To get west Asian musicians to play in the same orchestra highlights the elevating qualities of good music
Good music has a transcendental quality to it which is difficult to pin down. Music does not recognize political and cultural barriers. When the German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony in the early 19th century and as a part of the symphony’s last movement set to music “Ode to Joy” , a poem by the German poet Schiller, little did he realize that this piece of music would be hailed as the song of freedom across the globe. The film called Amadeus by the Czech director, Milos Forman, demonstrated the popular appeal of Mozart’s music, even though most of Mozart’s music was composed in 18th century Vienna. Similarly, the Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar, has carried the complex and rich strains of north Indian classical music to the West. London now swings to the rhythms of Hindi film music in much the same way as the Indian youth welcome the music making of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Pakistani singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, has a large following in India, and a number of Indian singers from Mumbai have captured the hearts of people in Karachi and Islamabad. Music can act as a bridge — but is it endowed with a healing touch'
This question lies at the heart of an experiment being conducted by the pianist-cum-composer, Daniel Barenboim, who has conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and is now the director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He has got together young musicians, from various parts of west Asia, including Israel and Palestine, to play under his baton. The project aims at bringing musicians together and to show that political hostilities have no place in music making. Barenboim is an Israeli citizen but this did not stop him from conducting a concert in the West Bank city of Ramallah and from conducting Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer, in Israel. Gifted musicians, when they play, reinvent themselves. Barenboim believes that both Israel and Palestine have to reinvent their identities. None of the musicians harbour the illusion that their playing together under Barenboim will solve the problems in west Asia or reduce the prevailing violence and the tension. What is significant is the coming together and the turning of one’s back towards fundamentalism of any kind. The supreme beauty of Mozart and Beethoven’s music has created a space for some musicians to imagine and recreate a community where politics and ideologies are irrelevant.
There is no simple moral to the experiment . Culture — of which music is an integral part — allows for no simple formulae. There is no guarantee that the young musicians with Barenboim will never turn to religious and jingoistic violence. Germany, the land that produced the most sublime music makers, also produced the Holocaust. The minds that touched the sublime heights of the Upanishads also conjured up the caste system. Culture can elevate, it can also degrade. This is not to belittle or undermine what Barenboim is trying or to take away from music’s transcendental quality. It is only to underline the uncertainty of human emotions which can move with facility from divine music to crass vulgarity. Yet, for human beings, because they are human beings, there is only the trying. The rest is the business of History.