Osvaldo Golijov: Oceana

At the end of his book The Rest of Noise, author Alex Ross describes a "great fusion" where "intelligent pop artists and extroverted composers speak … the same language." He demonstrates the point by comparing Björk with Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov.

If you were to listen blind to Björk’s "An Echo, A Stain," in which the singer declaims fragmentary melodies against a soft cluster of choral voices, and then move on to Osvaldo Golijov’s song cyble Ayre, where puslating dance beats underpin multi-ethnic songs of Moorish Spain, you might conclude that Björk’s was the classical composition and Golijov’s was something else.

With Oceana, my first reaction to the piece was pretty quick: Finally! The follow-up to Spiritchaser Dead Can Dance never recorded!

Spiritchaser found Dead Can Dance looking to Spain to further its ethereal sound. Spanish guitars, Latin rhythms and Middle Eastern melodies found a comfortable home on the album, which would be the last the duo would record.

Oceana, the piece, picks up where Spiritchaser left off, whether intentionally or not. A lot of the same elements are common to both — Moorish vocals, Spanish guitars, Latin rhythms. The only thing not common between the two are the full chorus and orchestra.

For a modern classical work, Oceana is quite transparent. The tonal ambiguity of past modernism has little sway on the piece’s ethnic influences. To the pop listener’s ears, a lot of things feel incredibly familiar.

The tapped drones on the acoustic guitars at the start of the piece harken to the ominous introduction to U2’s "Silver and Gold". On the fourth movement, titled "Second Call", the guitars and flutes playing Latin rhythms take on a jazz feel. When the choir comes back on the next movement, "Fifth Wave", the Latin rhythms get fragmented in a way that hints at the repetitions of minimalism without going on a such a tangent.

Perhaps the closest affinity Oceana reaches with Spiritchaser is on the sixth movement, "Aria". A guitar phrase punctuates a long melody sung by Luciana Souza, as the rest of the ensemble — harp, percussion, choir — provides a rhythmic background. It’s almost similar to "Indus" or "Song of the Dispossessed" with a bit more nervous energy.

The remainder of Oceana, the album, is filled out by Tenebrae, a string quartet performed by Kronos Quartet, and Three Songs, performed by Dawn Upshaw. (Odd that this album is on Deutsche Grammophon and not Nonesuch.)

Tenebrae is a slow work, similar to the long droning pieces of Ingram Marshall (with a far more interesting foreground) or the popular Kronos encore of Sigur Rós’ "Flugufrelsarinn" The Middle Eastern and Spanish influence still manage to pop up here as well, with a good dose of lyricism along the way.

The Three Songs also unfold at a deliberate pace. They’re reminiscent of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, but I’m wondering if Upshaw’s presence on both works affects that perception. Although Golijov depends quite a lot on the music of his ancestry — Latin and Jewish — his music is not romanticized in the manner of, say, Antonin Dvořák. The poignancy of a dark Jewish melody would become even darker and more poignant.

The Three Songs aren’t short on dramatic gestures, but they don’t have the same kind of dynamism of Oceana. I found myself working harder to appreciate them.

Still, Oceana is an appealing album. Golijov masterfully blurs the intersection between the musics of Latin America and the Middle East, never losing lyricism for the sake of abstraction. It’s an intersection Dead Can Dance explored on Spiritchaser as well, perhaps not as colorfully.

But Spiritchaser has a prescient affinity with Oceana. Maybe Golijov is a rock musician at heart.