An equal contest. . - The Back Half: Spring Books - Parallels and Paradoxes: explorations in music and society - book review

An equal contest. . - The Back Half: Spring Books - Parallels and Paradoxes: explorations in music and society - book reviewParallels and Paradoxes: explorations in music and society

Daniel Barenboim and Edward W Said Bloomsbury, l86pp, [pounds sterling]16.99

In his recently revised autobiography, Daniel Barenboim recalls how he first met Edward Said in a London hotel lobby in 1993 and how the two men soon became intimate friends. It was not, you might think, a given. There are all sorts of reasons why a Jewish musician, brought up in Israel in the postwar years, might not have bonded with a Palestinian intellectual who has often been in trouble for his forthright criticisms of Israel. As it was, they clicked -- and this book of conversations between the unlikely friends is the result.

I confess to picking it up with a slightly heavy heart. One would pay a lot of money to be in the presence of two such extraordinary figures as they talked late into the night. But how much would you pay to read a text of it the following morning? Verbatim transcripts of interviews or conversations are notoriously problematic. The spontaneous excitement of the encounter can too easily be lost and replaced by rambling and repetitive dialogue.

Not here. Within the first 20 pages, the two of them have covered modern-day Jerusalem, 1950s Cairo, Goethe, Buchenwald, capitalism, Furtwangler and the supposed globalisation of the orchestral sound (allegedly due to the triumph of the German bassoon over the French bassoon). Tight editing must have something to do with it. But more than that, there is a real sense of two intellectual equals genuinely sparking off each other in fascinating and unpredictable ways.

The conversations -- some of them ably steered (and subsequently edited) by Ara Guzelimian, the senior director and artistic adviser of Carnegie Hall--took place over five years, from 1995 to 2000. If they talked much about events in the Middle East -- the period coincided with the development and bitter ending of the Oslo peace process -- that is largely missing from this book, which is mainly about music. In the end, that turns out to be something of a relief. On the odd occasion when Middle Eastern politics intrudes, both interlocutors make slightly lumbering attempts at parallels. "The main reason why the Oslo Accord didn't work was because of the momentum of the process -- which reminds me of tempi in Beethoven." I paraphrase, but only slightly.

So for the main part we have the amateur musician/professional philosopher sparring with the professional musician/amateur philosopher. It is, I would say, a pretty equal contest. Said is no slouch when it comes to music -- he has written sophisticated books of musical analysis himself. And Barenboim reveals a depth and subtlety of intellect that is all the more astonishing when you consider that English is, at the very best, his third language.

There are absorbing discussions of Beethoven and, as you would expect, Wagner. But possibly the most interesting passages are where Said challenges Barenboim on contemporary music and its isolation, as he sees it, from the social and cultural world. Barenboim is reluctant to concede a problem beyond impatience. "This music needs time. It is a perfect example that familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt. The problem with the contemptuous attitude to contemporary music is that, in this case, contempt breeds unfamiliarity."

Said is not to be deflected by this sort of verbal dexterity. Music was once a language like Latin -- one learnt and used it. "Whereas today it seems to me the language of music is very highly specialised and designed not to be used or known except by other musical experts." He thinks most of the stuff written today is difficult to perform, understand and listen to.

Barenboim listens sympathetically. He counters gently with late Beethoven. Yes, says Said, but Beethoven began with a compact with his listeners, which he then challenged. Barenboim does not agree. Passages of the Missa Solemnis show a "total isolation and removal from the world, much more so than Schoenberg". But not Webern, argues Said. Barenboim says he can't decide about the tonal system: "I'm not convinced that it is a pure and simple fabrication of man, nor am I convinced that it is the law of nature. I vacillate from one to the other."

And so on. It is a short book. You could, with a little concentration, read in one sitting five years' worth of conversations. Infuriatingly, there is no index, which frustrates the equally rewarding possibility of dipping in and out, following particular threads as they are developed over time. This is an irritating slip in an otherwise beautifully produced book, which also includes two essays -- one, by Barenboim, on "Germans, Jews and Music"; and the other, by Said, on "Barenboim and the Wagner Taboo".

Alan Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian