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Reith Lectures - April 2006 - Barenboim

A universal language or a divisive art ?

In the early 1960s a seminal book on music appeared; this was Deryck Cooke’s "The Language of Music". Cooke expounded the notion that all music has the same basic root of a language of sound, based on the harmonic series and all that derives from it no matter what period of the history of music to which it is applied, nor the culture which has used it. This was primarily a technical thesis which nonetheless had implications for the usage of music in a more philosophical, or even moral sense.

During the past month of April, the annual BBC Reith Lectures have been given. This is the second time that a musician has been invited to contribute to this earnest philosophical series of lectures, Previously the line-up has included not only philosophers themselves, but scientists, economists, medical researchers, historians, moralists and distinguished authorities from all walks of life.

The first musician, some years ago, was Alexander Goehr, the composer and at that time, professor of music at Cambridge; an avant-gardiste in musical art. These past few weeks another world-renowned musician has offered his thoughts on music, but this time, not in a single, profound lecture, but in the current fashion that the BBC seems to favour, in a series of public lectures before an invited audience in various large cities in which Barenboim has been celebrated for his musical connections.

The first two lectures were frankly rather disappointing, and drew critical comment, This largely pointed out the speaker’s lack of expertise in the art of lecturing, no matter that he is certainly distinguished as performer: pianist and conductor of world class stature.

These first lectures seemed rather naïve in stating some all-too-obvious facts which anyone interested in serious music would already know. This somehow accords with the BBC’s apparent general dumbing-down of general intellectual offerings to its listeners and this was further abetted by the engagement of Sue Lawley, who, while perhaps being an easy-going appropriate hostess to that naïve programme "Desert Island Discs" seemed rather out of her depth in the more serious business of an august Reith Lecture. She tended to sound like a latter-day Joyce Grenfell in the role of a fussy school ma’am, telling the pupils to "pay attention" as it were to the distinguished visitor who had condescended to come to talk to the children in her class.

Some of the captive audience who were privileged to ask questions seemed suspiciously as if they were specially chosen "plants" primed to ask undemanding and un-contentious questions (which would not of course, overrun the allotted time span of the programme).

The fourth lecture came from Jerusalem where he has established an orchestra comprising both Jews and Arabs, the intention being to show that music – through its common language – can materially help to bring about understanding and co-operation between conflicting cultures.

It must be said that this fourth lecture in the series was rather better than the first three – despite Lawley’s still faintly irritating way of handling the proceedings. As on the previous occasions there was a slot for questions from the audience. Some of these were rather more penetrating than the ones asked in earlier lectures. One Palestinian academic put it to Barenboim, that despite the claim that the combined forces of both Jews and Arabs in this unique orchestra were happily performing together, the music they were persuaded to perform was essentially of the "western" culture, and wondered why such peoples were not being able to express themselves through their own indigenous kind of music. This appeared, however momentarily, to put Barenboim on the defensive. He claimed that the Arabian element in his orchestra were not being forced to acknowledge some kind of ‘superiority’ of Jewish music, but were playing a more universal world-class music: in essence a music stemming from western Europe, historically more German than anything else; further implying that this is the music of the whole world nowadays.

This raises some interesting things to consider. But first of all, it is worth thinking about the obvious good intentions of Barenboim, who explaining the thinking behind the scheme emphasised that music is indeed a common language. Persuading conflicting cultures to make music together should certainly be a step in the right direction, since it is not possible to make music with participants who are in conflict with each other or are rivals in some aspect of their attitude towards music.

In a very local, and narrow sense it might be said that this is why competitive music-making, regarding it as a sport where one performer tries to establish a superiority over another, in an arrogant, triumphalist way, is the wrong attitude to performance. It should be to bring people together not in displays of mutual confrontation but in co-operation. This, by the way, is one of the fundamental arguments this writer has always had with the narrow, mentality of the brass band movement’s obsession with contesting; using it as yet another vehicle for exulting sport rather than for its true purpose of communicating emotional and positive means of mutual understanding. Barenboim is certainly right in his idealism of persuading different peoples to come together to play in mutual respect. What would the result be, for instance, were he to have promoted some kind of Middle-East "band contest" between Jews and Arabs instead? The idea does not bear thinking about.

So in his aspects of his philosophy Barenboim is right: the use of music as an international language to bring people to agree rather than to be rivals. However, his Palestinian questioner ought not to be dismissed either: There is certainly an assumption that "world music" is now western European – or its younger twin brother, American. But maybe it is just the long-standing arrogance of Europeans, remembering their world-conquering days of colonial expansion that still assumes that western-European music, like western-language (especially English) "must" mean none other than that.

It is however, curious to consider the state of world music just now. Despite what Barenboim’s questioner quite rightly remarked about the feeling of being musically (and culturally) disenfranchised by the assumption that middle-eastern people and orientals in general are now assumed to accept western music as the world-wide norm, and thus probably abandon their own native language and music, it has to be remembered that western culture, and especially the English language, has become, and is set to become even further the universal way of life.

Consider all those international musical stars, so many of whom now come from the Far East, and seem capable of beating us at our own game. They have, in little more than a generation or two, learned our languages, and not least the language of music in the widest sense of the word. Yet the opposite has not proved to be the case. How many westerners claim to be familiar with and adept performers of oriental music or oriental languages?

There is an interesting facet to this: Some years ago I had a revealing conversation with a musician, who, like me, had been in the armed forces during the Second World War. He had been in the Intelligence Corps, his speciality being languages. Consequently he was sent on a crash-course in Japanese since we were short of capable interpreters to deal with the aftermath of the war in the Far East. He said that it became quite apparent that the orientals were better at learning English (and other European languages) than ever we could hope to become at learning their languages. Not only that, but there was a feeling that somehow the orientals preferred – generally speaking – to keep their own culture private, not relishing westerners prying into their language, whereas they did not in the least mind taking the trouble to infiltrate aspects of our culture; language, music, technology of every kind.

This has become evident in just about every walk of life now: electronics, engineering, finance and economics, amongst which western music is just one facet of our culture that they have taken readily to themselves. So perhaps there is a conflict of ideals: the Palestinian academic who, rightly, brought to Barenboim’s notice the submerging of a middle-eastern tradition of musical language: melody, harmony, form, along with instrumental and vocal styles that express their own cultural personality. Against this is perhaps to be set not only the willingness of orientals to adopt western cultures, but their – apparent – preference that we should not invade their cultures but allow them to keep it private to themselves?

Arthur Butterworth




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