Professor's New Work Examines the Universal Exile of Grief

Composer talks with members of an orchestra during rehearsal.
Composer Osvaldo Golijov works with members of the orchestra during rehearsal for "Falling Out of Time."

Grammy Award-winning composer Osvaldo Golijov's newest piece, 'Falling Out of Time,' will be performed by the Silkroad Ensemble at the end of October

"It's as if language doesn't even want to go there."

But music can. The depths of grief and arduous road toward something like recovery are the acute and universal themes explored in Golijov's newest piece, "Falling Out of Time," an adaptation of the 2014 book of the same name by Israeli author and Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman. Following development at Holy Cross and Juilliard, the two-time Grammy Award winner's work will have its world premiere at the College's Brooks Concert Hall on Oct. 31.

Golijov read Grossman's novel a few years ago and notes it "grabbed me. I started to read it and said, 'I have to do this,' even after just 15 or 20 pages. It goes to the place that makes me question everything in life."

Despite the unimaginable circumstances the novel unfolds, Golijov feels a deep connection to the material. "I've lived in three countries and grief is a form of exile — you're out of time and place," he says. "And when I experienced the death of my parents, it was shocking how the sun comes out and people smile … you're in exile even when in the same room as others." As in Grossman's book and Golijov's music, what follows the shock of grief is "not catharsis, nor solution [but] simply a place to breathe," the composer says.

Silkroad Ensemble, the Grammy-winning musical collective started by cellist YoYo Ma, will perform Golijov's much-anticipated piece this fall; in many ways, "Falling Out of Time" was written for them. "I wanted to do this for the ensemble because they have the range of expression, the fearlessness — I don't think I know of anyone else who can do that," Golijov says.

As such, Silkroad's musicians and their individual strengths helped inform the piece, which features an eclectic mix of instruments, including electronics, a string quintet, kemanche (an Iranian bowed string instrument), percussion, pipa (a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument), sheng (a Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument), trumpet and three singers. "It's about the specific people who play the instruments," he notes. "If someone else was playing the pipa, I wouldn't have chosen the pipa."

Beginning Stages

Workshops for the piece began in 2017 with Silkroad, a company enjoying a three-year residency with Holy Cross that Golijov sees as vital to the artistic exposure and education for its students. "There's a big effort to shift our institutional culture from one of excellence (which we want to retain) to one of creativity — to one of more risk taking," he says.

As part of its development, Golijov and Silkroad spent four days working on "Falling Out of Time" at the College's Thomas P. Joyce '59 Contemplative Center, a 52-acre site overlooking the Wachusett Reservoir created for retreat programs, which proved to be an invaluable experience.

"It made the entire difference," Golijov says. He has developed works at the world's most prestigious institutions, but notes that having uninterrupted time to collaborate is a gift. "Working at Juilliard was great, but after rehearsals everyone wanted to go to their hotel or to dinner, but at the Contemplative Center, we were in a state for a few days of living only in the piece for the whole time. It was one of the most magical experiences — you understand why some rock bands rent a castle. Our workshop was unforgettable in how that experience affected the piece."

While there, Golijov was treated to another luxury: "David [Grossman] came to one of our workshops in the Contemplative Center. His presence and his thoughts when talking to us made a great impact that the musicians and I both felt."

Billed as a song cycle, the piece consists of multiple parts. "Five types of motion guide the piece: the heartbeat, the time clicking, the walk, the sensation of falling and the arrival to breathing," Golijov explains. "It opens with heartbeat, it's an overture, and then the heartbeat becomes a clock clicking. [The father] sings it's impossible that the trees turn green, how August becomes September because in his heart he's always stuck in August. When he leaves the home, the walk begins, but the walk and heartbeat are irregular — the limping of the soul." He describes parts of the composition as "a continual melody — it's organic, where you cannot tell when one thing morphs into other," noting it's almost like "a hallucination."

And now, after multiple years and workshops, Golijov's lyrical, pulsing and melancholic piece is set to debut at the College. "It's very hard for me to call a place home, but Holy Cross feels like home," he says. "I have pieces premiered all over, but to have this premiere at home is much more meaningful."

Published in the Fall 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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