The Indispensable Musician: Barenboim Backstage

Daniel Barenboim‘s conversation starts high as a kite on the fumes of the Wagner he’s been rehearsing, then lands with both feet on the Middle East. “The situation in the Middle East has never been so bad,” he began. Barak Obama will be a huge relief after the Bush “disaster,” but “what is wrong in America — a unilateral way of thinking” has its own destructive inertia, in America and in Israel. “Which party in Israel is willing and able to give back the territories?” Barenboim inquired rhetorically. “None,” he answered. He did not sound impressed with the lame-duck Ehud Olmert’s speculation about sharing Jerusalem with Palestinian officialdom. “Until there is a Prime Minister in Israel who understands that there is an element of artificiality and injustice” in the making of Israel today… “until an Israeli Prime Minister can speak of injustice,” there will be no moving forward. Time is working for the Palestinians, he says, not for the Israelis or the Jewish people in general. American hegemony, even before the economic crisis, was coming to be a memory. There is much to be done.

We sailed into this conversation after Michael Steinberg at Brown’s Cogut Center for the Humanities opened all the doors for about 50 students and faculty — first to the red plush opera house in mid-morning at Lincoln Center, and then to Maestro Barenboim’s easy, open, stream of thinking.

Barenboim conducts “Tristan und Isolde” without a score (“But I can read music,” he interposed with a laugh. “I remember the choreography of the piece”) and he declaims on the politics of Palestinians and Israelis without a licence. He long ago broke with the choreography of the official peace processes. The brilliant mixed ensemble of Arab and Israeli players that he organized with the late Edward Said, the West-East Divan Orchestra, says more about Barenboim’s fundamental convictions even than his words can: “I am a short-term pessimist about the Middle East,” he has said before, “but a long-term optimist. Either we will find a way to live with each other or we will kill each other. What gives me hope? Music-making. Because, before a Beethoven symphony, Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, all human beings are equal.”

It’s Barenboim’s way, with the Met players and with us, to spell out the finest points of sound — the consonants “ta” and “da” that come out of horns, for example, and the uniquely Wagnerian manipulations of vowel sounds in the German language. The word “auge” (eye), begins with a double vowel sound, with implications for pitch and rhythm… Serious ear training, Barenboim convinces us, could make a happier world. “The economic crisis would not have happened if the bankers knew from music that everything is connected. When you risk making a modulation in the music you immediately have to pay the price: when you make a rubato you have to give it back.” And then he was off:

Tell me another profession where you know more than yesterday but you have to start from scratch? This is the great privilege of being a musician. It’s exactly that: to combine more and more because you’ll never get to the bottom of it, but you always have the freshness of starting from scratch… There are some pieces I play on the piano that I played when I was 7 years old, you know, I was 66 last week–that is a long time… There are pieces I have played one hundred, two hundred times. Yet when I start, there is nothing there because sound is ephemeral, and therefore you start from scratch. And it is this combination, if you want, intellectually and humanly: knowing more and more, and at the same time, having the freshness to start from scratch. That’s the difference between being a musician and a carpenter, no?

CL: Is there a chance that diplomacy or international relations corresponds here, in terms of building on the past but starting from scratch… We will have a new government in Israel and a new government in the United States. I keep wanting to ask you if you’re available to be secretary of state if Mrs. Clinton doesn’t take it. Do you see a start-from-scratch possibility?

DB: I would take Secretary of State. Her Senate seat? No. I think that the situation in the Middle East has never been as bad as it is now. And I think that it’s a wonderful step forward that you Americans have chosen Barack Obama. But if I may be bold, and not very polite, I think that what is wrong and what was wrong in America and therefore the world–namely this unilateral way of thinking–is not Mr. Bush. Who was a disaster. But Mr. Bush was not a foreign element in American society. Don’t misunderstand me, had I been an American of course I would have voted for Obama. And I would have tried to cheat and go and put in two votes if I could. But I think that the expectations that he’ll put the world in order are false. What is he going to tell the Israelis? You tell me what political party in Israel is willing and able, both, to really give back the territories? Honestly. Which are a conditions for dialogue with the Palestinians. None. You can put Barack Obama ten times in the White House and this is not going to happen.

CL: Has Prime Minister Olmert opened a new conversation, even as he leaves?

DB: It’s not having a conversation; it’s understanding the human needs of the Palestinians. The Israeli and Palestinian conflict is not a political conflict. It has been treated as a political conflict for sixty years, and this is why it has not been solved… A political conflict is a conflict between two nations… about water, about oil, gas, about borders. And that you solve diplomatically, and if that doesn’t work, militarily. But this not like that, this is a conflict between two people who are deeply convinced that they have the right to live on the same little piece of land. And until they have understood that this is so, that the other has the same conviction, it will not happen, it will only be nonsense… Because basically the Palestinians don’t see why there is a need for a Jewish state, for a state that is exclusively Jewish. They have been made to accept the fact that people from Ukraine, Argentina and New Zealand came there since the 1920s pretending to have the right to live there; they somehow swallowed that. It was never particularly pleasant experience but they did swallow that. But now they don’t understand why these Ukrainians and their descendents need to stay for only for themselves. And they say the Holocaust is dreadful, and what a terrible thing, but why do we have to pay for it? It is all actually very simple logic. And until there is a prime minister in Israel that is willing to understand that — I am not saying agree with it, but understand — that we have come, the Jewish people, that there is an element of artificiality, and that there is an element of injustice. And I’m not against the state of Israel, on the contrary, I believe in the right of the state of Israel to exist. But I know how many terrible mistakes that have been made, and I know that history has taught us that certain things you cannot change, but you have to recognize them. And therefore until there is a the prime minister of Israel that can stand up and say that there has been an injustice committed, and we really have to sort this out, it will not move forward.

More and more, time is working for the Palestinians and not for Israel nor for the Jewish people. Because of the demography and because of the fact that the argument of Jewish suffering, of course, gets a little bit paler with the passage of time. People felt about the cruelty–the unbelievable and unique cruelty towards the Jews with the Holocaust in Europe–in 1948, 1950 and 1960 much more strongly than in 2008. And therefore in 2015 or in 2020, more and more people will start saying why do the Jewish people need to have a country of their own? That they have a strong army [so] why can’t there be a one state solution? And this, of course, is what Israel is most afraid of, and this is what has brought the country to a point where neither the one state nor two state solution is feasible. I was saying the other day, if I was a Palestinian — I mean, I have a Palestinian passport as well as an Israel — but if I was an active Palestinian and I could get everybody to agree on this, I would say that we should tell the Israelis that we have learned a lesson. We accept the fact that you have conquered the land and we accept you as the landlords and everything. Okay, now you can annex the country and now we will fight for equal rights. And what would Israel say? First, they would say that it’s a trap. But when, if, the Palestinians were to give up the arms, it is not a trap.

And now we have to make amends and live together. And all the Jews that live outside of Israel and have a bad conscience about not having moved to Israel but support the government of Israel in all of its stupidity are actually responsible as well. Not only in America, but especially in America.

I ask myself, American hegemony is going down, we’ve seen that long before this crisis happened. And we’ve seen how China and India and Brazil are getting important economically and otherwise. And then I think: we’ve [Israel has] put all our eggs in the American basket. Where is the Jewish lobby in Beijing and New Delhi that will take care of Jewish interests twenty years from now? It’s very short-sighted.

My criticism is not about the injustice to the Palestinians or not, because one can argue this and that. But that basically it’s a diminishing understanding of what Jewish history is about. We … were, for centuries, concerned with morality and with all of that. And, when I went with my parents when I was 10 years old in the 1950’s, there was no talk about the Holocaust then because individually it was too painful, and because collectively, no one wanted to talk about it. My generation did not want to hear about the Warsaw ghetto, we wanted to create a new profile of a healthy Israeli… I would understand an Israeli patriot who would say we have done that and now it is our duty to see to it that we can all work together, and really get it all going; and we stand for justice and we have a strong army and let’s make a federation and get it all together. That is patriotic language. But what we’re doing is making monsters of youngsters of 18 and 19 at the checkpoints to harass Palestinians, and who basically have no understanding and no knowledge of why they are doing this. And with the help of artificially importing one million Jews from the Soviet Union in 1990. Well now 25% of Israeli army are ex-Soviet immigrants. This is terribly unhealthy — forget about the Palestinians — for Israel! It’s very unhealthy. Don’t get me started…

Daniel Barenboim in conversation at the Met with Chris Lydon and visitors from Brown University, November 21, 2008.

Why is Barenboim so fascinating and, I think, so important? Just because a musician with courage can say and do things that almost nobody else can. I’ve observed this about Barenboim before: 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.

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