Thursday, 26 July 2012

Barenboim’s band

Barenboim conducting the West-East Divan  at the Proms 

With the Olympics finally getting under way tomorrow night, it’s Barenboim conducting his West-Eastern Divan orchestra in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Proms I’m interested in, more than the hype and razzmatazz in the Olympic stadium.

I first heard of this orchestra ten years ago, when I picked up a newly published book called Parallels and Paradoxes,* which had caught my eye in a bookshop in Perth, W. Australia. I read it almost at a sitting, on the banks of the Swan River, and have never forgotten the impact it made. The book is a series of conversations between the Israeli-born musician Daniel Barenboim and the Palestine-born critic and cultural commentator, Edward Said. Out of their friendship and the dialogue that flowed from it, Barenboim’s band was born.

When Said died, in September 2003, a radical Palestinian website published an obituary written by Barenboim:

Perhaps the first thing one remembers about Edward Said was his breadth of interest. He was not only at home in music, literature, philosophy, or the understanding of politics, but also he was one of those rare people who saw the connections and the parallels between different disciplines, because he had an unusual understanding of the human spirit, and of the human being, and he recognized that parallels and paradoxes are not contradictions.

Edward Said 1935-2003
Here Barenboim points at once to the central theme of their recently published book: that opposites can be reconciled, that people with different histories can be brought to understand and recognize each other:

Edward Said [EWS]: I don’t think it necessary that everyone should agree, as long as there’s a mutual acknowledgement that a different view exists. That’s the important thing. We must have respect for each other’s views and tolerate each other’s histories.

It was in this spirit that in 1999 Barenboim and Said together had founded the West-Eastern Divan Workshop, a forum for young Israeli and Arab musicians to learn about music and about each other. The name comes from Goethe’s celebrated collection of translations from Arabic poetry, Westöstlicher Diwan. Seeing the other side of an argument, indeed understanding the idea of the Other, is central to Said’s legacy, and in Parallels and Paradoxes, he and Barenboim argue about the apparent contradictions that surround their lives. By the end, they have resolved many of these through a shared world view (which Said describes as ‘secular humanism’) and a passionate commitment to the importance of human creativity, specifically in music and literature.

Parallels and Paradoxes is an important and rewarding book about the relationship between the arts and history, education and politics. It is also a record of a remarkable friendship. Because the conversations are transcribed with a minimum of editing or tidying the reader gets caught up to an unusual degree in the debates between two unlikely friends – the intuitive artist and the intellectual critic - throughout the six chapters of this book. These chapters discuss topics as broad as the Middle-East Peace Process and as specific as how an orchestral conductor interprets Beethoven’s one-word instruction ‘Crescendo’.

Barenboim asks, what is the difference between a politician and an artist? He argues that ‘a politician can only work and do good if he masters the art of compromise … whereas the artist’s expression is only determined by his total refusal to compromise in anything – the element of courage.’ Said agrees with him when he concludes that the Middle-East conflict will ‘not be solved only through political means, through economical means, or through arrangements. It requires the courage of everybody to use, as it were, artistic solutions.’ With the founding of the West-Eastern Divan Workshop conductor and critic practised what they preached.

The Divan began as an artistic, political and educational experiment, and it is revealing to compare Barenboim and Said defining education: 

DB: Education means preparing children for adult life; teaching them how to behave and what kind of individuals they want to be. Everything else is information and can be learned in a very simple way.

EWS: The purpose of education is not to accumulate facts or memorize the ‘correct’ answer, but rather to learn to think critically for oneself …. As a teacher, the thing I feel I can do the best is to have my students …declare their independence from me and go off on their own way.

However, it is their discussions about artistic creation and the parallels and paradoxes surrounding music and literature that really animate this book. For Said, ‘There’s no real equivalent of the performer in literature. Authors can read in public, but the logical aim of what we do is to produce silence – silent readings.’ Barenboim, by contrast, sees music as a way of defying silence and prolonging sound:

I see music, in many ways, as a defiance of physical laws – one of them is the relation to silence. The main difference between a Beethoven symphony and the sonnets of Shakespeare is that, although the words, as written in the book, are a notation of Shakespeare’s thoughts – in the same way that the score is nothing but a notation of what Beethoven imagined – the difference is that the thoughts existed in Shakespeare’s mind and in the reader’s mind. But in the Beethoven symphonies, there is the added element of actually bringing these sounds into the world: in other words, the sounds of the Fifth Symphony do not exist in the score.

As a teacher Barenboim believes the ‘most important thing is to explain to people what sound does. Why is it that there is an emotive quality to sound?’  He argues that ‘You have to understand, first of all, the physicality of how the sound of Beethoven’s Fifth really operates.’  Said draws a parallel with poetry: ‘If one considers poetry as requiring a particular kind of language, then it’s figured language, not ordinary prose.’ It will surprise some readers to discover that Said starts with a thoroughly formalist attitude: he describes ‘the poetic object’ as ‘a whole series of relationships, internal to the poem, which you need to understand before you can, if you will, “read it”’. He argues that the best kind of interpretation is ‘ to regard the text as the result of a series of decisions made by the composer, writer, or the poet, the result of which we get. And therefore, to read it, one must try to understand the process by which these notes or these words have gained a presence on the paper.’ The context of writing, for Said, is all-important:

When I am writing and lecturing about the works of the past, my main interest is to try to explain them and present them, as much as possible, as creations of their time … you read the texts in a historical context and understand the discipline of the language and its forms and its discourses.

This is the philological method underpinning all Said’s criticism, but his view of critical interpretation is neither purely formalist nor historicist:

What I think is also extremely important is to understand the interpreter’s role not just in the context of the original composer or poet but also of the performer and interpreter in the present …

The interpretive process, Said concludes, is ‘a dynamic one, which always requires a great deal of rational examination and isn’t a matter to be determined simply by feeling.’  Barenboim agrees, but only up to a point: ‘It’s not ethical’, he reminds his friend, ‘to make a crescendo only with your brain; your whole body has to be involved’.

So, listen to Barenboim conducting Beethoven’s 9th at the Proms; better still, watch him. You’ll see what he means.

Adrian Barlow

*Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said.  (Bloomsbury, 2002)



  1. Adrian - very interesting. I get the argument about the physicality of music, but believe that the popularity of audio books and dramatic performances of poetry (Fiona Shaw performing The Waste Land, for example) is bound up in the physical enjoyment of speech. Not the primary purpose of literature, admittedly, but reading aloud is a great experience at any age, especially for the young.

    Your blog reminds me also of a very good BBC4 "Master Class" from about 2 years ago, in which Barenboim tutors the young Chinese pianist, Lang Lang, on interpreting one of Beethoven's piano sonatas. It was an eye-opening exposition on the art of interpretation (for Lang Lang as much as anyone else...) - including a sequence in which Barenboim explained how to create a crescendo effect when playing one solitary note.....

    1. Many thanks, Anil, and I agree with you that the physical enjoyment of speech can be as important as the physicality of music. After all, poetry begins with song, the novel with story telling, and the informal essay (even - or especially -the blog!) with conversation.


  2. One thing that's always been a bit of a handicap for me reading anything is having to hear it in my head. I've tried rapid reading but still do it. I know that university libraries today are full of silent readers, but monastry libraries buzzed with monks reading aloud, as they hadn't learnt to read in their heads. Curious. I can 'read' music in two senses of the word: if I know the piece and recognise it from the music I can hear the melody. But if I don't know the piece I find it damnably hard to hear the melody. I've worked under many conductors for various reasons, mostly choral singing and guitar ensemble, and admire their ability to read an orchestral score the way I might read 'The Waste Land'. Or 'A Christmas Carol'. Or even better, the way Dickens himself might have read 'A Christmas Carol'. If only I could have heard Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost'... The only recording I have of Eliot's poetry is Alex Guiness. Barenboim and Dickens have nothing on him!