Parallels and Paradoxes (review)
Parallels and Paradoxes
Every society has conflicts in it between justice and injustice, ignorance and knowledge, freedom and oppression. The point is not simply to belong to one side or the other because one is told to, but to choose carefully and to make judgments that render what is just and due to every aspect of the situation. The purpose of education is not to accumulate facts or memorize the “correct” answer, but rather to learn how to think critically for oneself
-Edward W. Said from the article Barenboim and the Wagner Taboo reprinted in Parallels and Paradoxes p. 182
Patriotism can flourish only where racism and nationalism are given no quarter. We should never mistake patriotism for nationalism. A patriot is one who loves his homeland. A nationalist is one who scorns the homelands of others.
-Daniel Barenboim from the article Germans, Jews, and Music reprinted in Parallels and Paradoxes p.172
Parallels and Paradoxes is a book that was on a reading list for a class I never got to take while in Graduate School at SUNY UB. I finally got back to read it and was blown away. Expecting the book to be purely about music and the discourses and polemic between great German composers of the past I was surprised and happy to discover a polemic between two contemporaries regarding the great composers. A particular focus was Beethoven and Wagner, and they used this discussion as a springboard for more contemporary issues including those dealing with complexities in Palestinian, Israeli, and Germanic thought and then expanding this toward a discourse on more global issues. I say contemporary, but in hindsight, I realize that the contemporary is rooted in history, a point not lost on these two gentleman.
Barenboim is Russian Jew born in Argentina, immigrated to Israel in 1947 has lived in London, Paris, Jerusalem, Chicago and currently in Berlin residing as conductor of the Staatskapelle Orchestra. He was the first conductor to break the unwritten ban on performing Wagner in Israel and did it while touring with the Staatskapelle. He has conducted the entire Wagner Ring Cycle in Bayreuth where Wagner’s grandson still controls the music festival.
Said was born into a Palestinian in Jerusalem, and raised in Cairo when he was removed from his birthplace. He was a Christian Arab, and because of being a Christian in a predominantly Muslim community he became displaced again to become a U.S. citizen. He was an intellectual and great commentator on culture’s relationship to society. He pioneered the field of study examining questions of Orientalism, which is frequently reflected as “other” and “taboo” in music, the opera Lakme is fine example of this. He was one of the leading commentators of the complex conflicts in the Middle East. He was also a musicologist, writing many essays and accomplished pianist, but in neither realm was he a professional musician nor musicologist.
The discussions are dynamic starting from the time these men put together an Israeli/Palestinian children’s orchestra, where kids from each background started out by being amazed that others had “classical” musical knowledge, to kids refusing to be stand partners, and eventually creating an orchestra where background, culture and tradition took “second fiddle” to working together to make music. Barenboim and Said then discuss the nature of music and sound creation, the idea that the score is not a piece of music, that that is only realized by the actual performance. They discuss the ownership of music, does it belong to the composer after the final pen stroke or does it then belong to world when it is heard. Furthermore what happens when the performance is over and the sound disappears?
They get into issues of nationality, i.e. the German Sound, and how it is German, yet it is universal. I may not know how to speak German, but as a musician, I can play German music, as well as Italian, French, English, etc etc. So there may be a German music, a German tradition that speaks through Bach to Beethoven to Wagner to Schoenberg, but it is accessible universally. Anyone can hear it.
They get into authenticity, the conservative notion of playing period instruments and how that can be disingenuous because the music itself is fluid, transcending time and able to be played according the reception’s ears and knowledge of today.
All of these things are then expanded into ideas of society, addressing patriotism vs nationalism, history as it relates to fundamental harmony both vertically and horizontally, immigration, taboos, reclamation of sound, prejudice, otherness, enlightenment, mysticism, etc. I have never seen so much intellectual, deep, musical and philosophical ground covered in 186 pages.
This is a book, that while short, takes a long time to read because every word is gold, and the ideas are dense and require unpacking. Although it is presented in musical terms and therefore can be rather inaccessible to those without formal musical training (which they also address as a major concern in this book) I think it worthwhile for non-musicians to read to begin/continue the critical awareness of the great issues challenging our world.
The following are selected quotes (some with my annotations):
Because the score is not the truth. The score is not the piece. The piece is when you actually bring it into sound.
Barenboim (DB) p. 33
At the beginning tremolo of the Bruckner Fourth or Seventh Symphony, you create the illusion that it starts out of nowhere and that sound creeps out of silence, like some beast coming out of the sea and making itself felt before it is seen. This may sound very poetic and metaphysical, but it is a defiance. In order to defy physical law, you have to understand that physical law and to understand how it is that things sound a certain way and why
DB p. 35
This is an important idea both in music and life. You need the understanding in order to create and/or perceive. You must know how it works if you are to know how you fit.
I don’t think that we have any right to have a sort of generalized criticism, if not hatred, of the people who hated us, because then we descend to the level of those people who persecuted us for so many years.
DB pp. 109-110
Whether it’s Jews hating Germans, Palestinians hating Israelis, United States hating Muslims. The minute we hate others for hating us, we descend to the thought and actions of what we hate, we in essence become what we hate. I said something similar about people celbrating the death of Osama bin Laden. I didn’t celebrate, because I celebrate someone’s life, and his life was not worth celebrating. If I were to celebrate death, I would be no better than what I despise.
The moment a composer like Beethoven has actually finished writing a piece, that piece becomes independent of him. It becomes part of the world. The qualities that he has put in don’t necessarily stay there. So, they can be interpreted or misinterpreted, used or abused, as we have seen in the different political trends too.
DB p. 143
I love this. Music is innocent, composer’s intentions are damned. Example, Reagan using a New York, Gay, socialist Jew’s composition for his “Morning in America” commercials. Reagan stood against almost every ideal Aaron Copland stood for. But Copland’s music became independent of Copland the second he finished composing it. Another example is Kubrick’s use of Ode to Joy in a Clockwork Orange, it no longer is a rapturous piece once you’ve sen the movie. Therefore, the music does not necessarily reflect nor represent his ideas. The Same could be said of Wagner, whose ideas were reprehensible, but does that make his music reprehensible?
That was really hard for me to watch and upload.
THIS one is long but important:
DB: The combination of these two factors – the attitude to the profession beyond the professional and the fact that they have such a thorough musical education – makes each one of them play from the score and not from their part. By this I mean that wherever they play, they are perfectly and consciously aware of what this note that they are playing at that moment actually means in the context. In other words, what is the place of that note: what is the place of that note in the chord; and what is it both vertically and horizontally. And this is a very important factor in music-making, what one would call the vertical pressure of the horizontal discourse. This means the melodic line and rhythm go in a horizontal direction, but there is always a vertical pressure of the chording, of the harmonies, that is constantly there. In this respect, music is exactly like history, which has to be lived both simultaneously and subsequently.
EWS: … this structural wholeness, as you described it, the education of musicians and the way they play in the case of the Staatskapelle, and particularly in Beethoven, is disappearing throughout our society. If you think of the major pressures, intellectual and social, that exist, they are toward greater pragmatism – in other words, specialization of knowledge, so that only fellow experts can understand each other. The moment you step out of a particular field, you can no longer communicate with anyone else… The idea of a common discourse doesn’t exist anymore because, first of all, our training is extremely specialized, and then, the whole funding apparatus is geared toward the fragmentation of knowledge, so that people do more and more about less and less. … there is a certain kind of ideological indoctrination that more or less says, “Well it’s not your problem; someone else will solve it for you; you are no longer responsible for that.” There is a sense, particularly in the United States, that we don’t need to know about the rest of the world. The awareness of the overall society and the destiny of where we are going, whether it concerns the environment, the arts, or history is diminished. For example, in America, history is considered to be what is forgotten, When you say to someone “you’re history,” it doesn’t mean that you’re a part of it; it means that you’re obliterated. That’s what history means. …People are no longer educated that way in music, and certainly not in literature. I know because I’ve been teaching for forty years, and I realize now that young students know less and less. You could take for granted, when I began, that students had been educated… As a teacher, you could assume that they knew there was a body of literature… which began in such and such a way that included great figures like Milton and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Yeats, and so on. You can’t assume that anymore. There’s a kind of a pursuit of the narrow, the particular, and the specialized. And the result is that there’s a kind of overall battle where it’s very difficult, in discourse or in intellectual exchange, to have …illuminating and liberating moments.
I truncated this a bit for brevity, but what Barenboim is getting at is the value of the note and how it fits. The note does not exist in a vacuum, it is necessary for the vertical pressure or harmony, it is there because of what came before and it informs what comes next. I can replace the ‘note’ with the ‘individual’ in relation to that individual’s culture, history, context. We do not exist in a vacuum and we only become useful when we understand how we fit, right now, in context with what came before and what is to come. I’ve actually heard this as the true definition of humility.
Said takes this concept and adds to it a concept that was given a name I heard in a lecture last night. This concept is Moral Malpractice. This idea that once we specialize in something, and we don’t follow up, don’t change if we see our specialized actions not being effective in context, that we unaware of context or rely on someone else to take care of, this is moral malpractice. Said goes on to state that if we continue to live this way, in narrow intellectual bubbles, we end up having no meaningful discourse, and our world becomes more and more fragmented. He, like I, sees that things like common core curriculum and standardized tests are actually not the goal of education, it is teaching people critical thought for themselves that is important, and we can really only get this through the humanities/music.
Either everything is absorbed into this one kind of monochromatic, homogeneous, mindless whole or there’s an active sense of the classic civilization threatened by new forces, the response to which is often, “We have to be careful about the other; the other is dangerous.” And I think that the real problem today is that there’s no mediation between these two extremes. Either there’s homogenization or there is xenophobia, but not the sense of exchange. It’s taking place in many parts of the world. Hence the need to return to origins: you know, people who say, “Let us go back to roots”; the need to find a German past, the Jewish past, the Arab past, the American past. There is a need to find a past that is uncontaminated by anything, even though it’s completely unhistorical, because the past is very much like the present.
EWS pp. 152-153
Yup, fear, the other, the “good old days” myth, fear…. Did I say fear. Xenophobia or assimilate to the Borg.
I believe that when all things are right on the stage – when the playing, the expression, everything becomes permanently, constantly interdependent – it becomes indivisible. And this is the mystical, because this is the same idea of religion, of God: that there’s suddenly something that you cannot divide anymore. The experience of music-making is that, in a way. It’s not religious in the sense that one prays to it, but it’s comparable to religion in the sense that it cannot be divided. And when that actually happens, I believe that the active listener, who is sensitive, can communicate with that. This is what I mean by the mystical.
DB p. 156
Just Beautifully Stated. As close to believing or understanding God as I will ever get.
The attitudes of many Germans who are hostile to foreigners seem to me to derive from the fact that the last two or three generations of Germans have not adequately learned what immigration means. They fail to understand that it is possible to have more than one identity at the same time and to accept that people of foreign origin, with foreign customs and a foreign culture, can become part of one’s own land without their threatening one’s identity as German.
DB p. 172
I challenge anyone to replace the word German with American and deny that it is the truth about Americans who are hostile to immigrants as well.
This was hard to watch too.
If you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would do well to play in an orchestra. For when you do so, you know when to lead and when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no inhibitions about claiming a space for yourself. And despite this, or maybe precisely because of it, music is the best means of escape from the problems of human existence.
DB p. 173
Music for the most part is transnational; it goes beyond the boundaries of a nation or a nationality and language. You don’t have to know German to appreciate Mozart, and you don’t have to be French to read a score by Berlioz. You have to know music, which is a very specialized technique acquired with painstaking care quite apart from subjects like history or literature, although I would argue that the context and traditions of individual works of music have to be understood for purposes of true comprehension and interpretation.
EWS pp. 179-180
Politicians can talk their usual nonsense and do what they want, and so can professional demagogues. But for intellectuals, artists and free citizens, there must always be room for dissent, for alternative views, for ways and possibilities to challenge the tyranny of the majority and, at the same time and most importantly, to advance human enlightenment and liberty.
EWS p. 181
Was it dissent?
In the Israeli case about anger and Barenboim, how many writers, musicians, poets, painters would remain before the public if their art was judged by their moral behavior? And who is to decide what level of ugliness and turpitude can be tolerated in the artistic production of any given artist? For a mature mind it should be possible to hold together in one’s mind two contradictory facts: that Wagner was a great artist, and second, that Wagner was a disgusting human being. Unfortunately one cannot have one fact without the other. This is not to say that artists shouldn’t be morally judged for their immorality or evil practices; it is to say that an artit’s work cannot be judged solely on those grounds and banned accordingly.
EWS p. 182
I have, probably insensitively, on many occasions, compared the Wagner conundrum to Michael Jackson, and Phil Spector. Both despicable human beings whom without popular music would not be what it is.
But what about the children?
Yup, direct from a murderer
If you watch nothing else, watch these Israelis and Palestinians play the music of one of the most notorious anti-semites the world has known.
…but the main point has to be that real life cannot be ruled by taboos and prohibitions against critical understanding and emancipatory experience. Those must always be given the highest priority. Ignorance and avoidance cannot be adequate guides for the present.
EWS p. 184
If you have made it this far, you will see why I’m so astounded with this book. It can be found on Amazon or possibly in a library near you. I suggest that you go look it up in WorldCat under the ISBN number of 978-1-4000-7515-7. Worldcat will then direct you to the closest library that has it, or maybe you can access it through your own local library through their inter library loan program (ILL).