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“Fascinating. . . . These conversations, filled with a passionate commitment to the life of the mind and the complexities of the arts, have an intoxicating richness.”–San Jose Mercury News
“[A] genuine give-and-take between keen minds and open hearts. . . . The fluidity of their relationship, like musicians in an orchestra, is a compelling model for a world often splintered by dogma, ideology and hermetically sealed minds.” –Los Angeles Times
Ara Guzelimian: I want to begin by asking each of you: Where are you at home? Or do you ever feel at home? Do you feel yourself in perpetual motion?
Daniel Barenboim: The used and abused clich? "I am at home wherever I make music" is true. I say "used and abused" because many of my colleagues and I have used this cliche on occasions when we didn1t know exactly how to answer this very question or didn1t want to be rude in places that were very hospitable to us yet didn't make us feel at home. Wherever I can play the piano-preferably with a reasonably good instrument-or wherever I travel with the orchestras that I lead, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Staatskapelle from Berlin, I feel at home.
I feel at home in a certain way in Jerusalem, but I think this is a little bit unreal, a poetic idea with which I grew up. We moved to Israel when I was ten years old and lived in Tel Aviv, which is a city without any history to speak of, a very modern city, not particularly interesting, but bustling and bubbling with life. Whereas Jerusalem, of course, means everything to so many different people, and this is why its politics have always been so problematic. And in the 1950s, Tel Avivians looked to Jerusalem for everything that they couldn't find in their own city: spirituality, intellectual and cultural curiosity. All those things now unfortunately seem to be disappearing due to the lack of tolerance shown by some of the extreme populations in Jerusalem.
So what I mean to say is that I feel at home in the idea of Jerusalem. Otherwise, I feel at home in the company of a very few close friends. And, I must say, Edward to me has become the one friend with whom I can share so many things, a soul mate. I feel very at home whenever I am with him.
I am not a person who cares very much for possessions. I don't care much about furniture, or reminiscences from the past. I don't collect memorabilia-so my feeling of being at home somewhere is really a feeling of transition, as everything is in life. Music is transition, too. I am happiest when I can be at peace with the idea of fluidity. And I'm unhappy when I cannot really let myself go and give myself over completely to the idea that things change, evolve, and not necessarily for the best.
Edward W. Said: One of my earliest memories is of homesickness, of wishing that I was somewhere else. But over time, I've come to view the idea of home as being overrated. There's a lot of sentimentality about "homelands" that I don't really care for. And wandering around is really what I like to do most. But the reason I find myself so happy in New York is that New York is a chameleon city. You can be anywhere in it and still not be of it. In some ways I appreciate that.
When I travel, particularly when I return to where I grew up in the Middle East, I find myself thinking about all the resistance I feel to going back. When I went back, for example, to Jerusalem in 1992 with my family I found it a completely different place. I hadn't been there for nearly forty-five years, and it's just not the same place I recall, and of course the Palestine where I spent part of my youth became Israel. I didn't grow up in the West Bank, and so places like Ramallah, a wonderful location where Daniel played his recital at the Palestinian conservatory a year or so ago, is really not home to me. I feel very much at home in a place like Cairo, where I spent most of my formative years. Cairo has something of the eternal about it. It's a fantastically complicated and sophisticated city, and its particular dialect is what profoundly appeals to me in the end.
I think one of the things that Daniel and I have in common is a fixation on the ear rather than on the eye. Like Daniel, I'm not attached to physical objects as such, except I collect certain things. I have a good-sized collection of fountain pens for reasons that have to do with my father's profession. As a follower of Kant, I hate computers. I collect pipes and clothes, but that's about it. Possessions don't inspire the same feelings in me that they would in a collector of art or houses or cars. I've read about people who have fifty cars. That's incomprehensible to me.
Daniel mentioned-and I ended my memoir Out of Place with a similar thought, which I think is quite important-the sense that identity is a set of currents, flowing currents, rather than a fixed place or a stable set of objects. I certainly feel that about myself.
DB: This idea of "currents" must be related to the way you've lived your life. You were born in Jerusalem, which was British at the time; you grew up in Cairo, which was British at the time. Then it became Egyptian, and you immigrated to America. A very high percentage of your interests are European. The things that matter to you the most-what you think, what you teach, what you know, not only in literature, in philosophy, in history, but in music-most of these are European in origin.
If one is active in a profession which is more than a profession, which is a way of life, as it is for us-beyond nine to five-then geographical location is less important. I'm sure that when you read Goethe, you feel, in a funny way, German, as I do when conducting Beethoven or Bruckner. This was one of the lessons of our workshop in Weimar. Precisely that it's not only possible to have multiple identities, but also, I would say, something to aspire toward. The sense of belonging to different cultures can only be enriching.
AG: Let's talk about the Weimar workshop. In 1999, the two of you collaborated in Weimar, Germany, which had been named the Culture Capital of Europe, a rotating honor given to different cities. On the 250th anniversary of Goethe's birth and in a city closely associated with Goethe, you brought together Arab and Israeli musicians, and a smaller group of German musicians as well, to play as one orchestra. I'd like to ask both of you what you hoped to achieve in doing this and, in the end, what you felt was achieved.
EWS: In a way it was a quite daring experiment. There have been attempts in the past-I know in this country they've brought musicians from Arab countries and Israel to play together in music camps and give concerts-but the novelty of Weimar was, first of all, the level of participation at the top: it included Daniel and Yo-Yo Ma. You can't find any better musicians to lead a group like this. Most of the participants were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, although I do remember that there was a cellist who was fourteen or fifteen, a Kurdish boy from Syria.
It took quite a long time to prepare for the event. Of course it required auditions. And it was not surprising that, at least in some Arab countries, there was a question of whether the governments would allow the students to attend. They all did come in the end, including a group from Syria, a group from Jordan, one from the Palestinian territories, and others from Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and maybe one or two other countries.
There was an assumption that this program might be an alternative way of making peace. The peace process, as I have said at great and turgid length elsewhere, doesn't seem to be bringing results. But I don't think saving the peace process was our main intention. From my point of view, the idea was to see what would happen if you brought these people together to play in an orchestra in Weimar, in the spirit of Goethe, who wrote a fantastic collection of poems based on his enthusiasm for Islam. Goethe discovered Islam through Arabic and Persian sources-a German soldier who had been fighting in one of the Spanish campaigns in the early part of the nineteenth century brought back a page of the Koran for him. Goethe was transfixed. He started to learn Arabic, although he didn't get very far. Then he discovered Persian poetry and produced this extraordinary set of poems about the "other" really, West-Estlicher Diwan (The West-Eastern Divan), which is, I think, unique in the history of European culture.
And that was the idea behind the experiment. And then, under that aegis, to bring the musicians together at Weimar, which is very close to Buchenwald, the terrible death camp. In fact, Buchenwald was designed to be near Weimar, which had been romanticized as the city at the very pinnacle of German culture: Goethe, Schiller, Wagner, Liszt, Bach all had lived there. Nobody could fully comprehend the proximity of such sublimity to such horror.
There was an orchestra rehearsal every day, in the morning and in the afternoon, led by Daniel of course. There were chamber music groups and master classes-all of them taking place simultaneously. Here were all these students, who had never seen each other before, and at night, several days a week, we would have discussions led by me about music, culture, politics, all sorts of things came up; no one felt under any pressure to hold back anything. And since the groups were so miscellaneous, both animosity and cordiality were almost always in evidence. The one thing that didn't happen was straight-out political fighting; there was an unwritten rule about that, at least so far as our evening discussions were concerned.
I remember the first discussion in particular because it immediately crystallized all the tensions that were in everybody's heart and mind. The conversation started by someone asking the group, "What do people feel about this whole thing?" One kid put up his hand and said, "I feel that I'm being discriminated against because I tried to join a group of improvisers and they wouldn't let me." So I asked, "What exactly happened?" A Lebanese violinist explained, "The problem is that after the program is over at night, usually around eleven o'clock, a group of us get together and improvise Arabic music." I turned to the first kid and asked him to explain the problem. He told me, "I'm an Albanian. I'm from Israel, but I'm originally from Albania and I'm Jewish, and they said to me 'You can't play Arabic music. Only Arabs can play Arabic music.'" It was quite an extraordinary moment. And there was this whole question about who could play Arabic music and who couldn't.
So that was one problem. And then, of course, the next question was, "Well, what gives you the right to play Beethoven? You're not German." So that discussion was going nowhere. There was an Israeli cellist in the audience who was also a soldier, and he was having trouble speaking in English, so Daniel asked him to speak in Hebrew. He more or less said, "I'm here to play music. I'm really not interested in all the other stuff that you guys are trying to push on us in these discussions about culture. I'm here to play music and I'm not interested in anything else and I feel very uncomfortable because, who knows, I might be sent to Lebanon and I'll have to fight some of these people." Daniel told him, "If you feel that uncomfortable, why don't you leave? Nobody's forcing you to stay." And he ended up staying.
So there was a very tentative atmosphere in the beginning. However, ten days later, the same kid who had claimed that only Arabs can play Arabic music was teaching Yo-Yo Ma how to tune his cello to the Arabic scale. So obviously he thought Chinese people could play Arabic music. Gradually the circle extended and they were all playing the Beethoven Seventh. It was quite an extraordinary event.
It was also amazing to watch Daniel drill this basically resistant group into shape. It wasn't only the Israelis and the Arabs who didn't care for each other. There were some Arabs who didn't care for other Arabs as well as Israelis who cordially disliked other Israelis. And it was remarkable to witness the group, despite the tensions of the first week or ten days, turn themselves into a real orchestra. In my opinion, what you saw had no political overtones at all. One set of identities was superseded by another set. There was an Israeli group, and a Russian group, and a Syrian group, a Lebanese group, a Palestinian group, and a group of Palestinian Israelis. All of them suddenly became cellists and violinists playing the same piece in the same orchestra under the same conductor.
I will never forget the look of amazement on the part of the Israeli musicians during the first movement of Beethoven's Seventh where the oboist plays a very exposed A major scale. They all turned around to watch an Egyptian student play a perfect A major scale on the oboe-which Daniel had elicited out of him. The transformation of these kids from one thing to another was basically unstoppable.
DB: What seemed extraordinary to me was how much ignorance there was about the "other." The Israeli kids couldn't imagine that there are people in Damascus and Amman and Cairo who can actually play violin and viola. And I think the Arab musicians knew that there is a musical life in Israel, but they didn't know very much about it. One of the Syrian kids told me that he'd never met an Israeli before and, for him, an Israeli is somebody who represents a negative example of what can happen to his country and what can happen to the Arab world.
This same boy found himself sharing a music stand with an Israeli cellist. They were trying to play the same note, to play with the same dynamic, with the same stroke of the bow, with the same sound, with the same expression. They were trying to do something together. It's as simple as that. They were trying to do something together, something about which they both cared, about which they were both passionate. Well, having achieved that one note, they already can't look at each other the same way, because they have shared a common experience. And this is what was really, for me, the important thing about the encounter.
Excerpted from Parallels and Paradoxes by Edward W. Said Copyright © 2004 by Edward W. Said.
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Posted June 8, 2009
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