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Golijov has developed a rich musical language, the result of a lifetime of experience with various types of music. His Romanian Jewish parents exposed him to the traditional Klezmer music and liturgical music of their faith. Growing up and going to public school in Argentina showed him the many musical styles of his family's adopted country, including the tango. Once Golijov traveled abroad to continue his studies, the influences of other people and other styles became part of him. What is considered so remarkable about his musical language is that, rather than a pastiche of styles, it is wholly cohesive. It is thought of as vibrant and alive, growing and changing as he does.
Golijov's mother was a piano teacher, his father, a physician. He was raised "surrounded by chamber classical music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Ástor Piazzolla," according to his official website. He studied piano at the local conservatory in La Plata and studied composition with Gerardo Gandini.
In 1983, Golijov moved to Israel, where he studied with Mark Kopytman at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy. Three years later, he moved to the United States of America with his wife, Silvia. There he studied with American composer George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania before receiving his doctorate.
Golijov is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Vilcek Prize, among other awards and commissions. He collaborates closely with conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya; vocalists Luciana Souza and Biella de Costa; cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Alisa Weilerstein, Maya Beiser and Matt Haimovitz; the kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor and percussionist Jamey Haddad; ensembles including the Atlanta Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, Silk Road Ensemble and eighth blackbird; the artist Gronk, playwright David Henry Hwang, and directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Sellars. He has been composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Merkin Hall in New York, the Spoleto Festival USA, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Music Alive series, Marlboro Music School and Festiva, Ravinia Festival, and several other festivals. In 2010, he composed a commissioned work for 35 American orchestras titled Sidereus, honoring the seventeenth century Italian astronomer Galileo. and dedicated to an orchestra industry official, Henry Fogel.
Golijov is Loyola Professor of Music at the College of the Holy Cross at Worcester, Massachusetts, where he has taught since 1991. He is also on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory. He has three children.
Golijov and composers Sofia Gubaidulina, Tan Dun, and Wolfgang Rihm were commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart to write pieces for the Passion 2000 project in commemoration of Johann Sebastian Bach. Golijov's contribution was La Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion according to St. Mark).
He has also composed and arranged works for the Kronos Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. He frequently works with Venezuelan conductor Maria Guinand, who conducted the world premieres of Oceana (commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, 1996) and La Pasión según San Marcos (Stuttgart's European Music Festival, 2000); classical and Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer; and American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who performed premieres of his new opera, Ainadamar (and Arias and Ensembles derived from it) at the Santa Fe Opera Festival in 2005, London's Barbican Arts Centre in 2006 and Opera Boston in 2007. His first movie soundtrack experience was for Sally Potter's 2000 film The Man Who Cried. More recently he composed for Francis Ford Coppola's movie Youth Without Youth, and original music for Coppola's films Tetro and Twixt.
Golijov received two Grammys in the Grammy Awards of 2007—the Best Opera Recording for Ainadamar: Fountain of Tears and Best Classical Contemporary Composition for the same opera. Golijov also received a Grammy nomination in 2002 for Yiddishbbuk. His music has been played during a performance of the New Jersey-based Lydia Johnson Dance company.
Golijov has been the nexus of several controversies around his work, including missed deadlines and accusations of plagarism.
Golijov came under scrutiny in 2011 for a series of high-profile commissions that were either delayed or cancelled. A violin concerto written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic was not completed in time, and had to be replaced on the program. A second deadline was missed the following year in Berlin. The piece was delayed a third time in November 2012, and will miss its January premiere at Disney Hall. 
This followed a similar cancellation in 2010, when a song cycle that was scheduled had to be removed from the program when it was not complete in time. The March 2011 premiere of a new string quartet for the St. Lawrence Quartet was also delayed due to a missed deadline.
Questions of musical plagiarism were leveled at Golijov after Tom Manoff, a composer and critic, and Brian McWhorter, a trumpeter, alleged that Sidereus consists mainly of music from the Michael Ward-Bergeman composition Barbeich. Alex Ross of the New Yorker reviewed both scores and wrote "To put it bluntly, “Sidereus” is “Barbeich” with additional material attached." A consortium of thirty-five orchestras paid Golijov $75,000 to write a 20-minute work; a fee supplemented by a $50,000 grant approved by the then board of the League of American Orchestras. The final work that Golijov produced and gave to the consortium of orchestras is a 9-minute work. Golijov also used that same musical material in his 2009 composition Radio. Golijov responded to these questions by explaining that he composed the original musical material jointly with Ward-Bergeman, and used it with permission. He also cited Monteverdi, Schubert, and Mahler as other composers who have shared existing musical material to create new music.