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- Music as the art of transition

Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society By Daniel Barenboim & Edward W. Said, Bloomsbury, £ 16.99

This is a book of conversations — reflective, passionate, knowledgeable and unpompous. With a tape-recorder turning silently in the background, a famous teacher and critic talks to a great pianist and conductor. They also happen to be intimate friends. The setting is that chameleon city, New York, and these are six wonderful rambles recorded over a span of five years, from 1995 to 2000. Their subject is Western classical music, particularly the music of Beethoven and Wagner — its relationship with time and space, history and geography, literature and politics, with the experience of being creatively and intelligently human, in the broadest and most complicated sense of the word.

History and geography are repeatedly invoked in these conversations, if only to be resisted or transcended. Edward Said grew up as a Christian Arab in Palestine and Egypt, to become a professor of English and comparative literature in New York, a relentless commentator on the conflicts in the Middle East and an accomplished pianist. Daniel Barenboim grew up as the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants in Argentina and Israel. His father refused to let him accept the invitation of the legendary German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, to perform as a pianist with the Berlin Philharmonic. This was in the early Fifties, the death-fugue still playing in the ears of Europe’s Jewery, and Barenboim was only eleven. He has been the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin for more than a decade now, and lives for most of the time in Germany. Said and Barenboim’s dialogue embodies, therefore, parallel personal geographies and a complex overlapping of cultures, counterpointed by very different, even conflicting, political allegiances. Their musical education takes in not only the predominantly European cosmopolitanism of Berlin and New York, but also the rich colonial muddle of Cairo and Buenos Aires in the years following World War II, beautifully evoked in Said’s memoirs, Out of Place, and in Barenboim’s A Life in Music.

Naturally then, wandering around in, and with, music is repeatedly affirmed in this book. His formative years in the “fantastically complicated and sophisticated city” of Cairo have made Said look at his own identity as a set of “flowing currents”, rather than a fixed place or a stable set of objects. And this complicates the relationship between his eloquent advocacy of the Palestinian cause, founded on the injustice of displacement, and the fluidity of his intellectual or creative selves. Barenboim is also happiest when he can be “at peace with fluidity”, the capacity in each of us “to be many things”. This is not just a question of feeling German when conducting Beethoven and Italian when conducting Verdi, but a more profoundly held conviction that the greatest music has to be realized as “the art of transition”.

Like most other notions invoked in these conversations, the “art of transition” is explored by Barenboim, first of all, at the most practical level of music-making. It is from a grounding in musical praxis that this idea is gradually taken up into the more intellectual discourses of philosophy, politics and aesthetics. The “nerve of the question”, for the conductor, is always “the sound of the orchestra”, and how that living and hydra-headed monster is to be manipulated in time and space. It is, to begin with, nothing more, and nothing less, than a question of acoustics, “the presence of sound in a room”. And this is where Wagner, in his revolutionary understanding of not just the colour but also the “weight” of sound, is crucial for Barenboim. The opera-house built by Wagner at Bayreuth, with its totally novel covered pit for the orchestra, and the ten great music-dramas he composed to be performed there (which form the summit of Barenboim’s career as a conductor), become the acoustical realization of an entire philosophy of tonality, performance and creativity that would radically transform the course of Western music.

In Wagner, the art of transition is achieved by maintaining the “continuity of sound” and a seamless modulation of tempo, constantly varying the relationship between “musical content and time”. It is only after the meaning of “transition” is worked out at this physical and temporal level, that Barenboim allows himself and Said to talk about the word in relation to the Romantic philosophy of music, as denoting a process of becoming rather than being, born out of the nature of paradox: “you have to find a way to put the extremes together, not necessarily by diminishing the extremity of each one, but to form the art of transition”.

This dogged inseparability of music from the physicality of sound, space and time makes “courage” an integral part of music-making, which is a sustained human struggle with the natural tendency of sound to end in silence. This is as heroic and potentially tragic a defiance of physical laws as the desire, in Icarus or Leonardo, to defy gravity and fly. For Said, this is an “extraordinarily energetic and committed battle to keep something alive which is constantly flagging”. For Barenboim, “a long note is a defiance of death” through the art of illusion: “you can create the feeling of eternity with sound in a couple of seconds”.

These conversations are also another kind of struggle, kept up by two brilliantly and compulsively talkative men, against the mystical wordlessness of music. They are an attempt to forge a language for what Barenboim calls “the psychology of tonality”, in which music “is a parallel of the inner process of the innermost thoughts and feelings of a human being”. This is most beautifully shown in their discussion of Beethoven. Through a purely harmonic analysis of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, Barenboim demonstrates to Said how Beethoven establishes and affirms a “home key”, then leads us away from this key, through a series of “very astute enharmonic changes”, to a tonally foreign and unknown territory, only to bring us back again to this initially affirmed key. “This is creating a sense of home, going to an unknown territory, and then returning. This is a process of courage and inevitability…to be able to go somewhere totally unknown and have the courage to get lost and, then, find again this famous dominant, in an unexpected way, that leads us back home”.

Said is thrilled with this, linking the sequence immediately with the story of Odysseus, and reminding his friend of Odysseus’ adventure with Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant. Odysseus could have just come home. But he is also a curious man. “It’s not just a matter of leaving home, it’s leaving home and discovering things that attract you as well as threaten you.” It is at such moments that the timelessness of great music is understood simply as its capacity to be what Barenboim calls “permanently contemporary”. The stories of displacement and return, wandering and exile, that structure the lives, politics and personal mythologies of these two men suddenly get transfigured into the purely tonal transitions of the music they make, listen to and love to talk about.

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