Music at the Limits, By Edward W Said

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The Independent Culture

"In music, as in thought, the big picture must be the result of the precise co-ordination of small details," writes Daniel Barenboim in his shrewd introduction to this engaging collection of Edward W Said's writings.

Musical talent requires tremendous attention to detail; attending to detail, indeed, as if it were the most important thing. This anthology combines both the minute particular and the general as it runs through Said's pieces from the 1980s to the present, elucidating how he has used his musical knowledge as a basis for his convictions about morality, politics and intellectual thought.

The qualities of individual musicians resound, including the "unique sound, brash style, rhythmic inventiveness and quality of attention" of Glenn Gould; Richard Strauss's "flirtation with chromaticism"; Bach's genius; Schumann's eccentricity and Chopin's ruthlessness. Said also discusses issues ranging from the music festival and the link between music and feminism, to life itself, musing for example on middle age – often a time of anxiety, nostalgia and physical failings, but in the arts, a fertile terrain. (Dante produced his greatest work out of the crisis of his middle years, and also praised are Wordsworth, Stravinsky and Victor Hugo.)

As well as the music, Said conjures the less harmonious side of the musical world, "where the solitude and precariousness of the profession... the murderous demands of a career, the psychological uncertainties of a touring life, tend to cow most virtuosos into all-too-careful parsimony and personal reticence". Barenboim, however, has the opposite of these qualities, writes Said, depicting the "remarkably rich and deep friendship" which transformed his life.

Said's tour de force explores "the whole intense process of drawing music out of its silence".