Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Parallels and Paradoxes
Explorations in Music and Society (Excerpt)

Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said

Chapter One


Edward W. Said: One area where Daniel and I disagree is that we have different views of the history of the part of the world from which we both come. That is to say, Daniel sees history from a point of view that is obviously different from that of a Palestinian. And in fact there is some value in keeping distinct different views of history without collapsing them into one another, and I think this tension can be healthy rather than unhealthy. […]

I don’t think it’s necessary that everyone should agree, as long as there’s a mutual acknowledgment that a different view exists. That’s the important thing. We must have respect for each other’s views and tolerate each other’s histories. […]

Chapter Two

EWS: There’s no real equivalent of the performer in literature. Authors can read before a public, but the logical aim of what we do is to produce silence—silent readings. Now, in the case of a performing musician like you, the idea of performance is the end result of what you’re doing.

Daniel Barenboim: Yes, but the equivalent of somebody writing a book is not somebody performing a piece of music but rather writing one. In other words, I don’t think you can compare a writer with a pianist. You have to compare a writer with a composer; although for the composer, in many ways, the ultimate goal is to get a performance of his works. But I think that there is a very clear difference between the whole process of preparing a work of music for performance and the performance itself. In a performance, you don’t stop unless there is some unforeseen dramatic interruption. Once the piece starts, it goes to the end. And, therefore, it has to have a certain inevitability and a certain logical construction as far as volume, sound, and speed are concerned, which are not the same as in rehearsal, when you can stop and try to better things. A performance has only one possibility—in other words, the nature of sound being ephemeral, once it is over, it is finished. In the process of preparation, one has to take into account all these elements—the fact that it has to go to one goal. In other words, it is the sort of equivalent to the life of a human being or of a plant: that it starts from nothing and ends in nothing …

EWS: From silence to silence …

DB: From silence to silence, and that you can’t stop until the end. In our technologically advanced time, it is very easy to forget what this “one timeness” is because everything can be saved and repeated through technology, whereas this cannot. You can make a tape or you can make a recording of a live concert and keep it, but for the people who are there at the concert, it never comes again.

EWS: Yes, I think this is something that seems very problematic to me because, with both literature and painting, time isn’t always going forward: one can go around, come back, read, re-read. In other words, the occasion isn’t quite as powerful as the performance, which dictates, as you said, the logic of going forward from beginning to end. A performance has no repeatability in a way. Even if there is a tape, it’s not the same thing; it’s already another. Don’t you think?

DB: Of course, even if it is repeated the next day, it is a different performance.

EWS: And so the question is: Does the element of waste and loss come into it, so that there’s a certain built-in undercutting of the music by silence, which, in literature, we preserve? All of the readings and re-readings, in the case of some writers, can theoretically be included in the text—somebody who wants to keep coming back to change during the process of editing, and so on. And even for the critic, there’s the opportunity to read and re-read constantly all that’s preserved in print. For the musician, that sense of loss, when the performance is over and silence is restored, reminds me, for example, of the way, in some of the Beethoven middle period works, like the Fifth Symphony or the end of Fidelio, there’s almost a kind of hysteria to affirm something at the end. Like a great C-major throbbing, which is an attempt to forestall, defer, evade the ending.

DB: As if to defy silence …

EWS: As a way of defying silence and prolonging the sound. Do you see that?

DB: I see that very well. But I see music, in many ways, as a defiance of physical laws—one of them is the relation to silence. The main difference between a Beethoven symphony and the sonnets of Shakespeare is that, although the words, as written in the book, are a notation of Shakespeare’s thoughts—in the same way that the score is nothing but a notation of what Beethoven imagined—the difference is that the thoughts existed in Shakespeare’s mind and in the reader’s mind. But in the Beethoven symphonies, there is the added element of actually bringing these sounds into the world: in other words, the sounds of the Fifth Symphony do not exist in the score.

That is the phenomenology of sound—the fact that sound is ephemeral, that sound has a very concrete relation to silence. I often compare it to the law of gravity; in the same way that objects are drawn to the ground, so are sounds drawn to silence, and vice versa. And if you accept that, then you have a whole dimension of physical inevitabilities, which as a musician you try to defy. This is why courage is an integral part of making music. Beethoven was courageous not only because he was deaf but also because he had to overcome superhuman challenges. The sheer act of making music is an act of courage since you are trying to defy many of the physical laws of nature. The first one is a question of silence. If you want to maintain the sound and if you want to create the tension that comes from sustained sound, the first moment of relationship is between the first sound and the silence that precedes it, and the next one is between the first and the second note, and so on ad infinitum. In order to achieve this, you are defying the law of nature; you’re not letting the sound die as it naturally would tend to. And therefore, in the performance, besides knowing the music and understanding it, the first important thing for a musician to understand is how does sound operate when you bring it into this world, when you bring it into this room. In other words, what is the reverberation? What is the prolongation of the sound? And the art of making music through sound is, for me, the art of illusion. You create, on the piano, the illusion of being able to let the sound grow on one note, which the piano is totally incapable of doing, physically. You defy that. You create the illusion through the phrasing, through the use of the pedal, through many ways. You create the illusion of growth of a tone, which doesn’t exist, and you can also create the illusion of slowing down the process of decreasing volume. And I think, with the orchestra, it’s different because some of the instruments can sustain it. But the art of illusion, and the art of defying physical laws, is the first element that strikes me in a performance. And this is what one has to prepare and rehearse—not, however, to arrive at a formula for performance, which is, unfortunately, in my opinion, very often the case.

EWS: You mean a gimmick of some sort?

DB: No, not necessarily a gimmick; a formula in the sense of arriving at certain conclusions about balance, about tempo, and about phrasing, and being satisfied with what one has arrived at, having corrected what one dislikes in order simply to try and achieve that again in the evening as a performance. This is, for me, a total misunderstanding.


[Y]ou can’t put everything into alcohol and preserve it so that, in the evening, you open the bottle and it is there. And I think that the examination and observation of the phenomenology of sound is extremely important in rehearsal, and especially in an orchestra. It’s also true for a solo piece, but in an orchestral situation, it’s easier to see what I mean. After all, the composer’s notation is, in some respects, much more approximate than people like to think—you know, this question of truthful to the letter, it doesn’t really exist.

EWS: Why?

DB: Because the score is not the truth. The score is not the piece. The piece is when you actually bring it into sound.

EWS: So, you don’t think there’s an absolute object called the piece?

DB: No, no.

EWS: There’s a school of criticism that says there is no stable textual object and that every object is created anew in the reading or performance or interpretation of it. What is a troubling thing, then, is the notation of a score or text—let’s call it a text, because that’s what it is; I mean, we’re talking about a printed object. Where would one set the minimum of what is required to produce the performance? There is extreme literalness, or fundamentalism, where you say, “Well, he says this; therefore, we have to do it just that way.”

DB: The audibility of a score. In other words, when Beethoven writes crescendo, he doesn’t write crescendo at one point for the flutes and then two bars later for the clarinets and then the strings and then one bar before the forte for the trumpets and timpani.

EWS: No. It’s all together.

DB: Exactly. If you let all these instruments do the crescendo at one time, by the second bar you don’t hear anything. Obviously, the timpani and the trumpets will cover everybody else. The second flute doesn’t stand a chance with that. Therefore, you start, already, with a very simple question of balance, of audibility, without getting into questions of interpretation. I don’t think the word “interpretation” comes into all of this. Audibility. Transparency. How do you create it? The minute you make it audible, are you being truthful to the text by asking the trumpets and the timpani to start the crescendo considerably later and to give the last impulse before the climax? In a way, you are being unfaithful to the text because you’re actually changing it. It’s a very small example. I’m only saying this to try and make clear the approximate nature of the musical notation. A note is a note. That’s clear. But that’s where it ends, even when it says that there’s a dynamic indication—forte, that means loud, yes, but in relation to what? And this is what I mean by the observation of the phenomenology of sound: how the sound accumulates; how you can create the illusion of a sound being longer than you wanted; how you can create the illusion of sound starting out of nowhere—an objective impossibility and, yet, the very essence of making music. When you hear a Bruckner symphony with the string tremolos starting out of nowhere, this is a creation of illusion because if you measure it purely physically, you know, at one point, the sound starts. 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 or metaphysical, but it is a defiance. In order to defy a physical law, you have to understand that physical law and to understand how it is that things sound in a certain way and why. And from there, you go to the question of phrasing, and even that has to do with the question of time and space. In tonal music how much time is required for a chord that has a very important function of creating, or having created, tension to achieve the release of that tension? In other words, there is a certain amount of time necessary for that. And this, to my mind, is what has to be rehearsed. […] Once you have observed all of these things, and you know that a certain crescendo doesn’t have to go above a certain level because there’s yet another one coming two bars later and another one two pages later, and you know that the tempo has to do certain things, and that with a slight modification of tempo, which is not only accepted but actually required for the melos of the music to come through—when you do all that, then you are at the moment of the performance. It’s not just the excitement of the fact that it’s being done in public, it is not the excitement of the applause before and afterwards; and it’s certainly not the excitement of getting dressed in a special way to walk on the stage. It is completely the excitement of actually being able to live a certain piece from beginning to end without any interruption, without getting out of it. In a way, for me, there’s nothing comparable to that in life.

EWS: That’s a very compelling description of the experience. It’s an experience, really, of a kind of immediacy that is all-consuming. And one of the things that has always bothered me about the performance situation is that it’s entirely a function of a modern concert hall, which is a late development in the history of music.


DB: […] It is a great paradox that music can really have its fullest force of intensity and expression if it is isolated in a room or in a concert hall. The actual element of isolating music from the rest of the universe is extremely important because, in a way, it is the creation of a sound universe. If a listener is able and willing to attach himself, as it were, to the first note in a performance and really stay attached, without any wavering of concentration, to the end, he has actually lived through a whole universe, whether it is a short work of Chopin or a huge symphony of Bruckner. On the one hand, music exists in isolation and, on the other, it mirrors or often anticipates social development. There was the certitude of the church and how people believed blindly, in many ways, in the eighteenth century. Then, there comes the revolutionary spirit that starts in Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, where there is much more chromaticism, where there are the form changes. The sonata form is a form of tension, of strife, and of development, but still with a positive outlook—with a belief in the healthiness of the society and the humanitarian ideas. All that breaks apart by the time we get to Wagner and, as you said, Balzac and Dickens in literature. Suddenly, the sonata form doesn’t really give composers the basis for the expression that it did up to Brahms. And therefore, Liszt and Strauss invent the tone poem; Wagner creates his music dramas. The hierarchy of tonality—which accepted the greater importance of certain chords—is beginning to be dissected and suddenly undermined. In other words, it’s not the hierarchy of God anymore. There’s not even the hierarchy of the social classes in the kingdom. Now, you have a republic, with tonic, dominant, subdominant, and all these musical terminologies, which show order and hierarchy, until you end with the atonality, where all twelve tones are equal.

EWS: I’m one of the people who actually believes what Theodor Adorno says about this passage that you’ve just described. That is to say, what you’re really moving from is a kind of music that is written for society, in the case of the earlier composers, such as Bach, but also Beethoven. There’s a compact between Beethoven and his listeners, which is always being challenged by Beethoven’s peculiar excesses and extra drama, which is what makes him so extraordinary a composer. Adorno says when you get to people like Schoenberg, however, where all the tones are equal, you get to a point where it becomes very difficult to listen to the music. And in fact, Adorno actually says that music of that sort is really not to be listened to. It can’t be heard, in a way, because it’s almost too much of an effort to understand the totally atomized and organized sound world of a twelve-tone work. There isn’t the sense of the drama and the contrasts, which you have, let’s say, in a Beethoven sonata, nor is there the drama, the development, the affirmations, and, in the end, the negations, let’s say, as in the Wagner. So, I just wondered, when you perform Schoenberg, do you feel that there’s more isolation and more removal in what you’re doing than, let’s say, there would be if you were playing Liszt or Bach?

DB: I still think the greatest sense of isolation and removal from anything, for me—but this is very subjective, and I do not claim this to be objective—is in late Beethoven. If you look at the Grosse Fuge, you look at passages of the Missa solemnis, and you look at the Diabelli Variations or the last three piano sonatas, this is total isolation and removal from the world, much more so than Schoenberg.


And then you have to ask yourself: does music have a purpose, a social purpose, and what is it? Is it to provide comfort and entertainment, or is it to ask disturbing questions of the performer and of the listener? If you look at the role that music, and much more than music—theater and opera—played in societies and the totalitarian regimes, it was the only place that political ideas and social totalitarianism could be criticized. In other words, a performance of Beethoven, under the Nazis or under any kind of totalitarian regime, whether left or right, suddenly assumes the call for freedom, even becomes a very direct criticism of the policies of the regime and, therefore, is actually a much more disturbing and, at the same time, uplifting thing. This is a long way from the entertainment of Mozart divertimentos or Johann Strauss waltzes.

EWS: There’s the argument that literature is more interesting when produced in a situation where there’s extreme censorship, so that one pays close attention to all kinds of ingenuities and subterfuges that the writer uses. For me, what is troubling is that in a society like ours where art and music are part of the luxury of routine—for example, there’s a symphony subscription, and on a given day, the Chicago Orchestra is going to play the Beethoven and the Brahms symphonies: how can one determine what the purpose of music is in a context like that? Is it to confirm—to confirm the existent situation, since there’s no need for it to challenge? You’re not criticizing in the same way as you would in a society, such as the one you mentioned, where the nine Beethoven symphonies or Fidelio stand as a kind of affirmation of freedom which is otherwise unavailable. In a society in which there is a kind of accepted threshold of freedom, such as this one, then what do these works signify? Are they merely confirmation of the status quo? Do they confirm the power and attractiveness of the institution of the orchestra, which becomes a kind of symbol of the prosperity of the society? As an intellectual, I feel that I’m not interested in finding that out over and over. What I’m interested in doing is always to challenge what is given. What would be the parallel in music, in the performance of music? I wonder whether it’s possible.

DB: […] Let’s stay, for the sake of argument, with the example of Beethoven, and let’s […] stay with absolute music. What role can the Eroica Symphony play today? You do not play the Eroica Symphony just because it is a very famous piece and it guarantees that more people will buy tickets and come to hear the concert. The Eroica was not necessarily thought of as a critique of society or a regime; nor was it written for the glory of the French Revolution, and all that. I think that there is a very important personal message in each one of these Beethoven pieces. In other words, yes, in the West, we have, as you rightly say, an acceptably livable amount of freedom, but how free is the human being? How does the human being deal with himself? How does he deal with his problems of existence? How does he deal with problems of his place in society? How does he see himself? How does he cope with his anxieties, with anguish? How does he cope with joy? How does he cope with all those things? All that, and much more, is, for me, the substance of a Beethoven symphony. There is a parallel, hundreds of parallels. For instance, if we again look at the Beethoven Fourth Symphony from a purely harmonic point of view, the introduction is a search for tonality. It begins with a lone B-flat. It could be B-flat. It could be A-sharp. It could be in any kind of tonality. And then, the strings move, as in unison, without giving you any idea of the tonality. Then, at the end of this introduction, you are basically in the dominant chord of B-flat that the piece began with, except when it started it was not clear whether it was going to be major or minor. And then, the main Allegro of the piece, the whole exposition, with its two themes, is an affirmation of B-flat. What is the purpose of establishing that? The purpose is to establish a very secure sense of home tonality. In other words, B-flat has become the home of the music. Then, through a very astute enharmonic change—in other words, when B-flat and A-sharp become the same note—we suddenly get into totally foreign territory at the end of the development section. Why is it foreign? Because home has already been established. And this is what I would call the psychology of tonality. This is creating a sense of home, going to an unknown territory, and then returning. This is a process of courage and inevitability. There is the affirmation of the key—you want to call it the affirmation of self, the comfort of the known territory—in order to be able to go somewhere totally unknown and have the courage to get lost and, then, find again this famous dominant, in an unexpected way, that leads us back home. Isn’t that a sort of parallel of the process that every human being has to go through in his inner life in order to first achieve the affirmation of what one is, then have the courage to let that identity go in order to find the way back. I think this is what music is about. I wouldn’t say that it is always a criticism of society or of the human being, but it is a parallel of the inner process of the innermost thoughts and feelings of a human being. I think this is what Beethoven is about. I don’t know whether I’ve convinced you.

EWS: No, I think it’s convincing. What you’ve described is an allegory that corresponds to one of the great myths that we find in literature, which is the myth of home, discovery, and return: the odyssey. There is absolutely a parallel between the explorations of Beethoven and of Homer, but having both the courage to leave and then to return is not just wandering away and coming back; there’s a certain working out that is extremely intricate. Odysseus leaves home, leaves Penelope and his comforts in Ithaca. He goes to war and returns when it is over. But it’s not just returning—that’s where the fantastic power of the Odyssey is—but returning through one series of adventures after another, to which he’s attracted. He could have just come home. But he is also a curious man. It’s not just a matter of leaving home, it’s leaving home and discovering things that attract you as well as threaten you. That’s the point. He could have avoided his adventure with Polyphemus, the great one-eyed giant. But he felt he had to talk to him, he had to have a direct experience of challenging the fearsome creature, in order to finally return home, via these kinds of adventures, which is not the same as simply coming home after a day at the office.

DB: Of course. That is the same thing in the sonata form. The recapitulation is not the same as the exposition, although the notes are the same.

EWS: Yes, exactly. So there’s that sense in which, even at home, when he comes back to it, there’s an interference. It’s a different kind of place. It could be richer. There’s a threat in it, perhaps. It’s a slightly more complex thing, as Cavafy observes. So it’s not the solid return where everything ends. It’s the return where you feel that something new could begin. So, that’s one kind of very powerful experience. We find another in the Iliad, which is that of wandering and homelessness. In other words, these are people—the Greeks, I mean, since Homer concentrates on them—who are far away from home, many of whom, like Achilles, are going to die; they’re not going to come home. In other words, there’s no return here but a profound, unending finality. So, this is an experience not so much only of desolation—it’s not desolation—it’s really an experience of extraordinary adventure, but constant experience of death as well.

DB: Masada.

EWS: But, in Masada, for example, there’s a kind of purposefulness: we don’t want to be killed by the Romans. But in the case of the Iliad, there’s a certain sense in which Homer is really talking about a pure death-like force. There’s a kind of senselessness to it. This is a war that’s been going on for ten years. What’s the point of it? Combatants have forgotten the original cause almost completely. And there’s a certain exercise of arms, the martial spirit, and a kind of recklessness, which has no purpose, in the end, except combat itself. I wonder whether there’s a parallel for that in music, where in the Second Viennese School, the absence of tonality is a kind of homelessness, a kind of permanent exile because you’re not going to come back. And I think the typology exists in human experience.

DB: You mean the Second Viennese School as refugees’ music?

EWS: Yes. Exiles’ music—not only from the social world but also from the tonal world, if the tonal world by the time they inherit it is the accepted world, the world of habit and custom and a certain kind of solidity.

DB: I hadn’t thought about it in this sense, but it’s very convincing to me the way you put it.


EWS: There is another parallel between what you play and conduct and what I write about and lecture on. A lot of what we do is based in the nineteenth century, but we are twentieth and twenty-first-century people. When I’m writing and lecturing about the works of the past, my main interest is to try to explain them and present them, as much as possible, as creations of their time. For me, a Jane Austen novel or Verdi’s Aida are very much located, in Austen’s case, in the early nineteenth century, and the other in the late nineteenth century, and my reading of them tries, as much as possible, to take that into account. In other words, I can’t expect of Jane Austen that she be like Proust. Obviously, there are certain things that she can do that Proust wouldn’t think of doing or couldn’t possibly do; and the same with Verdi in Aida, where there’s a certain expectation about the nature of opera and its audience, which is unique to his time. But I wonder, very often, because of my interest in the past, whether I’m too much in the past. When you’re conducting and playing, you’re not really always concerned, principally, with playing the works of your time, although one does that. You certainly commission and play works by contemporary composers. But the main staple of your diet, as for me, is the great work of the past. So, then, a question of relevance comes up. How much do you feel that you’re distorting works from the past in order to put them, let’s say, in the context of a brilliant late-twentieth-century orchestra like the Chicago Symphony? When you take a work, let’s say a Beethoven symphony, composed for a particular location—a much smaller orchestra and space—and transform it for the twentieth century, it somewhat violates the past. Do you feel, as I do, that there’s a kind of constant going back and forth between the requirements of the past and the question of relevance in the present?

DB: Yes, of course, there is. But I think that every great work of art has two faces: one toward its own time and one toward eternity. In other words, there are certain aspects of a Mozart symphony or a Mozart opera that are clearly linked to their time and they have no relevance today. The droit du seigneur of the count in Figaro is so totally time-bound. But there is something that is timeless about this music, and that aspect of it has to be performed with a sense of discovery.

EWS: But why call it timeless? You’re in time, you’re not out of time. … So it can be brought up to date, in a way—that’s what you’re saying.

DB: Timeless in the sense that it is not only limited to that time, it is permanently contemporary. This does not apply to every piece. I don’t think Aida is permanently contemporary, but late Beethoven certainly is. A lot of Debussy is. I think it is there that one comes into a question of taste and subjectivity. By the same token, I can mention three composers that I have performed with regularity—I would say with alarming regularity for some of our subscribers of the Chicago Symphony—Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle, and Elliott Carter: three contemporary composers.

EWS: Difficult composers.

DB: Difficult composers, and, as I said, I’ve played them with “alarming” regularity because I believe in the understanding of difficult situations, difficult music, or any kind of difficulties, through familiarity. Familiarity, in this case, does not breed contempt, but breeds understanding.

EWS: You don’t think it takes the edge off it?

DB: Not at all. I think that one should be able to play Mozart and Beethoven with the greatest sense of discovery and of the unexpected. In other words, you have to be able to bring the listener so immediately into the piece that he, then, makes the journey, although he knows what is coming. You have to be able to make him forget that he knows.

EWS: Almost like a great actor in a part. You know what’s going to happen in Hamlet, but what you do is relive it, in fact. […]

DB: […] For me, the idea is to play Mozart and Beethoven as if it were a first performance—a recently commissioned piece—and to play works of Boulez and Carter as if they had already the experience of a hundred years.


EWS: And, in a certain sense, you as a performer playing Carter are also the same Daniel Barenboim who has played Beethoven and Bach and Wagner, so that whole history, as it were, is compressed into the performance of the piece. And similarly, as a reader or writer or teacher or critic, what I feel is that when I’m reading a contemporary work, say a play by Beckett, I’ve also read Shakespeare and all these other earlier plays, but also somehow forcing them into a kind of service of the contemporary work that’s being performed in front of an audience as if for the first time.

DB: Of course. But we mustn’t forget that Carter also knows his Wagner and Mozart and Debussy and his music would not be possible without that knowledge. But I think that, in the end, it is false modesty to say, as a performing musician, “I am the servant of the music. My only interest is fidelity. All I want to do is play the music exactly as it is in the score.” It is either a very great arrogance, or false modesty, because it is an objective impossibility. The score is not the piece.

EWS: No, no, but what I’m trying to say is that the arrogance is required to say, “Well, that’s his piece, but I’m doing it now.” You understand what I’m trying to say: there’s a certain sovereignty, which one has.

DB: But I think that unless you are able to digest the piece to the point where you feel it is part of you, even though it may be incomplete, then you shouldn’t perform it. I think at the moment that you do it, you have to have the feeling that you and it are inseparable. The trouble is, when one speaks about freedom in today’s critical world, this applies almost exclusively to freedom of speed, freedom of tempo. When somebody says in criticism of performances, “He was free with the tempo”; or “He was very strict,” it implies “He was strict, therefore he’s analytical, uncompromising”; “He was free with the tempo, therefore he’s romantic, emotional.”

EWS: That’s stupid.

DB: Of course it is. But this is also part of the mentality of our age—that everything is made compact, reduced to a token or a slogan. There is a contradiction in the fact that we live in an age that considers itself extremely critical but does not require of the individual to have the means to criticize.

EWS: Or the culture, which requires a lot of effort, a lot of patience.

DB: I read once somewhere that Chomsky refuses to speak on television because he knows that he will not be given the time to explain a concept to the end, and I have a lot of respect for that.

EWS: Yes, and I’ve stopped doing that too. I used to do a lot of media appearances. You have to do it in what they call sound bites. I’m completely against it. I just think it’s a waste of time. That’s why I prefer now as a means of expression, either writing or giving a lecture, where you have time to develop ideas in front of an audience. I understand the attraction of a kind of guerrilla intervention—you do it quickly and you disturb. That’s fine, but it’s not enough. The person has to be actually intervening rather than dipping into a debate. A musician intervenes in the life of his audience. The audience is leaving everything else and interrupting their lives to come and listen to you. Similarly, people who want to read me have to put something aside in order to devote the time. For this intervention to be effective requires discipline on my part, and that discipline involves knowing something, having a particular culture, having a particular training. I think it’s terribly important. In my case, it is what you’d call a philological training, where you read the texts in a historical context and understand the discipline of the language and its forms and its discourses; for you, the study of classical music, understanding the forms of a sonata, the variation, the symphony, or whatever. This training is beginning to disappear among the young musicians of our time. And what you have instead is a kind of, in my opinion, baseless eclecticism: “Ah! Beethoven: Da-da-da-dum.” It’s a phrase of that sort. Or “Beethoven is the composer who does X and Y.”

DB: Well, it’s a slogan. For me, there is a clear philosophical criticism of slogans, of the language of television, which is that it does not take into account the relation between content and time. In other words, certain content demands a particular amount of time, and you cannot compress it and you cannot abbreviate it. It’s as if you would say: “Well, give me the essence of Beethoven’s score in two minutes.”

EWS: Or, as they used to have all those cheap recordings promising “the world’s most popular themes,” where there were extracts from pieces of music to give a kind of condensed digest of the work. That, I think, completely betrays the whole thing, much as the “soundtrack” of Amadeus played as a self-sufficient rendition of Mozart betrays Mozart.

DB: Completely. And I think that in every process, whether it is a cultural process or whether it is a political process, there is an absolutely innate relationship between the content and the time that it takes. And there are certain things, where if you don’t give the time or if you give too much time, it dissipates. I mean, the Oslo Accord, for me, is an absolutely clear example of that, regardless of whether you were in favor or against the Oslo Accord. I know you were against it. I was hopeful that it would work. But the main reason, for me, that it didn’t work is because the momentum—in other words, the speed, the tempo—of the process did not go hand in hand with the content. Maybe this is a sort of philosophical confirmation of your rejection of the process; in other words, there was something that was wrong and, therefore, it couldn’t have its own tempo. But this is absolutely, for me, a parallel with playing music, where the content requires a given speed, and if you play it at the wrong speed—in other words, much too slow or much too fast, and the whole thing falls apart. This is what happened to the Oslo Accord.

EWS: But according to my way of thinking, the problem with the Oslo Accord was that it was notations—since it was texts, written down—that didn’t conform adequately to the reality of the situation. In other words, it’s like looking at a great range of mountains and deciding that you could represent that range of mountains on a small piece of paper by drawing only one mountain. And I think the problem with the Oslo Accord was that there was a tremendous disparity between the reality—in the case of the Palestinians, a sense of frustration, homelessness, exile, dispossession, which required redress—and a text that said, “Well, no, we’re not going to talk about all that; we’re just going to talk about the clothes you’re wearing”—and so,·that disparity between the reality and the text was what made it flawed. Add to that what you said. In other words, if it had unfolded in a particular way leading slowly to the range of mountains, that would have been one thing. But, in fact, what happened was that the range of mountains, represented by this one single mountain, went in a completely other direction, at the wrong tempo, gradually revealing itself to be more and more inadequate to the situation it was trying to remedy.

DB: But I think that these kinds of conflicts, in a way, cannot be solved by political means. I’ve often thought: What is the difference between a politician and an artist? A politician can only work and do good if he masters the art of compromise: tries to find the areas where the different parties are able and willing to compromise, bring them as close as possible together, and then hope that with the right momentum and the right time, it will become seamless; whereas the artist’s expression is only determined by his total refusal to compromise in anything—the element of courage. And therefore, I think that a conflict of this nature will not be solved only through political means, through economical means, or through arrangements. It requires the courage of everybody to use, as it were, artistic solutions.

EWS: Yes, I know, but why do we, in some profound sense—I’m speaking for myself now—distrust and dislike politicians? Precisely for the reason that they’re fixers. They’re more interested in any end rather than in a larger process. What they want to do is to get to the next position and say, “Look what I’ve done”; whereas for an intellectual or for an artist, the main thing is the ideal, without any compromises. You have something that you want to do, and you’re not really interested in whether you could make little arrangements on the side to assure yourself of a certain kind of comfort, which is what the politician wants. And the question is: Is there any way of bridging the gap? That’s a difficult question—whether the methods of the politician can be open to the methods of the artist and the intellectual?

DB: Well, in a way, this is also the difference of the politician and the statesman, isn’t it? A statesman is somebody with a vision.

EWS: Somebody like Nehru or Mandela who has the vision and, at the same time, the capacity to carry it out, whatever that might involve …

DB: Somebody who has the ability to differentiate between what exists now and what could or should be. And in order to do that, you have to understand the reality, first of all. This phrase “politically correct” already means philosophically incorrect because it means compromising …

EWS: Compromising and conforming. It would be like a musician saying, “Well, I’m not going to discover Beethoven by working on the score and trying to figure it out for myself but by listening to a recording and just repeating it”; in other words, trying to take some example and just copying.

DB: The element of courage is the most important. Courage does not mean simply to play things in a different way, but the courage to be completely uncompromising: on the one hand, like a great statesman, to have understood the reality, understood the text, understood the difficulties of doing it, and then, to have the vision of really going all out with utmost courage. In other words, if you have a crescendo in Beethoven that goes to the end, and then there is a subito piano that creates the illusion of a precipice, you have to do that. You have to go to the precipice, to the end, and then not fall, and not make a crescendo only halfway.

EWS: What is the coward’s way?

DB: Well, to make a crescendo only to a certain point, so that you don’t get to the precipice, but you get a few meters behind it, and then you just drop to the piano. In other words, when Beethoven writes a crescendo and then subito piano, it means that the last note before the subito piano has to be the loudest note of that crescendo. And it takes a lot of courage to do that because it is physically difficult, sound control difficult, everything difficult, in order then to create the subito piano. It’s much easier to take the crescendo only to a certain point and then let it drop so that you can comfortably lead into the piano. But then, the whole effect of precipice is gone. And this is what I’m talking about: courage in the act of music-making, not in what you play and where you play it. And this kind of courage, I think, is required for solving all the real profound humanitarian problems.

New York,
October 8, 1998

Taken from: Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said (2004) Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, edited and with a Preface by Ara Guzelimian. London et al.: Bloomsbury, 26–62. © Edward W. Said, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.