A Real Mess

A Real Mess

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.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

13 thoughts on “A Real Mess

  1. GW

    Two further questions: 1. Will BMI pay Golijov a full composer’s license fee this work, or will he receive only an arranger’s share with the composer’s license going to Ward-Bergeman? 2. Assuming that this piece is included in Golijov’s academic CV, how will the college where is is a tenured full professor respond to his use of creative work by another person without full attribution?

  2. Jim Ralph

    While Golijov has not responded to the Sidereus situation, Ward-Bergeman’s response to Tom Manoff and Lúcia Guimarães’ report of her conversation with Golijov this past weekend regarding the “Kohelet” matter give some insight both into what the nature of the Golijov/Ward-Bergeman agreement was (perhaps even a work-for-hire subcontractor relationship?) and how Golijov will eventually respond. Golijov’s rather ‘truistic’ opening salvo to Guimarães (“…cada peça musical vem de outra peça. Nada se origina do nadais.”) is not encouraging, but he does appear capable of acknowledging in other situations that he uses other composers’ work lock, stock and barrel (cf. Midgette on “Ayres”) and appears, actually, to admit to Guimarães that his use of a “famosa melodia brasileira” for the second movement of “Kohelet” was simply wrong, not only by explicit statement in that short interview, but by the fact, reported by Guimarães, that he immediately pulled and replaced that offending second movement when Guimarães confronted him with her knowledge of the source after a performance in New York.

    This matter doesn’t appear to me to be as viral as you are feeling it is, and while I do think it is a good point that more than a few responded hastily based on pre-existing attitudes, over all the assessment of the extent of Golijov’s non-composition of “Sidereus” was very quickly assessed and well-documented. What was unfortunate is that a number of headline writers and secondary reports attributed accusations of plagiarism and theft to Manoff and/or Keefer that neither made.

    Mnoff’s principal point is that “Sidereus” is not what Golijov, at great length and with more than a little florish, says it is. It is not, certainly, an original composition that only uses “a scale fragment” from his good friend and collaborator Ward-Bargeman. I wonder how long Boosey & Hawkes will keep THAT description in its catalog.

    But in the end, as an arts administrator, I am less concerned by what Golijov and Ward-Bergeman have done (it is what it is), I am most concerned at how the 36 symphony orchestras are handling the matter, so your comment about that in your closing paragraph really resonates for me. Indeed, unfortunately, both Memphis’ Ryan Fleur and the Eugene Symphony’s interim executive director DID respond…in a very unfortunate manner. Fleur’s comments in particular are quite problematic. As the coordinator of the commission, he was at the heart of a very intense championship of the piece that raised a huge amount of money an extraordinary number of performances. Does he imagine that a new composition by a talented by unknown electronic accordionist would have garnered as much money, bookings and attention? Of course not; and he certainly knows that. It seems disingenuous to me that he would now dismiss the importance of Manoff’s revelation that Golijov’s Fogel commission is, in fact, a multi-repurposed composition by one Michael Ward-Bergeman.

  3. Jim Scully

    GW raises two great questions. My students asked about the royalty question immediately! I thought about the implications on his tenure.

    Also, what abut the other piece – Radio – composed in 2009 by Golijov. That work ALSO quotes Barbeich?

  4. Paul Muller

    Thanks for providing the definitions that are relevant here – always a good place to start.

    So let’s be charitable and say that Golijov and Ward-Bergeman have this informal arrangement: Golijov has the name and star power to attract commissions and if, in the process of fulfilling these Golijov gets pressed for time, then Ward-Bergeman has agreed to let him use whatever material that Golijov needs to complete the piece. The commission check arrives, the piece is performed some number of times – and the two settle up later. Ward-Bergeman does not have the name to attract so many commissions on his own – and Golijov probably can’t sell orchestrations or arrangements – so the partnership is born of necessity and benefits both parties.

    I guess I find less fault with the manner in which these pieces were produced than the way they were uncritically received by the commissioners. Apparently no one offering the commissions took any trouble to actually understand Golijov’s body of work or his style. And that is the problem – the performing institutions will now be seen as having no clue about what is happening in contemporary music or even care about what sort of new pieces they put in front of their audiences.

    1. Ana Maria Rosado

      Hi Paul;
      They just care about the name, celebrity culture after all…Its not just lack of knowledge about contemporary music, appropriations and borrowings from traditional music of Latin American in his trademark cantata were already a problematic issue.

  5. Pingback: The Golijov Problem » David MacDonald, composer

  6. David MacDonald

    I’m not nearly as offended by Golijov playing fast and loose with intellectual property or artistic integrity as much as I am offended by him taking what seems to have been a crapload of money and not giving the consortium what it paid for. Judging by the numbers Rob tossed out in this article, Golijov made at least double my entire (admittedly meager) 2011 income to write an original composition. I understand the impulse to work with another musician’s material. That’s great, but that’s not what the Eugene Symphony and 34 others asked him for.

    Also, can we also talk about this piece? It’s terrible. The material in it was barely interesting enough to support a 4-minute work for solo accordion, and it gains little in Golijov’s nearly 10-minute arrangement. If I were a music director of one of these orchestras, I would have been angry at lazy writing before I even found out how truly lazy it was!

    If you haven’t heard either of these pieces, I put together a little video that bounces back and forth between the two for comparison. Check it out: http://youtu.be/XfQJlXAwROc

  7. Chandler Carter

    I have long admired much of Golijov’s work and I respect his collaborative artistic vision. What I do not respect is his lack of transparency about exactly how he and others create the music to which his name is solely attached. I suspect the institutions that commission and perform “his” work encourage and enable this lack of transparency, because rather than promoting the performance of a wonderful new piece (by whoever), they sell a recognizable name. I’m guessing most of the 35 orchestras that commissioned Sidereus were unaware of Barbeich and never heard of Ward-Bergeman – certainly their audiences had not.

  8. Christian Carey


    Thank you for writing this article for New Music Box. It is my hope that the conversation will continue here and elsewhere and encourage the parties involved to respond publicly about this issue. If they don’t, they are sending the wrong message to both your students and mine.

    Christian Carey

  9. Cary Boyce

    It will be interesting to see how the dust settles on this–if it ever does. This and other “derivative” works are works of great and undisputed craft and accomplishment—however they are arrived at … So it’s an interesting and complex question: what are the ethics of means to end? Ainadamar and other works of Golijov are deservedly praised. One hopes that a lapse in creative or business judgment will not sadly harm an otherwise exceptional career, but there is certainly cause for conversation. A very thoughtful article, thanks.

  10. Maurice Peress

    Interesting article, and yes the provenance of the work in question should have been in the title, it now stands as an embarrassing “fake.” But I beg to disagree with Deemer’s descriptions of arrangement, orchestration and transcription. having done all three all my life including for Ellington and Bernstein.

    A transcription is the result of taking down “scribing” of a recorded work or something played live––Gershwin did this for Irving Berlin, Mozart could do it from memory after but one hearing, Whiteman in his book, “Jazz” writes about hearing his Grofe arrangements played by other bands that took them transcibed them from his recordings.

    An Orchestration is a note by note transfer to an orchestra of a piano score (or a particelle); what Robert Russell Bennett did for the show music of Richard Roger. If one is asked or encouraged to add an intro and/or coda based on the composer’s melodic/rhythmic ideas morphs we are describing an Arrangement, a creative reworking of a song freely adding licks and reharmonization, like the aforementioned “Porgy and Bess” arranged for Miles Davis by Gil Evans.

    Arrangers, in my view, the unsung heroes of American theater and big band music, are paid as “guns for hire” no matter their creative contribution they receive no royalties and are paid the same as Orchestrators by the number of measures and size of orchestra.

    1. Rob Deemer

      Dear Maurice,

      I’ve known about your work for years, especially with Ellington’s music! This of course gets into the fun part of the terminology that I mentioned before – transcription (especially in a jazz context) can mean the taking down of aural material as well as my previous definition…one word, two completely and distinct definitions. Orchestration too – to “orchestrate” in a film scoring context is not apples to apples with orchestration on Broadway or in regards to one composer’s orchestral interpretation of another’s piano work (such as the various versions of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” or even Copland’s own orchestration of his chamber version of “Appalachian Spring”) which is more or less what your definition is.

      Much of this is subtle shadings depending on one’s own background – I started out as a jazz arranger, studied film scoring, and finally ended up focusing on concert music and have constantly been re-thinking how these activities and terms work within our musical world. I very much agree with you on the role of the arranger – I’ve already written a previous post on my love of the craft here at NMBx – and appreciate you taking me to task on my definitions.


  11. Pingback: Making Arrangements (Part 1) | unheardnotes

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