The Tribune - Spectrum


October 12, 2003

'Conversation at its best'
Tejwant Singh Gill

Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society
by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. Pantheon Books, New York. Pages 186. Price $19.

Edward Said
Edward Said

THIS is a wonderful book of conversation between two of the most "beautiful" minds of the Arab world. One is Edward Said, the eminent thinker and critic, whose death is a matter of sorrow for intellectuals, the world over. Palestinian by birth, he did the most to draw the world's attention to the agony of his people. The other is Daniel Barenboim, whose concerts seek to awaken people to the value of truth and justice. Jew by birth, he holds that the Zionists have treated the Palestinian people with barbarity. Deep friendship between the two makes the conversation so very candid.

Spanning over five years, it gets divided into six chapters. Though minor overlaps are there, but parallels and paradoxes, marking their vocations, engagements and struggles, direct it towards unfathomable issues. The conversation starts with the question of where do they feel at home. Both are at home in the vocation that consumes all their time and energy. Poignant memories of their birthplaces and formative years sound a counterpoint. Being an authentic Jew, Barenboim feels at home in the idea of Jerusalem, whereas to be out of place everywhere was a unique experience for Said, the Palestinian.


For both, the issue of identity and self-identity is indeed very complex. They grapple with the intractable problem of affiliating with the Other. The policies of partition and exclusion, of late become a passion with politicians, disconcerts them a lot. The distinction they draw between the politician and the artist, musician and writer by implication, is very apt. The politician dissolves the conflict to serve his interest. Poised at the extremes, the artist grapples with all the intricacies to achieve some accord between them. Both hold that the failure to resolve the Palestine imbroglio rests with the absence of imagination from the ambit of negotiations.

Now that their conversation shifts to music, the inner life of the musician, his engagement with history, politics and society, they find the utter lack of it in atonality. Making Adorno's perception as his own, Said holds that musician's mediation with society, so creative till Beethoven and in him with amazing profundity, is no more true of musical composition and performance. The problem of home again crops up. Barenboim holds that "creating a sense of home, going to an unknown territory and then returning, was Beethoven's forte." At this stage, they have some words to spare for the Oslo Accord. Employing musical terminology, Barenboim finds it failing due to a discord between speed and tempo. In the literary diction of Said, "it was texts written down, that did not conform adequately to the reality of the situation."

It is their intellectual and artistic orientation that then claims their attention. Pinpointing his role as a professor of literature, Said explains how he seeks to go beyond technique and expertise to literature's affinity with society, history, politics and culture. He arrived at this position without much help from his teachers. So he is always disposed to stand against power and authority. Barenboim's trajectory of growth is different. He grew up under the great influence of his father who taught him "to put the extremes together, not necessarily by diminishing the extremity of each one but to form the art of transition." To play some composition for the sake of it is the worst crime in his eyes. In a parallel vein, Said finds the teacher a criminal if instead of enhancing the curiosity, he resorts to their indoctrination. After uncovering the intricacies, reading and writing involve on the one hand and composing and performing on the other, they reach a consensus in which paradoxes and parallels cohere at the same time.

Their discussion of Richard Wagner and Beethoven is very erudite but in no way does it turn hermetic. They find Wagner a cult figure for reasons within and without his musical personality. Due to the excessive emphasis he put upon acoustics, magnitude and flamboyance, authoritarianism did mark his compositions and performances. In no way can it be termed as anti-Semitic. So the authorities in Israel were monstrously authoritarian in restricting the performances of his compositions.

However, their highest appreciation and deepest regard is reserved for Beethoven. For Barenboim, he was "completely a musician." Only through music would he make sense of all the turmoil of life. According to Said, it was ethics, "the fullest realization of what is contained in music" that formed a way of life for him. To resolve the Palestine imbroglio, a mind of his kind is required who can bring to bear upon it the qualities of memory, imagination, creativity and wonder.

Towards the end of Introduction, Said has this to say: "It is in the nature of conversation at its best to be engrossing for everyone, as well as to take even the speaker by surprise." This, the book has in ample measure. At the same time, it has more to enhance, what Said fondly called, emergent thinking.