YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Book Review

Music Is Overture for Political, Social Dialogues



Explorations in Music and Society

By Daniel Barenboim

and Edward W. Said

Edited by Ara Guzelimian


190 pages, $24


Classical music, politics and contemporary society are the keynote topics in "Parallels and Paradoxes," an engaging series of conversations between literary critic and Middle East expert Edward W. Said (who is also an accomplished pianist) and Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony and the Berlin State Opera, a charismatic and at times controversial figure in the world of classical music.

The two men represent what seems, on the surface, to be opposing ends of the Middle East spectrum: Barenboim is a Jew of Russian descent born in Buenos Aires and raised in Israel; Said was born in Jerusalem to an anglicized Christian Arab family and grew up in predominantly Muslim Cairo. Both are passionate about music, regularly advance strong (and often similar) opinions about Middle East politics and Western culture and are highly articulate in expressing those views. Their stimulating dialogue, moderated by Ara Guzelimian, senior director and artistic advisor of Carnegie Hall, takes flight with this emblematic story narrated by Said:

Said and Barenboim helped organize a workshop in Weimar, Germany, in 1999, bringing together Arab, Israeli and German musicians between the ages of 18 and 25 to play in one orchestra, Said explains. Tensions broke out when a group of Arab musicians, improvising late one night, refused to allow an Albanian-Israeli musician to join in.

"You can't play Arabic music. Only Arabs can play Arabic music," one of them told the Jewish musician. Soon, the question became, "Well, what gives you the right to play Beethoven? You're not German."

Ultimately, the all-encompassing scope of music was able to transcend these confines of ethnicity, religion and geography. Ten days later, Said tells us, "the same kid who had claimed that only Arabs can play Arabic music was teaching Yo-Yo Ma how to tune his cello to the Arabic scale. So obviously he thought Chinese people could play Arabic music," and then gradually the circle extended. "One set of identities was superseded by another set. There was an Israeli group, and a Russian group, and a Syrian group, a Lebanese group, a Palestinian group, and a group of Palestinian Israelis. All of them suddenly became cellists and violinists playing the same piece in the same orchestra under the same conductor."

Barenboim, who conducted the young musicians, saw amazing things happening through the communal music-making: "[I]n cultural matters--with literature and, even better, with music, because it doesn't have to do with explicit ideas--if we foster this kind of a contact, it can only help people feel nearer to each other .... "

The subjects up for discussion go far beyond Middle East tensions to focus on mysticism and God, the esoteric elements of opera as well as the everyday concerns of human existence--all viewed though the lens of music. The men consider, for example, questions of national identity and how that identity influences musical interpretation, they debate how musical scores and literary texts should be read--literal interpretation or with artistic license?--appraise the music of Wagner against his rabid anti-Semitism and revel in Barenboim's execution of the Beethoven symphonies and concertos.

Though some of the material is so musically oriented as to nearly exclude those readers who don't have a strong knowledge of classical music, the subject is approached with such a generosity of spirit that there's room for all; those of us with less scholarship in this area may not get every nuance, but we aren't left behind.

Barenboim and Said's fervent devotion to music, coupled with their fondness for both well-considered arguments and for each other, is the glue holding the wide-ranging topics of the book together.

"If you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would do well to play in an orchestra," Barenboim tells us. By doing so, "you know when to lead and when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no inhibitions about claiming a place for yourself." And yet--in one of the paradoxes of the book's title--music, he tells us, is also the best means of escape from the problems of human existence.

The crescendo of this genuine give-and-take between keen minds and open hearts ensures a dynamic, ever-changing experience. When Barenboim waxes philosophic about the mystical elements of music, for instance, Said, who doesn't share Barenboim's belief in God, demands, "Try it. Try and convince me," and the reader is taken along as Barenboim makes his case. Each maintains respect for the other's opinion yet holds clearly to his own well-argued perspective. The fluidity of their relationship, like musicians in an orchestra, is a compelling model for a world often splintered by dogma, ideology and hermetically sealed minds.

"To play music well you need to strike a balance between your head, your heart, and your stomach," Barenboim explains, then asks: "What better way than music to show a child how to be human?"

What better way than reading about such passionate music lovers, one might add, to remind us of the same?

Los Angeles Times Articles