This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Osvaldo Golijov's Falling Out Of Time for Silkroad Ensemble is a masterpiece as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally gripping. It cracks open how we experience time and how this experience is disrupted by grief and eventually dismantled by death. Based on David Grossman's novel/fable on parental grief of the same name, which puts words to the wordless, Golijov's Falling Out Of Time puts sounds to the wordless with a deep sensitivity to language. This work inspired some admittedly difficult questions from me, here are Osvaldo Golijov's illuminating answers.
“I HAVE TO GO THERE”
Anna Heflin: What drew you to this subject matter?
Osvaldo Golijov: Now that enough time has passed between the long process of writing, workshopping the piece, touring and recording, I finally have the time to reflect on this and I realize that, perhaps, the subject matter of Falling Out of Time is another iteration of the central questions I keep asking myself since childhood. (Note: Here I’ll be also jumping to your Isaac the Blind question).
Those questions are, firstly, “How does a person stay alive after losing a child?” And the second question is, “How is it that, sometimes, we feel a more real connection with our beloved dead than with those living around us?”
I asked myself both questions as a child, because I was lucky to know and to spend quite a lot of time with my maternal great-grandparents. They spoke mostly in Yiddish, and when they spoke Spanish, it still sounded more like Yiddish. I felt, and still feel, a visceral connection to both of them, but it is also a connection full of things “half-understood,” because they were both full of mystery.
Regarding the first question: The impulse for Isaac the Blind came from remembering the time when I was 6 or 7 and my great grandfather Abraham came to live in my home because one of his sons, Isaac, was ill in hospital in my hometown. Isaac eventually died. My great grandfather slept in my bedroom and I remember how I would wake up early in the morning and see and hear him pray next to the window. And I would ask myself, “How does a person still pray after losing a child?”
The second question stemmed from loving to be with my great grandmother Perla. I would often ask her to tell me stories from her life, especially from her childhood and youth in Romania. At some point in any of her stories she would bring up another one of their dead sons, David. And she sometimes would switch from speaking about him in the third person to addressing him in the second person. I would then cease to exist for her. I didn’t mind that, I even “understood” that for her, David was more present, more “there,” than I was.
Then there is the story that Ytzhak Frankenthal told me in 2002 about the bereaved father who refused to go back to the world of the living, and slept for several nights on the grave of his son, as loving dogs sometimes do.
But a shorter answer to your question (and to my own first question) is to tell you that when I was reading the first page of David Grossman’s novel I came to the Walking Man’s line, “I have to go there,” and I felt that I had to go there too – in music.
And the shortest answer to your question (and to my own second question) is what David Grossman told me when we spoke for the first time about my hope to translate his novel into music. He said that after he and his wife Michal received the news from the messengers standing on the threshold of their home, the news of their son Uri’s death, they both went upstairs to wake up their youngest child, Ruthy, to tell her the news. And the first thing Ruthy said in response was: “But we shall live.”
A CHILD OF ORPHEUS AND KINDERTOTENLIEDER
AH: Did Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder influence this work in any way?
OG: Yes. We still don’t know what Falling Out of Time is. We know it is not an opera, and it is not a song cycle either. We concluded that the most apt description is “a Tone Poem in Voices,” following David’s own description of his novel as “a Novel in Voices.”
Falling Out of Time, to me at least, is essentially two things: a long walk towards “there,” and a book of unanswerable questions. I would say then that it is a child of Orpheus and Kindertotenlieder.
AH: What was the collaborative process like between you and author David Grossman? Did you approach him?
OG: I approached David after reading his book, which I bought by chance one morning in Tel Aviv about seven years ago, and read that same morning on a park bench there. Leon Wiesseltier kindly made the connection between David and me, and I sent David some of my music. He then invited me to visit him because he said his granddaughter, who was a toddler at the time, danced every day to the DVD of the St. Mark Passion. He said yes to the idea and we spoke a lot; mainly he wanted to tell me about Uri, his son. It is a very specific novel, even if it is at the same time mythological. And even if he said he never participates or collaborates in adaptations of his work, we kept in constant communication, because I always felt and still feel that I cannot ever pretend to know what it means to be “there” as David and his family are, and needed to check with him on every major decision. Most importantly, he came to a three-day workshop we did (Silkroad and I) at the College of the Holy Cross’s Joyce Contemplative Center. There, as the music was being read, unveiled, he sat among us and spoke individually to almost each one of us over those three days, and he also spoke to us collectively about Uri and about his book. I think that the experience of listening to him and being with him not only shaped the piece but left in all of us an indelible mark for the rest of our lives.
THE BORDER BETWEEN A SHOUT AND UTTER SILENCE
AH: There is a sense when listening to the voices that they are already gone, a memory. Lack of intelligibility, due to language when it’s sung in Hebrew and reverb when it’s sung in English, contribute to this. I enjoyed experiencing the words as sonic material in the music and then turning to the written text and then understanding what the words were. The text is gorgeous, by the way. Incredibly poetic. Can you talk about the dichotomy between the text as sonic material and the meaning that the words carry?
OG: Perhaps the best answer to your question about (rightly) perceiving “words as sonic material” is what David wrote in his note for the album: ...(the) “music reached me from inside, from a place that has no words and can probably be reached only by music. It embodies a distilled expression of bereavement, bordering on a shout—or on the border between a shout and utter silence. Because how can one articulate logical, coherent, human speech when the foundations of logic and proper order, the so-called natural order, the order whereby parents should not mourn their children—have foundered?”
After stumbling for many months trying to be “faithful” to David’s novel, I realized that the most faithful adaptation would be to dig down deep, through David’s words, all the way to the roots of that “modulated shout,” or wailed question that gave birth to his book. And to embody that shout through music, as he embodied it through words. So yes, language is engraved in the music almost as footprints on rock. In that sense, I think I used the Hebrew like Stravinsky used Latin in his Symphony of Psalms, or in his Oedipus Rex, or Hebrew in his Abraham and Isaac. I did the same with the Spanish in the St. Mark Passion. If I had a magic wand, I would set words like Schubert. Absent that, it feels right to use language as music in a piece like this.
I think the power and beauty of David's text lies in that it always embodies the emotions or thoughts. Very rarely is there a sentence devoid of its physical manifestation. The most important thing for me was to find the musical translation of those physical/bodily manifestations. I agree with you that sometimes the voices are “already gone.” The beginning, for instance, or the end. But in many other places they are trapped in an eternal, unbearable instant, very much present-forever, and that prison is different for each character. Step, In Procession, and Walking, are examples of that, at least to my mind.
AH: The program notes say, “Falling Out of Time, with its ever-expanding circles of community – from the townsfolk in the novel to the musicians bringing it to the stage – might be thought of as a walking shiva.” How does the experience of this work change when listening to it in a live-performance setting versus listening to the album alone?
OG: That is an especially hard question. One of the fundamental themes in both the book and the music is that, even if grief throws us into a private exile, there are people grieving among us at all times. The Walking Man’s grief is just one among many (“grief is democratic”), and we have to acknowledge that while it is impossible to truly accompany the bereaved, everyone who lives long enough will have her share of grief in this life, and the one thing we can do is to accompany. We can accompany up to the point where one can accompany, as Ytzhak Frankenthal did by remaining next to the man who slept on the grave of his son, until that man was able to return to the world of time. So yes, experiencing this piece live, in-community, is fundamentally different than listening to its recording in a room alone. Listening to the album with attention, giving yourself to the music, can be quite a journey, just a different journey.
FALLING OUT OF TIME
AH: There is something about this album that really knocked me out, which I mean as a compliment considering the subject matter here is grief and death (in addition to other things) and the music reflects that. How did you reconcile writing music about death, which I at least hope doesn’t function in linear time, in as time-bound a form as music?
OG: If the last question was hard, then this is even harder. It is true that music is time-bound. Chronologically speaking, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. But time in music, while always superficially “bound,” can be slowed down, even abolished. I forget which scholar has an entire book trying to demonstrate that past, present, and future don’t exist in Bach, but they do in Mozart. I think there are sections of Falling Out of Time that are not “time-bound,” and sections in which an almost unbearably slow passing from past to future occurs, as if rowing in a very dense river. Go Now, for instance, is one such section. Whereas Come, Chaos, and Come, Son, are “time-prisons.” I mean, they only last a single “psychological instant,” which, because of the miracle of music, one can make last much longer. And then there is this other phenomenon in Falling out of Time, which I think is true to grief: the unexpected stabs of raw pain, of a void that suddenly opens. They stem from a section in the book which I didn’t set to music, in which the bereaved accuse the dead of not allowing them to forget. The notion that at any time, especially the second you “forget,” you can get stabbed again.
THE BODY’S TIMEKEEPERS
AH: How did the body’s timekeepers and their inconsistencies inform your compositional process in the tracks ‘heart murmur’, ‘step’, ‘walking’, ‘breathe’?
OG: This question is the key to the departure points for the music. Before I had even a single note written, I had made a geometrical diamond, I think, where all these time-keeping (or time-blurring) motions, which are mentioned in the book, are at the tips of the diamond, connected by lines. I think I had all the ones you mention, those with a “faltering” (because of the pain) periodicity: heartbeat, step, walking, breathe, and then motions that are not periodical: Falling (as in Come, Chaos), burning, (as an all-consuming motion as in some of the vocal writing throughout the piece), hovering (between ‘here’ and ‘there’, as in sections of Walking) and probably others I am forgetting.
THE DREAMS AND PRAYERS OF ISAAC THE BLIND
AH: Do you feel that there are common threads between Falling Out Of Time and your work for the Cleveland Quartet and Giora Feidman (and recorded by Kronos Quartet) The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (1994)?
OG: Yes. First of all conceptually, as I wrote in answer to your first question. And then musically (technique). Step, for instance, purposefully borrows the “ladder” formula (for the Woman’s climb atop the belfry) of the last movement in Isaac the Blind. In general, the density (voicings, textures) of the string-writing is definitely connected to Isaac the Blind.
AH: Edward Hirsch writes in his New York Times review of the book, “Grief is democratic. It crosses barriers and strikes at will.” Why is the Silkroad Ensemble the best suited ensemble to perform this work?
OG: Whenever I think of the Silkroad Ensemble, I have an image of a mythological harp of “ten thousand hairs.” Imagine a huge microtonal harp that has dozens of strings between two “adjacent” pitches, like B and C for instance. But the microtones are not pitch, they are emotions, or concepts, or states of being, or not-being. Many other ensembles remind me of the old-fashioned dials I had in my TV in Argentina when I was a child. There was a “hard-click” every time you changed channels. The “channels” in Silkroad are a continuum, and many just “appear” from the ether while we are trying to figure something out. There is that extraordinary openness. Specifically for Falling out of Time, I felt it had to be the ensemble, because at their core there is a great, almost terrifying silence. As their friend and admirer since “they were born,” I was also a bit concerned that so much of their repertory has a smile at the end. And as much as that may ultimately, cosmically speaking, be true, it is also true that many endings in our lives don’t have a smile. I felt it was important to reveal that great silence that is part of their essence, to not hide it with a smile.
A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Osvaldo Golijov has enjoyed collaborations with some of the world’s leading chamber music ensembles, such as the Kronos Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, in addition to relationships with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Robert Spano. In 2000, the premiere of Golijov's La Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion) took the music world by storm. The Boston Globe called it "the first indisputably great composition of the 21st century.” Golijov has also received acclaim for other groundbreaking works, such as his opera Ainadamar and the clarinet quintet The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, as well as music he has written for the films of Francis Ford Coppola.
Founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, the Grammy award-winning Silkroad Ensemble has been at the core of Silkroad’s work to advance global understanding, deepen learning, and promote cross-cultural collaboration. These artists represent dozens of nationalities and artistic traditions, from Spain and Japan to Syria and the United States, and draw on a rich tapestry of traditions from around the world to create a new musical language that weaves together the foreign and the familiar. The Ensemble appears in many configurations and settings, from intimate groups of two and three in museum galleries to rousing complements of eighteen in concert halls, public squares, and amphitheaters.
The Silkroad Ensemble performs throughout the world, and has recorded seven albums. Sing Me Home, which won the 2016 Grammy for Best World Music Album was developed and recorded alongside the documentary feature The Music of Strangers, from Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville.