Said, Barenboim and the West-East Divan Orchestra

Since its formation in 1999, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has prompted an energetic mix of rapture and hostility. Founded by conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and scholar and writer Edward Said, the organisation has provoked considerable debate through its much-lauded aim to bring together young Israeli and Arab musicians to engage in a ‘constructive musical dialogue’. Said and Barenboim’s many statements on the Western classical canon’s power to enable personal and collective transformation have further piqued discussion. In turn, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has become a site (albeit a rocky one) for broader questions as to what the orchestral experience can or cannot accomplish. More recently, a number of scholarly critiques of the orchestra have emerged, unpicking Said and Barenboim’s claims as to Western music’s unique power to transfigure social experience. Does the orchestra stand as a living ‘utopian republic’, as suggested by Barenboim? Or is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra only a fantasy of social harmony, doing more to gratify its liberal concert audiences than to address the complexity and hardship of the political landscape in which it operates?

Now an international phenomenon, the orchestra began life as a small-scale series of music workshops, put together in 1999 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Goethe’s birth. As part of Weimar’s programme of ‘Cultural Capital of Europe’ events, Barenboim was asked to establish a workshop to bring together young musicians from across the Middle East. With the support and interest of Said, Barenboim invited applications from players in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The response was overwhelming. Speaking at the 2006 Reith lectures, Barenboim recounts:
‘We expected to have a small forum of maybe eight or twelve young people who would come and make music together and spend a week or ten days at a workshop with us, so you can imagine the surprise we had when there were over two hundred applicants from the Arab world alone.’ Twenty-five young musicians attended, alongside a number of established, high-profile performers including cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The workshops comprised chamber music lessons and master classes, and an orchestra that performed Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The name West-Eastern Divan was given, chosen after Goethe’s 1819 collection of poems (the Westöstlicher Diwan) inspired by the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz.
The Weimar ‘experiment’, as Said and Barenboim termed the first workshop in Parallels and Paradoxes, was expressly not designed as ‘an alternative way of making peace’. Rather, Said suggested, ‘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.’ Said held that, just as Goethe’s poetry entered into an open dialogue with a cultural ‘other’, so such a workshop enabled participants to explore and traverse those boundaries engendered by difference in nationality, background and political stance: ‘no one felt under any pressure to hold things back. And since the groups were so miscellaneous, both animosity and cordiality were almost always in evidence.’ Barenboim likewise views the venture as creating a new channel of communication and cooperation between assumed antagonists. Speaking in his 2006 Reith lectures, Barenboim states categorically that ‘the orchestra cannot bring peace.’ However, he proposes it can ‘bring understanding. It can awaken the curiosity, and then perhaps the courage, to listen to the narrative of the other, and at the very least accept its legitimacy.’ Music, and specifically the orchestral experience, is celebrated as the ideal vehicle for open interaction. On describing a young Syrian and young Israeli musician sharing a music stand, Barenboim suggests ‘they were trying to play the same note, to play with the same dynamic, with the same stroke of the bow. They were trying to do something together, something about which they both cared… Well, having achieved that one note, they can’t look at each other the same way, they have shared a common experience.’
The potency of this image and its accompanying rhetoric—young Arab and Israeli musicians working as one, letting music soar across political adversity—was not lost on the orchestra’s European hosts. What had been created as a one-off workshop was quickly established (and funded) as a touring orchestra, formed of up to 120 permanent players, drawn from across the Middle East—Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan—and other Muslim countries including Egypt, Iran and Turkey. Since 2002, the regional government of Andalusia has sponsored the group and provides a fixed base for the orchestra in Seville, a development that has led to the inclusion of young Spanish musicians in the ensemble. The orchestra now meets each summer and rehearses in the city before launching an international tour, which often includes live television broadcasts, stadia appearances and recording deals. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s blend of musical excellence and apparently humanitarian vision has proved a heady mix for liberal European audiences, provoking intense, proselytising excitement among commentators. In response to the orchestra’s various BBC Proms appearances over the past seven years, UK critics have praised the group with a particularly emotive quality of endorsement. Reviews have applauded the orchestra as an ‘astonishingly moving act of creative coexistence’, claiming ‘there is an extra power of passion and motive, of music meaning something’ and that the orchestra’s ‘magic derives from the unique chemistry between its members, its charismatic creator, and the political tragedy to which it is a defiant response’.
Indeed, the idea that the orchestra is uniquely vibrant through a connection to ‘political tragedy’ has been a source of contention for more critical accounts of the orchestra. Some accounts have charged the orchestra with impeding Palestinian solidarity on the international stage through its normalisation of Palestinian-Israeli interaction. Other studies have examined the orchestra’s ideological position by exploring what the ensemble actually offers its players. Various scholars working alongside the orchestra have concluded from their fieldwork that the ensemble seems driven more by young musicians hungry for an opportunity to play professionally (and under the gleaming baton of Barenboim) than by any will to build bridges through music or explore the ‘other’. Indeed, the composer and political activist Raymond Dean has drawn attention to the published collection of West-Eastern Divan player testimonies, An Orchestra Without Borders, noting that the orchestra appears to have done little to enhance the Israeli musicians’ insight into the political realities surrounding them. He suggests, ‘the impression ultimately gleaned from Arabs and Israelis alike is that the real glue binding these young people together is ambition… In itself, of course, there is nothing reprehensible about this—but it is a far cry from stylising the orchestra as an exemplary space of reconciliation and understanding.’

At the forefront of recent critiques is British musicologist Rachel Beckles Willson, who, in a particularly pertinent article, examines not just the orchestra’s players and founders but its administration, patrons and audiences, considering the orchestra as an example of ‘utopian entertainment’. She draws on the film theorist Richard Dyer’s work on musicals and variety shows, which explores how certain musical genres allow audiences an escape from the difficulties encountered in real life: ‘Instead of scarcity these entertainments present abundance, and counteracting exhaustion they express energy; they replace dreariness with intensity, manipulation with transparency, and social fragmentation with community.’ Beckles Wilson proposes that it is on this final reality/fantasy exchange that the orchestra, as constructed by Said and Barenboim, claims to deliver. Through the commonality of musical experience, political foes are supposed to transform into ‘an interactive and productive sociality, in contrast to the destructive conflict that the majority are understood as living out in real life.’ Dyer’s analysis of utopian entertainments goes on to explore how the types of suffering available for transformation tend to be carefully prescribed. Beckles Willson notes that the specific type of suffering defined (and so remedied) by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—feeling misunderstood by ‘the other’—overlooks the reality of economic and political hardship afflicting many in the Middle East. This recognition only of particular, manageable types of suffering leads to a circularity in problem and resolution: the suffering outlined by Said and Barenboim is that which the orchestra can most aptly relieve.
The question is how far does either this problem or solution relate to the complex issues faced the orchestra’s members and their wider communities? Drawing on Barenboim’s premise that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a ‘utopian republic’, Beckles Willson suggests the orchestra‘projects a utopia in Europe and for European audiences, while this is not necessarily one that people in the Middle East seek’. And this projection of utopia is by no means stable or unified. Beckles Willson considers the various and often contradictory utopian visions of the orchestra that she encountered at work among the group’s audiences, patrons, players and administrators. One striking example was a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Madrid, which took place during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. The Madrid concert became a fertile ground for the allocation of meaning, sustaining a number of competing visions as to what the performance was for. Among other claims, the concert was variously appropriated as an expression of broad anti-war sentiment linked to Spain’s recently-ended involvement in Iraq; a platform for Palestinian and Lebanese demonstrators; a site of professional, apolitical music making; and finally, a means of reinvigorating nostalgia in a post-Franco landscape for Spain’s glory days of medieval religious tolerance. The coexistence of these competing agendas goes some way to illustrate how slippery the business of attaching meaning to a musical event can become. Barenboim and Said have made numerous statements about the project’s aims and their wider philosophies of music-making, including many that cite their shared belief in music as a powerful engine of transformation. A closer look at their intellectual positions in relation to music is revealing, and begins to suggest why the orchestra’s performances might present such a fertile site in which to plant a flag.
An outspoken critic of Israeli settlements and military strategy since Rabin, Barenboim’s musical approach has been similarly provocative. He has roundly rejected the ‘historically-informed performance’ movement (where musicians attempt to recreate the performance style of works as they would have been played at the time of composition). Indeed, Barenboim has argued that the tempo of a piece should be chosen not from the composer’s original markings, but from listening and responding only to ‘the content’ Barenboim has rejected the idea of a straightforward fidelity to what a score indicates and instead called for ‘a constant state of interdependency… that you cannot separate, because the speed is related to the content, to the volume etc.’ According to Barenboim, it is only through respect for this interdependency (and the rather mysterious valency of ‘content’) that music finds purpose and expression, a process which Barenboim links explicitly to political activity. He states:
No matter what you think of the Oslo Accord—in other words, it had a chance or it didn’t have a chance—it lost all chance of succeeding when the tempo, the speed at which it was proceeding, became too slow. The music dissipates when it’s so slow, and the process also, because there’s no separation between the different elements… The content requires a given speed and if you play it at the wrong speed… the whole thing falls part. This is what happened to the Oslo Accord.
For Barenboim, music (and music as a ‘magic mirror’ of human action) only bears fruit through a respectful interdependency among parts. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was created as an embodiment of this vision of music and human action; participating in musical performance requires musicians both to express themselves as individuals and to give themselves to a total and boundless integration. To perform demands the breakdown of ‘separation’ between all musical (and socio-political) parameters. It is an appealing premise. Yet this perspective leads Barenboim to define music in a peculiarly constrained and bombastic way. Speaking at his 2006 Reith lectures, Barenboim stated:
in the West-Eastern Divan the universal metaphysical language of music becomes the link, it is the language of the continuous dialogue that these young people have with each other. Music is the common framework, their abstract language of harmony.
Barenboim draws on the old adage of music as a universal language, accessible but abstract. He claims that by performing classical music as a collective of individuals, Arab and Israeli musicians may share their ‘narratives’, freed from the clutter of political complication by the ‘abstract language of harmony’. Yet to define music thus is sharply essentialist: music is rendered at once all powerful yet curiously blank, defined as connection, but stripped of context. While, for Barenboim, this notion frees music from the politically specific, such an understanding also presents music as an inviting site on which to pin alternative messages and meanings (as found in the various slogans attending the orchestra’s Madrid concert). Yet far from existing in some utopian vacuum of musical communality, Barenboim’s declaration of a ‘universal metaphysical language’ invokes a specific nineteenth-century absolutist account of music. Indeed, the ‘common framework’ of music to which Barenboim refers when discussing his orchestra is very specifically the Western classical canon. While he has been a notable exponent of contemporary music throughout his career, it is striking that the orchestra has made its name principally through interpretations of Beethoven, the poster boy for the German nationalist Romantics. For Barenboim to champion these works may not be problematic in itself, but by framing their performance with the rather shadowy ideology of German universalism, the conductor appears to undercut his own mission. How can open dialogue take place in this culturally constrained setting? If Barenboim wishes parties from complexly different backgrounds to engage with one another’s ‘narrative’ through shared musical participation under his baton, surely the experience is circumscribed by his limited, hegemonic account of what ‘music’ is? However, as a critic for the The Times discovered when reviewing the orchestra’s performance of Fidelio at the 2009 Proms (‘the symbolic integrity of this orchestra and Beethoven’s message of universal freedom overrode any passing vocal flaws’), invoking the universal is a useful way to paper over the cracks.
One might suppose Edward Said—famed for his rigorous scholarship demanding the sociopolitical contextualisation of literary texts—would be a spectacular foil for these types of claim. Said made his name with Orientalism in 1978, which examined how a long history of Western writing has constructed an ‘other’ out of the Orient based on imaginary and amplified characteristics, subsequently used to control that defined as different. According to Said, only by contextualising these statements and locating the power structures that sit within can we begin to unpick their construction and so challenge their dominance. Said’s work has focused on identifying those Orientalist perceptions which are assumed neutral or self-evident, sending up flares to highlight their pernicious and consuming influence. Yet Said made an unlikely exception of music among his scholarly targets, despite being an accomplished pianist. Far from challenging Barenboim’s statements on the function of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Western music’s universally transformative properties, Said has supported this view. Although he spent his life engaged with the concrete political implications of artistic production, Said’s account of music is oddly decontextualized.
Said believed, as does Barenboim, that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra could effect positive change by enabling contact and breaking down ignorance between parties. He suggested that music offers an ‘alternative model for the conflict of identities’ and upheld the benefits of participating in another musical culture (here, Western classical music), lamenting the ‘concentration today on the affirmation of identity, on the need for roots… It’s become quite rare to project one’s self outward, to have a broader perspective.’ Musical experience is transgressive: it enables us to flit across boundaries. While Said’s controversial idea of the humanistic mission was to ‘accept responsibility for maintaining rather than resolving the tension between the aesthetic and the national, using the former to challenge, re-examine and resist the latter’, through music his insistence on nationality as a site of contest curiously dissolves. Rather, Said describes a ‘transformation’ in those playing under Barenboim at the 1999 workshops:
‘what you saw had no political overtones at all.’ Said here seems less preoccupied with challenging or resisting nationalist concerns than with praising music’s mystical transcendence.
Indeed, Said has described music as a ‘uniquely endowed site’ with ‘separate status and space’ and commentators have noted Said’s personal, quasi-sacred reverence for Western classical music (Said has himself noted that his conception is ‘romantic’). Rather than the orchestra standing as a ‘contrapuntal’ act, as Said has discussed postcolonial literature and the native appropriation of literary forms, classical music is granted exclusive, apolitical rights that appear to forbid such a cultural dialogue. Indeed, Said and Barenboim have made much of (classical) music’s ineffable, abstract power to foreclose the debate.
While recognising the sincerity of Said and Barenboim’s personal endeavour, I suggest the orchestra functions more as Euro-American fantasy of cooperation and a vehicle for individual musical ambition, than a positive contribution to Middle Eastern social dynamics. The question is what, if any, musical model would better serve this aim? For one, there is the objection to Palestinian-Israeli normalisation, a charge powerfully raised by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (to the vocal consternation of Said’s widow, Mariam). But notwithstanding the issues of Palestinian-Israeli cultural contact, as a starting point I suggest it is an intriguing omission that an ensemble based on Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan—a work devoted to the exploration of Middle Eastern culture—makes no connection to any kind of Middle Eastern music. Said has written persuasively on the ‘false authenticity’ of cementing cultural forms to nation or land, and it does indeed seem crass to suggest musicians ought more usefully to perform music ‘indigenous’ to their region. Yet, it is perplexing that this venture would so resolutely ignore musical forms outside the Western canon.
Various other musical initiatives in the region have explored a wider musical territory. These tend to fall under the radar of international media interest and do not operate across communities. The Israeli Andalusian Orchestra (now disbanded following protracted labour disputes) comprised Russian emigrant musicians and Sephardim who had emigrated from Morocco and performed music from the Sephardi Jewish tradition. Meanwhile, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music offers instruction in both Western classical and Arabic music to young Palestinians, as well as running the Palestine Youth Orchestra. Following clashes with Barenboim over what the conservatory perceived to be his incendiary comments on Palestinian affairs, the ESNCM has refused funding from the wealthy, Andalusian-associated Barenboim-Said Foundation and operates instead with limited external support (and media interest). While the organisation struggles fi nancially, its local scope and politicised standpoint appears to focus the group’s work more squarely on its community’s own needs and terms. Some of Said’s experiences do highlight the positive impact of exploring a broader range of music. One of the most fascinating anecdotes he recounted from the 1999 West-Eastern Divan workshops concerned an impromptu discussion between some of the Arabic and Israeli musicians, following a clash over who had been allowed to participate in an informal Arabic music improvisation the previous evening. Rather than the depiction of silence and rapture that apparently overtook the musicians during Barenboim’s orchestral rehearsals, it appears this musical interaction, created by the players themselves, led to a heated discussion that stirred up challenging questions on ownership and cultural authenticity for all sides ‘on who could play Arabic music and who couldn’t’. As Said admitted, ‘it was an extraordinary moment.’
Any claim that a musical ensemble can bring meaningful relief to the Israel-Palestine confl ict is clearly a false promise, potentially obscuring the day-to-day material hardships faced by so many in the region. However, the 1999 workshop incident may demonstrate the possibility of more fruitful musical engagement: one generated by those who both participate in the music-making and inhabit the political terrain; one that remains unavailable for international public consumption; and one that seeks to provoke words rather than silence them.

Kate Wakeling is a musicologist and writer. She studied music at
Cambridge University and holds a PhD in Balinese music from the
School of Oriental and African Studies. She is currently a visiting
lecturer in ethnomusicology at Cambridge University.

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