Monday, March 5, 2012

Starry Borrower

I should add that, two days after I posted the original below, The New York Times came out with an article about the "Sidereus" scandal, complete with comments from both Golijov and Ward-Bergeman. You can reach the article here:
Ward-Bergeman's comments on the second page are especially thought-provoking, and definitely make me think about the "scandal" in its entirety again. I still stand by my opinions, but I think this other perspective is necessary to get the full picture. 

             I suppose I'm a little late on the bandwagon on this one, but, hey... isn't Golijov sometimes?  
             By now, almost every large classical website has been plastered with the music of Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov; however, unless there is a Golijov fan page I am unaware of, all of the mentionings of the composer have been about his commissioned orchestral work “Sidereus” and its undeniable similarity, or perhaps its identicalness, to Michael Ward-Bergeman’s piece “Barbeich” for hyper-accordion.
            A couple of weeks ago, the Eugene Symphony performed Golijov’s “Sidereus.” The piece, which was co-commissioned by 36 orchestras in honor of Henry Fogel (the former head of the League of American Orchestras), is a work around 10 minutes for orchestra that has a strong backbone of brass and intricate string melodies. The problem is, these melodies, or rather the majority of the idea of the piece, are nowhere near original. Truthfully, it is difficult to find material in the work that is.

Golijov above, below Ward-Bergeman


            Golijov has borrowed and collaborated from other composers and musicians before, such as in his 2001 piece "La Pasión según San Marcos." He has a reputation of being late with commissions or turning in pieces that are shorter than expected, and his recent (but not finished) string quartet "Kohelet" is surfacing concerns. Critic Tom Manoff and trumpeter Brian McWhorter were the two listeners in the audience of the Eugene Symphony that realized the parallels between "Sidereus" and "Barbeich" (Manoff had remastered a recording of “Barbeich” in his studio).
            “Barbeich” is a haunting, layered work about four minutes long. Pulsing chords and bass notes, ones that are rich and harmonically satisfying, back up a pulsing melody of a descending D natural minor scale. These components are joined by other symmetric layers and a floating melody.  “Sidereus” sounds like an elongated arrangement of “Barbeich” for orchestra, with smoother passages and some plays off Ward-Bergeman’s original piece (the first two minutes are comprised of original-seeming billows and mood-building sounds).  Alex Ross wrote in his piece for the New Yorker Culture Desk:
For example, the sixteen-bar passage that the trumpet plays starting at bar 65 of “Barbeich” is duplicated in almost every detail in the piccolo trumpet and trumpet parts starting at bar 166 of “Sidereus,” with various doublings elsewhere in the orchestra. 
              While law suits initially come to mind, Golijov used the music with permission from Ward-Bergeman, a long-time collaborator. Ward-Bergeman said in an email to Manoff, 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.”
            Many writers are debating whether or not this is plagiarism—blatantly using the melodies, harmonies, and tempos of another work while the composer of that other work is aware and alright with it. Dictionary-wise and moral-wise, the answer is shaky. While Golijov certainly did not deny the collaboration between him and Ward-Bergeman, he also does not publically attribute the composer as a major factor. The byline on the Eugene Symphony website says, simply, “Golijov.”

Watch this video from the awesomeness of Sound Notion
            Because the legal matters of the “Sidereus” case are not pursuable, the question of ethics arises. What is the limit of borrowing? Are pieces bound to complete originality (and is this even possible?)? Golijov has a reputation of borrowing ideas from other composers, so the “Sidereus” scandal, while more shocking and undisguised, is not surprising.
            The issue seems to focus more on attribution and credit than the action. If Ward-Bergeman already wrote the outline, essentially, for “Sidereus,” why is Golijov being commissioned and paid? Music that comes without pure creation is music that already lives in the cloud of potentiality from the previous work.  Undeniably, melodies and ideas will be directly quoted. For example, John Mackey publically based a melody from his orchestral work “Aurora Awakes” on a U2 song. The difference is, Mackey took his piece in a different direction than the original pieces he borrowed from; he can still be credited with creating the vast majority of his work.
            Then again, does pure originality truly exist? While Golijov might have based his piece on Ward-Bergeman’s, almost all pieces in the history of music can be compared to others, whether that means the atmosphere, melodies, structure, or other aspects.
            Here are some comparisons of pieces that are considered acceptable:
  1. The beginning of Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and Adams’s “Century Rolls.”
  2. Nico Muhly’s “Mothertongue, Pt. 1: Archive” and the Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.”
  3. Hanz Zimmer’s manipulation of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” for his “Inception” score.
  4. The multiple structural parallels in Debussy’s String Quartet in G, Op. 10 and Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major.
  5. The melody in Liszt’s “Totentanz” and the last movement of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” both quoting the ancient Gregorian chant “Dies Irae.”
And countless, countless others (most of these happen deep within pairs of Classical and Romantic symphonies).
            Influence is unavoidable and often subconscious. Each note we hear we’ve heard before, and each sentence of music could have already been played, either in a previous piece or coincidentally pounded out by a small child on the piano. However, this is not discouraging. Composers have an unfathomable amount of previous work to build on and redefine. Music comes from the minds of humans who all live in the same world, and the potential of all future music lives in that world, among us. Perhaps a lawn mower will start, and someone walking by will place crescendo in the snare of their upcoming piece. A historical event could produce a dense feeling that is let out through a piano.           
            However, despite this leeway with borrowing, attributing “Sidereus” to Golijov still makes me raise my eyebrows in a doubtful way. I’m not one to decide what is ethical, but Golijov is still on thin ice, ice that has to strengthen before his new violin concerto will be played by the Berlin Philharmonic in April. Let’s hope we are not reminded of the “Sidereus” instant, or, perhaps I should say, of another piece.

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