for Golijov's Ayre came from the desire to create a companion work for Luciano Berio's Folk Songs (1964), a pioneering work that draws upon traditional melodies from America, Armenia, Sicily, Genoa, Sardinia, the Auvergne, and Azerbaijan.
Golijov's Ayre - meaning "air" or "melody" in medieval Spanish - largely centers on southern Spain with its intermingling of three cultures (Christian, Arab, and Jewish) in an era before the expulsion of the Jews in the late 15th century. The varying degrees of coexistence and conflict among these cultures have continued to reverberate into our own time. "With a little bend, a melody goes from Jewish to Arab to Christian," Golijov says. "How connected these cultures are and how terrible it is when they don't understand each other. The grief that we are living in the world today has already happened for centuries but somehow harmony was possible between these civilizations." Like Berio, Golijov draws upon a highly eclectic and personal selection of sources. The texts are in Ladino (the lost language of the Spanish Jews, the Sephardim), Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian, and Spanish. These words encompass a wide range of human experience, from love and jealousy, to raucous rage and to religious yearning and prayer. Golijov explains that "the idea is to create a 'forest' and for Dawn to walk in it. There is no real sense of 'form' - in the sense of Beethovenian development - but rather lots of detours and discoveries."
Golijov has scored the work for a richly colored chamber ensemble. The music originates both as found objects - a Sephardic lullaby or a Christian Arab Easter hymn - and from original melodies. "Most are well-known melodies that I arranged," the composer has said, "but some I made up. For example, for the first song I took a Sephardic romance. I don't know if it ever had music but I wrote a tune for it." The tale told in the song takes a most unexpected turn, beginning with the epic and quickly turning sardonically personal. "I love how the song zooms and telescopes from a huge battle to an unrequited love story." The purity of Dawn Upshaw's soaring voice is put to use in the high-lying cantilena of yearning in that first song, echoing the klezmer-tinged clarinet solos inspired equally by David Krakauer, one of the world's most celebrated klezmer innovators. But a very different and wholly unexpected side of the soprano's musical character is evident in the wild-eyed ranting of the third song "Tancas Serradas a Muru," based on an 18th-century Sardinian song. "I told her, look, this is a theatrical situation," says Golijov. "Imagine that you are at the front of a mob basically come to overthrow the power." The raw, snarling energy of the vocal setting perfectly suits the crazed dance of fury that ensues.
Much of Ayre calls for the simplicity and directness of utterance natural to a singer of folk songs. Dawn Upshaw grew up in the 1960s and '70s in a politically active household in which she joined her parents and older sister in an informal singing group. That early experience serves her well in some of Ayre's most touching and intimate moments, notably the lovely ninth song, "Sueltate las Cintas," one of two written by Golijov's close friend and frequent collaborator, composer-producer Gustavo Santaolalla.
To the largely historic texts, the composer adds a poignant commentary from the contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, an eloquent poet of exile, whose plea is astonishingly timely and timeless: "Be a string, water to my guitar,/ Conquerors come, conquerors go. . . / It's getting hard to remember my face in the mirrors./ Be memory for me/ So I can see what I've lost./ Who am I after these paths of exodus?" The first appearance of these words stands in stark contrast to the rest of the work - this is the only portion of the work that is spoken and in English. The Darwish poem returns again in the tenth song, now fragmented and alternating with a haunting setting of a 12th_century Sephardic call to prayer by Yehudah Halevy. This is for four voices only, all of them belonging to Dawn Upshaw - one speaking the words of Darwish, the other three, electronically layered, singing the Sephardic call to prayer. The first appearances of the prayer are for two voices characterized by Golijov in the score as "Harsh/Pain." These are joined eventually by a third sung voice labeled "In Wonder." As this voice begins to soar, it grows nearer; the pained voices begin to recede. In the words of Halevy: "Oh God, where shall I find You?/ Your place is high and hidden./ And where shall I not find You?/ Your glory fills the World." In this mingling of long-distant past and the present day, in this perpetual counterpoint of cultures, Ayre finds blessed grace.
- Ara Guzelimian is Senior Director and Artistic Advisor at Carnegie Hall.