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Book Review: PARALLELS AND PARADOXES: Explorations in Music and Society

Daniel Barenboim, left, and Edward Said, at the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord, 4 September 2002. Photo courtesy of The Princess of Asturias Foundation
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Daniel Barenboim, left, and Edward Said, at the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord, 4 September 2002. Photo courtesy of The Princess of Asturias Foundation

Few outside his immediate circle would have foreseen that soon after the publication of this highly original book on music, there will be requiems in mourning for Edward Said worldwide, writes Sajid Rizvi. The fighting philosopher died in New York in September 2003 after a long battle with leukaemia at the tender age of 67—tender in proportion to his intellectual rigour.

The book’s seemingly innocuous title and its tentative subtitle immediately draw the reader to its substance.  Unbeknownst to many, Argentina-born Israeli Daniel Barenboim and Said, a native of Jerusalem, were close friends. Also unknown to many, Said, in spite of (or perhaps parallel to) his fame as a campaigning academic and critic, was a passionate connoisseur of music, an accomplished pianist and a musical essayist.

His friendship with Barenboim, director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and of the Berlin State Opera, baffled or intrigued some westerners but it was quite in step with tradition in Palestine, where Arabs and Jews had lived in relative harmony for hundreds of years right up to the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the state of Israel.

The two shared something else: fearlessness in the face of adverse publicity. Said was no stranger to controversy or —worse—hate campaigns, but Barenboim too courted public furore by insisting on performance of Nazi-era Wagner’s music in Israel. Their successful joint effort to bring together Israeli and Arab musicians for a workshop in Germany led to further such endeavours, in an era marked by optimism over the peace process. But Parallels and Paradoxes goes beyond musical explorations and, as the title suggests, it isn’t just about music.

The conversations that form the substance of the book took place over several years and in different venues, particularly Casa Italiana at Columbia University. In a conversation recorded in New York in December 2000, Said speaks about globalisation, specialisation and fragmentation of knowledge and the risks inherent in each. Specialisation and narrow-focus pursuit of information and knowledge may work for the scientists, he observes, but in everyday world the trend towards pigeonholing poses clear dangers. “There is a certain kind of ideological indoctrination that more or less says, ‘Well, it’s not your problem; somebody else will solve it for you; you’re no longer responsible for that.’

Talking of attitudes in his adopted homeland, the United States, Said demonstrates his astuteness and gentle if relentless prodding of the public consciousness. “There is a sense, particularly in the United States, that we don’t need to know about the rest of the world,” he tells Barenboim during a discussion of problems in getting orchestras made of individuals from diverse backgrounds to play in absolute harmony, and the way specialisation makes inroads into structural wholeness and often paves the way for fragmentation. The biggest danger of the tendency to specialise lies in the way it leads to people losing sight of the bigger picture, he suggests.

“The awareness of the overall society and the destiny of where we are going, whether it concerns the environment, the arts, or history, is diminished,” he concludes. “For example, in America, history is considered to be what is forgotten. When you say to someone ‘you’re history,’ it doesn’t mean that you’re a part of it; it means you’re obliterated.” Said’s lament here extends from the state of education to the changes under way in societies, and not just a particular society at that.
In a discussion of globalisation and its pitfalls, which Barenboim sees as often a choice between conformity and sameness and “some kind of Fascist preservation of unique national value,” Said observes that “the basic humanistic mission today, whether in music, literature, or any of the arts of the humanities, has to do with the preservation of difference without, at the same time, sinking into the desire to dominate.”

In a final tribute to Barenboim, and his effort to bring Wagner concerts to Israel, Said outlines his views in no uncertain terms, with a surprising yet valid juxtaposition. While Israelis continue to resist Wagner and Palestinian poetry, he writes, the rhetoric against normalisation with Israel also lacks coherence.

“Complete anti-normalisation is not an effective weapon for the powerless: its symbolic value is low, and its actual effect is merely passive and negative.” Likewise, he dismisses suicide bombings as an effective ploy (as defended by the more radical activists) aimed at removing Israel’s presence from the occupied territories. Instead, he advocates a proactive intellectual approach to make Israelis aware of everything Palestinian or Arab that has been blighted by a taboo, as in the case of Wagner.

Said’s is not a mere clever turn of phrase; he carries the argument in terms no one has done before him. For that reason alone, he will be sorely missed, and for that reason alone the dialogue of the two friends and philosophers is to be savoured, cherished and celebrated as a step forward in the context of the ever elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

This review was originally published and syndicated worldwide from October 2004 onwards
© Sajid Rizvi

PARALLELS AND PARADOXES: Explorations in Music and Society
Daniel Barenboim and Edward W Said

Bloomsbury
187pp. Hardback. UK £16.99
ISBN 0-7475-6376-4


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