The right way and the wrong way to compose
As I blogged about earlier (here and here), the name of the acclaimed Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov (above left) has made headlines in the classical world lately after the premiere of his latest work for orchestra. 'Tis said that all publicity is good. But for Mr. Golijov, this might be an exception.
It turns out, you see, that much of his new work was based on an earlier work by another composer. That other composer, a friend and collaborator of Golijov's, says knew about this all along, and doesn't have a problem with it. But Golijov may have misrepresented exactly how much of the earlier piece he used in the new one. And this may not be the only time Golijov has been caught with his hand in someone else's musical cookie jar. Anyway, reporter Daniel J. Wakin does his typically superb job detailing the whole affair in today's New York Times.
So much for the facts. But how about the artistic questions raised, questions about originality, ethics, honesty, and that old standby, quality? Here's where the strong feelings of the classical community get stirred, and strong words get uttered, both in denunciation and defense of Golijov. So, in my own little court of public opinion, I call on Washington Post critic Anne Midgette to speak on behalf of Golijov, or at least to speak against the most outraged of his detractors. From her "rant" (the paper's description, not mine) in last Sunday's Post:
"The real reason people get outraged, it seems to me, is a sense that they have been duped: A piece they enjoyed while thinking it was by one person is, in fact, the work of another. Plagiarism is, of course, a pernicious problem in the Internet age, but what Golijov is doing seems to me more a sign of his own creative blockage than A Bad Example for Young Artists. "
Taking a different position is my composing friend Matthew Whittall (above right), with whom I've been discussing this on Facebook:
"I don't have a problem with (Golijov) appropriating material from someone else if that person gave permission. Having just heard the piece itself, I found it pleasant, but little more than that. In the NY Times article on the subject, what killed me was the fee he was given, $75 000, for a 10-minute piece. He recycled old material and produced a very slight piece with it, and accepted a king's ransom in compensation, a sum it would take most composers years, if not a lifetime to earn strictly from writing music...He's free to earn as much as he can, I don't begrudge him that and wish organizations considered all composers' work so valuable, but accepting huge fees also confers a responsibility to deliver the goods on a high level. "
Matt went on to cite some similar cases, acknowledged or alleged, of well-known composers receiving big bucks for recycled works, then said of one such case:
"(The commissioning orchestra) had little choice but to grit their teeth and pay him, although I wish organizations wold have the guts to tell major composer figures like (the composer in question) to go back to the studio and come back with a real piece, as agreed in the contract. It's fine to have a tight schedule, and to run into creative blocks from time to time, but when you're selling your work for $7500 a minute, you'd better honor that and deliver the real thing come deadline, or man up and cancel/postpone. Anything less is just offensive."
In case you're wondering who this guy is to criticize better-known composers than he, Matt is a Canadian and UMass alum who has been living and working in Helsinki for more than a decade. And, if you'll pardon the cliche, he doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk — all the way onto the stage of the Helsinki Music Centre to accept the ovation that followed yesterday's premiere by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra of his fabulous, completely original Viola Concerto, "The heaven that dwells so deep". What, you weren't there? No problem. The entire concert is available to watch on-line for the next 30 days. I highly recommend you do so, though I should give you fair warning that the piece features a prominent part for the didgeridoo (grin).
And just to round out this post by bringing filthy lucre back into the discussion, without divulging actual figures, I can assure you that Matt got paid a heck of a lot less for a piece that no doubt cost him many times more composer-hours than Golijov's cost him. Matt did it right, Golijov did it wrong, and I don't mind saying so.