Few pieces of music echo as much of the past, or say as much about the present, as Osvaldo Golijov's "Ayre," a cycle of 11 songs in five languages that soprano Dawn Upshaw will perform with members of eighth blackbird and guests Friday, Feb. 22, at the University of Richmond.
This is music of cultural collision and reconciliation. "Ayre," the old Spanish word for "air" or "melody," was inspired by the hybrid culture of Arabs, Jews and Christians that thrived in medieval Spain. The composer himself is the product of another hybrid culture: Golijov was born in Argentina, the son of Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe, and grew up immersed in Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, Argentinean tango and the European classics. He later studied in Jerusalem, where he absorbed musical influences from Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs and Christians.
The sounds of three continents and two millennia were packed into his mind's ear by the time he came to the United States and began to make his name as a composer in the early 1990s. Since then, he's joined a still-more-cosmopolitan scene, working alongside musicians busily soaking up influences from Asia and Africa, jazz and rock, traditional music and electronica.
"Classical music in the 19th century was about people exploring new chords, new harmonies, new forms," Golijov says by phone during a residency with the Chicago Symphony. "Now it's about exploring new possibilities of sound, new possibilities of language and communication. There is too much for one person to absorb. Composing has become almost an editorial function -- do I want to make this or that part of my vocabulary, or not?"
Whatever he chooses, there's no shortage of takers. Golijov, a 2003 recipient of a "genius grant" from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is one of the few living composers whose music is routinely recorded by a major label (Deutsche Grammophon). In the past two years, festivals of his works have been staged in New York and London. He has written pieces for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, and the score for Francis Ford Coppola's latest film, "Youth Without Youth." He's now at work on a commission from the Metropolitan Opera.
Soprano Upshaw, for whom he wrote "Ayre" in 2004, is Golijov's singer of choice. "She is my archetypal voice my angel," the composer says. "I find I need to filter my ideas through a person to do my best work, and having done this for a number of years, I now have a musical family. Dawn is an important member of it. The musicians of eighth blackbird have become part of it, too."
The 47-year-old composer, who plans to visit Richmond for "Ayre" rehearsals but won't be on hand for Friday's performance, calls himself a "musical storyteller." Although "I grew up with traditional classical forms like the symphony and sonata," he says, "I find that a more free form comes more naturally to me."
Much of the music that inspired the young Golijov was improvisational "in the case of klezmer, so improvisational it was near anarchy," he says. "And while 90 percent of my music is written down now, I try to avoid that sense of hierarchy, where I'm the composer commanding the musicians. I encourage performers to be free in their phrasing, their ornamenting of melodies. You could say I like the sociological influence of making music freely."
Golijov, who now lives and teaches in the Boston area, is conscious of a growing physical separation from his geographical and ethnic roots. "On the other hand," he says, "I feel more freedom to reimagine, to use these musics I grew up with, and other music I've come to know, as central emotions of what I want to express not so much as styles but as fertile musical symbols to be recharged and transmuted." S
Dawn Upshaw and Orquesta los Marranos (members of eighth blackbird and guests) perform Golijov's "Ayre," and eighth blackbird plays George Crumb's "Voice of the Whale" and Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile incidental music to imaginary puppet plays," Friday, Feb. 22,at 7:30 p.m. at the Modlin Center. Tickets are $30. Call 289-8980 or visit modlin.richmond.edu.
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at letterv.blogspot.com.