Friday, April 07, 2006


Here’s a first. NFE blogging live from the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of the commemcement of the 2006 Reith Lectures. This globally recognised series of talks is, for the first time, given by a world class conductor and pianist, Daniel Barenboim [pictured] – presently director and conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin State Opera and the East-West Divan Orchestra. [Biographical note]

Barenboim’s subject is “the inexpressible continent of music and the inexpressible continent of life”, in a set of reflections being offered in London (Introduction ... understanding and describing the importance of music), Chicago (the hegemony of sight over sound in contemporary culture), Ramallah (the integrating figure of the musician) and Jerusalem (the difference between power and strength).

He began by noting that Busoni claimed music to be“sonorous air” – a precise definition which says everything and nothing. But why is music so important, formative and powerful? Before entering the realm of interpretation, Barenboim chose to pay attention to the objective nature of sound giving rise to “the first note” and to a piece of music which “becomes, rather than is”.

Hearing music is therefore something like joining a train which has already started. An immediate relation is created between “sound” and “silence”. Does one simply displace the other? No. There is energy in sound which sustains its purpose for a time in a way analogous to the establishment of an object in relation to the grounding force of gravity. Then it disappears. There is a fight to the death against a “power of silence” (cf. Castenada) . Each note will die. Thus the entire tragic basis of the nature of the musical enterprise.

"You must forget for a moment, please, that there are such things as technologically developed devices which permit to maintain this sound artificially so, and this is no ungratefulness to the radio, to the recordings, to the CDs and all other means that we have to preserve the unpreservable, but the fact remains that when you, even in the old days when you had a gramophone recording and you put the needle on the record, the sound was suddenly there."

Barenboim went on to talk of “the science of emotion”, that is, the interplay between passion and feeling – drawing on the ethos of the philosopher Spinoza. “If music is sound with thought then talent is a very poor weapon”, he suggested. There must be much more than this if a real connection is to be made between music and our capacity to understand the condition of life.

Spinoza was a religious scholar, a political architect, a philosopher, who aspired to geometric demonstration of the universe and the human being in it, and he was a biological thinker who advanced the science of emotion. And there lies of course one of the great difficulties of making music, the science of emotion. How do you play with passion and with discipline? Having realised all of this, I saw that there was a need for knowledge, and these much abused words 'He is so musical' was absolutely senseless because talent is certainly not enough...

All this has brought me to the conclusion that I am very unhappy, and for a long time, about the place of music in society. This is the part that I will try to explore further in the next lectures. Music can and from my individual point of view should become something that is used not only to escape from the world but rather to understand it.

Nb. The Reith Lectures are available as a video, in transcript and as podcasts from the BBC. I've decided to blog the beginning of the series in order to see how their immediacy relates to a more studied view; to experience them in their raw state. There is also an online discussion.

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