In 2004, the Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov wrote his song cycle Ayre for a voice nobody had heard before.
The voice was famous and celebrated, belonging to American soprano Dawn Upshaw, but it had never sounded like this, with rich shades of darkness and flashes of menace—even violence—intermingling with the purity and angelic stillness that was more typical of her identity as a vocalist.
Ayre—which Upshaw sang at its world premiere in 2004—required her to assume a plurality of emotional registers, while summoning, at Golijov’s urging, something darker and unexplored from within. After recording the song cycle for Deutsche Grammophon in 2005, she told music writer John Schaefer: “I never knew I had a lot of these voices [in me until Golijov wrote the music]. I don’t understand how he knew I could even make certain sounds without hearing them first.”
When soprano Miriam Khalil first heard the recording of Ayre, she was instantly transfixed, both on a personal level and as a singer.
Especially because some of the material wasn’t new to her. Traditional Arabic songs, “Wa Habibi” and “Aiini taqtiru,” which Golijov had arranged for the middle section of Ayre, had been a part of Miriam’s childhood in Ottawa ever since she and her family had settled there after emigrating from Syria. In the nation’s capital, at the Melkite Catholic Church, she heard those two songs “every single year of my life” during Easter mass. It would prove to be a valuable experience to draw on this past summer, as she plunged into Ayre as a performer at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
When I called Golijov to ask about Miriam’s performance in Ayre, he observed, “It’s very interesting. I wrote [the song cycle] with Dawn [Upshaw] so much in my mind, but Miriam takes it to a whole new place.
“The fact that she speaks Arabic from her childhood makes the Arabic sound very true. But also every other song she sings, there is this torrential power in her voice. That’s something that I love. Even when she restrains it, you can sense the energy and the undercurrent, that tension between sometimes singing very intimately but with that wonderful and sweeping undercurrent.”
“The first thing [Osvaldo] told me,” Miriam recalled, “was ‘I don’t want it to sound like opera at all. These are folk songs.’”
The experience of hearing Ayre for the first time is both vivid and disorienting.
Golijov has called it a “forest that can grow in all directions;” a diary that explores “the music I inhabit;” and a journey, in both spiritual and geographic terms. Eleven folk songs chart a pilgrimage along the Mediterranean coast, moving from southern Spain to Italy to Jerusalem (with two small detours to Argentina through original compositions by guitarist, producer, and frequent Golijov-collaborator Gustavo Santaolalla). That the cycle begins in southern Spain during a moment of cross-cultural harmony (Jews, Arabs, and Christians lived in relative peace on the Iberian Peninsula until the Alhambra Decree of 1492 expelled non-Catholics from Spain) poignantly connects with our current reality of massive dislocation and refugee migration.
Most of the melodies are based on traditional material from Jewish, Arabic, and Christian cultures. The earliest texts date back to the 12th century. The sung languages include Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Sardinian, and Ladino (a nearly extinct vernacular spoken by Sephardic Jews in 15th-century Spain). It’s a living history of musical echoings and borrowings, of deeply personal routes of exile criss-crossing the boundaries of language, time, and the shifting ground of one’s own identity. The atmospheric multiplicity of the piece is dazzling: it veers from the semi-chaos of a medieval street fair to the tenderness of a lullaby (whose quiet words belie the uncanny terror of the text); from an angry mob alive with violence, to a mother’s ethereal voice in the night offering comfort to her child.
“My constant state of exile defines who I am.”
Golijov told me during our conversation: “Even when I was a child in Argentina, I was living in many worlds at the same time.”
Those worlds included European classical music, traditional Jewish and klezmer songs, as well as the new forms of tango emerging from the composer Astor Piazzolla, whose performances Golijov experienced live in Argentina.
If it was an eclectic musical education, it also imbued Golijov with the belief that authentic creation was not the exclusive provenance of European capitals and centres; that other places on the world map had a legitimate stake in the project of musical expression. Meanwhile, under the regime of General Videla, Golijov became increasingly aware that his Jewishness was incompatible with Argentina’s powerful elite, and moved to Jerusalem. He lost his home, but gained a vital encounter with Arabic music and language, slotting it into the ever-expanding cosmos of his orbiting influences.
The simultaneity of Golijov’s different worlds is acutely felt and heard in Ayre.
The klezmer of American clarinettist David Krakauer, the folk songs of Lebanese superstar Fairuz, the climbing scales of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis all intermingle with traditional melodies of manifold origins. Similarly Golijov’s arrangements deploy not only traditional chamber instruments but also ones like the ronroco (a small Andean guitar), and the laptop, grafting the new with the old, and setting many worlds in motion at the same time.
The perceptual mode of simultaneity manifests itself another way. In a late trilogy of songs, Golijov layers the verse of Mahmoud Darwish, the national Palestinian poet, with work from Yehudah Halevi, the 12th-century Jewish poet of exile. Nine hundred years of history evaporate as the Jewish poet from the medieval era and the eloquent voice of the nationless Palestinian people seem to recognize each other—suspended in a human oneness that is simultaneously solid and dissolving, of two worlds at once.
Nikita Gourski is a Toronto-based editor, writer and opera enthusiast. He hails from Belarus.
Photo: Osvaldo Golijov by John Sann