Daniel Barenboim has demonstrated many times that as well as being a leading interpreter of core classical repertoire, he is also a keen thinker and a determined political activist. In books such as Parallels and Paradoxes, which contained a series of dialogues around the intersections of music, culture, and society between Barenboim and his late friend (and prominent theorist in his own right) Edward Said, and in public forums such as The Reith Lectures, which he delivered in 2006, Barenboim's conviction that musical thinking contains the seed of all thinking, has been outlined and developed. His foundation and patronage of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has proved a celebrated and successful testing ground for the political application of musical frameworks of thought and action.
Barenboim believes that the activities of playing and listening to music can provide the individual with both symbolic (in the aesthetics of the sound) and actual (in the experience of collaboration and labour) illustrations of key human qualities of mutual dependence, hard work, emotional maturity, and community. Like many cultural theorists of music, Barenboim relates the procedures of music to those of life. The difference with Barenboim comes in the degree to which he seeks to emphasise the impossibility of separating music from life. The essence of his thought is summed up succinctly by the title of his most recent book, Everything Is Connected, which is now being released in a paperback edition in the UK by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
The book is a portmanteau. It consists of two sections; the first has a series of new, extended essays on the ‘The Power of Music’ that apply the conceptual Urlinie to different situations. The second works through an assemblage of shorter pieces on composers (Bach, Boulez, Mozart Schumann), important figures (Furtwängler, Said), and political ideas (concerning Israel-Palestine).The pieces in the second half recapitulate and vary the ideas introduced earlier. Despite its apparently piecemeal nature the book hangs together remarkably well as a coherent and integrated thesis on the multiplicity and range of music as a human act of knowledge, aesthetics, and skill. The book’s editor, Elena Cheah, deserves some credit for this.
Barenboim writes clearly and, at times, evocatively, and the basic building blocks of his thought are sound (pun intended). Even though his ideas are somewhat uncontroversial and perhaps universally shared, they certainly bear repeating, especially by such a compelling authorial voice as he possesses. From the first essay, 'Sound and Thought', the ideas of interconnectivity that will appear again and again in the book are outlined with clarity and conviction. The internal discourse of each essay sometimes feels like a Messiaen piece; parataxis and elision rule over smooth flow from paragraph to paragraph, but this complaint is relatively minor. The generally lucid style of the text allows direct communication of thought and argument throughout.
Barenboim's vast experience as a performer marks his writing out from others working in similar areas. Again and again insights on how the large and small details of musical form echo and deal in reality are evoked. The relation of different types of sound to silence, the comparability of musical time to the time of all processes, be they political (he cites the mistreatment of time in the Oslo Accords), or personal, the many layers of thought required to bring off long-range crescendos in performance, the relativity and meaning of composers’ markings on the score, and the difference between intensity and volume (and power and force); all these figure highly in the expert first essay and throughout. The difficulties of bringing these elements to acoustic reality are rehearsed, whilst always being grounded in the idea that their bearing reflects a wider bearing of action. Barenboim's writing here reveals a depth of insight into musical poetics that could only come from extended engagement with music on the practical and theoretical levels. The minutiae of the thought, and the plea for attention to detail in every area of life that Barenboim presents, is captured in the following quote from pages 20 and 21: 'what is, perhaps, the most difficult lesson for the human being - learning to live with discipline yet with passion, freedom yet with order, is evident in any single phrase of music'.
These ideas are developed in the other essays. In the third long essay, 'Freedom of Thought and Interpretation', Barenboim complements his earlier somewhat hardened and antiquated view of interpretation (he talks early on about music not needing interpretation, only observation of the score), with a much more nuanced and personal account seemingly more in line with his practice as a performer. In that view, radical freedom of thought, reconciliation of the finite and the infinite, and a move from instinctive to analytical understanding of the music, are praised. This vision of interpretation is heavily informed by a light but coherent reading of Spinoza's Ethics, and the model of knowledge outlined therein.
In the 'Finale' of the first section, Barenboim gives a sensitive account of the Israel/Palestine situation. He underscores the place that true historical memory, the 'organic' participation of all members in the Middle East, and the acknowledgement of the interdependence of the two nations of Israel/Palestine will have in helping to secure a peaceful solution to the conflict. Barenboim calls for an opening up to content (reality of life for Jews and Arabs in the region), as opposed to perception (which relates to his own history performing Wagner in Israel). This political grounding is matched in 'The Orchestra', where the author's notion of hierarchy of voices and interdependence of horizontal and vertical processes (the successive and simultaneous aspects of line and tone), is compared to the same multiplicity in society. He also expands here on the account given in Parallels & Paradoxes of the origins of his and Said's uniting of Jew and Arab musicians under the banner of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, where 'the universal metaphysical language of music becomes the link that these young people have with each other' (p. 68).
The political discussion reaches an apotheosis in the powerful and perceptive account of two very different Palestinian lives, 'A Tale of Two Palestinians'. There, the experiences of Ramzi and Saleem, one from a refugee camp in Ramallah, the other raised within Israeli society in Nazareth, are outlined. The internal qualities of music are ignored here (as they are again in the similarly observant account of personal and national identity in '60 years of Israel'), in favour of a more general examination of how music has helped transform both men's lives. Barenboim writes well about the problems of integration and acceptance that suffuse the conflict. Here, as elsewhere, he gives an incredibly powerful and balanced reading of the political situation; he calls Israel out for its gross mistreatment of refugees and for its cultural insensitivity to Arabic culture, but he is likewise not afraid to criticise Palestinian tactics in the struggle. As with the musical discussions, Barenboim is always attentive to the complexity of the situation, in this case particularly to the complex identities of Arabs in Israel and Israelis. He urges the same nuanced attentiveness to historical and current details that he does in his accounts of musical interpretation.
Barenboim is always sharp when discussing music, and his contributions here do not disappoint. His observations about Mozart, his most cherished of composers, are typically perceptive; Mozart's music outlines a difficult admixture of depth and lightness, where 'each contour is strongly defined by its opposite'. Barenboim positions Mozart as a provocateur because, in his words, 'anarchy is always erotic' (referring to Wagner and Beethoven), whereas Mozart actually looks more directly at everyday human experience and shows a greater understanding of human nature in his music through ostensibly simple constructions, which makes him 'strange' for us today (p. 196). Barenboim is deeply praiseworthy of Bach for uniting piety and individualism as no other has, whilst he revisits Schumann's symphonies and places them compellingly in their own time. His piece on Boulez is more biographical, taken from the viewpoint of a long held and clearly important friendship; it provides a valuable glimpse into a shared history of performance and composition.
So, there is much to praise in this book. Some clear problems run through it, however, which need flagging up. As I said, Barenboim's conceptual framework, that music connects and is connected to the whole scope of human activity, is commonly held and uncontroversial. The strength of the text is Barenboim's practitioner status, and the depth of insight that he has developed out of that experience. The weakness is his relentlessly middling frame of reference. Canonical thinkers and musicians are the sole focus. Agamben, Critchley, Negri and Badiou (for instance) are ignored in favour of Aristotle, St. John, Nietzsche, Spinoza and The Bible, just as Mozart, Schumann, Bach and Boulez are preferred to Mendoza, Manoury, Rivas and Barrett. The safety of this perspective folds into the discourse itself, which is compromised periodically by lapses into banality or, occasionally, by being simply out of touch.
The justifiable plea Barenboim offers in 'Listening and Hearing' for the 'education of the ear' in modern society perhaps suffers the most for its author's faults. Barenboim's ideas here are banal. Anyone reading the book will be already aware of the value of hearing, of the importance of the architecture of sonic space, and of the depravities of lazy, associative, 'descriptive' marketing; his laments over the latter reminded me of Suzanna Cusick's precious and prim howls at the use of music in torture, as if the music itself could somehow be claimed as in any way morally active or agentive in the act. The tenor of the piece is also damagingly out of touch with modern cultural theory; in discussing muzak, for example, Barenboim's thesis on the sonic architectonics of society ignore the immersive, oceanic music that has been made in positive response to the bewildering, conflicting sound signals received in our ear everyday. Society is not primarily visual as Barenboim asserts, but overwhelmingly visual-aural immersive; read McLuhan, Baudrillard, Toop, Chambers, etc. etc. for evidence of this. Moreover, ambient music, to name a pervasive and productive modern genre, invigorates the author's simple opposition of passive consumption and intellectual participation, with a passive intellectualism! Muzak, the force of marketisation and urban clamour, is more productively answered by consensual interaction and recuperation, not lazy, antiquated attacks that can only reach the most simple-minded of Ivory-towers.
Problems abound elsewhere. Barenboim's insistence, for instance, on musical compositions as having to be interconnected and intergrated (a self-fulfilling criterion for the inclusion of pieces on Bach and Boulez), totally ignores the collage style effects of someone like Ives. (And what's with the first main sentence of the book: 'I firmly believe that it is impossible to speak about music'?!). For every slip into antiquation, however, comes a moment of insight more than worth the wait. Barenboim's discussion in the first chapter of the experience of timelessness (or indeed occlusion of time) when playing music, and his later relation of that very idea to Furtwängler's conducting aesthetic, is outstanding in that respect.
So, much to praise, but much, equally, to lament. For a book that purports to deal in contemporary politics to have its aesthetic and philosophical frameworks anchored in such different times is surely misguided. The main conceits of the book are well-delivered and engaging, but the arguments and the detail (that word again) of the thought would have been much more persuasive if they had had contemporary grounding. That being said, the audience for the book is very clearly both the specialist and non-specialist alike, and so it would clearly be remiss to grumble too much about these finer details. Just the fact of having such a perceptive and lucid book about music in fairly wide public circulation is cause for celebration, and Barenboim deserves a great deal of respect for his efforts.
Daniel Barenboim photo by Oliver Mark