Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov is in hot water because of his new orchestral piece called Sidereus. At a performance of the work in Eugene, Ohio, two musicians thought they recognized extensive borrowings from the work of another composer, Michael Ward-Bergeman. Golijov was already in trouble over a string quartet, Kohelet, which contained unacknowledged borrowing from a Brazilian composer. The composer William C. White has posted both Sidereus and Ward Bergeman’s accordion piece Barbeich on his website (scroll on the homepage). You can listen to both works and make your own comparison.

The plagiarism charge has increased the gaiety of bloggers everywhere, but it is not what has interested me most about this story. Golijov’s high reputation is an even greater mystery to me than John Adams’s, and Sidereus is a very mediocre work based on the kind of modulation-free ostinato that is the standby of a thousand weekend composers with a high level of dexterity on midi keyboards. Incidentally, I don’t think anyone has pointed out the pretty obvious similarity between the ‘original’ tune by Ward-Bergeman and the first of Satie’s Gnossiennes. A new Golijov co-commission from the LA Phil and Berlin Philharmonic (due for performance in Berlin later this month) has not been delivered. Cleary Golijov is a composer who is negotiating a mid-life crisis by the time-honoured method of cutting corners.

The wider point of interest is the nature of musical ideas and where they come from. Composition, or any artistic production, consists largely of finding ideas. There is more to it than that, but the idea – the Idea – is what we are all looking for. And the muse proverbially provides it, or is supposed to. Flighty creature that she is, she does not hang around for the slog of shaping and polishing, let alone publishing, promoting and performing. But we are in thrall to her because we know that the idea matters. Given the idea, I can mould, bend, twist, cut and add with the hand of the craftsman. Until I have it, I am as hopeless a composer as my dog. This division between idea and execution can be seen more clearly in popular music than in classical, where composers are expected to turn up for the game fully kitted. Irving Berlin had no theoretical or literary training at all, and the songs as we play them now are the productions of a small army of professionals who could notate, harmonize and orchestrate. But we remember Berlin and not them: he had the ideas.

Ideas are what people expect from a composer, and even sometimes pay him or her for. By ideas I am not talking about grand concepts like serialism or the leitmotif, though they are certainly part of it. I mean the nitty-gritty stuff—tunes, textures, harmony, rhythm - of which all composition is made up. The poet Michael Longley said that if he knew where his ideas came from, he would go there. And this is the point. Artists draw ideas from a well that they cannot see into. Some have a high success rate: idea after idea after idea. Others have to calculate and cultivate.

The second stage of the process is much less talked about, namely the one that involves discrimination. Which ideas are good ones, and which do you throw away? Nadia Boulanger said you could tell a composer’s worth by the quality of what he threw away. A good test for the next new piece you hear: in writing this piece, how much did the composer get rid of? This is a risky area. I have been chastened to have students scrubbing ideas that I had told them were good ones. Hemmingway talked about the in-built bull-shit detector. But it does not work the same way for everyone. Ravel’s IBBSD was proverbially good; but listening to the G major Concerto in the National Concert Hall last Friday I thought that ‘good’ (by absolute standards) amounted in practice to ‘pretty good, most of the time.’ By this I mean no disrespect to Ravel. This ideas business is a difficult one.

The deadline-tormented composer is a highly trained animal: the general public will never appreciate quite how highly trained. He can perform a thousand cognitive activities that would stump many a brilliant scientist; he can analyse, weigh, assess, sift and calculate; he can score for a hundred players and voices in such a way that hardened professionals are not insulted by having to play his music.

But please, someone or something, in the name of all that is good, first give him an idea.

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