Interview: Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said Discuss Parallels Between Music and Culture

Weekend Edition Saturday: December 28, 2002

Barenboim and Said: 'Parallels and Paradoxes'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

At first glance, it might be more obvious what divides Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said than what they have in common. Mr. Barenboim is the musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera. He is an Israeli. Mr. Said is a longtime advocate for the dispossessed of Palestine. He was born in Jerusalem and raised in Egypt, Lebanon and the United States. Mr. Said is now an author and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

But over the past several years, these two different men have carried on a remarkable series of passionate and often uplifting exchanges on topics ranging from their love of classical music to events in the Middle East. These conversations have now been collected into a new book called "Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society."

Maestro Barenboim joins us from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago. Maestro, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DANIEL BARENBOIM (Musical Director, Chicago Symphony Orchestra): Thank you for asking me.

SIMON: And Edward Said joins us from our studios in New York. Professor Said, thank you for being with us.

Professor EDWARD SAID (Columbia University): Thank you very much for allowing me to be here.

SIMON: And how did you guys first meet?

Prof. SAID: We were staying in the same hotel in London about 10 years ago, and in comes Daniel, who is registering, and I recognize him immediately, having just bought his book. And I introduce myself, and the rest is history. We spent most of the weekend, when he wasn't rehearsing and I was supposed to give some lectures on the BBC, chatting and talking and going to a Lebanese restaurant that was nearby, and we became fast friends, I think.

Mr. BARENBOIM: I knew, of course, who he was, you know, and what he had written, but I had not met him before and I found him--what I'm trying to say by that is I knew how cultured and intelligent he was, but on top of that, I found him extremely charming and very pleasant company. And I must say, we sort of spent as much time together as was possible then, and I would say since then.

SIMON: It's interesting because, Maestro, your grandparents were Russian Jews, emigrated to Buenos Aires, and then you moved with your parents to Israel when you were a youngster. Mr. Said, you were born in Jerusalem, but spent most of your childhood in Cairo, as I recall...

Prof. SAID: Yeah.

SIMON: ...before coming to boarding school here in the United States. Among the traits that the two of you might share, is there the possibility that each of you know what it's like to feel a stranger?

Prof. SAID: Well, I think the main thing, to be honest with you, is the fact that we're both passionate about music. I mean, Daniel, after all, is one of the great musicians of the 20th and the 21st century, and I've been a longtime admirer of his piano playing and conducting. So there's that, which I think is very important. The other thing is that I don't think the business of being a stranger is as confining as it sometimes seems. It just means that you can feel at home in different environments, rather than exclusively in one. And I think especially Daniel has this extraordinary ability to become Spanish--I mean, don't forget his Argentinean background. He's very Spanish in Spain; in France he's very French; and German in Germany; and Israeli in Israel. I think that's what gives vitality to a friendship--that it isn't, you know, just the Arab and the Israeli or the Palestinian and the Israeli, but all these other things.

SIMON: Maestro Barenboim, could we ask you to consult one of your personalities, at least, and tell us what you think about that?

Mr. BARENBOIM: Well, no, I don't think I want to do that. But I think it's worth pointing out that until 1948 we were all Palestinians who were there. I mean, I can't count myself in that because I was not there before that. But, you know, even musically speaking, what is now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was then called the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra. I think, you know, people who...

Prof. SAID: And they used to play in Egypt then. Yeah.

Mr. BARENBOIM: And they used to play in Egypt. And, in fact, what happened was that with the creation of the state of Israel, the Jewish Palestinians got a new identity, whereas the non-Jewish Palestinians--Muslims and Christians--did not get a new identity. And the fact that the state of Israel was created was an absolute necessity for the Jewish people with no other possible solution, but nevertheless, one has to be aware that this was bound with creating a situation of dispossession and of grief and catastrophe for many, many people. SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC

SIMON: One of the passions that seems to make the book so cohesive is your shared appreciation for the works of Beethoven. Could I get you each to talk about what Beethoven means to you? Do the works of Beethoven say something that strikes you in a particular way that is perhaps missing from other great composers?

Prof. SAID: Well, speaking as somebody who's a musician but not a performing musician the way Daniel is, Beethoven in the first place really transcends the time and place of which he was a part. I mean, he's an Austro-Germanic composer who speaks to anyone who likes music, no matter whether that person is African or Middle Eastern or American or European. And that extraordinary accomplishment is entirely due to this music of striving and development and of somehow expressing the highest human ideals: ideals of brotherhood, of community, of yearning, also; perhaps in many instances, unfulfilled yearning. But these are universal experiences. And part of its great appeal is that it's wordless, you know, so you can in a sense formulate what you want to go into it.

SIMON: By the way, Professor Said, I guess maybe you described yourself as an amateur pianist. You're a great deal better than just a honky-tonk pianist. Well, they can be great, but you're...

Prof. SAID: Well, I wish I could be a honky-tonk pianist. They seem to have more fun than I do. No, but I...

SIMON: Yeah. But you're a concert-level performer, I think.

Prof. SAID: Well, no. No. No, no. No, no.

Mr. BARENBOIM: Yes, he is. Don't ask him that. He's not objective.


Prof. SAID: No, I'm not. I'm not. I'm not. Anyway, get--let...

Mr. BARENBOIM: He doesn't practice and, you know...

Prof. SAID: Neither do you, by the way.

Mr. BARENBOIM: ...(unintelligible) going to do it.

Prof. SAID: Barenboim doesn't practice, and look at the results he gets.


SIMON: Maestro, I'm wondering if you want to say something to Mr. Said.

Mr. BARENBOIM: Well, I mean, what I cannot do--what Edward has said is that the most extraordinary element in Beethoven is that in so many of his works, he seems to be purposely creating a feeling of disorder or chaos or not really knowing exactly where you are harmonically, for instance, and in many other ways, too, in order to then, through a process of strife and musical development, which is as if it had behind it also a great element of will, to find order out of the chaos. And I think this is what gives the music such humanity.


SIMON: I want to ask both of you gentlemen about 1999. I guess you invited a group of young Arab musicians and Israeli musicians to a workshop in Weimar, Germany, and it didn't necessarily start out auspiciously, did it?

Prof. SAID: Daniel will not say this, but he was the originator of the thing, because he was approached by the people in Weimar--I guess the municipal government or something--to play a concert. And he thought that--well, you know, he plays a lot of concerts, but since Weimar is a very special city in German history--it was in East Germany, of course, but also was the city of Goethe and Schiller--plus the fact that literally five kilometers away was Buchenwald, one of the worst of the death camps--that something special should be made of the occasion involving him.

So I happened to be in Berlin and we discussed it. And the idea was to invite young musicians from the Arab countries, as well as from Israel, to come to Weimar to work with Daniel and some other musicians. Yo-Yo Ma was there that first year, and other orchestral musicians from his orchestra in Berlin. And it was an extraordinary thing. He rehearsed this orchestra on a daily basis. All of the rehearsals I attended were really marked by the fact that--well, I mean, to put it mildly, an incoherent group of gifted young musicians who had, many instances, nothing in common, but by the end of the second or third week had become a formidable orchestra by virtue of the fact that they were concentrating only on music.

And then at night we would have discussions, which I would help along. And the net result was, you know, from a period of tension and uncertainty where people didn't know each other and weren't certain where they were going--because of this concentration, indeed, on a Beethoven symphony, the 7th, which Daniel rehearsed, you know, from the bare minimum to the fullest of its powers, there developed a common experience which was absolutely unique.

SIMON: Since there's no recording of the musicians in Weimar, we'll hear instead a recording now of that same symphony, Beethoven's 7th, conducted by Mr. Barenboim, with the Berlin State Opera.


Mr. BARENBOIM: I think what took us all by surprise was the high level of some of the Arab musicians, you know, because we know many things about the Arab world but not so much about music. And frankly, I was very surprised. I would say that the most talented Arab musicians were of a comparable level of the most talented Israelis. And I think it was a very positive experience for everybody, because they learned a lot about the other. Don't forget that part of this horrible conflict stems out of total ignorance of the other, on both sides. And in that way, it did break some barriers, no question about that.

SIMON: There's a story related, obviously, Mr. Said, from the book about at one point, Israeli musicians wanting to play some Arab music. I guess there was an Albanian Israeli musician...

Prof. SAID: Yeah.

SIMON: ...who wanted to join some of the late-night improv sessions, and he was told, `No, you can't play Arab music.' And...

Prof. SAID: Yeah, `It has to be in your blood,' he was told, at which point I think Daniel said, `Yeah, but you're playing Beethoven. Do you have Beethoven in your genes--I mean, in your blood? Obviously not.' I mean, this idea that different kinds of music belong to different nationalities--complete, you know, tommyrot. Anyway, what happened was--this was at the very beginning of the workshop. By the end of the workshop, everybody was jamming and playing music, obviously Western music most of the time, but also at night--well, they found a common ground, obviously, in jazz after a while. But I remember seeing that same kid who had refused to permit an Israeli into the little circle encouraging Yo-Yo Ma how to tune his cello to the Arabic scale, and a couple of Israeli students standing there also doing the same thing. So, you know, by that time the conventional barriers based on ignorance, as Daniel said, had pretty much dissolved.

SIMON: You've written, Maestro, that to play well you have to have this balance between your head, your heart and your stomach.


SIMON: I'm wondering what lesson music imparts towards our own character and how we live our lives.

Mr. BARENBOIM: Well, I mean, I think this is why I am so distressed that music education has almost ceased to exist, because it is really in that respect a school for life. I mean, what do we go through, all of us, in puberty and when we are growing up? Exactly the difficulty to put together what we think and what we feel and what we crave for. Each one of us, I think, goes through this process. And music, in that respect, can really be a school for life.

Prof. SAID: Music-making and listening at the same time, you know, present a kind of fascinating dialectic between the individual and the collective. And that back-and-forth is very precious and gets over a lot of ground that is not commonly traversed in everyday life.

SIMON: There's an old bromide in the theater that there is no theater without an audience. For those of us who will never be fortunate enough to play in a symphony orchestra, what is our role as listeners?

Mr. BARENBOIM: Well, I think the most important thing for a listener is to realize that he, too, should not listen to music in a passive way; that if you sit in a concert hall and expect to be moved or taken off your seat by the music, it will not happen. You have to really have the will to hang onto the first note as it is being played, and then really stay with it and take the flight, as it were, you know, for the duration of the piece.

Prof. SAID: I think there's a difference between just enjoying music, which for most people really means keeping it in the background, and then the opposite, which is to foreground it and make it a central concern by knowledge and passion and commitment to it, which is not only something a performer does but also, I believe, a listener.

SIMON: Gentlemen, I can't thank you enough. Thanks so much for your time.

Mr. BARENBOIM: Thank you very much.

Prof. SAID: Thank you. Thank you.

SIMON: Speaking with us from Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Daniel Barenboim, who's conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and in New York City, Professor Edward Said. They are co-authors of "Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society."



SIMON: I'm Scott Simon. Have a happy new year.

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