Daniel Barenboim: Sound, Thought & Activism

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Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and conductor, is by now a sort of meta-musician.

Like Yo-Yo Ma of the Silk Road Project, or Dizzy Gillespie with his United Nations Orchestra, or Leonard Bernstein leaping Cold War boundaries and the musical divides between Broadway, Hollywood and the New York Philharmonic, Barenboim — born in Buenos Aires of Russian Jewish parents, and an Israeli since his early teens — has made himself an icon of musical implications for a world-wide audience that hungers for a great deal more than performances.

Like Bernstein years ago, also Igor Stravinsky and John Cage as well, Barenboim was invited to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard this fall. Delivering from the keyboard and the microphone, Barenboim made his theme “Sound and Thought.” And mid-series, he generously sat with producer David Miller and me for some uncharted gab.

As we began I was book-ending this session with the last conversation I had in 2000 with Edward Said, the Palestinian “militant intellectual” and in his last years Barenboim’s bosom friend and political co-conspirator. Barenboim, it turned out, was as eager to talk about his soul-mate Said as Said had been to talk about Barenboim and their brilliant young Israeli-Arab orchestra. The most intimate, most consequential friendship in both of their lives began by chance in a hotel lobby, in London as I remember. They fell instantly into a rapturous common purpose. As Said recalled to me:

We both have a tremendous interest in the Middle East as a place of possibility–not because there are these separations but because there are these mixtures, you know. Neither of us live there. Daniel lives in Berlin and Chicago, and I live in New York, but the Middle East is important just as a place to go back to. And it’s a place that’s interesting to us because of the incredible variety of lives there and cultures that it’s possible to excavate. And I know from his point of view the discovery going into an Arab home, for example, which he did for the first time when we went to one in Ramallah a couple of years ago was for him a major adventure because, he said, in his own background growing up as a young musician in Israel in the ’50s he had no knowledge of what the Arabs were like, although they were living next door. And one of the things he was interested in doing, for example, is learning Arabic. And actually he made an announcement at a concert which he gave in Jerusalem, which I attended, a recital in which he said he was outraged that the program was in English and Hebrew but not in Arabic. So that notion of dissipating boundaries that are usually, in the end, quite mechanical and not worth maintaining is very much a part of this.

Edward Said, “A Last Conversation… Part 2”, Christopher Lydon Interviews: October 8, 2003

A brilliant movie version of what this Barenboim-Said friendship accomplished in the Ramallah Concert of August, 2005 is available now on DVD. “So exciting it is hard not to cry,” one of the young orchestra players said in a wild understatement. I defy anyone watching Paul Smaczny’s film not to shudder and bawl at the beauty not just of these young players but of the Said-Barenboim vision… of what Mozart, Beethoven and Elgar are still saying to our nuttily contentious species.

Our conversation with Daniel Barenboim won’t make you weep, but let’s hope there’s a goose-bump or two in the music and in this wondrously accomplished, brave and purposeful man. Happy Thanksgiving!

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  • loki

    Perhaps, peace will come from the sounds of music and silence.

  • jdyer

    Good old Daniel.

    The man is a phony. Most of what he does is to show his antisemitic public in Germany that he is not a “yid!” This includes his road burlesque road show with that other phony, Said who was neither a “Palestinian” nor was he for peace.

  • pryoung

    Argh, so sorry to have missed this show. Who listens to the radio on Thanksgiving? I hope to be able to hear a re-broadcast or podcast.

    Chris L. is often at his best when he probes matters combining the political and the aesthetic. In this instance, I would love to know whether these works of the classical canon take on new life when performed in such charged contexts. Is that something touched on in the Ramallah Concert movie? I deeply regret the way in which classical music has become so museumified, “relaxing” and geriatric, at least on my local classical station.

  • Potter

    pryoung: This show has not aired as yet. It was only recorded on the 23rd.

    It’s more than simply admirable that these two men show that the two cultures can meet and live in harmony. Art, especially music, is a wonderful bridge. It would be great to explore not only wh this is so, but other instances ( a series?) where artists point the way. I look forward to hearing the show.

    (Edward Said was born in Jerusalem and died a Palestinian-American. Barenboim is an Israeli citizen.)

  • jdyer

    This from a Said admirer who is honest and knows what she is talking about.

    On Said’s legacy:

    “Reorienting the Middle Eastern scholar’s legacy three years after his death”

    By Jennie Morgan

    http://eye.columbiaspectator.com/index.php?page=post&article_id=2088

    “This life story has been more than a blurb on Said’s book jackets. A month before the publication of Said’s 1999 memoir, Out of Place, Commentary magazine ran an article by Israeli lawyer and academic Justus Reid Weiner that raised questions about Said’s upbringing. In a 1992 Harper’s magazine article, Said wrote that he was born and raised in Jerusalem, and that “by the end of 1947, just months before Talbiya [a Jerusalem neighborhood] fell to Jewish forces, I’d left with my family for Cairo.” His record as a Palestinian exile lent him an authenticity that other prep-school historians often lack.

    Weiner spent three years scouring public files and produced what Peretz calls a “painstakingly precise, even obsessive, examination of Said’s life.” The Commentary account boasts over 80 interviews, including comments from Said’s childhood friends and neighbors, and presents a documentary record with footnotes that number in the triple digits. Weiner claims that, far from growing up as a stateless refugee, Said was in fact the son of an affluent American citizen living in Cairo.

    Said’s memoir, which was published a month after Weiner’s expose, changes his biographical narrative and confirms his upbringing in a wealthy suburb of Cairo. As Said acknowledged, his father “hated Jerusalem,” and so in 1929, six years before Said’s birth, he “branched off from Palestine into Egypt.”

    Nonetheless, the myth of Said’s flight from the Zionists remains crucial to the scholar’s public identity. Malise Ruthven, eulogizing Said in the Guardian, called him “the best-known and most distinguished Palestinian exile.” “

  • Michael Lydon

    I find Multi-culturalism and Diversity to be as important as letting disease cells have more prevalance in our bodies for the sake of their survival. Perfection should be goal the goal of Human Life. Would you buy an Inferior Diamond? Of course not. There are such things as aesthetic absolutes. There are such things as better Cultures. Don’t fall into the Quick sand of Multiculturalism.

  • jdyer

    ” I find Multi-culturalism and Diversity to be as important as letting disease cells have more prevalance in our bodies for the sake of their survival. Perfection should be goal the goal of Human Life. Would you buy an Inferior Diamond? Of course not. There are such things as aesthetic absolutes. There are such things as better Cultures. Don’t fall into the Quick sand of Multiculturalism.”

    I agree up to a point, Michael.

    The goal should be natural diversity which is the rule of existence and not multiculturalism which is artificial diversity and hence has to be enforced by some authority.

    With natural diversity you get both classical music as well as jazz. With multiculturalism you get classical musician forced to play jazz and jazz musicians forced to play classical music.

    The result is mediocre music.

  • Igor

    jdyer:

    It’s funny to hear arguments about Edward Said not being born in Jerusalem from a Zionist. Somehow any Jew anywhere represents Jewry (once he finds his Jewishness, of course), but this is somehow denied to Palestinians…

    And what would you say if somebody wrote a book with 80 interviews and a triple-digit number of footnotes, etc. claiming that Jews that were born outside Israel are not Jews? You, no doubt, would call it antisemitic, right? Well, here you are…

    > The goal should be natural diversity…

    The goal of what? Some kind of human activity, I guess? And how human activity is supposed to achieve something “natural”? Doesn’t “natural” mean that no human activity was involved in the first place?

    And natural deversity is _not_ the rule of existence, at least not in Israel, which is a Jewish state by definition…

  • jdyer

    “It’s funny to hear arguments about Edward Said not being born in Jerusalem from a Zionist. Somehow any Jew anywhere represents Jewry (once he finds his Jewishness, of course), but this is somehow denied to Palestinians…”

    What’s funny is tha Said claimed to have been a Palestinian when in relaity he was an Egyptian who later became an American.

    Had Said lived in Jerusalem or even in the Arab world he might have had more credibility.

  • jdyer

    “The goal of what? Some kind of human activity, I guess? And how human activity is supposed to achieve something “natural”? Doesn’t “natural” mean that no human activity was involved in the first place? ”

    Not everything humans do is “artificial.” Everything from procreation to ambulalation and cogitation, while human activities, are also natural to the species.

    The distinction isn’t between “what humans” do and what “what occurs in nature,” IN terms of human beings it’s between human activities directed by some ruling power and human activities that are not so directed.

    “And natural deversity is _not_ the rule of existence, at least not in Israel, which is a Jewish state by definition… ”

    You seem obsessed with the Jewish State Igor.

    There is more natural as well as artificial diversity in Israel than in Russia and certainly more than in the Arab world.

  • Potter

    Igor– You hit the nail on it’s head. I agree however as well note:

    From Wikipedia scroll to Attacks on Said http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Said

    (quote)

    Edward Said had often been attacked for his commitment to Palestinian rights. In the 1980’s, his office was burnt down by pro-Israeli fanatics, and in 1999 a defamation campaign was launched against him by a pundit from the pro-Israeli Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The campaign questioned Said’s Jerusalimite credentials and his family’s ownership of a house there. In response to this widely-publicized campaign, several respondents defended Said. In an article entitled “Defamation, Zionist-style” published in Al-Ahram Weekly, Edward Said himself responded to this campaign. In another editorial printed in Al-Ahram two years later Said claimed that the “Zionist movement has resorted to shabbier and shabbier techniques” in attempt to stop him, and that it had “hired an obscure Israeli-American lawyer to ‘research’ the first ten years of my life and ‘prove’ that even though I was born in Jerusalem I was never really there”.[7] In another published interview conducted by Amritjit Singh in 2000, Said is quoted as saying: “I was born in Jerusalem, my family is a Jerusalem family. We left Palestine in 1947. We left before most others. It was a fortuitous thing. . . . My entire extended family was driven out. . . . (endquote)

    Focussing on where Said was born ( ie his legitimacy) is a divertionary tactic, and at bottom about intolerance of criticism or an alternate POV. Discredit the messenger to avoid considering the message.

  • jdyer

    Another graduate form Wikipedia university.

    Wikipedia articles are often composed by fanatical adherents of the subjects they write about. Objectivity is not one of this websites virtues.

    Said threatened to sue the researcher who discovered his lies about his biography but didn’t do so because he knew that he couldn ‘t win.

    This is detailed in my previous link above.

    This is worth repeating. The writer it should be noted is not a critic of Said and is writing an objective article about his work and legacy.

    On Said’s legacy:

    “Reorienting the Middle Eastern scholar’s legacy three years after his death”

    By Jennie Morgan

    http://eye.columbiaspectator.com/index.php?page=post&article_id=2088

    “This life story has been more than a blurb on Said’s book jackets. A month before the publication of Said’s 1999 memoir, Out of Place, Commentary magazine ran an article by Israeli lawyer and academic Justus Reid Weiner that raised questions about Said’s upbringing. In a 1992 Harper’s magazine article, Said wrote that he was born and raised in Jerusalem, and that “by the end of 1947, just months before Talbiya [a Jerusalem neighborhood] fell to Jewish forces, I’d left with my family for Cairo.” His record as a Palestinian exile lent him an authenticity that other prep-school historians often lack.

    Weiner spent three years scouring public files and produced what Peretz calls a “painstakingly precise, even obsessive, examination of Said’s life.” The Commentary account boasts over 80 interviews, including comments from Said’s childhood friends and neighbors, and presents a documentary record with footnotes that number in the triple digits. Weiner claims that, far from growing up as a stateless refugee, Said was in fact the son of an affluent American citizen living in Cairo.

    Said’s memoir, which was published a month after Weiner’s expose, changes his biographical narrative and confirms his upbringing in a wealthy suburb of Cairo. As Said acknowledged, his father “hated Jerusalem,” and so in 1929, six years before Said’s birth, he “branched off from Palestine into Egypt.”

    Nonetheless, the myth of Said’s flight from the Zionists remains crucial to the scholar’s public identity. Malise Ruthven, eulogizing Said in the Guardian, called him “the best-known and most distinguished Palestinian exile.” “

  • jdyer

    btw:

    The article from wickedpedia alleges that,

    “In the 1980’s, his (Said’s) office was burnt down by pro-Israeli fanatics….,”

    Yet it gives no specifics and reference in support of its vile allegations.

    It then very deflty in the same sentence equates the questioning of Said’s veracity with the putative attack on his office by “pro Israeli fanatics.”

    “….and in 1999 a defamation campaign was launched against him by a pundit from the pro-Israeli Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.”

    One could very easily come to thr conclusion that the article was written by a pro-Palestinian fanatic.

    btw: there is no mention in the article about the controversy surrounding his shabby book “Orientialism,” much less the ongoing attacks said mounted against the Jewish State and the Jewish people througout his career.

  • pryoung

    Another ROS thread degenerates into defamation and epithets, with the usual cause. Anyone with an appetite for such things can readily access the arguments surrounding Said’s memoir on the web, and judge for him or herself. Repeated citation of an article from a student newspaper (with its risible turn to Marty Peretz of all people as an authority on the matter) clogs the thread and diverts the conversation. But of course that is the point.

    Maybe instead of the trolling, we could hear from people interested in music or other art as a means of “reopening” the impasses that politics and political rhetoric tend to produce. Potter’s comment above raises just that question, and I would love to hear more about the possibilities and perils of such efforts. Is anyone familiar with the Ramallah Concert dvd, or the other musical undertakings listed in the show description above? Are they important as art and/or politics?

  • pryoung

    I have to say as well that it astonishes me to see a line like this just glibly tossed off in a public forum:

    “Most of what he does is to show his antisemitic public in Germany that he is not a “yid!””

    Even by the debased standards of internet discourse, this is really ugly stuff.

  • hurley

    I enjoyed the show, the thread less, for reasons you make clear. A pity.

    pryoung: There’s a new film (maybe the basis for another show — I’d be happy to help in the event) called La Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio, a documentary about an orchestra that formed among the poor, immigrant community of Esquilino, near the Stazione Termini in Rome. Quite moving and somewhat along the lines of the movie version of the Ramallah Concert. You can find out more here:

    http://www.orchestradipiazzavittorio.it/

    I don’t know if you read Italian, but in any case you can probably glean enough to get the gist of the thing.

    Someone at ROS might do well to pass the reference along to Barenboim, along with my humble regards, etc.

  • jdyer

    “Another ROS thread degenerates into defamation and epithets, with the usual cause. Anyone with an appetite for such things can readily access the arguments surrounding Said’s memoir on the web, and judge for him or herself. Repeated citation of an article from a student newspaper (with its risible turn to Marty Peretz of all people as an authority on the matter) clogs the thread and diverts the conversation. But of course that is the point. ”

    Don’t make me laugh.

    You wish you knew about SAaid what Mr. Peretz’ does.

    By all mean read Said. Read his Orientalism where he describes “the Wests” hatred of the East but refuses to mention European antisemitism. What he does do is attack Jews as “orientalists.”

    Read also his artilces in al Ahram, or his so called literary criticism where he can’t tell the difference between a work of fiction and a work of propaganda.

    I could go on, but why bother. PR Young (public relations young) isn’t interested in reading critically Said; he is just interested in his ideas about Said.

  • jdyer

    ““Most of what he does is to show his antisemitic public in Germany that he is not a “yid!””

    Even by the debased standards of internet discourse, this is really ugly stuff.”

    Wrong, PR Young, what is amazing is his being called “Jew Barenboim.”

    You really don’t want to hear the truth do you.

    Here is an article favorable to Barenboim:

    “He has made many enemies, exposing old prejudices with the vehemence of his convictions. A Berlin senator disparaged him as ‘the Jew Barenboim’. At the Deutsche Oper, the conductor Christian Thielemann is alleged to have referred to him in uglier racial terms, an allegation that is being contested in court.

    Barenboim shrinks from none of these confrontations. ‘Antisemitism is an illness,’ he says. ‘Some people set out by being anti-Israeli as a cover for their antisemitism. People who see faults in Israel’s present policy cannot be accused of being antisemitic, but I have met many such people who are.’”

    His denials and his apology for anti-Israel work notwithstanding people can be forgiven for thinking his criticism of Israel as an attempt to assuage the antisemitism he was met with in Europe.

    http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/031203-NL-Barenboim.html

    Some of us also think that his “friendship with Said” was another one of his poses.

    Barenboim acts like Marano Jew, for those who understand what that means.

  • zeke

    I’ve only skimmed the posts above. One thing that struck me during the intereview was the way Barenboim insisted that music has no extramusical message to send and should not be enlisted in any external cause beyond itself. He did this despite being pushed and prodded on the point by Chris. Music’s meaning can only be “discovered” by each individual, and any serious performer or listener will soon learn that her/his response varies with each hearing.

    To the extent that the orchestra had any social purpose it came from the way the young people learned to actively *listen* and eventually *hear* the counterpoint from differing musical lines. Without question Barenboim seems to agree there are transferable values to be learned from this but, here again, he was resistant to making grand pronouncements.

  • pryoung

    Yeah, I was struck by that part of the interview as well, Zeke, and like your rendering of it. I wonder if art’s ability to confound the inherent reductiveness of politics and political discourse (see the above postings for some especially fetid examples of that reductiveness) might ironically be its most valuable “service” to politics. That is, if one conceives of politics as an “art of the possible”, which seems wholly out of fashion in our times.

    In the sense of play, openness and responsiveness that real music requires—and the hearing that Barenboim talks about—are wordless cues for humane engagement of difference and tension. Maybe I’m falling into the same trap Chris did in the interview; but I’ve never been fully comfortable with art-for-art’s-sake positions. I think art should prompt human transformation that can ultimately take the form of political action. Or not.

  • jdyer

    ” One thing that struck me during the intereview was the way Barenboim insisted that music has no extramusical message to send and should not be enlisted in any external cause beyond itself. He did this despite being pushed and prodded on the point by Chris. Music’s meaning can only be “discovered” by each individual, and any serious performer or listener will soon learn that her/his response varies with each hearing.”

    That was the best part of the program.

    it didn’t suprise me though that Chris was trying to find some political meaning in music as he does in all art.

  • jdyer

    “In the sense of play, openness and responsiveness that real music requires—and the hearing that Barenboim talks about—are wordless cues for humane engagement of difference and tension. ”

    Here the poster is still trying to find some extra musical message in the music, though in this case it’s psychological put in the service of the political.

  • jdyer

    “I wonder if art’s ability to confound the inherent reductiveness of politics and political discourse (see the above postings for some especially fetid examples of that reductiveness) might ironically be its most valuable “service” to politics. That is, if one conceives of politics as an “art of the possible”, which seems wholly out of fashion in our times. ”

    care ot name names, pryounger?

    Here you are trying to both tease out a political meaning while acknowledgin the apolitical and criticizing posters like myself who were arguing about non musical issues.

    It’s not Barenboim the musician that I was criticizing, it’s Barenboim the man who engaged himself in politics in order to further his career.

  • plnelson

    In the “Pitch a Show” thread I suggested that ROS has made a fetish of current events, and that instead, it should devote shows to art, music and poetry.

    I hope this topic is not the result.

    If Iraqi car bombers, having blown up every last car in the country, changed tactics, and started filling cellos and violas with explosives, I wouldn’t consider that a “music” subject.

    Can we do something non-topical for a change? I mean, really?

  • mdwstgrl

    For those interested:

    Mr. Barenboim and the young musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will visit Brown University from Thursday, Dec. 14, through Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006, for a series of conversations and workshops leading to a concert at VMA Arts and Cultural Center Saturday afternoon. All events are open to the public. A ticket is required for the concert, free of charge.

    See link for complete schedule and ticket details:

    http://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2006-07/06-060.html

  • Potter

    The interview was beyond topical though not apolitical, or not without a political message even though Barenboim insisted they do not play for that reason. Barenboim speaks of his philosophy of music as communication and the attributes that each of us give to it depending on who we are at any given moment as musicians, as listeners. The music excerpts were so moving that I want the CD. In particular listen to the excerpt of Elgar’s “Nimrod” at the end. Hearing Barenboim speak of his vision and his idea about the conflict at the end and the excerpt of this piece played by his Divan East West Orchestra that followed it makes the heart swell with emotion . The music has more meaning for me knowing the story of the orchestra, that struggles to play it. The music itself must be affected by the circumstance.

    Barenboim says

    “Music is not only beautiful,…music has to be existential, existential is not always beautiful… music doesn’t [only] round off the corners [soothe]…. And music does not only present the edges of angularity… it does all of that and much more…. music can be round and angular at the same time”…

    He says talking about music, thinking about it and using it ( making it work for some other purpose) does not enhance it, it decreases it, and that music will not solve the Palestinian Israeli conflict. But the enhancement that music brings to a situation is extraordinary, it enlarges the possibilities. (He speaks of playing Wagner in Germany with an Arab Israeli Orchestra- which helped to overcome the Israeli taboo of playing Wagner).

    The last 10 minutes were the best, he makes a political statement, not anti-any side but voicing his disappointment in the way things have gone and wants the healing to begin. This is followed by the Elgar.

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