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Stale Ayre

Available from Amazon:
Osvaldo Golijov, Ayre (2004), and Luciano Berio, Folk Songs (1964), Dawn Upshaw, The Andalucian Dogs, released September 27, 2005
Osvaldo Golijov's music, which weaves together threads from all sorts of classical, pop, and world music, is not for everyone. I enjoyed my experience of the revised version of his opera Ainadamar, which I heard in a rehearsal at Santa Fe this summer. Although I don't have much use in general for the crossover sounds that he prefers, the style fit quite well with the story he was trying to tell in that opera. I thought it worked.

However, I have been quite disappointed listening to this new recording of Golijov's song cycle for voice and chamber ensemble, Ayre. (You can hear a few selections from the CD here.) There are some pretty little tunes in this cycle, like the creepy infanticidal Una madre comió asado, with its simple harp accompaniment, and the cantillation-like lullaby Nani. However, these are both traditional Sephardic tunes, arranged by Golijov. The beautiful and sultry love song Suéltate las cintas has both lyrics and music credited to Gustavo Santaolalla, who plays guitar and ronroco with the Andalucian Dogs ensemble. What appears to tip the scales and make the process that resulted in Ayre more assemblage than composition is the eighth "song," which is nothing but Upshaw reciting the English translation of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, and part of that poem then obscures the rather ugly sounds of the tenth "song."

Dawn Upshaw has a beautiful voice, which she uses to great effect on some of the tracks. At the same time, on some of the songs Upshaw makes what I can only call ugly sounds. These are, in all honesty, things that I never want to hear again, like the first song, Mañanita de San Juan, and several others. This reminds me of my negative reaction to movies like Monster, for which a beautiful woman, Charlize Theron, was made to look horribly ugly. Aileen Wuornos's story is indeed tragic, but I find the thought of making a beautiful actress look ugly to be the worst kind of chicanery. Somewhere there must be ugly actresses to play ugly characters and fat actors to play fat characters, aren't there? By extension, if you want to have someone sing crude, nasal, unpleasant sounds, please don't ask Dawn Upshaw to do it. Get someone who has an ugly voice. They are out there.

By contrast, Luciano Berio's Folk Songs (1964), for voice and seven instruments, is a collection of 11 delights. It is easy to understand why this cycle appeals to Golijov, combining as it does pre-existing melodies with very simple accompaniments. However, Berio's idiom is more varied, and he clothes the melodies with something more interesting than their original trappings, while Golijov, whose style is already dominated so much by folk and pop sounds, adds very little to his.

Also on Ionarts:

Jens F. Laurson, Now That's Cross-Over: Ayre & You've Stolen My Heart (February 7, 2006)
For some reason, Upshaw decided to make parts of the Sicilian folksong, A la femminisca, and the Italian Ballo in Berio's cycle sound ugly. Really, if I wanted to listen to ugly singing, I would buy pop or folk albums. The instrumental performances are generally of high quality. The Andalucian Dogs will tour Europe with Dawn Upshaw this winter, to correspond with the European release of this disc. In October, Upshaw travelled to venues in the United States to do the same thing, but with a different group of instrumentalists, including eighth blackbird, from Oberlin.

Overall, however, I have to agree with Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe, who initially called Golijov's cycle "uneven," which is a kind way to put it. For a contrasting opinion, see Alex Ross's glowing review in the September 26 issue of The New Yorker. In fact, this CD is on Alex's Top 10 List for 2005. Vive la différence!


jfl said...

"By extension, if you want to have someone sing crude, nasal, unpleasant sounds, please don't ask Dawn Upshaw to do it. Get someone who has an ugly voice. They are out there."

i, for one, would gladly volunteer.

i am not as critical of this disc - but then i never tried to like it as much as you did. nor does an 'ugly sound' (and that, too, is arguable) here or there bother me much. some of the songs sound very folksy (without knowing the source, a classical music afficionado and friend of golijov's music listened ot a bit and said: "is that necessary??" he didn't even realize it was classical music - much less the golijov he knew and cherished), indeed.

like charles, i prefer the Berio on this disc; unlike alex ross, i don't find it appealing enough to include it in even a top 50 of the year.

jfl said...
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jfl said...

p.s. re: Alex Ross' article:

a.) finally someone in the mainstream press calls the Domingo-Tristan what it is: Slightly above mediocre. A solid 7th in my collection of Tristans. (I have seven.)

b.) we respect his talent and love his column... but he missed the point (on purpose?) here, only to make another:

"In Borges’s surreal story “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” an obscure French Symbolist becomes the author of Cervantes’s masterpiece by copying it word for word. The Pierre Menard of our time is Lionel Sawkins, an English musicologist, who recently convinced a London court that he had composed several motets by the French Baroque composer Michel-Richard de Lalande."

the point in Borge's wonderful story is precisely that Menard's work - although his Quixote is word by word, comma for comma, space for space the same as Cervantes' (incidentally he does not copy it - he writes it from original inspiration) - is a COMPLETELY different work (due to the time in which it was written, in which all references are shifed in meaning). Ross goes on to tell you: buy more Hyperion recordings. excellent idea, actually. also: read Borges' "Pierre Menard" - it's wonderful.