Moving to Philadelphia from Jerusalem was a huge culture shock for Golijov. “Argentina is essentially a third-world country, and Israel is a small place,” he says. “I was certainly not prepared. This was my first time in the U.S., and every experience was utterly strange to me: On the first night, we got lost trying to drive from JFK airport to Philadelphia and couldn’t find our way back to the highway. It was hopeless—we drove in circles, and then ended up exhausted, sleeping in the car, in a McDonald’s parking lot.

“When we arrived in West Philadelphia, one of the first things I noticed was people drinking beer from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. I thought, this is exactly like a Starsky and Hutch episode. I’d believed that what I’d seen on TV was just a Hollywood exaggeration, but it was real.

“At the end of my first semester, there was a music-department Christmas party sponsored by the then-chairman, Eugene Wolf. I’d never seen anything like it, and I kept thinking, this is exactly like a Woody Allen movie. Like Hannah and her Sisters.

“In Argentina, if you go to a dinner party you can get stuck for the entire evening sitting at the same table with the same people. At the Penn music-department party, I could see right away that the expectation was that you mingle, talk to one person or group, and then move on. Years later I realized that my experience at that Christmas party was like a metaphor for life: In Argentina, you work with the same group of people for 25 years without the opportunity to explore new situations. In the U.S. you have this opportunity—there is an expectation—that you move, develop your career, and move forward.”

Golijov and his wife Sylvia struggled with poverty during their years in Philadelphia (while he was at Penn, she was earning her master’s degree in choral conducting from the Esther Boyer School of Music at Temple University). They were two foreign students without work visas, and had trouble paying their West Philadelphia rent and putting food on the table. Golijov began to contemplate abandoning his dream of being a composer, and turned to his earliest mentor and biggest supporter, his mother, for advice. Her response was, “Eat less. Keep dreaming.”

But during Golijov’s second year at Penn, his mother became gravely ill. She died in 1988, just six days after the birth of his first child, Talia. “This experience, of birth and death simultaneously, marked a turning point for me musically,” he says.

Soon after, Golijov graduated from Penn and received a fellowship to apprentice with Scottish composer Oliver Knussen at Tanglewood. There, he began working with the St. Lawrence and Kronos string quartets. These two collaborative relationships have been central to his work as a composer of chamber music, and eventually resulted in his album Yiddishbbuk, which features the St. Lawrence, as well as several albums recorded with the Kronos. David Harrington, Kronos’ founder and first violinist, uncovered Golijov’s mischievous side when reading the composer’s program notes for Yiddishbbuk, which includes the following citation:


“A broken song played on a shattered cymbalon.” Thus, writes Kafka, begins Yiddishbbuk, a collection of apocryphal psalms which he read while living in Prague’s Street of the Alchemists. The only remnants of the collection are a few verses interspersed among the entries of Kafka’s notebooks…


When Harrington mentioned that he was quite familiar with Kafka’s works, but could not recall coming across that particular quote, nor any reference to the apocryphal psalms, Golijov readily admitted that, in the spirit of his countryman Jorge Luis Borges, he had made the quote up.

Golijov’s collaboration with the Kronos helped evolve their album Caravan (2000), a collection of arrangements of sources ranging from Indian film music to Romanian gypsy music to the songs of the Mexican rock band Café Tacuba, as well as the translations of Mexican dance songs and ballads recorded on their album Nuevo (2002).

Both Kronos Quartet projects reveal Golijov’s ability to listen to diverse music from all over the globe and re-contextualize what he hears. His Pasión project represented an even greater challenge to the composer, for as a Jew Golijov had no concept of the New Testament. Before accepting the commission from Helmuth Rilling, he went out and bought a copy of the New Testament gospel to read for the first time.

La Pasión is a powerful story,” he says, pointing out that the narrative from Mark’s gospel has been adapted and revised by artists for centuries. Golijov’s Jesus, then, would not be a pale, white European male. Instead, the role of Jesus would be shared by the soloists, male and female, black, white, and Latino, and the mutating configurations of choristers. The dance forms and Latin rhythms would be imported nearly intact from traditional forms.

Golijov’s critics complain that his work lacks originality: “The melodies are lifted directly from traditional folk tunes,” grumbles one reviewer of his song cycle, Ayre. But to complain that Golijov’s music is merely a salad of trendy ethnomusical styles is to miss the point. Golijov is stepping completely away from our preconceived assumptions about what makes a Western classical composer. The idea of authorship does not particularly interest him. It’s the art that matters, not who created it or how it got there.

“I’ve been reading interviews with Francis Ford Coppolla,” he says, mentioning the director whose film score he is writing (for a movie based on Youth Without Youth, the 1988 novel by Romanian author Mircea Eliade). “And I’m struck by Coppolla’s observation that the director is ringmaster of a circus that continually reinvents itself.”

“When I compose, I attempt to create a certain world with various chemical elements, and see how they react. And you don’t just borrow; you have to give something, to help re-contextualize the elements you’re working with. That way, you recharge the symbolic power of the material.”

Like Coppolla, Golijov is a ringmaster, borrowing freely from other traditions, revising his works extensively while in rehearsal, and valuing his performers’ input as part of the collaborative creative process. In a world where individual artists are obsessed with marketing their personalities, Golijov’s success is a paradox. He is happiest when he can disappear into the background because his work is larger than himself.

Karen Rile C’80, who teaches writing at Penn, wrote about the music department for the Gazette in July/August 2005 and is the author of a novel, Winter Music, set in the classical-music world.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/31/06

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FEATURE: Retiring Ringmaster
By Karen Rile