Musical plagiarism in Eugene? It’s complicated

Osvaldo Golijov

By James McQuillen

The classical music world is all abuzz about Osvaldo Golijov, and not in a good way this time. Over the weekend he became the center of an authorship controversy, and this is how it went down: writer and composer Tom Manoff and trumpeter Brian McWhorter went to the Eugene Symphony’s concert last Thursday night, where they heard Golijov’s Sidereus, a work commissioned by a coalition of 35 orchestras; the ESO was giving the Northwest premiere during the second season of the work’s 35-orchestra tour.

As Manoff wrote in his blog, he and McWhorter listened with “utter disbelief” and a “a genuine sense of shock” to the supposedly original work, half of which they already knew intimately. Manoff had been reëngineering a recording of Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich made by WcWhorter and his ensemble Beta Collide, and they heard it again in orchestral dress in Sidereus.

In his own description of the piece, which I quoted in my Eugene Symphony program note, Golijov wrote that “For the ‘Moon’ theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman, came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia.” But Manoff countered that:

“This music, especially the scored version given to McWhorter, shows that not just Ward-Bergeman’s melody was used by Golijov, but all of Ward-Bergeman’s structural details: accompaniment figures, harmonies, counterpoint, textures and form. These appear as extended passages in Golijov’s work and constitute one of two contrasting ideas in Golijov’s overall form.”

Golijov’s use of Ward-Bergeman’s music raised questions about borrowing and attribution sufficiently to become news.

Alerted by Manoff and McWhorter, Bob Keefer broke the story in Saturday’s Eugene Register-Guard, and it was picked up by, among others, The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross and my Oregonian colleague David Stabler.

Noting that Ward-Bergeman gave Golijov his blessing to use Barbeich (which you can hear in the ensemble version used by Beta Collide here), Ross wrote:

“Golijov can be defended on the grounds that there is a long history of borrowing and outright theft in classical music. In the Baroque era, Bach, Handel, and other masters routinely recycled their own music and reworked the music of others; the idea of the composer as a singular genius blazing an original path was essentially alien before the advent of Beethoven.”

True, but not entirely relevant. It’s been two centuries since the advent of Beethoven; audiences since have come to expect originality, and contemporary notions of intellectual property imply obligations of attribution different from those of the Baroque period. Handel lifted material from Alessandro Stradella for Israel in Egypt; were that to happen today, Stradella might be cool with it, but more likely he’d lawyer up. Even if he’d given Handel sanction to use his music, information about the origins of the Handel—in a program note, say—would be obviously incomplete without mention of that.

It’s not plagiarism, but it’s… something. It’s difficult to see Golijov’s reduction of Ward-Bergeman’s contribution to “a melody…a magnified scale fragment” as anything but disingenuous; no composer would fail to make the distinction between melody and all the other components of the original work that Manoff identified.

But clearly the issue of attribution is unsettled. (I asked composer David Schiff what he thought about it, and he replied that he couldn’t comment because he didn’t know the pieces, but added that “In the score of the recently-premiered Class of 1915 I make the authorship of all borrowed material quite clear, but of course those composers have been dead a long time.”)

As the program annotator for the Eugene Symphony, I feel suckered, because the omission of that crucial detail essentially falsified what I had to say about the provenance of Sidereus. Incidentally, when I was writing the program note for Azul for the Bach Festival last summer, I left a message on Golijov’s office phone at Holy Cross asking if the opening cello motif (a central idea in the piece) was a deliberate quote, as it appears to be, from the beginning of Astor Piazzolla’s “Asleep” (one of the Five Tango Sensations). A wholly different order of borrowing, of course, but worth acknowledging. In any event, I never heard anything back.

Here’s Piazzolla’s “Asleep”:

And here’s Golijov’s Azul.

17 Responses.

  1. Jock Maccrea says:

    Stay with this one laddie.

  2. That opening cello motif in Azul also was also previously used by Golijov in his Tenebrae, for string quartet.

  3. James McQuillen says:

    IIRC, Azul grew out of Tenebrae, so it’s an instance of self-borrowing. He’s the very model of a modern Baroque composer.

  4. bob priest says:

    i look forward to golijov & ward explaining themselves in an unambiguously precise fashion. PERIOD.

    • Kali Star says:

      Although I understand your anger, I disagree with your use of the word “period.” By using the word in this way, especially in web shorthand to emphasize anger, your “period” suggests that you are unwilling to consider the complexities of the situation. Your anger should lead to careful consideration of the words Mr. McQuillen has used to express his. When artists of all types – composers, writers, poets, painters or basket weavers – sense shallowness in a culture, they are tempted to be lazy. Laziness may be part of the Golijov story. I don’t know. I would like to find out. But I can’t do that by being a lazy reader. I apologize to you personally if you have read this piece with care.

      • Jim Ralph says:

        Kalistar, Anger? Looks to me as if Bob Priest is just trying to cut through the double-talk. I don’t read anger.

        I can’t agree with your excusing Golijov and blaming society for his bahavior and your suggestion that as “an artist” Golijov is merely responding to the ills of the society he lives in. And I disagree that our society is shallow. There is plenty of depth for those who refuse to deal with it in a shallow manner. It CAN be shallow for those who choose to relate to that society in a shallow manner. And, I would say, Golijov is doing just that. The responsibility is his.

        Professional artists are motivated by the same things anyone else is and in this case the salient motivations for his behavior appear to be pretty straight up, no matter how many ways he spins it. Hey, what do you do if you are a world famous composer and you have a $50,000+ commission and you can’t deliver? Well, the right thing to do is give up the commission. Period. (I guess you’d say that makes me angry…).

        In fact, Golijov has responded (in a conversation with Lúcia Guimarães), but his response is no more unambiguous than was his fanciful description of how he “composed” Sidereus. Bob Priest and the rest of us are still waiting. And we’ll probably continue to wait. I mean, how does one respond in this sort of situation?

        Golijov insterests me far less at this point than do the 36 symphony orchestras who are so pointedly NOT taking a strong and unambiguous stance on the Sidereus situation. Yeah, it’s complicated. But it shouldn’t be. They raised and spent a lot of money to commission a new composition by one of the preeminent composers of our time…and what they got was a very short (much shorter than the piece was spec’d), multi-repurposed piece by an unknown electronic accordionist. And they made a big deal about it to their constituents. This is not cool.

        • Kali Star says:

          “In fact, Golijov has responded (in a conversation with Lúcia Guimarães), but his response is no more unambiguous than was his fanciful description of how he “composed” Sidereus”.

          I think it’s clear that he knows it was wring. He said he regretted it.

          • Jim Ralph says:

            Well yes…sort of. He does say he regrets it and shouldn’t have done it and that seems pretty clear. But there’s more a sense of “it would have been a terrible thing to do because people like you misunderstand.”

            I guess my point is that my overall sense from the conversation that Lucia reports is that Golijov is a bit slippery on where the boundary is. Yes, she saved him from making a terrible mistake (by confronting him about the 2nd movement of “Kohelet”)… but at the same time he continues his arguments that justify it (the truism “cada peça musical vem de outra peça. Nada se origina do nada.”, his likening what he does to Gil Evans [which is like comparing apples to oranges], etc.). At best he seems to lack moral clarity on the matter. But I suspect he knows exactly what he is doing and why.

  5. bob priest says:

    you are 100% entitled to your opinion here & i thank you for it.

    however, i disagree 100% with your “analysis” of my use of the word “PERIOD” in this instance.

    i’m simply underlining that i expect nothing less than unambiguous precision in their explanation of this situation – complexities, subtleties, you name it.

    the “facts” are very likely quite simple & clear – should they elect to present them thusly.

  6. Kali Star says:

    Sorry then. One thing I don’t understand is why no one is quoting Golijov’s explanation and apology for stealing music in his own words ? It’s online.

  7. Victoria Robinson says:

    I come from the creative world of original words and images, not original music. I am a freelance writer and editor, and I’ve had the good fortune to work with some tireless copyright lawyers for major publishers, including Random House and Simon & Schuster. I am following this story with great interest and would like to add some points that haven’t been addressed.

    When I worked in-house at RH and S&S, I never once heard an editor say in defense of an author, “But so-and-so copied long passages from so-and-so in the 1700s.” Why didn’t I hear that?

    Because, like it or not, copyright laws and the ethics of plagiarism are updated for today’s marketplace and technologies; they are not still languishing in Jane Austen’s and JS Bach’s time.

    In fact, intellectual property laws of today make it super easy to copy someone else’s work verbatim *with permission* (that usually requires it’s in writing). I assume this is true in the world of music as it is in the world of words and images. Once you get the permission, you also need to give credit to the original.

    I’ve read that Ward-Bergeman says he had an “agreement” with Golijov, so everything’s cool with him. Swell. But “agreement” implies financial exchange, and my guess is, there’s something in writing between the two composers. This question needs to be pursued, even though Ward-Bergeman says he’s not going to say another word about that. Unfortunately for him, the horse is out of the barn; it’s not up to him to keep quiet when there are other preexisting contracts involved.

    Meanwhile, both Ward-Bergeman and Golijov knew about their agreement but never thought to share this information with the orchestras who commissioned (paid money to) Golijov to compose a unique piece for them. The piece premiered in October 2010. Plenty of time to let everyone know before the concert in Eugene. But Golijov and Ward-Bergeman kept silent. Why? Could it be that the commissioning orchestras might have balked about spending money ($1500-$4000 each x 35) on a “Golijov” (not a Ward-Bergeman, no offense meant) with whom they had an agreement, very likely in writing? I think the answer to that is yes.

    This issue is far worse—ethically and legally—than the academic exercise of arguing about what constitutes plagiarism.

    It’s not just the commissioning orchestras, however, who have something in writing with Golijov. There’s also a grant for Sidereus from the League of American Orchestras, the amount of which has yet to be reported. This information also needs to be pursued. Surely the league does not fork over money to composers without expressing in writing what is expected from the composer. That contract will use words like “original,” “exclusive,” etc. I am interested to learn what that contract says. No one from the league has stepped forward to volunteer the information, so someone needs to ask.

    One more thing that needs to be pursued: According to my understanding of Alex Ross’s piece in the New Yorker, Sidereus/Barbeich actually premiered in March 2010 when the Chicago Symphony played a piece by the name of Patagonia.

    Although it’s too late now, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra might want to think a little harder about how their audience and the local press and sponsors will feel about the orchestra’s integrity after learning they’ve seen a premiere that has, it turns out, premiered somewhere else. If Memphis doesn’t take steps to say the right things about this debacle, well…good luck with that.

    I’ve seen plagiarism from a behind-the-scenes vantage point in my own field. The thing about plagiarism is that when you see it, it is so crystal-clear it blows your mind. There are no gray areas because the rip-off is word-for-word for extensive passages. In addition—in my experience—people who plagiarize do it serially. They do it even after they are called on it. They do it when they have a respected body of work behind them. I’m not talking about first-time authors or high school English papers. I’m talking about writers who have a contract with a major publisher and a reputation to ruin. I’m not going to wax on the psychology behind it; that’s not my expertise. I am just relating what I’ve seen firsthand.

    I was lucky to have the backup of copyright experts to make the final call on the plagiarism I encountered. That was the lawyers’ job: to protect the company from potential lawsuits. There was plenty of stress but no academic debates about what was done in the 1700s. Theoretically that’s why the law exists: To settle conflicting opinions and set a standard for dealing with base behavior.

    All you have to do is get permission and give due credit. That’s all. So do it.

  8. Barry Johnson says:

    “All you have to do is get permission and give due credit. That’s all. So do it.”

    What would have happened if Golijov had said from the beginning that he was creating a new context for a previously created and extensively “quoted” piece of music by another composer? I doubt anyone would have had another thought about it.

    As it is, it’s like he’s trying to “pull” something on… who? The audience? The commissioners? And at this point, I wonder was this also part of the “piece,” the possibility that someone would “discover” the quotation.

    If it is, it’s unlikely that Golijov will disclose his intentions to the public: The “concept” is still revealing itself. If not, he must have figured no one would notice, which underestimates the “wisdom of the crowd.”

  9. Tom Manoff says:

    I would like to add some brief information about this story : Brian McWhorter and Michael Ward- Bergeman are friends. They play together and hang out together. They played at the Oregon Bach Fesitval in the performance of Azul with Yo Yo Ma. Bryan was first chai trumpet.

    There was never any effort on Brian’s part to catch Michael at doing something wrong. It was I who decided to do the story. Brian just wanted to be sure his friend was getting credited and paid.

  10. Brett says:

    Just to toot our own horn — hey, it’s a music blog, among other things — the next publication to run the story after Manoff’s blog and the Register Guard was –ta da! — Oregon ArtsWatch, in our weekly wrap up the day Bob’s R-G story appeared.
    I’ve been a Golijov admirer since interviewing him and covering his breakthrough “Oceana” (commissioned by tHe Oregon Bach Festival) in 1997, and have written about him in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere over the years. So this is a distressing development. Given that Ward-Bergeman apparently reached some agreement with Golijov that he doesn’t now dispute, I agree that the real offended parties are the orchestras and commissioning organization that paid for a Golijov and got a Ward-Bergeman.
    I wonder how listeners’ opinions of the piece might have varied had they known its true authorship? It’s starting to sound like the recent story of those Pollock forgeries.
    There’s a story about Ravel attending a performance of various new works whose composers werent revealed, forcing the audience to judge them on their merits. Ravel’s companions thought his piece was written by a different composer and proceeded to dis it in front of him.

    • bob priest says:

      ravel got rightly dissed becoz he’s a a garbage composer when the name brand “ravel” isn’t prominently affixed & branded by the likes of W+K.

      hahaha, JUST KIDDING.

      beautiful story. thanx.

  11. James Bash says:

    I think that Golijov’s piece should be retitled “Siderereus Black.”

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