A child’s death and the music that came out of it

Silk Road Ensemble and composer Osvaldo Golijov drill deep into what makes us human

Wu Tong, Nora Fischer, Osvaldo Golijov, Biella da Costa. Photograph: David O’Connor

Wu Tong, Nora Fischer, Osvaldo Golijov, Biella da Costa. Photograph: David O’Connor

 

The experience of loss and ensuing grief is one of life’s inescapable realities, but the loss of a child is something that defies the natural order, and can leave those who experience it grappling for answers, for survival.

This is the starting point for a tone poem, composed by Osvaldo Golijov, inspired by a book called Falling Out of Time by Israeli writer David Grossman.  

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the founder of The Silk Road Ensemble, has remarked that this music “is a reminder to pause and listen to all that we have in common”. And so it does.

The Silk Road Ensemble’s reason for being is to promote cross-cultural collaboration, and since its founding some 20 years ago it has done just that: making music with artists as diverse as Kyle Sanna, Bill Frissell, Martin Hayes and Scottish harpist and composer Maeve Gilchrist, not to mention a slew of remarkable musicians from across the globe. (Intriguingly, Rhiannon Giddens was recently announced as their new artistic director.)

Golijov’s rich familial history taught him further life lessons that permeate his work to this day

Listening to this latest album, Falling Out of Time, is a lure into an emotionally charged but infinitely safe space that is all about our shared humanity. It’s an invitation to let the guard down, to find common ground together. 

Argentinian-born (and as of two days before this interview, US resident) Golijov has had a long fascination with making work that drills deep into what makes us human. The composer is a former McArthur fellow and now professor of music at the Jesuit Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. His work has frequently returned to the themes of death and grief in its many forms. These deep preoccupations stem from his early childhood experiences in Argentina. 

“When I was a little kid, my great-grandfather came to live in our home for some time because a child of his, my great-uncle, was dying in my home town, and he slept in my bedroom,” Golijov offers on a video call from his home. “After my uncle died, he stayed for a few more weeks, and I would wake up and see him praying early in the morning. I think I was seven. And even then I asked myself: how does a person pray after losing a child? No matter that he was already an older child.” 

Life lessons

Golijov’s rich familial history taught him further life lessons that permeate his work to this day. 

“The second story is about my great-grandmother,” he recounts. “I loved her so much. She spoke half Yiddish, half Spanish, and she would always tell me stories, and at some point in all of her stories she would always drift and talk about another son that they had lost, and I would notice that I would disappear, and that he was more present for her than I was.” 

Such deep awareness of loss and of the relationship between the living and the dead found further resonance in 2002 when Golijov met Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder of The Parents Circle, an organisation of Palestinians and Israelis who had lost children to the conflict. And the publication of Grossman’s Falling Out of Time, a searing account of the loss of a son in the war, was another piece of this lifelong puzzle that ultimately led Golijov to write this cavernous tone poem with voices. 

I think grief is an incredibly layered emotion. Everyone can relate to a certain form of it

“Yes, there is this story that David Grossman himself told me, which is about how do you stay alive. How is it that the dead are more present in one’s life as we grow older than the living? 

“David and his wife was on the threshold of their home when the messenger came to tell them that their son had been killed – he was an Israeli soldier. The first thing they did was to go upstairs to tell their daughter, who was 12 at the time, and the first thing she said to them was ‘but we shall live’. 

“I think this story is extraordinary because it’s so specific and yet so universal and allegorical,” Golijov continues. “And I think that what this music and what The Silk Road try to say to these people is ‘We see you’. And also to accompany, in as much as it is possible – to not to avert the gaze.” 

‘Layered emotion’

Dutch soprano Nora Fischer is one of three singers who anchor this piece, which premiered last year live in Virginia and is now released as an album. As a singer, did she have to dig deep to navigate such a demanding work? 

“I think grief is an incredibly layered emotion,” Fischer says from her home in Amsterdam. “Everyone can relate to a certain form of it, and there are so many meanings of grief in everyone’s life, personally. The character I was inhabiting was particularly layered because the writer has to get all the extremes of this emotion out. It’s a cry of all these emotions that are subtle and also very big. The challenge for me was to find all of those extremes and find a voice for all of them, quite literally.” 

The recurring questions about the living and the dead that Golijov poses are: “You: where are you? What are you? And how are you there? And who are you there?” 

Grammy-winning producer Johnny Gandelsman, a member of Brooklyn Rider, is releasing Falling Out of Time on his label, In a Circle Records. The album is close to his heart, not least as it emerges into the cold light of a Covid world. 

“I think that there are so many layers to this project,” he says. “There are these stories that Osvaldo told, but this is also about 13 musicians coming together from different parts of the world and having this really deep experience. Of singers coming from Holland, Venezuela and China singing in very good Hebrew. And then there’s the universal story of experiencing grief individually and collectively. And now look out the window and it’s everywhere more visible.”

Falling Out of Time is released on October 9th

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