Composer Osvaldo Golijov

Today marks a week since Tom Manoff and Brian McWhorter attended an infamous  performance of the Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus by the Eugene Symphony Orchestra in Eugene, Oregon. The duo’s story – that they recognized substantial sections of another piece, Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich, in Mr. Golijov’s work – has, by now, practically become legend in music circles. Nearly every outlet covering Classical Music in the country, from The New Yorker to various individuals’ twitter feeds, have focused heavily on the ethics of Mr. Golijov’s musical borrowing.

To me, the question of whether what Mr. Golijov did is right or wrong doesn’t matter. We know from Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s well-circulated statement that he and Mr. Golijov have a standing agreement allowing the Argentinean-born composer to use material from Barbeich as he sees fit. Additionally, Mr. Golijov admitted to using Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s melody in a promotional interview leading up to Sidereus‘ first performance by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in October 2010. The discourse needs to shift its focus from Mr. Golijov’s culpability  and target the implications of this scenario – what does the Sidereus crisis  symbolize?

Superficially, one of the most inflammatory aspects of this story is the fact that Mr. Golijov is an incredibly famous composer and Mr. Ward-Bergeman is not well known. But, what is being overlooked is that the piece Mr. Golijov produced isn’t very good. In my opinion, Sidereus does not fulfill a level of imagination and perspicacity concomitant to the rest of Mr. Golijov’s output. People are saying the orchestras who commissioned Sidereus didn’t get what they paid for because Mr. Golijov borrowed from Mr. Ward-Bergeman. This isn’t true: the orchestras who commissioned Mr. Golijov didn’t get what they paid for because he didn’t write a good piece.

With this said, we shouldn’t dwell on why Sidereus misses the mark – Mr. Golijov is neither the first nor last great composer to put together a stinker. More important is examining the situation that led him to work at a level below his typical creativity. To this day, we know Mr. Golijov struggles with deadlines, and we also know he often juggles multiple projects at once. To my eyes, it is clear what happened: Mr. Golijov felt overwhelmed by his commitments and needed the help of Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s piece to fulfill an obligation.

Succumbing to pressure like this isn’t damnable – though, the disingenuous communications regarding Mr. Golijov’s lifting of Barbeich are quite problematic, as I will discuss later. However, other composers have done similar things with impunity, whether that means orchestrating one piece into another, or – in the case of Matthias Pintscher’s orchestra piece Toward Osiris – fulfilling one commission by throwing together sketches of a different, ongoing project. If we want to be constructive, instances like Sidereus should not indict the composers involved, but, instead, should operate as indicators of broader problems inherent to the system that produces these large commissions.

Tom Manoff, when I approached him for further comment, agrees that the conversation surrounding this controversy should no longer focus on Mr. Golijov. “I prefer in this moment not to talk about this in relationship to Golijov,” he told me right off the bat, “But I will respond to your other questions.” I asked Mr. Manoff, who is a composer in addition to his work with NPR’s All Things Considered, how he views the Sidereus situation as a musician, and he told me he sees this event as a symptom of the misguided star system driving the world of American Art Music.

The danger he identifies, “is the dumbing down of a music culture that now has a Hollywood Movie Blockbuster model. We hire this star and put him or her with this script (musical work) and we’re guaranteed success.” Mr. Manoff’s point is instructive: orchestras, and other presenting organizations, face enormous financial strain, and catering to donors’ direct tastes or a more general assessment of their audience’s interests by hiring well-known soloists and composers is a perfectly reasonable method to secure short-term ticket sales and other contributions.

Unfortunately, this model thrusts too much responsibility of production into the hands of too few musicians. As Mr. Manoff points out, orchestras gravitate towards a small group of stars, but I believe that cadre of super-famous composers is too small to support the demand of these institutions. Unwittingly, this system of depending on big-name composers has produced an oligarchy whose members seem to struggle in meeting the demands of their supporters. Sidereus is prime evidence of this, not because it is a flawed piece of music, but because its flaws show how hard it is for these esteemed, privileged composers to do their best work under the rigors of the system.

Clearly, we cannot enliven new generations of lovers of Art Music by investing in hastily or otherwise weakly written compositions. It is in every musician’s best interest that the new works supported by orchestras and other groups be the highest quality music possible. Naturally, risk is always involved in commissioning a new piece of music or work of art, but there is probably a way to fix things such that composers are still recognized for their craft and achievements, but not forced to carry the load of all major commissions.

I suggest orchestras, for example, start to branch out and work with lesser-known composers. This would relieve some of the workload on top-tier composers and, most likely, improve the quality of new music across the board. Hungry, obscure composers would attack their new opportunities with vigor and alacrity, while the most highly respected minds in our community would have the freedom to produce music commensurate in ingenuity to their reputations.

The obvious counter-argument is big-name composers attract audience members, but is this really true? Mr. McWhorter and Mr. Manoff, two very ‘informed’ concertgoers, didn’t go to Thursday’s concert to hear Sidereus: they went to hear a colleague play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Also, I’ve never heard the case that pieces of new music by famous composers drives orchestra or opera attendance. Even if that were true, wouldn’t the difference in cost of commissioning a fairly unknown composer instead of an Osvaldo Golijov defray the box office losses of not having a (supposed) marquee living composer on the program?

Idealistically, I feel the long-term gain of having more good music presented in front of American concertgoers is worth the risk of an initial drop in attendance. I admit to being naïve: I have overlooked the self-evident financial and political realities intrinsic to the process of commissioning a piece like Sidereus. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the opportunity for transparency and change opened by Mr. Golijov’s controversy. Why not try to learn from this crisis? Why not analyze how the paradigms that shape the culture of Art Music in our country led to this unfortunate occurrence? Why not identify improvements to the system that will benefit every composer from house-hold names to unknown recluses?

Last Thursday, while Tom Manoff and Brian McWhorter were looking forward to the night’s fateful performance, I was talking to Kurt Stallmann, a Houston-based composer and professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. We discussed his close collaboration with saxophonist Steve Duke on his new work Change Course. Dr. Stallmann owns the fact that he depended on Mr. Duke’s insights as a performer to make this largely improvised piece happen. And, the knowledge that they had worked together made the music more breathtaking when I heard it the following Saturday.

If Mr. Golijov had been so transparent about his collaboration with Mr. Ward-Bergeman on Sidereus, wouldn’t this conflagration of anger and opinion be tempered? Although Mr. Golijov described using Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s melody before Sidereus premiered, he undeniably downplayed the extent to which Barbeich‘s material vivifies his work. Sidereus is, essentially, a fantasy on Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s theme, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The finances of the Sidereus commission would have had to change, obviously, if Mr. Golijov had responded openly with the fact that the piece is little more than an arrangement of Barbeich, but, at least, the orchestras involved would have known upfront they weren’t getting a 100%, or even 50%, Osvaldo Golijov composition. Mr. Golijov could have generated goodwill instead of hostility by converting the borrowing he needed to do to complete Sidereus into an opportunity to showcase a lesser-known composer whose work he clearly admires.

Discussions of what Mr. Golijov could have, should have, done continue to reverberate because he has not made a statement to quiet them. Based on earlier interactions with the press, Mr. Golijov’s current taciturnity is uncharacteristic. Anne Midgette of The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that, in earlier conversations with her, Mr. Golijov, “freely admitted”, to relying on the work of others to get projects finished. More compelling is the article Brazilian journalist Lucia Guimarães produced in response to last Thursday’s concert, of which I obtained a translation.

In the piece, Ms. Guimarães shares part of a telephone conversation she had with Mr. Golijov about his string quartet Kohelet, commissioned by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. She confronts him about his use of a traditional Brazilian melody in the piece, and he responds contritely. According to my translation, he expresses regret about using the tune without acknowledging its origins and mentions Stravinsky’s rampant quotations to show how, in the past, composers have redefined music they appropriate through the prism of their musical perspectives. Mr. Golijov tells Ms. Guimarães, “each piece of music comes from another piece. There is nothing that originates from nothing.”

This final quote is the most telling part of their exchange. It suggests both that interacting with third-party music is a regular component of Mr. Golijov’s compositional process and that borrowing, quotation and other kinds of musical citation are quintessential to his artistic beliefs. Alas, we are left to speculate about his feelings on this most recent event. Using Ms. Midgette and Ms Guimarães’ accounts as circumstantial evidence, we can infer that Mr. Golijov is very sensitive towards this, but we won’t know anything certain until he speaks publicly.

Osvaldo Golijov’s career isn’t ruined, at least not in my opinion. Certainly, he is up against several obstacles of his own creation – his reputation for missing deadlines, this Sidereus situation, not to mention the yet unexplored borrowing of Barbeich in a different piece of his, a commission from WNYC called Radio (listen here and decide for yourself) – but all is not lost.  As is my wont, I’ve found an analogy to this crisis from the world of sports: the steroids controversy in Major League Baseball. Players found to be using steroids were rightfully chastised as cheaters, which – let’s face it – is what a lot of people think Mr. Golijov is. Though these players’ integrity diminished, the fans’ respect for them decayed, many were able to restore their place in the hearts of Baseball lovers and resurrect their careers by being honest about what they did.

You may disagree with the compatibility of this analogy, but I feel confident the pressures that forced Baseball players to use Performance Enhancing Drugs are completely analogous to the sense of overwhelm that may have led Mr. Golijov to borrow so extensively from Barbeich in Sidereus and Radio. I really think the best way Mr. Golijov can help himself is to come out and talk about these pieces, his relationship to Mr. Ward-Bergeman and how much collaboration means to him and the way he views music. His taking responsibility for his actions is the first step to peeling back the system of prestige that leaves him and others overworked and, ultimately, revising the culture of American Art Music such that composers at all levels of notoriety have the opportunity to produce the best music possible.


Garrett Schumann is a graduate student in Music Composition at the University of Michigan. Read more of his ‘Observations’ on the world of Contemporary Music at his website:

17 Responses to “Down the Rabbit Hole of “Sidereus””
  1. zeno says:

    A fine essay, and an excellent summing up — and extension — of multiple viewpoints on this important topic (although the analogy to the world of sports reminds me of George Steiner bringing in Knute Rockne in his Charles Eliot Norton Harvard Lectures of 2001-02).

    My understanding is also that Golijov, like Bright Sheng, Steven Mackey, Steven Stucky, and numerous other fine American composers, have academic teaching responsibilities (unlike in Europe where free-lancing has been more economically feasible for the past few, post WWII generations due to greater state-support of the arts — and less crushing recent individual/family private debt.)

    Do American university-based composers have adequate sabbatical support to fulfill their public orchestral commissions at the highest artistic level? (That said, Philip Glass and John Adams — not academically-based — also suffer pressure to fulfill major orchestral commissions, I believe).

    And if you allege that the present system is at least partially to blame, how might the system of artistic support, in the U.S., be changed so as to nurture more consistently high quality, original new work? More details of your ideas are needed.

    I heard Sidereus live, and I frankly can’t recall too much of it; as I can’t recall too much of Glass’s Toltec Symphony #7 or Glass’s new Symphony #9. (I recall more of Glass’s Symphony #5; it being, in my mind, an important predecessor of Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls.)

  2. Jim Ralph says:

    Great article. It is heartening to measured discussion about the matter.

    In fact, Mr. Golijov’s statement to Ms. Guimarães that “each piece of music comes from another piece. There is nothing that originates from nothing.” is reported by Ms. Guimarães as being his first salvo in their conversation…which was the result of her telling him that his original explanation for why he used another composer’s work without permission and without credit in “Kohelet” no longer resonated for her. It isn’t a very compelling argument, as the conversation that followed and Mr. Golijov’s own actions when confronted by Ms. Guimarães about his “borrowing” reveals that Mr. Golijov himself understands there is borrowing, reference, and event extensive citation…and then there is appropriating far beyond what even he would say is acceptable.

    While Ms. Guimarães does not reveal the composer of the music Mr. Golijov used in “Kohelet”, she does indicate that it is by a famous composer and that the song is “uma famosa melodia brasileira.” I can’t see where she says it was a “traditional Brazilian melody” — which, of course, is more often considered fair game.

    As an arts administrator, I have less concern for the psychological trials facing successful composers in the modern world (I would be quite willing to put up with a LOT of psychological pressure at $50- to $75,000 a pop), than I have for the implications all of this has for what I consider to be the fundamental responsibility of my profession: delivering to my audiences authentic, powerful work with integrity, transparency and comprehensible insight. Not a lot of that going on in this case. And I am disappointed in how my colleagues at the 36 orchestras in quesiton are (or, rather, are not), by all appearances, handling the matter.

  3. <>

    Garrett, I have to take you to task on this: saying the piece isn’t very good is your SUBJECTIVE opinion. (I actually find it a rather beautiful and well orchestrated of Mr. Ward-Bergeman’s piece.) If organizations start rescinding commissions after they’re delivered because they’re “no good” (or as one composer friend of mine once had happen, because it didn’t sound enough like his/her earlier work) then we’ll all be in trouble.

  4. Armando, I think we do need to be able to say that, and discuss it openly. You can leave it to the critics — look how successful they were — or you can be brave about your opinions, provide analysis, and make your case. If not, then we deserve the dismissive criticism we get from the public.


  5. You know, this is probably a tangent, but here it is. We allow every penny-ante group to specify the terms of pieces, with some groups even asking us to pay for them to look at and reject them. I’ve had commissions rejected. The violist who was subbing in one of our ensembles here derailed a 40-minute premiere of mine because she thought it was no good. And we stay silent? I think that’s wrong. And I’m going to post below what I posted to my Facebook page (at almost the exact same moment Garrett’s piece above appeared). Here it is, unedited from how it appeared on FB:

    Let’s assume that what’s been reported is true. Osvaldo Golijov orchestrated someone else’s work and passed it off as his own.

    This has brought up lots of ill feeling about the size of the commission — from 35 orchestras — and how Golijov shorted the piece as well. But there’s some jealousy under that.

    For my part, I don’t resent that Golijov got a 35-orchestra commission and I didn’t, nor that my colleagues didn’t, because we wouldn’t have anyway, ever. This is an insider’s game. We don’t get to play. Golijov does.

    No, I don’t see a failure of morals here because we have triply encouraged this through rewarding sameness, through our history of borrowing and stealing, and through the generic use of other work such as samples and mashups and up/downloading what we can.

    No, I’m not offended that he might have used another’s work and passed it off as his own, so long as there was an agreement among the two. Lynn Job has made the point about ghostwriting; most celebrity autobiographies are ghostwritten or patched together from interviews. At least the ghostwriters get a crumb of collaborative credit along with a pot o’ cash. Heck, I ghostwrite for money.

    No, I am so not bothered that 35 orchestras got hoodwinked because they didn’t appear to have done their due diligence by specifying original material only in the contracts (I’m sure they didn’t, or that would have been the first item in the news). Apparently they didn’t specify length, either, so you know what? You earned it, orchestras.

    But yes, I am bothered that nobody noticed until now … that the material of this and other works was lifted and no one who should have known did know. As I’ve said before, if Turnage hadn’t mentioned his use of ‘Single Ladies’, it would have been ludicrous because everyone would have known anyway. Knowing another musical culture isn’t in many critics’ kit bag, and it looks like there’s some work to be done.

    And yes, I am also bothered by the lack of shared credit. I’ve made the point about Gavin Bryars not being thorough or respectful in basing an entire electroacoustic piece on a sample taken from a human being dismissed as a ‘tramp’ and apparently worthy of neither honor nor of a portion of the royalties (nor even the area in which the ‘tramp’ lived receiving the royalties for whatever public services the ‘tramp’ and his colleagues might have needed). I’m entirely committed to the notion of credit where due.

    But something else that bothers me is deeper and that goes to our spirits as artists. The piece is not a very interesting one, and that has been obscured by the rest of the controversy. Calling Golijov out on plagiarism is so much easier than calling him out on the shoddy work. It’s a backdoor way of attacking Golijov through his credibility and not his art.

    If we have something to say about the art, let’s not take down a reputation over what, in the long history of art, is tradition.

  6. Jerry Bowles says:

    Great piece, Garrett. Thanks for the extra effort.

  7. Eric says:

    As Jim R alluded to in his post, I will just say it outright: it is laughable to suggest that the most publicized composers have some sort of burden of having to “carry the load” of most commissions from major orchestras. Do you realize how much these commissions are worth? Do you also realize they’re allowed to say “no”? If they do not fulfill their obligations in the commission contract (interesting point made about specifying “original material”), they are legally bound by any consequences spelled out in the contract. If there are no such consequences for the above situation, they are home free, legally speaking, but will just have to face the public outrage. And they should.

    It is very generous, though, of the OP to volunteer his, and collectively, all of us lesser-known’s services to help take the burden off all of those high profile guys ;) As soon as the John Adams’s and the Chris Rouse’s agree to that, tell me where I can sign up too!

    As far as the treachery of commissions, as Dennis B-K mentioned, here are some thoughts: until a composer has their own management, publicist, and publisher, that composer is responsible not only for creating art, but also managing their career. This includes being able to negotiate contracts, book performances, and be a salesperson (“close the deal”). This isn’t easy. We all stumble (I certainly have). But it’s ultimately our responsibility- unless we get lucky and are “discovered” and taken under someone’s wing, or simply are independently wealthy enough to afford to have people do all of this for us. When one is confident enough to be able to do this sort of thing, though, people will take this composer more seriously, and will be far less likely to take advantage of him/her.

    There’s no use complaining about it- the music business isn’t always pretty. But if that’s your vocation, best to learn how to play the game so that when the time comes, you know how to be in control. It also means knowing when to walk away from a bad offer (i.e. a commission which the commissioner reserves the right to cancel the commission if they don’t like the way the 13th in your final E b9 #11 b13 sonority resolves).

    n.b.- The fact that I’ve always thought Golijov is a phony isn’t really relevant to any of this, but let’s just say that this whole issue reinforces that in my mind :)

  8. Eric, the ‘original material’ issue is always specified in calls for scores, competitions, etc., isn’t it? I’m sure we’ve all read those terms: No arrangements, no music already premiered, nothing published, written specifically for the competition or score call. And could it be that such terms were NOT in Golijov’s commission contracts? Please, someone from the orchestras step up with a copy of this contract!

  9. While I appreciate Lynn Job’s observation concerning the use of ghostwriters in celebrity autobiographies, it must be noted that even in this instance the end product is new and original material – whoever wrote it. A better parallel might be an autobiography which borrowed incidents from another autobiography and simply changed the names to the current subject. Even in Hollywood, where I know at least one composer who can’t read music but has “composed” Oscar-winning orchestral scores, the product is original. Apparently that obvious point was omitted from the contract for this commission, but I imagine it will be prominent in future commission contracts.

    I do agree with my esteemed colleague Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, certainly a genius composer himself, that orchestral commissions are increasingly an insiders’ game. Although such an incident would be a career-killer for us mid-level composers, I am confident that Golijov’s career will suffer not at all. As I said on Facebook, “Composition is all about vision. For example, I envision Joan Tower’s scores with my name on them as the composer. That should be OK, right, since the overall artistic vision was mine?”

  10. William Neil says:

    It is unfortunate that celebrity trumps an inspired composition whomever the composer. Don’t worry, every comment and blog on this controversy will supercharge its target.

  11. Reinaldo Moya says:

    What seems to be missing from the discussions about the appropriation of older music in a new composition is the idea of transformation. Even Alex Ross defends Golijov’s practice of taking someone else’s work and including it into his own work, by saying that there is a long tradition of appropriation in the history of Western Music. However, I doubt that anyone here would accuse Stravinsky or Bach of plagiarism. Both of these composers took liberally from others, but in the process of composition, there was a transformation of these raw materials into something unique and individual, thoroughly imbued with the personalities of each of the composers. What Golijov has done here is a graduate-student level orchestration exercise. Adding a few lugubrious chords at the opening and in the middle section does not constitute to me enough of a personal contribution in Golijov’s part for me to really consider this piece to be Golijov’s.

    While I agree with Garrett’s point that Sidereus is not a very good piece, I don’t necessarily think that this is really the issue at hand here. We must all surely know commissioned pieces that have turned out to be less than stellar. Presenters and commissioning organizations are aware of the risks involved in commissioning a new work from a composer (it might not turn out be a good piece), but I do believe that they are at least entitled to have an original work, and at least as long as was originally agreed. As someone commented in one of the many conversations I have had about this issue: “If he was going to steal a piece, why not at least steal one that was long enough?”

  12. Reinaldo Moya says:

    Sorry, I’m agreeing with Dennis about the assessment of Sidereus. Just one last thing since I’m already posting again: Let’s say for a moment that may, isn’t it part of the job description of a composer to write “original” work? I keep thinking that if this had happened in the science world, and we had a scientist passing someone else’s research as his own, this behavior would not be tolerated and the consequences would be swift. Why is it allowed for a composer of that stature to do this? If a lesser-know composer were to to this exact same thing, he/she might find it hard to get work after this. With Mr. Golijov so many people are prone to shrug it off as part of his “modus operandi”. I believe this sends the wrong message.

  13. Reinaldo Moya says:

    ARG, yet one more oversight here. The sentence should read like this: Let’s say for a moment that the wording in the commissioning contract was not very specific about the piece being an “original” work, isn’t it part of the job description of a composer to write exactly this: “original” works. We have names for all of the other things: arranger, orchestrator, transcriber.

  14. Nick Norton says:

    Great essay, Garrett.

  15. Reinaldo, if I’m not mistaken, this does happen in the science world all the time. The work of underlings is taken (particularly in academia), verified, and branded with the name of the boss/professor. And not just science. There isn’t even an agreement, as in the Sidereus deal. Work is owned by a corporation and issued under the name of its prestige scientist or taken from a graduate student and presented as a professor’s original work. I’m not sure what the ethics are here (corporate contracts often specify owning your work whether created during work or on off-hours; I don’t know about academia’s eithics, but as an editor of academic papers, I’ve seen it often enough).

    So none of this is new. The question for me remains the orchestras, their expectations, and their contracts. And what will happen in the commissioning business from now on.


  16. zeno says:

    “I don’t know about academia’s ethics”

    “This course, like any other, is premised on mutual respect and honesty. More specifically, I expect that the work you submit is your own. Plagiarism will therefore be severely penalized: any work containing plagiarized material will be granted the grade of no credit and may subject you to prosecution before the …”

  17. Only underlings are bound by “mutual respect”, I guess. :)