A Real Mess

A Real Mess

The past week’s debacle surrounding Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus overture was set off by two friends attending an orchestra concert in Eugene, Oregon, and the resulting article in the Eugene Register-Guard over the weekend has brought to light a panoply of issues whose ripples are still moving quickly throughout the music community and may have ramifications far beyond the individual situation.

Written By

Rob Deemer

It’s not often that contemporary concert music gets involved in a public controversy—there’s really not much room for it, since most of the artists aren’t known well enough to get noticed by the mainstream media even if they are involved with anything controversial. I was impressed at the dust-up at NPR that happened a couple of weeks ago when Houston-based composer Marcus Maroney took NPR’s All Things Considered to task for their definitions and handling of the musical term “appoggiatura” in a discussion of Adele’s song “Someone Like You,” after which NPR’s music specialist, Rob Kapilow, inartfully dismissed Marcus’s concerns as being overly “fussy” and “pedantic”.  This, I thought, was some pretty high-profile dueling between two composers in the public spotlight.

What a difference a week makes.

Such back-and-forths seem quaint in contrast to the past week’s debacle surrounding Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus overture, the ten-minute work commissioned by 35 orchestras in celebration of the preeminent orchestra administrator Henry Fogel. The firestorm that was set off by two friends attending an orchestra concert in Eugene, Oregon, and the resulting article in the Eugene Register-Guard over the weekend has brought to light a panoply of issues whose ripples are still moving quickly throughout the music community and may have ramifications far beyond the individual situation.

Here’s a timeline:

—2008/2009: Osvaldo Golijov was commissioned by a consortium of 35 orchestras, to celebrate the retirement of Henry Fogel as the president of the League of American Orchestras. Orchestras reportedly submitted anywhere from $1,500-$4,000 to take part in the commission.

—Oct. 10, 2010: Sidereus, a ten-minute overture, is premiered by the Memphis Symphony and begins a 35-concert tour around the country. Currently listed by Boosey & Hawkes as having had more than 60 performances to date under conductors such as Marin Alsop, Jeffrey Kahane, Christopher Eschenbach, and Carl St. Clair. (Program notes from the Amarillo Symphony performance)

—Feb. 16, 2012: NPR music critic Tom Manoff and trumpeter Brian McWhorter decide to attend the Eugene Symphony concert to hear the Haydn trumpet concerto, but are taken aback by the performance of Sidereus, which sounds identical in many ways to a chamber work both men had been recording and editing—Barbeich by accordionist/composer Michael Ward-Bergeman (a long-time Golijov friend and collaborator).

—Feb. 18, 2012: An article by Bob Keefer in the Eugene Register-Guard outlines both Manoff’s and McWhorter’s concerns about the work. Golijov remains silent on the issue while Ward-Bergeman emails Keefer and explains that there was an agreement between the two composers on the use of Barbeich in Golijov’s work. It is still unclear as to whether or not any of the participating orchestras were made aware of this—at this point that is doubtful.

Keefer’s first article was published midnight Saturday, and the story quickly swept through the Twitterverse and Facebookland in a ferocious yet peg-legged manner. As it took some time for the audio files to become easily located, initial reactions were mixed and were based primarily on pre-existing attitudes toward Golijov, for whom such accusations were not exactly out of left field; his use of quotations and pastiche in his work had been both a signature and an albatross for the award-winning composer. Once listeners were able to compare the two works (and scores of both works were also available online), it did not take long for the reactions to increase exponentially.

By Wednesday, Keefer had published a second article pointing towards more examples of Golijov’s habits of using music written by others in his own works, Alex Ross and Anne Midgette had written their own takes on the situation, and the blogosophere vacillated between attempting a defense and sharpening their knives. I myself penned a reaction on Facebook which I will get to in a bit; suffice it to say, there has been a lot written about this debacle over the past few days with little new information coming forward after the initial two articles by Bob Keefer; Golijov is keeping silent (a fact that I can attest to, having tried both his publisher and his own e-mail address) and most other actors in this tragic case are giving muted, if any, responses.

As I mentioned before, this circus has dredged up a number of issues that are awkward, sensitive, and volatile; one could draw a close comparison between the various reactions to this controversy and Mika Brzezinski’s reactions to the topic of trans-vaginal ultrasounds in Virginia on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, vacillating between not wanting to talk about it and outright anger at the myriad of wrongs being displayed. I shall do my best to touch on at least a few of the more important issues, keeping in mind that this story is not yet finished.

First off—Sidereus was not composed by Osvaldo Golijov. To quote my own aforementioned post on Facebook:

The issue here goes to the very heart of what it means to ‘compose’ a musical work. From my perspective, there are four primary creative musical activities one can do as far as setting music to paper (improvisation is something else entirely). Those activities are:

—Transcription (setting a pre-existing work to a new instrumentation; nothing new is added or removed from the original).

—Orchestration (creatively setting a pre-existing work to a new instrumentation; the orchestrator has the freedom to interpret the emotional or artistic intention of the work and add material where needed to demonstrate that intention—see Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition)

—Arranging (creating a new musical work using a pre-existing work as a springboard; many times arrangers will create elaborate and unique settings of well-known works to show their own interpretation of the original—see Gil Evans arrangements of Porgy & Bess for Miles Davis)

—Composition (Creating a musical work from original material; pre-existing material can be used within the composition, but not as the overarching concept for the work unless stated—see many composers’ use of folk songs in their compositions, as well as Ives’ Variations on ‘America’)

… [Sidereus] is a work that falls somewhere in between an orchestration and an arrangement. Even the peripheral that does not quote Barbeich out right is chordal and ephemeral in nature—Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves has more original material in it than this piece.

I started out as an arranger years before I began to compose and have a strong sense of where the line is between each of those four activities. If one is commissioned to “compose” a new work, then it should be assumed that the ultimate goal of the commission would be to have a newly created work to perform and not an orchestration or arrangement from another artist’s portfolio. These terms and other, more negative terminology (“theft,” “plagarism,” “borrowing,” etc.) are extremely important to be careful with since they not only can be used incorrectly to great effect but also can serve to further confuse the actual issues at hand.

As mentioned previously, there does seem to be a pre-existing agreement between Golijov and Ward-Bergeman, so there indeed was no theft. Why Ward-Bergeman would allow Golijov to basically orchestrate his own Barbeich is unknown; from reactions I’ve seen from both Anne Midgette and others who have worked with Golijov in the past, it could be that Ward-Bergeman was so used to Golijov’s penchant for appropriation and pastiche that he didn’t seem to see any need for concern.

It is indeed that penchant for appropriation that has allowed the current situation to become so exasperating. Midgette’s article states, “That people are getting outraged about this simply means that they are unfamiliar with Golijov’s modus operandi.”  In other words, because Golijov has had success with collaborations that blurred the lines of who-wrote-what, as well as attempted to use works without attribution or recompense in the past (as we are finding out to a much greater degree than previously known), we should not be surprised that he has created a well-crafted and orchestrated arrangement of his friend’s composition while taking sole credit for the work. I have a problem with this line of reasoning. Whether or not he’s done it before, it should be something for which he could and should be called out; if he had received more blowback when he stepped over the line in the past, perhaps his habits may have improved. To be clear—if others hadn’t enabled him by allowing that modus operandi to flourish, this week might be less hectic.

What all of this seems to be boiling down to is two ideas: terminology and expectations. Terminology, as in Marcus Maroney’s pleas to NPR, can be extremely effective when used correctly, but can do much harm if used without care. If the title of the work was Fantasia on Barbeich or Sidereus: Musings on a Theme by Michael Ward-Bergeman or even just listed the entire work Barbeich (and not just the “melody”) as being an integral part of the composition Sidereus, Golijov would not be in as much hot water today as he finds himself.

Now for expectations…where to begin? The enormous expectations that the consortium and audiences have placed on Golijov after his many awards and successes could be seen as a factor. Same with his own expectations on himself to do well, which seem to both turn him into a perfectionist and force him to take shortcuts when the reality of the deadline rears its ugly head. But his expectations that no one would uncover his ruse due to the lack of knowledge about Ward-Bergeman’s music are just as troubling; remember, Eugene’s performance occurred after the work was performed over 60 times previously and was slated to just have a few more performances before it completed its tour of all of the consortium orchestras. The odds of the public knowing about the true ingredients of the work were extremely small, and one finds it both ironic and fitting that Golijov has another composer—Franz Joseph Haydn—to blame for getting caught.

Finally, there are the expectations on all composers, which are similar to those placed upon writers, filmmakers, and artists, as well as journalists; the expectation that that information that you convey is original unless attributed accordingly. In music this can be extremely tricky, because so many of us use portions of other works as ingredients in new works. How extensive these portions are and how integral they are to the overall concept of the piece in question are important considerations for each composer to weigh if they choose to go down this path, and if this entire episode can become a learning experience for all in the finer points of collaboration attribution and the ability to properly designate the true nature of a creative musical work, then (hopefully) some good may come of it.

So what are we left with from this debacle? The fact that a well-known composer is accused of ethical improprieties and is either afraid to address the issues in public or is being sheltered from the public firestorm by those who may be enabling his creative habits. The fact that many supporters and detractors were plenty comfortable with passing judgment before even hearing the works in question. The fact that not a single orchestra has said anything negative about this situation so far. And finally, the fact that the speed and ferocity with which the classical music blogosphere dug into this story reflects how far our by-the-minute media attitudes have soaked into our consciousness. I do hope some good can come out of this, if from nothing other than learning from the mistakes of others and generating some positive discussion that will help us all in the future.