July 9, 2012 By Abu Faiha

Edward Said and Music: Love, Text and Metaphor

Said_Edward_cover_1Despite being a vibrant music critic, Edward Said is rarely remembered as such. His magnum Opus Orientalism has established him as an analyst of texts, which, though music is a text too, most of us associate with literature. It does not mean that Said has not written extensively about music; indeed he did. But no works in respect, whether it is Musical Elaborations, Music at the Limits (a collection of its studied articles on music compiled posthumously by his wife Miriam Said and his friend and music companion Daniel Barenboim, and Parallels and Paradoxes or innumerable scattered interviews, including those held by Tariq Ali (Published as ‘Conversations with Edward Said’ by Seagull Books, could not stand shoulder to shoulder with Orientalism.

Edward Said’s musical genius was in a state of flux. It was always in an expansive mode throughout his career. His dislike and penchant for Egyptian musician Umm Kulthum is a case in point. In 1940’s Said had little admiration for the Lady of Cairo and he told a Dutch television interviewer: It was “a dreadful experience. The tone was mournful, melancholic. I did not understand the words.

“It did not begin until 10 o’clock at night. I was half asleep … [in] this great crowded theater,” Said went on. “There did not seem to be any order to it. The musicians would wander on stage, sit down and play a little bit, wander off, and then come back, and finally she would appear…. And her songs would go on for 40 to 45 minutes. And to me there was not the kind of form or shape [I was used to in western classical music]: It seemed to be all more or less the same.” (Edward Fox). Edward Fox writes: ‘Said’s view changed as his studies of western classical music and Arab culture proceeded, and he came to appreciate qualities that Umm Kulthum’s work embodies: variation, digression and elaboration rather than logical structure; timelessness; an atmosphere of contemplation; and potentially infinite ornamentation.

Said’s expansive intelligence can be read from his analysis of Richard Wagner. Read the following interaction between Tariq Ali and Said.

TA: But what about the anti-Semitism (of Wagner) which is beyond doubt?Was his anti-Semitism, his ultra-nationalism as far as Germany was concerned, part of his volatility, of veering from one extreme to the other?

ES: Yes, certainly his writings are full of flaming anti-Semitic elements. Very similar, by the way, to the anti-Semitism of most European intellectuals of his time. Renan, for example. Many English writers, contemporaries of his, like Carlyle, had the same prejudices against Jews and against Blacks. It’s a common theme in his work. In Wagner’s case, of course, it is amplified by the extraordinary xenophobia which is everywhere present in his work. He thought of himself as furthering German culture and so on so forth, as a German composer-and that is appalling. It’s less present in his actual operas.(Tariq Ali: 51)

For an admirer of Orientalism as well as a critic of what he said about Marx in Orientalism, this separation of artist and his politics from the art seems to be an appalling paradox. One page over, he says about the visit of Adolph Hitler to Bayreuth (a small German town where Wagner’s opera house was situated) in a less favourable tone:

ES: Yes, that is all true. And it’s part of history of that particular form, but I think it’s true of every cultural form, if you look at it. It’s affiliated with the most awful ideas and movements and tendencies that produce terribly disastrous results on human scale. (Tariq Ali: 52)

Why is Said, an ardent critic of authors and their subversive politics (though he admired Kipling despite the latter’s orienatlism) not so ardent a critic while writing about musicians? This is partly due to his moorings in the European tradition of classical music which was born and brought up in the Enlightenment. But even here, Said identified the ruptures in the Enlightenment rationality through his studies of Johann Sebastian Bach and Bethovan. Though both the ace musicians were moulded in the cast of rationality mediated by Enlightenment, both kept away from the same through what we now call mystical experience. (Rokus de Groot: 130)

Music as metaphor

In Said’s life, music was a metaphor for a space in which we hear the voice of others more earnestly than we do ourselves. So to say that Said’s oeuvre and his brilliant and daring intellectual and political career were influenced by music is not at all an overstatement. When he organised with Daniel Barenboim the west-eastern Divan workshop in 1999, bringing together Arab and Jewish musicians, it was inspired by Goethe for whom art was all about a voyage to the other ( Rokus de Groot)

Rokus de Groot, musicologist and composer based in Netherlands, understands that Said’s pre-occupation with music prompted by the polyphony and counterpoint built in the very structure of music and ‘by introducing complementary voices-one being temporarily more active than vice versa-these voices are given the opportunity to manifest themselves individually.  This is an invitation to the polyphonic listening as a practice of mutual respect, as complementarity refrains from the continuous overpowering by one voice over others.’ According to de Groot, Said’s realisation of identity as simultaneity of voices is based on his realisation of music as polyphonic discourse. The aim of Said was to ‘develop polyphony as a basic mode of thought and action in a post-colonial, globalising world.’ ‘Polyphony as a mode of thought and action would be instrumental in coping with manifold, often conflicting interests, in undermining dominant narratives and in going beyond fixed identity.’ (Rokus de Groot)

Is Music Utopia beyond Identity

Said, the pragmatic critic, has always dreamt the Utopian dream of life beyond identity, life beyond turning our eyes into ourselves. He said: ‘I have become very, very impatient with the idea and the whole project of identity. What is much more interesting is to try to reach out beyond identity to something else, whatever that is. It may be death…..It may be a state of forgetfulness.’ (Edward Said interview with Jacqueline Rose)

And what were final moments of Said. Miriam, his wife vividly remembers that ‘when faced with death in life of others as well as in his own life, language stopped being a significant mode of communication. It was music which he needed here the most, music about the muteness of which he had expressed his wonder time and again, music, which itself is a constant resistance as well as surrender to silence.’ (Rokus de Groot)

Works as references

  1. Edward Said, Music at the Limits, Columbia University Press
  2. Tariq Ali, Conversations with Edward Said, Seagull Books
  3. Rokus de Groot,         Music at the limits – Edward Said’s musical elaborations, at The Language of Art and Music: “An International Symposium on the Potential for Artistic Expression to Cross Cultural Barriers and the Relationship between Art, Culture, and International Relations” (Berlin, 17th – 20th February 2011, Held Parallel to the Berlin International Film Festival)
  4. Edward Fox, The Lady’s Cairo, Saudi Aramco World (http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201201/um.kulthum.the.lady.s.cairo.htm
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