Osvaldo Golijov
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La Pasión según San Marcos (2000): Notes
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Conversation between Osvaldo Golijov and David Harrington
[This conversation used as the program notes at the world premiere.]

Osvaldo Golijov and I first met in 1992 when Kronos played his string quartet, "Yiddishbbuk." He said something at our first rehearsal together that I will always remember: "You should play it as though you are angry at God." One of the qualities that has always amazed me about Osvaldo is the way he speaks of music and relates music to life. When he asked me to write about his "Passion According to St. Mark," I felt that it was best to allow him to speak for himself as much as possible.

In March of 2000 Kronos was in London with Osvaldo recording part of his soundtrack to Sally Potter's film "The Man Who Cried." We had a free evening and Osvaldo and I met over dinner to discuss his Passion. I recorded several hours of our conversation and would like to share some of this evening so that you as the first audience ever to hear "The Passion of St. Mark" can feel that you have spoken personally with Osvaldo Golijov. At the time of our interview, the Passion was unfinished.

David: Tonight let's talk about your "Passion According to St. Mark"—how you imagine this piece, this idea. I'm trying to place myself in Stuttgart, Germany for the world premiere, reading the program notes about this piece and finding out that this "Passion According to St. Mark" is by Osvaldo Golijov, a young Jewish composer born in Argentina whose family emigrated from Russia and Romania in the 1920s.

Osvaldo: Russia on my father's side—they were very atheistic, devoted communists who later found out that all that was said about Stalin was true. And from my mother's side—very Jewish Orthodox from Romania—the people who wouldn't turn on the radio on Shabbat or cook or anything—humble—not big thinkers but very devout. I only got Judaism from transplanted sources so I could invent—do you know what I mean? I was not burdened by the reality of Judaism either in a little village in Poland or Russia or even in medieval Spain or France—I could imagine it. I got enough truth through my ancestors.

David: When you grew up in Argentina—did you go to Temple?

Osvaldo: Jewish Temple? Oh yeah, I basically lived there.

David: Did you study a lot of Jewish history and the Old Testament?

Osvaldo: Yes, I studied the Old Testament very deeply, but I had a big hole in my education—a lack of knowledge of Christianity. It's a hole that's ridiculous considering that I grew up in an officially Catholic country, with the church being such a big force in Argentinean life. It has been the best and the worst.

David: So you have a very deep cultural and personal attraction to this story. Do you remember the first time you ever heard the story of St. Mark's Passion?

Osvaldo: I recently had to go and buy the book and read it for the first time before I accepted the commission from Helmuth Rilling. But I knew always that St. Mark was safe for the Jews—that I knew. And I knew that St. John was terrible for the Jews.

David: So there's a lot more going on here than writing just another piece?

Osvaldo: Oh yes, totally. There is a double attraction as far as I can articulate it. First a personal one and second a transcendental one. First, the personal attraction is that I want to make sense of my own life, to understand, also to react. I want to understand why people sometimes are the way they are where I was born. And I think that the root is there in the Bible, in the New Testament. So I could just read it—but I also need to immediately react—it's part of the essence of being a musician. So that's the personal thing. Second, there's what I call the transcendental. Look, this is a powerful, powerful story. It has been constantly adapted and readapted by musicians and painters and we have inherited from them their images of Jesus and his way of singing. I feel that I have to present a Jesus that is as true as Bach's but has so far remained for the most part unheard. Jesus can be very pale and very European—but in Guatemala he's black. I've been in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and I've seen the people and they don't look like those old Italian paintings, I can tell you!

David: Have you used any other Passion as a guide, or template?

Osvaldo: Not at all. No, because the main thing in this Passion is to present a dark Jesus, and not a pale European Jesus. It's going to be about Jesus' last days on earth seen through the Latin American experience and what it implies. It's something that I have to do in the sense that if you are a Jewish kid growing up in an officially Catholic country with all your friends going to Mass, you want to understand that—luckily being a composer allows me to. I don't have a theological burden here, but I do want to discover the truth. It's more than curiosity—it's a burning curiosity. I need to understand why so many people acted the way they did when I was growing up in Argentina—I really don't understand, and I need to.

What I want to do, David, is to relate the Passion to icons of the history of Latin America. For instance, there are some similarities between the lives of Jesus and Che Guevara. When Jesus remains silent in front of all the insults and the spitting and throwing stones, he laments and cannot believe that his own followers will leave him, but at the same time says "but that's how it's written." He's writing his own death sentence basically. I have read extracts of the diaries that Che Guevara wrote shortly before he was killed—he knew he was starving—he knew he would die—but he still had the courage to write how it would be—and that's how it was. When he died, the same people—the same people who betrayed him to the CIA and to the Bolivian soldiers, some peasants, went to cut locks of his hair as relics.

David: Jesus!

Osvaldo. And the big thing about Che is that he looked like Jesus—I mean he looked like Jesus the God—and then his death photograph looks like the crucified Jesus.

David: So in other words you're finding contemporary relationships here.

Osvaldo: Yes, that's the whole point—to understand why people live their lives the way they do in Latin America. What is the root of their resignation as an attitude confronting huge waves of shit coming at them? For instance, in Eduardo Galeano's book The Memory of Fire, he relates how the Spanish conquerors came and they gave crucifixes to the Indians. The Indians buried the crucifixes because they believed that this would help their corn grow. The conquerors considered this blasphemy and they burned the Indians. The first great priest in Latin America, Bartolome de las Casas, who was a symbol of what Christianity in Latin America is about, was a conqueror who used to trade Indians as slaves. But he understood what was happening and he became the first and greatest priest in Latin America—so in this Passion I am just trying to understand where things come from.

David: I know that you have mentioned before about growing up in Argentina during the dictatorship. Is there any relationship that you can think of between your early years and this Passion?

Osvaldo: Yes, there is a relationship because I knew of low- ranking priests who tried to do what Jesus did—this is again about Christianity or institutional religion being the best and the worst. These priests lived in the slums with the poor and were being killed or "disappeared," which is the same thing, while at the same time you would see a televised mass with the chief of the Argentinean junta, Videla, kneeling before the Archbishop and receiving his blessing. I remember walking over dead bodies on the way to school and thinking—"Ok, this is how life is."

David: I'm beginning to understand your attraction to St. Mark's Passion!

Osvaldo: Yes—because in St. Mark there's also a high priest.

David: What's your response to Pinochet now?

Osvaldo: I almost vomited when I saw that he stood up out of his wheelchair after arriving back in Chile. The only optimism that I have is—I mean it's not optimism, it's terrible, but you know when the Exodus of the Jews happened from Egypt and they built a golden calf—that's why God made them spend 40 years in the desert—so all the generation that had been slaves in Egypt died and a new generation born in freedom would end up in the Promised Land. We all have to die, so the only consolation I have is knowing that a new generation, born in freedom, will follow us. After I saw that image of Pinochet I imagined what it must be like to be a survivor or relative of somebody who was killed by that son of a bitch and see him walking freely from his wheelchair.

I want to record—like Rembrandt recorded the Jews, I want to record the Christians, simply that. For instance, my great grandmother had a picture of "Jeremiah Lamenting the Fall of Jerusalem" by Rembrandt—it's the greatest Jewish picture ever, and he was not a Jew—I cannot aspire to be Rembrandt but if at least one section of the Passion has the truth about Christianity that Rembrandt's paintings have about Judaism, I'll be all right—that's enough.

David: What language are you using in the Passion?

Osvaldo: It's mostly in Spanish.

David: Is there another language?

Osvaldo: Well, some Aramaic; when Mark himself is translating, he quotes the Aramaic, especially in moments of despair, such as during the crucifixion or the agony at Gethsemane.

David: Is there Hebrew or any other language?

Osvaldo: No. Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, was the Hebrew spoken at the time. Maybe there will also be some Latin. That's it.

David: You're not sure yet?

Osvaldo: I'm toying with the idea of doing a fragment of "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" in Latin because that will be kind of a Gregorian section.

David: Have you thought of using an African language?

Osvaldo: Yes, actually what I did—throughout the Passion I "Africanized" the Spanish to fit the drums—what I did was I worked with 10 or 11different translations of Mark into Spanish, from the most scholarly to the most popular—some that my sister, my father-in-law or I collected or that they give you for free in the churches of the very poor, or that handicapped vendors sell on the trains in Argentina. I wanted to translate to an oral half-African, half-Spanish language. So it's all Spanish but it's "Africanized" in that the phrases always end with the accent on the last syllable. I managed to have all the phrasing be Spanish but to sound African.

David: Will that be clear to an audience?

Osvaldo: What is clear is that the language closely relates to each musical style—it's clear that some things will have a very strong flamenco tint and that some things will have a very strong Brazilian feel—so I adapt the Spanish—and even now as I'm writing the music I still reword the phrasing and change the order of the wording and the verbal tenses to fit the sound.

David: What is the instrumentation of the Passion?

Osvaldo: The instrumentation is mainly voices and percussion. There is a very strong tradition that news or stories are told by voices and drums in Cuba and Bahia, Brazil, the Latin geographical centers of my Passion. This musical tradition comes from Africa, you know—and that's how this Passion is being told—mainly by voices and drums. The voices represent the people who don't understand, who are in fear, and Jesus himself who understands but also fears and then doesn't fear. There is a male soloist, a female soloist, and a choir. I am using these voices because, unlike Bach's Passions, in my piece there is no identification between the male soloist and the Evangelist who always has the most lines. Jesus has relatively few lines in the Passions—so Jesus in Bach is always a bass with a halo of strings and the Evangelist is the tenor voice. In this Passion I thought that most of the time the voice of Jesus would be the choir because for me Jesus represents the people, transformed into a collective spirit. At other times his voice will be the male soloist and sometimes the female soloist. I have sections where there are three choirs—they divide themselves into three—because a lot of my piece has to do with processionals. I imagine choirs from three villages proceeding down from the tops of the mountains—this is based on a South American Easter tradition. There are some sections that are divided into two choirs, especially when one represents Jesus and the other the people, or the mob, and then there will be sections when they are just one.

David: So Jesus is moving around?

Osvaldo: Yes, it depends on the situation, because in the Passion his dual nature is evident; sometimes he's just a scared man and sometimes he's God. And sometimes he's angry. There are a lot of emotions that he goes through; sometimes he loses faith and sometimes he's magnificent.

David: Will the audience be able to understand that Jesus is moving around in this mutating kind of identity?

Osvaldo: Yes, I think they will understand because, unlike a Protestant Passion which is about meditating and commenting, this Passion is about enactment and ritual. It's a synthesis of Latin American traditions: Catholicism and the Yoruba religion brought by African slaves. So it's a completely different approach and certain people become one character and then another.

David: So what's the role of the percussion?

Osvaldo: The piece is driven by percussion instruments and specific rhythms. Although in some parts things go completely crazy, like the rhumba with the spoons, every section has a center of gravity symbolized by a percussion instrument or a group of percussion instruments.

Brazilian percussion will be employed at the very beginning for "The Vision Before the Reenactment of the Passion" and at the very end during "The Ascension to Heaven," because the Brazilian shakers and berimbau seem very airy to me. Low, earthy Cuban drums will be used for the actual story of the Passion—but the Brazilian sound is more for the hallucination or the timelessness of things. And then for the scenes of betrayal and the sentencing I will use flamenco rhythms because they suggest Spain conquering. Also, this is a story of a man condemned to death, and most flamenco songs are about people condemned to death, metaphorically or in reality.

David: Why did you choose Cuba and Bahia for the geographical centers of your Passion?

Osvaldo: I don't think the Catholicism in Argentina is particularly interesting—it's a branch of the Italian and Spanish forms—so I chose my centers based on the richness of the soil, the musical soil, where the most interesting, bizarre mixtures happen.

David: How many percussionists will there be?

Osvaldo: Five or more, I hope, in various groupings. For instance, three always play in the sacred Cuban drum ceremonies and because the number three represents the Holy Trinity, and four to symbolize the Cross. Sometimes it's really like the four percussion instruments crucify Jesus. And there is a fifth percussionist who will play the berimbau and who is also a Capoeira dancer—do you know what Capoeria is?

David: No, I've never heard of it.

Osvaldo: Capoeira is an incredible martial art from Brazil that the slaves brought from Africa, and it's beautiful, beautiful. We will have three Capoeira dances to articulate the three divisions of the Passion. The first is a dance of sacrifice representing a vision of the last time Jesus is on earth as a human being. This is based on a Capoeira danced on the beach all the time in Brazil. The second dance takes place when Jesus is arrested, after Judas comes with the soldiers and kisses him. Mark has this strange episode of an unknown young man, wrapped only in a sheet, presumably St. Mark himself. He is the only one who, instead of running away, follows Jesus until a soldier realizes that he is following them and takes the sheet away from him—he then runs away naked—so the second dance is with a white sheet. The third dance is at the very end near the crucifixion when the soldiers give Jesus a purple cloak to mock him. The cloak becomes the sacred veil.

David: You've discussed voice and percussion—are there any other instruments?

Osvaldo: The orchestra is rather small, but everyone is individually defined and the instruments were chosen because they symbolize something. There is also a guitarist who plays a narrating role; he plays all kinds of guitars, from the tres, quatro and cavaquinho, to the Spanish guitar. Then there are two trumpets and two trombones that are like a very naked or bare reduction of a Latin horn section. There will be a keyboard and an accordion and the string section will be six violins and six cellos and a double bass.

David: It sounds almost like an orchestra of soloists to me.

Osvaldo: Yes, and everybody is amplified.

David: Are you using any "found," or source music?

Osvaldo: Every section is based on an actual piece or an actual way of singing. OK, I'll tell you my thinking about the Passion. I don't want to make it a political or social pamphlet—I want to do something that transcends that label, not to make it simply reflect what Latin America is today.

For instance, let's take the example of Picasso's "Guernica." He painted it in response to the savage bombing of a village. Picasso did three great things—first, rather than paint the surface reality, he found symbols that went to the core of that reality better than the reality itself. Do you remember that horse in "Guernica"? Sometimes a flamenco song or a rhumba in my Passion would be like that horse. You have to find the right symbol like Picasso found the horse. The second stage is an act of cruelty—in "Guernica" Picasso twists the neck of the horse into an unnatural position in order to express the utmost pain. So the composition must transform the symbol in a forceful way. That's the second stage. And the third stage is when you obliterate part of that symbol for the sake of the greater composition. I treated each of these sections like Picasso's horse—transforming them until they acquired the maximum expressivity and then inserted them into the general composition.

David: So what are the violins and the cellos doing?

Osvaldo: Many times they will be the modulatory instruments from event to event in the Passion. I was working on the section where the mysterious woman in Bethany comes and opens the perfume and caresses Jesus. All the apostles get very upset and they say, well you allowed her to do that—we could have sold the perfume for 300 denarii and given that money to the poor and Jesus says, don't you realize she knows that what she is doing is preparing my body for the burial? So in that case I have the choir divided in two, both parts arguing among themselves—"Porque? Porque." In Spanish, "porque" means both "why" and "because" So Jesus tries to explain angrily and the apostles are also angry—so you have this drumming and the choir and then the strings come and kind of freeze that moment and take it from there and modulate to the next event in the Passion, which is the dinner. Do you see what I mean? So they have a connecting role.

David: Sounds like the strings are the tendons...

Osvaldo: Yes, and they will also create textures.

David: Will there be lighting and costumes?

Osvaldo: Yes.

David: It almost sounds like an opera.

Osvaldo: Well, it's not an opera... but it's definitely an enactment. I mean there were things like that in the Middle Ages. It's very primitive what I'm doing. In early Christianity, Jesus was only symbolized in terms of visual imagery by signs or symbols, like the cross or the fish, but never by his face, so for the first few centuries there was no face to Jesus and I always thought it was because of primitivistic thinking—but then this week when I was visiting the National Gallery, I realized that it also had to do with the first Christians being converted Jews—it's a commandment never to draw or sculpt the image of God—that's why they would not draw his face until much later.

David: I wonder if your feelings about Christianity have changed since you've been working on "The Passion According to St. Mark"?

Osvaldo: I really still cannot think that Jesus is God, but I definitely believe that he was touched by God—he saw and felt and transmitted something divine, of that I have no doubt. I don't know how you feel about all this—but just by having lived through what you lived through and waking up every morning and making music—that's incredible faith—this Passion is about that. It's about irrational faith.

David: Can you think of a defining moment in your life that has most influenced this piece?

Osvaldo: A crucial thing in my life was when my great grandfather shared my bedroom when I was seven or eight years old—he was in his 90s. He slept in the other bed in my room for many nights after two of his sons died. I would wake up and he would be next to the window praying with the philactery. He would finish the prayer, then put on his overalls and begin to fix things in the house. I remember being amazed that somebody who has lost children could keep praying and fixing things.

David: Osvaldo, you've spent the last two years assembling this piece...

Osvaldo: Right.

David: ...and you're about to propel it out there into the world—this performance will do that of course—and I'm just wondering about the feeling of anticipation. I mean at this moment you're still wondering about the ending...

Osvaldo: I cannot finish it with his last scream—I just cannot do it—so I need a sense of transcendence. It may be a Magnificat, maybe a Kaddish, it may be something else but it has to be something that makes sense out of all those hallucinatory few days.

Copyright © 2000 by David Harrington. Used by Permission of the Author.



Notes from Robert Kirzinger/Boston Symphony Orchestra

In 1996 the conductor and Bach scholar Helmuth Rilling invited Golijov to the Oregon Bach Festival, for which Golijov wrote the "Latin American cantata" Oceana on texts of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. This led Rilling to commission from Golijov his own view of the Christian Passion for a festival commemorating both the millennium and the 250th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach. "Passion 2000" took place in August and September 2000 as part of that city's annual European Music Festival.

In explaining why he thought Helmuth Rilling would commission from a Jewish composer a work based on the Christian Gospel, Osvaldo Golijov noted the conductor's willingness to take risks in order to arrive at a more comprehensive, universal view of the Passion story. Rilling encouraged Golijov draw upon his own experience—as a Jew living in an officially Catholic country; as an artist with an interest in a broadly eclectic range of style and media; as a Spanish-speaking composer of Eastern European parents, now living in the United States, and so on—in discovering a personal perspective on the twice-told (or rather four-times-told) story. In addition to Golijov, Helmuth Rilling selected three other composers from three divergent cultural and musical traditions. Wolfgang Rihm wrote a German-language Lukas Passion, which has as its central premise an unflinching examination of the meaning of the World War II Holocaust. Sofia Gubaidulina's St. John Passion, in Russian and Church Slavonic, was written from the perspective of that composer's ties to the Russian Orthodox church, as well as her own intense fascination with the music of Bach. The Chinese-born American composer Tan Dun wrote a Water Passion after St. Matthew in English, fashioning a kind of ritual based on the sound of water. These four Passions express the myriad aesthetic and cultural influences of each of the four composers, while simultaneously starting, or rejuvenating, an ancient, hopeful, and all-embracing exchange among these different but ultimately related cultures.

The text of La Pasión Según San Marcos is composed of portions of The Gospel According to Mark, the Old Testament's Psalms and Lamentations, and Spanish poetry. With the exception of a short passage in Latin and the culminating Kaddish in Aramaic, the words are Spanish. Golijov chose from among many different translations of St. Mark's telling of the Passion, resulting in an idiom that ranges from the high-literary to the vernacular, reflecting the colloquial speech of a cross-section of Latin American society (or, arguably, any society). To help explain the nature of the story, the composer referred to a portion of a commentary by Reynolds Price:
[The Gospel According to Mark] reels out its jerky, very peculiar story at full-tilt speed and with what seem the first words at hand—a small and modest vocabulary. Yet Mark's words, in their energy and efficiency, have proved surprisingly ready through the past two thousand years to spring into vivid action in a watchful reader's mind.... With all those refusals to satisfy the curiosity of any but the previously prepared reader, however, the pamphlet which is commonly called The Gospel of Mark is generally thought to be the first-written of the four canonical or church-approved gospels. As such—despite centuries of neglect when it was thought to be a mere summary of the longer and fuller Matthew and Luke—Mark has proved the most influential of human books.

The journalistic quality of The Gospel According to Mark has about it the feel of the oral tradition, that is, storytelling, as opposed to the more literary, philosophical tone of the other Gospels. Golijov matches the pared-down, vox populi directness of St. Mark's account in the directness of his musical idiom, particularly in his appropriation of popular Latin American folk and dance music. He uses these forms as models for individual numbers with the larger work, which itself shares much in common with the structures of the Passions of Bach. The text (essentially Mark, from the end of Chapter 13 onward) is delineated among different groups (the People, the Apostles) and individual speakers: Mark himself (corresponding textually to the Evangelist in Bach's St. Matthew Passion), Jesus, Peter, Judas, etc. Such is Golijov's conception that a given individual may be represented by any one of a number of soloists or by the chorus, depending on the nature of the text. For example, the words of Jesus "Pero, ay, ay, ay, pobre traidor!/Mejor para él no haber nacido!" ("But woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!/Good were it for that man if he had never been born.") are taken by a trio of women from the chorus. The remorse-lament of Peter after his threefold denial of Christ, "Lúa Descolorida," is sung by a soprano. (Following a tradition of "Peter arias," Golijov uses a non-Biblical text, a Galician poem by Rosalía de Castro.) Several episodes from the Gospel are treated theatrically, as in the "Aria with Crickets," representing the woman of Bethany who anoints Christ's head with perfume, and No. 21, the "Dance of the White Sheet." The first two numbers, "Vision: Baptism on the Cross," and "Dance of the Ensnared Fisherman," are, in Golijov's words, "a musical representation of the famous Crucifixion painting by Dali, serving as 'outside the chronology' gates to the narrative: No. 1 is Jesus on the cross having a flashback to His baptism; No. 2 is the small fishing boat at the bottom of Dali's painting, and it's Jesus's fate: a fisherman of souls, ensnared." Specific instruments (such as the guitar or solo double bass) or groups of instruments, particularly the percussion, are also infused with dramatic personality akin to that of the sung parts.
In talking about his piece, Golijov makes clear that in marshaling this broad array of materials and approaches, he has attempted to create something that transcends the familiar individual elements. One might compare this philosophy to that of Bach, many of whose greatest works, including the St. Matthew Passion and the B minor Mass, drew on similarly diverse influences. We can also see in Golijov's Pasión Según San Marcos a parallel with Mark, whose seemingly straightforward goal of telling the story of Jesus Christ transcended itself to become the Gospel book that, as Reynolds Price puts it, has "proved to be literally seismic in the history of the world."


Used and reprinted by permission of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Robert Kirzinger.