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Can music bring us unity? How Osvaldo Golijov’s ‘Ayre’ is what we need now

An illustration of composer Osvaldo Golijov.
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

There are few corners in the history or geography of music — highbrow, lowbrow, any-ol’-brow — in which folk songs haven’t insinuated themselves. They remind us of who we are. They tell our stories. They purpose the times of our lives. In love, they are for wooing and weeping. They can incite battle as well as warn us of war’s futility, celebrate victory and mourn defeat.

In the wake of a distracting election, as we find ourselves a nation impossibly divided, placing identity — be it racial, religious, regional, generational, political or gender-based — above unity, folk songs have a singular lesson to impart.

This is what Osvaldo Golijov has to say about his 2004 song cycle, “Ayre,” which focuses on folk songs from Andalusian Middle Ages. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in reasonable, if imperfect, harmony, culturally influencing one another. “With a little bend, a melody goes from Jewish to Arab to Christian,” Golijov is quoted in the CD booklet for soprano Dawn Upshaw’s premiere recording of the cycle.

To hear that in a lullaby, to hear it in anger or rapture, is an aha moment. “How little you have to change to go from one culture to another,” Golijov once exclaimed at a performance of “Ayre,” “maybe even nothing.” A singer’s accents can be enough.

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“Ayre” is not folk music, but it’s infused by it. Its model and companion piece is Luciano Berio’s “Folk Songs,” written 40 years earlier for Berio’s wife, the remarkably imaginative Armenian American soprano Cathy Berberian. In no work is the power of folk song more apparent. By making arrangements of songs from various countries, the Italian avant-gardist didn’t so much break ranks with the progressive radicalism that had transformed music as he did open it. This then made possible Berio’s next major work, “Sinfonia,” an earlier subject of this “How to Listen” series.

Any and all songs were adaptable for Berio. The third in his “Folk Songs” is one of Berberian’s favorite Armenian serenades, a hymn to the moon. The final piece in Berio’s song cycle is a wild Azerbaijan love song that Berberian discovered on an old 78 rpm recording and, without understanding a single word, sang as though it were the sexiest thing in the world. Now, of course, these are warring nations.

Golijov used Berio’s chamber ensemble with some 21st century updates, such as a laptop and a hyper-accordion, the instrument rigged to employ digital signal processing. Texts are in Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino, Spanish and Sardinian. They and the songs don’t necessarily come from Andalusia; rather they take up the theme of cultural and political coexistence, holding up our era to history.

Vocal and musical styles cross centuries and continents. You often don’t know where you are or even who wrote what. Golijov adapts ancient music with all the tools of Postmodernity. He sometimes writes his own music or writes music to go along with other music that makes everything sound like him. He shares Berio’s deadline issues. Berio was finishing “Folk Songs” right up the moment of its premiere at Mills College in Oakland. Golijov didn’t begin “Ayre” until the month of its premiere. Not having time to finish, he asked his friend Gustavo Santaolalla for two numbers.

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The heat of the moment is part of what electrifies “Ayre,” which means air or melody but here implies the musical air we breathe. Golijov happened to be at the time the most talked about composer in America for his exhilarating musical multiculturalism. Born in 1960, he grew up in Argentina in a family of Eastern European immigrants and was enamored equally with Astor Piazzolla’s New Tango and New Klezmer. He went on to study music in Israel and then in America with the mystical avant-gardist George Crumb, who also has taken to arranging folk songs lately.

Golijov’s first sensation was the Kronos Quartet’s 1997 release of his Kabbalistic “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” which featured the rhapsodic clarinetist David Krakauer. It so happens that Kronos, for whom Golijov served as a house arranger madly mixing styles on several of the quartet’s CDs, has just released its own timely and revelatory take on folk music from the vantage point of Pete Seeger and the civil rights movements.

In 2000, with his “La Pasión Según San Marcos” (St. Mark’s Passion), Golijov became the international voice of a multicultural new millennium that triumphantly mixed types of music and traditions, what with its spellbinding Afro-Cuban Jesus and Kaddish ending.

Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it.

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“Ayre” goes further and deeper, taking daring advantage of how folk songs can make manifest humanity’s uncomfortable contradictions.

The second song, for instance, is a traditional lullaby sung by Sephardic Jews, its melody one of arresting appeal and purity. The lyrics are in Ladino, the Old Spanish spoken by Jews at the time of their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Ignore them, and this is the most lulling song of songs, enhanced by an angelic harp.

“And a mother roasted,” the lullaby begins, “and ate her cherished son.” Adapted from the “Lamentations of Jeremiah,” this is the horror of political terror made manifest, a starving mother having lost her reason.

Elsewhere all it takes is a snap of a finger in a traditional Arab Easter song that Golijov learned from a recording by the Lebanese singer Fairouz to switch epochs. One second “Wa Habibi” (My Love) gracefully inhabits rarefied Gregorian chant, the next, it thrillingly rockets to an urban Arab funk that might be blaring from motorbikes.

Throughout this often theatrical 40-minute, 11-part cycle, a startling political context doesn’t go out of date. No. 3 is a raucous Sardinian song, “Walls Are Encircling the Land,” in which Golijov instructs the instrumental ensemble at the end to embrace chaos and anarchy. For No. 8, a soprano reads a magnificently moving text by the famed late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish that begins, “Be a string, water, to my guitar.” That text continues over a song Golijov wrote to words by a 12th century Yiddish poet, creating a kind of eternal counterpoint between medieval Judaism and contemporary Palestine.

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With the final and longest song, words no longer can say what needs to be said. The soprano vocalizes over a mesmerizing bolero, part Ravel, part Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain,” ever reminding of the cycles of history, hope and elation within reach, if only we’d try.

Golijov went through the next 15 years after “Ayre” unable to make that reach. Though he turned out a number of small pieces — including the exceedingly lovely “Azul,” written for Yo-Yo Ma — his larger vision became blocked. He failed to fulfill such major commissions as a violin concerto for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an opera for the Metropolitan Opera.

But last year, he returned with an elaborate evening-length song cycle, “Falling Out of Time,” for Silkroad Ensemble that so encapsulates the searing intensity of “Ayre” that the meaning of life itself becomes out of reach. Told through the inconsolable emotions of a father having lost a son, this epic of sadness from every musical vantage point becomes like a never-ending folk song from the beyond. The great cultural conflicts of “Ayre” are not resolved but accepted. Consolation is irrelevant. Words once more disappear; they’re too painful. Music, like the universe, simply exists. Having fallen out of time and through a painfully slow folk-music healing, Golijov is back.

Starting points

There are three commercial recordings of “Ayre.” Each is different. Each is special.

Dawn Upshaw’s recording, which also features Berio’s “Folk Songs,” is a classic that Deutsche Grammophon has unconscionably allowed to slip out of print.

Canadian singer Miriam Khalil’s more recent recording, which has a dynamic Middle Eastern sensibility, is available only as a download. But she can be seen in a complete performance on YouTube.

Nora Fischer, who is quickly becoming the hip Cathy Berberian of the 21st century, has a new release also only as a download, though you can watch a brief live excerpt on YouTube.

Streamers, beware: None of the digital releases come with the texts, which are essential. For that, Cal Performances comes to the rescue.

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With live concerts largely on hold, critic Mark Swed is suggesting a different recorded music by a different composer every Wednesday. You can find the series archive at latimes.com/howtolisten.


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