Everything is Connected, by Daniel Barenboim / Music At The Limits, by Edward W Said

Musicians who harmonise across the divide

Reviewed,Liz Thomson
Friday 19 September 2008 00:00

Music books on a mainstream list are these days as rare as hens' teeth. Faber has drastically cut back, so too Oxford, while Cambridge caters to academics at prices that deter all but the most committed. Now, remarkably, two have come along at once, though neither originated in Britain: Music at the Limits comes (complete with typos) via Bloomsbury from Columbia University Press, a consequence of the late Professor Edward Said's distinguished tenure there.

Everything is Connected started life at Feltrinelli, the intellectual powerhouse of Italian publishing in Milan, where Maestro Barenboim presides over La Scala. It was bought by Lord Weidenfeld himself, a Bayreuth regular and the last of the great European émigré publishers, who surely sees it as a book that needs to be published: an important contribution to cultural debate at a time when most of publishing seems only to debate which celebrity is most likely to be a Christmas bestseller.

The two titles are symbiotically linked, as are their authors, for Barenboim and Said were great friends and frequent duet partners – Schubert was a particular favourite of Said who was, according to the Maestro, "an excellent pianist". Most important, they were co-founders of the West-Eastern Divan, an ambitious project to bring together musicians from Israel, Palestine and the Arab countries. What began in 1999 as an experiment has survived and flourished, inspiring friendship, admiration and courage as it overcame decades of enmity and innumerable geopolitical obstacles to take music to the beleaguered citizens of Ramallah.

There can be no better demonstration of music as a lingua franca, nor of its healing power, as Barenboim's story of Ramzi Aburedwan also demonstrates. A refugee and would-be terrorist whose chance encounter with a Western musician changed his life, he is now a professional violist and has set up a music school in Palestine.

The story of the West-Eastern Divan is at the heart of Everything is Connected, in which music – its structure and form, and the skill required to perform it – is a metaphor for life. "A nation's constitution could be compared to a score and the politicians to its interpreters," Barenboim writes, making an analogy between fugue and "the Israeli and Palestinian narratives [which] exist in the same state of permanent interconnection as... the subject and countersubject of a fugue".

Never has music – or muzak – been so ubiquitous and yet never have we been so musically illiterate, he points out. "The education of the ear is perhaps far more important than we can imagine not only for the development of each individual but for the functioning of society, and therefore also of governments".

Said, too, touches on music and education, noting that among musicians there are too few good generalists and too many specialists whose knowledge exists in a vacuum. He is censorious of critics who have no context for their judgements and disapproving of performers who play as if by rote – Edinburgh today, New York tomorrow – offering "routine performances with no guiding intelligence behind them".

Nor does he mince words about "a grotesque like Pavarotti", who "reduced opera performance to a minimum of intelligence and the maximum of overpriced noise"; or the record companies and managers whose raison d'être is to monetise musicians. Toscanini was an early example, a product of the RCA machine.

The essays and articles in Music at the Limits are culled from 27 years of writing, much for The Nation. His subject was literature but he believed that one art form enriched another and was rightly concerned that music is "no longer considered a necessary aspect of intellectual development", as Barenboim puts it in his foreword. Opera, Bach, Wagner and Glenn Gould are the book's principal preoccupations, for Said's heroes – like Barenboim's – are essentially dead, white, European (mostly German) males. Which, when you pause to consider that he was the author of Orientalism and Cultural Imperialism, and a Palestinian to boot, is something of a paradox.

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