Friday, April 07, 2006


In the aftermath of his first lecture (see my blog below), Daniel Barenboim responded to a range of questions from audience members at the Cadogan Hall in West London.

The politician and pundit David Mellor asked about music as a way of changing the world, not just understanding it. How is that going, and how would we measure its progress, he asked?

Responding with specific reference to the East-West Divan Orchestra [pictured], composed of young Israelis and Palestinians, Barenboim talked of “the conditions of equality”, musical subversion and “listening to the other voices”. On its own a “utopian republic” of music is not enough. The “note of the enemy” must be heard and understood in terms of an alternative narrative. The work of the East-West Divan Orchestra is not to give each other comfort but to understand the nature of music as an integrated system with its potential for re-situating difference.

Steve Martland (composer) enquired about the role of the living composer in this scenario. Barenboim replied, to laughter, “to write good music”. Today you write with the same 12 notes that every single composer before Bach did. The power of music has nothing to do with contemporaneity. The difficulty today is that very few people practice music. (He illustrated this by playing Schoenberg on the piano).

Julian Lloyd Webber (cellist) asked whether there was a danger of some educationalists assuming that because children are from certain ethnic backgrounds – say in inner city schools - somehow classical music is not for them? Naturally Barenboim agreed that this would be a foolish thing, referring to his own experience of breaking boundaries on the West Bank.

Willard White (bass) spoke about compulsion and voluntarism in relation to music education. The response was that it is not a matter of free will, but about offering a grounding which makes proper decision-making possible. “First you have to know about it.”

Asked by a researcher “how far down” he considers musical value to extend, Daniel Barenboim suggested that knowledge (understanding) is the distinguishing issue. In some cases little is required, the response is instinctual. But often guidance is needed to “live” the music. He contrasted a waltz or popular song with the complexities of Schoenberg.

Presenter Sue Lawley interjected: “Do you accept then, Daniel Barenboim, that, that, that pop music can have that same transcendental power that you were describing that Western classical music has?”

The mercurial reply, at once humorous, generous and highly directional, was… “If you feel it, how wonderful for you!”

Well-known (and classically trained) Jazz pianist Julian Joseph asked about the role of improvisation in the process of music as Barenboim is expounding it – and was told, presumably to his agreement, that it is the highest form of artistic expression, an unpremeditated but dedicated state of consciousness.

Lesley Garrett (soprano) talked about her children’s bombardment with images, and asked how they could be guided to really hear sound. She was told that the situation was worse than this – in our culture we are anaesthetised against music through the musak that permeates of society at large.

“In English you have this wonderful difference between listening and hearing, and that you can hear without listening, and you can listen and not hear. Not every language has that.”

So, Garrett responded, does that make opera the ultimate art form, a perfect unity of the visual and the aural? “Nonsense! In opera people look but don’t listen!” (laughter).

Neuroscientist Lloyd Parsons said that his research indicated that the performance of music effected within the brain a distinction between mental processing and emotional awareness, say through the rendition of Bach. Some areas of the brain were activated, others not. Barenboim declared that in music you can control, for a moment, time – and also the life and death of a note. In this there is a sense of transcendence on a journey which is, in a way, longer than the temporality of a human being.

“You can control life and death of the sound, and if you imbue every note with a human quality, when that note dies it is exactly that, it is a feeling of death. And therefore through that experience you transcend any emotions that you can have in their life, and in a way you control time. I mean, we all know that when we are born, two minutes seem like two hours. And when we're interested, two hours are two seconds.”

James Macmillan (composer) referred to Julian Johnson’s controversial and provocative book ‘Who Needs Classical Music?’ He asked whether it was its ability to rise above the mundane, to evoke the possibility of a secret irreducible to commonality, and the illustrate the fact that the universe is not a closed system which lies at the heart of the refusal of ‘serious’ music in a debased culture? Barenboim declared his determination to resist the moralising of music in the discourse of elitism and anti-elitism. Music is innocent, but imbued. He then talked about the orchestra as the natural forum for discovering democracy – though not democratic in its own right.

“[T]he human being is not courageous by nature, and the human being always likes to blame something else - somebody else or something else - and therefore [s/he] says classical music is elitist, classical music is transcendent. I'm sorry, classical is none of that, classical music is nothing until it comes into contact with a human being.”

A music therapist, Alison Levine, asked about “the early stage of how we are in music”. Children, said the conductor, after some repartee about child prodigies, learn more discipline from rhythm than from being ordered around. The first associations with sensuality come through realising that passion and discipline need each other in musical experience. “We have to make music and we have to teach our children from the beginning the connection between music and life.”

An aside followed on music and political process, in which Barenboim’s dialogues with the late lamented Edward Said (specifically on Israel-Palestine and the Oslo process) were, unlikely though it seems, paralleled with issues in the performance of Beethoven’s Pathetique – producing a kind of cross-disciplinary interpretative dissonance, giving way to fresh perceptions of harmonic possibility in different realms. Well, that’s how I’m hearing it. The transcript and podcast will enlighten further.

A brave psychologist concluded by asking what Daniel Barenboim would play if he had one minute to live, and would he play it now…? To laughter and with momentary bemusement, Barenboim responded by saying that he preferred “to play every concert as if it was both the first and the last.”

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

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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