American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who will sing three songs by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov this weekend with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, finds herself connected to the hottest controversy of the moment in classical music. For Golijov, who a decade ago became as much of a rock star as one can be in his field, has recently been accused of plagiarism by critics and scholars, and provoked a debate about originality, creativity, and ethics in the high arts.
“I haven’t talked to Osvaldo about it,” said Upshaw at the Arsht Center, where she is rehearsing. The three songs she will perform with the orchestra are earlier Golijov pieces he has strung together and rearranged for Upshaw. The genesis of these songs, Upshaw explains, has not been called into question. They are total Golijov originals.
And these songs have a history, a fact that might illuminate the polemic that currently surrounds Golijov. For though original, they come from other places in the composer’s canon — as everyone knows, it’s not unusual for a composer to salvage something written earlier to add to or develop into a newer work. “Night of the Flying Horses” was written for a film in 2000. “Lua Descolorida”, from a poem in the gallego language by Spain’s Rosalía de Castro, was first a song for voice and piano, then an aria from Golijov’s oratorio La pasión según San Marcos, and now a song for voice and orchestra. And “How Slow the Wind” was originally a 2001 commissioned song for voice and string quartet.
The works with a challenged originality have a more problematic history, however. After a Eugene Symphony performance of a Golijov work last month, one with program notes in which the Argentine acknowledged he had used a melody by a fellow composer, the much lesser known Michael Ward-Bergeman, two concertgoers familiar with Ward-Bergeman’s work, a critic and a scholar, claimed Golijov had done much more than borrow a melody. Ward-Bergeman denied any wrongdoing in his colleague’s part, arguing that he and Golijov had an agreement about such borrowings. To the critics, however, this smacked of something else.
Golijov’s fame is such that he is much in demand. Commentators point out that he has been failing to meet deadlines and, as in the case of the piece in question, turned in much shorter works than expected. The conclusion is that he is canibalizing others’ work to make up for his shortcomings. (A more recent charge is that Golijov stole a song from a popular Brazilian songwriter for one of his works.) Neither the composer, nor the consortium of orchestras that commissioned the challenged piece performed in Oregon have commented on the issues raised.
“And that is very sad,” says Upshaw. “I wish they would speak because I think the conversation would be inspiring.” In spite of Upshaw’s close association with the Argentine composer, this is the first time anyone has approached her on the subject. Her only connection with any part of it is that she is one of the people for whom Golijov failed to deliver a piece — Golijov has written about a half dozen works for Upshaw. “I was not upset,” says the soprano. “We creative people go through periods of being not creative.”
The issues Upshaw hoped this incident would bring into the conversation are those of creativity and orginality. In contemporary popular music, for example, “sampling” (using someone else’s recorded segment as part of a new composition) is a common practice — though one that has been challenged in cases of intellectual property. And, as it has been pointed out a propos of this case, Baroque composers would shamelessly grab each other’s compositions, since the notion (one could say the cult) of personality expressed through creativity was not inscribed in the culture until the Romantic era — in music, until Beethoven, that overwhelming personality. Golijov is a total postmodern in that he disregards such conventions as the border between classical and pop music. Perhaps this alledged plagiarism is nothing but a willful disregard for the notion of originality, or even of intellectual rights. Or perhaps he is, as some argue, a composer whose star status has collided with a period of creative infertility and is desperately stealing from others to satisfy his commissions.
Be that as it may, he is Upshaw’s perfect complement. A Joni Mitchell fan, the soprano admits that she “would’ve loved to have been a singer/songwriter, but I have no talent for composition.” Enter Golijov. “What brought us together is that we loved a lot of the same music,” Upshaw says, and the first name that comes to her is Schubert. After that, “Messiaen, Bach, Mozart.”
Their artistic relationship is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a marriage of true minds to which no one can admit impediments.