Osvaldo Golijov turns to art history to describe his song cycle Falling Out of Time. “This piece,” he said, “is a little bit like the black paintings of Goya.
“In the good times, my music was — for the classical world — very popular and exciting, like Goya was when he was a painter of the royalty. Then, as he got older, he thought, ‘Screw it — I’m going to do something really dark.’ That is also part of life. I let myself go to those dark places — I hope with mercy and compassion.”
The “good times” Golijov referenced would be the first decade of the 21st century, a period when he was riding high in the classical world, impressing both critics and audiences with works such as his St. Mark Passion, song cycle Ayre, and opera Ainadamar. Then came a years-long bout of depression, in which he found himself unable to finish any works.
His breakthrough came a couple of years ago, when he discovered David Grossman’s book Falling Out of Time, an autobiographical work about a father grieving the death of his son. The piece, written for and recorded by the Silkroad Ensemble, had its rollout interrupted by the pandemic. But it’s now having its West Coast premiere on Oct. 27 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.
In a telephone conversation from his Boston-area home, the composer, born and raised in Argentina as the child of Jewish immigrants, talked about his dark period and about the piece on death and mourning that, ironically, brought him back to creative life.
Is it true that you just happened to come across David Grossman’s book about a decade ago?
Yes. I walked into a random bookstore in Tel Aviv and saw this book. We all have obsessions that haunt us, and one of mine has always been my failure of imagination in terms of what it is like when something unnatural happens, like losing a child. So I bought it and started to read it. On the very first page, he writes, “I have to go there,” and I immediately felt, I really need to write this piece. I had to go there, too.
I know parents who have lost a child, but when I am with them, I avert my gaze. I guess it’s my own cowardice. This piece was my attempt to accompany them with music in a way I cannot do in real life. At some point, of course, you are alone in your grief, but I can accompany them as long as they can be accompanied.
You grew up in a multigenerational home, and as a young child you were close with your great-grandparents. Did that give you a visceral sense of mortality at a very young age?
My great-grandparents, who I adored, outlived three of their children. That was their blessing and their curse. I used to visit my great-grandmother, who lived very near. On almost every visit, I realized at some point that while she was talking to me, she was really talking to one of her dead children. I felt bad that she kind of forgot about me, but I was fascinated by this. David, her dead child, was more present than I was. This idea of the presence of the dead is one of the mysteries of life. David Grossman was able to crystallize, to articulate, that feeling, which was amorphous in my mind.
The book is like an anti-requiem, an anti-elegy. It’s a book of madness. The idea is “if I keep walking, my son is not dead.” It’s irrational. I thought, “What would a piece like that sound like? Can I write it for a normal ensemble?” I realized the answer was no. To bring it to life, I needed this particular ensemble of people who were willing to capture the frequency that, to other ensembles, is simply noise or static.
So you approached Silkroad about this?
I actually did, which is a very rare thing for me. I’m pretty lazy. I usually wait for somebody to call [with a commission]. But in this case, I had the urge to call.
Were they immediately receptive?
Yes, and I was so very grateful. I felt it could be a good thing for me, and for them. [We both felt that] to ignore those experiences in life that usually cause you to avert your gaze is like not honoring the gift God, or the universe, gave us as musicians — to express the entire range of human emotions.
It’s also an opportunity to fulfill one of art’s classic functions, which is to provide catharsis.
David Grossman is against the idea of the “stages of grief” — denial, anger, etc. He makes it clear that tremendous stabs of pain can strike you at any moment — even after 30 years. But it does offer that one possibility of redemption: finding the space to breathe within the pain. Hopefully, I was able to get to that in the music.
What was Grossman’s initial reaction to your idea of turning his book into a piece of music?
I sent him some of my music, including a DVD of the St. Mark Passion. I think he answered because his grand-niece, who was 2 at the time, loved that DVD. So he invited me to talk. He was incredibly generous and wonderful. He came to a workshop we did eight months before the premiere. He created this feeling that we were more than an ensemble; we were a real community of people on a mission to bring this experience into musical life.
It’s fair to say you cut the text down to the bone, basically using key sentences and paragraphs and discarding the rest. Did David have any input in that process?
No. He said, “Do whatever you feel you need to do.” I realized the most faithful interpretation would be to distill it to its essence. I almost used the words as vessels to go to the root of the emotions that gave birth to the words. From those roots, words and music emerged. David totally got that. He told me, “Music gets to places where the words cannot.” So he was very supportive of this X-ray we did of his book.
Did you write for the specific strengths of the Silkroad players?
Yes. They are my friends, my fellow travelers. If one of them played a different instrument, I would still write for them. It’s basically what Duke Ellington used to say: “I don’t write for instruments, I write for people.” That’s what I enjoy the most. We have been collaborating for decades. I adore them.
Let’s talk about your fallow period. Were you able to write during that decade? Were you just dissatisfied with what you were producing?
It wasn’t so much of a musical thing as it was a personal thing. [I was subject to] a recurrent depression, but I was always very good at blocking these bouts and plunging into work. Then, one day, everything was meaningless. I kept writing, but I was like Penelope in the Odyssey, knitting my scarf every day and unknitting it every night. I would write every day, then throw it into the trash the next morning. It’s not like I didn’t attempt; I couldn’t finish a thought. I would begin something and then stop halfway because I’d think it was meaningless. Gradually, I started to enjoy the process and started to work on these half-baked ideas until I finished baking them.
Did you get psychiatric help?
Absolutely. Drugs, talk, everything. It was super helpful. It is tough, both for the person who is suffering and the people around them. It was terrible, but it was part of my journey.
You came out the other side.
At least for now! I have been writing a lot. Falling Out of Time was the big breakthrough. Since then, I’ve been writing pretty joyous music, including a quartet for Brooklyn Rider that I like a lot. They will be releasing a recording soon. There’s also an octet for the St. Lawrence String Quartet. I’m now writing a violin concerto for Johnny Gandelsman. I’m writing like crazy.
It’s fascinating that what snapped you out of your despair and inertia was a piece about coming to terms with death.
It’s so weird, right? But in retrospect it makes sense. I had to tackle that subject. Afterward, I made a vow to myself. I have a whiteboard on top of my piano, and I wrote there, “Only joyous music for the next five years.” I’m refusing to write any more sad music for a while. It will come back, but I feel one should not wallow in sadness. Life is bigger than that.
Meanwhile, I read that your opera Ainadamar is getting a new production.
It’s starting in Scotland at the end of this month. It then goes to Detroit, and I don’t know where else. It’ll go to the Met in a couple of years. There’s also another production in Montreal and another at Indiana University. There will be four different productions this coming year. I’m completely humbled.
One more question about Falling Out of Time. When you attend a production, do audience members come up to you and tell you about their own grieving process?
They do! We have only had about 10 performances of the piece so far, thanks to the pandemic. But I remember one young guy. He came up to me and said, “Man, I feel like somebody just kicked the shit out of me.” I liked that.
Members of the Silkroad Ensemble will perform Osvaldo Golijov’s Falling Out of Time at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills. Tickets, which are $39 to $125, can be purchased by calling (310) 746-4000 or visiting The Wallis’s website.