The Maestro

For me, personally, the loss of Edward Said has been a terrible blow, because it affects me in so many different areas.


Translated from the Spanish by Kimberly Borchard

Edward Said was many things for many people, but in reality, his was a musician’s soul, in the deepest sense of the word.

He wrote about important universal issues such as exile, politics, integration. However, the most surprising thing for me, as his friend and great admirer, was the realization that, on many occasions, he actually formulated ideas and reached conclusions through music; and, along the same lines, he saw music as a reflection of the ideas that he had regarding other issues.

This is one of the main reasons why I believe that Said was an extremely important figure. His journey through this world took place precisely at a time when the humanity of music, its human value as well as the value of thought, the transcendence of the idea written in sounds, were, and regrettably continue to be, concepts in decline.

His fierce anti-specialization lead him to criticize very strongly, and in my opinion very fairly, the fact that musical education was becoming increasingly poor, not only in the United States – which, after all, had imported the music of the Old Europe – but also in the very countries which had produced music’s greatest figures: for example, in Germany, which had produced Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Schumann, and many others, or in France, which had produced Debussy and Ravel. In all these countries, which had been the cradle of musical creation, musical education was in rapid decline. Furthermore, he perceived a sign that bothered him exceedingly, a perception that was to unite us very quickly: even when there was musical education, it was carried out in a very specialized way. In the best of cases, young people were offered the opportunity to practice an instrument, to acquire inevitably necessary knowledge of theory, of musicology, and of everything that a musician needs professionally. But, at the same time, there existed a widespread and growing incomprehension of a simultaneously simple and complex problem: that is, the impossibility of articulating with words the content of a musical work. After all, if it were possible to express in words the content of one of Beethoven’s symphonies, we would no longer have a need for that symphony. But the fact that it is impossible to express in words the music’s content does not mean that there is no content. That is why I assert that the question is simultaneously simple and complex.

This is a tendency that leads to an impoverished and narrow specialization. In the case of outstanding talents, this results in mechanization of the instrument, and in the case of creation, it leads composers to an incapacity to express that very richness that the human being discovered the potential to express through sound.

The paradox consists in the fact that music is only sound, but sound, in itself, is not music. There lies Said’s main idea as a musician who – on a biographical note – was also an excellent pianist. In recent years, due to his terrible illness, he was unable to maintain the level of physical energy necessary to play the piano. I remember many unforgettable times that we spent playing Schubert pieces for four hands. Two or three years ago, I had a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York and he was going through a very difficult period of his illness. The concert was on a Sunday afternoon. Although he knew that I had arrived that very morning from Chicago, he showed up very early at rehearsal with a volume of Schubert’s pieces for four hands. He told me: “Today I want us to play at least eight bars, not for the pleasure of playing, but because I need it to survive.” As it is easy to imagine, at that moment, just in from the airport and with one hour of rehearsal before the afternoon’s concert, what he was proposing to me was the last thing that could have interested me. But, as is always the case in life, when you teach, you learn, and when you give, you receive. And you learn when you teach because the student asks questions which you no longer even ask yourself, because they are part of the almost automatic thought which each one of us develops. And suddenly, the question addresses something that forces us to rethink it from its origin, from its very essence. That is why, in the same way, when you give you receive, because it is when you least expect it. To receive something, when one expects to receive it, is much less interesting. Why do I say this? Because I was there, and really, the last thing I wanted to do was to play Schubert for four hands. Naturally, I did it, with the greatest pleasure, because my dear friend, whom I so admired and loved, asked me to do so. But when we played, with him, those few minutes of a Schubert rondo – an extremely beautiful piece, which was not, however, the deepest or most transcendent – I felt musically enriched in a completely unexpected way. That was Edward Said.

Said was interested in detail. Indeed, he understood perfectly that musical genius or musical talent requires tremendous attention to detail. The genius attends to detail as though it were the most important thing. An in doing so, he does not lose sight of the big picture; rather, he manages to trace out that big picture. Because the big picture, in music as in thought, must be the result of the coordination of small details. For that reason, when he listened to or spoke of music, he focused his attention on the small details that many professionals have not even discovered.

He had a refined knowledge of the art of composition and orchestration. He knew that in the second act of Tristan and Isolde, at a certain moment the horns withdraw behind the stage and, a couple bars later, the same musical note re-emerges in the pit orchestra’s clarinets. What a number of singers I have had the honor and pleasure of collaborating with on that piece, who are unaware of that detail and look behind them to see where the sound is coming from! They don’t know that the note is no longer coming from behind the stage, but rather from the pit. He took interest in these things and was concerned with the detail itself, the value of the whole notwithstanding, because he understood that this meticulous interest in detail conferred upon the whole a grandeur that it cannot acquire without this profound concern for detail.

He also knew how to distinguish clearly between power and force, which constituted one of the main ideas of his struggle. He knew quite well that, in music, force is not power, something which many of the world’s political leaders do not perceive. The difference between power and force is equivalent to the difference between volume and intensity in music. When one speaks with a musician and says to him, “You are not playing intensely enough,” his first reaction is to play louder. And it is exactly the opposite: the lower the volume, the greater the need for intensity, and the greater the volume, the greater the need for a calm force in the sound.

These are some examples that illustrate my conviction that his concept of life and of the world originated and lay in music. Another example is to be found in his idea of interconnection. In music, there are no independent elements. How often we think, on a personal, social, or political level, that there are certain independent things, and that, upon doing them, they will not influence others or that this interconnection will remain hidden! This does not occur in music, because in music everything is interconnected. The character and intention of the simplest melody change drastically with a complex harmony. That is learned through music, not through political life. Thus emerges the impossibility of separating elements, the perception that everything is connected, the need to always unite logical thought and intuitive emotion. How often all of us think that we should consider something objectively! We know all too well, but we forget, that emotion will not allow us to do so. How often do we succumb to the temptation of abandoning all logic for the sake of an emotional need, an emotional whim, for the seduction of emotion? In music, this is impossible, since music cannot be made exclusively with reason or with emotion. What is more: if those elements may be separated, they are no longer music, but a collection of sounds. If the listener, upon hearing something, can affirm that “it has an impressive logic, but emotionally it wasn’t convincing”; or, in contrast, “How appealing I found it, what an exciting emotive force it has, though it wasn’t very logical”; for me, this is no longer music. It wasn’t for Said, either.

His concept of inclusion as opposed to exclusion also derived from music, as well as the integration principle, applicable to all sorts of problems. The same could be applied to the discussion of his book Orientalism. It speaks of the idea of Oriental seduction versus Western production. In music, there is no production without seduction. There is seduction without production, but not production without seduction. Productive as a musical idea may be, if it is lacking the seduction of the necessary sound, it is insufficient. This is why I say that Edward Said was, for many, a great thinker, a fighter for the rights of his people, and an incomparable intellectual. But for me, he was always, really, a musician, in the deepest sense of the term.

For me, personally, the loss of Edward Said has been a terrible blow, because it affects me in so many different areas. His friendship represented an intellectual stimulation such as I have never had and which I will surely never have again, a deep friendship such as I have only rarely experienced, the possibility to share so many serious and banal pleasures and, not so much as gastronomy, smoking cigars. In so many different ways, since the loss of Said, I feel much poorer than I would like to feel and imagine.

The Palestinian people lost, with his death, one of their most lucid advocates, although he was and is very criticized in his own country. For Israel he was a formidable adversary, although he called for mutual recognition and acceptance of the other’s suffering. Yet how many Israeli leaders would have wanted to forget the existence of Edward Said!

Daniel Barenboim September 2004 This article will appear in the upcoming issue of Critical Inquiry.