The orchestra's repertoire includes symphonic works, operas and chamber music. Concert highlights have included performances at the Berlin Philharmonie or Milan's Teatro alla Scala. The orchestra is a regular guest at the BBC Proms and the festivals in Salzburg and Lucerne

Edward W. Said Days in Berlin
Music – facilitator of intercultural dialogue

How can Edward Said's ideas help people better understand Yoko Ono's performance art, pre-colonial rhythms from Africa or the music of Christian missionaries in Japan? The Edward W. Said Days in Berlin marking 20 years since the literary scholar's death explored a whole range of questions. Ceyda Nurtsch reports

It was a homage to one of the most influential intellectuals of the late twentieth century and a tribute to the friendship between two ambassadors of peace, whose fruitful co-operation gave birth to a unique project of international understanding. This year's Edward W. Said Days on 26-27 August marked both the twentieth anniversary of the death of the Palestinian American professor of literature Edward Said and the opening of the 2023/24 season at the Barenboim-Said Akademie and the Pierre Boulez Hall.

How has colonialism and the aftermath of the colonial encounter shaped the "Western" view of musical practices in other parts of the world? How does the performance art of Yoko Ono resonate with Said's ideas? How does his concept of "contrapuntal" analysis help people understand Christian missionary performance practices in sixteenth-century Japan?

Academics who gave lectures or took part in panel discussions at the two-day symposium in Berlin at the end of August explored questions like these at the interface between colonialism and music – both of which are key aspects of Said's oeuvre. The event was curated by Regula Rapp, rector of the Barenboim-Said Akademie, and James Helgeson, professor of musicology and composition.

At the interface between colonialism and music

Said's 1978 book Orientalism, which has been translated into 30 languages, is one of the most influential and widely read non-fiction books in the history of modern academia. In it, he uses Michel Foucault's methods to analyse the European view of Near Eastern societies, the West's feelings of superiority and the construction of an Orient that never actually existed.

Professor Regula Rapp, rector of the Barenboim-Said Academie (image: Peter Adamik)
"The Barenboim-Said Academie was born out of the close friendship between Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim. Their dream of a conservatoire combining musical education with sound humanities teaching in philosophy and other subjects became a reality with the founding of the academy," Regula Rapp, rector of the Barenboim-Said Academie, said in her address

But Edward Said was more than just a prominent critical voice. As an authority with an in-depth knowledge and understanding of music, literature, philosophy and politics, he was, in Daniel Barenboim's words, one of those "special people who see the connections and the parallels between different disciplines" and who "recognised that parallels and paradoxes are not contradictions".

Said, who himself studied piano at the Juilliard School and was a highly esteemed music critic, transferred literary methods of interpretation to disciplines such as history and music. For this reason, his theoretical approaches serve as an important inspiration to musicologists when exploring the question of exchange within the framework of both historical and contemporary colonial and imperial contacts.

Andalucia, example of coexistence

Professor Dag Nikolaus Hasse (Wurzburg University) used Said's views on Andalucia to underline the basic thrust of both this academic focus and the work of the Barenboim-Said Akademie as a whole. Said saw the Islamic, Judaic and Christian history of Spain as a model of tradition and conviction. At the same time, he warned against idealising Andalucia as a lost paradise.

In his investigation of those aspects that could actually serve as models for the multi-ethnic cities of the future, Hasse said that "there is something in Andalucia that we have lost. That seems to me to be the most important lesson from the past."

Hasse went on to say that the Andalucian model and the Ottoman Near East showed that routines of respect are important and that they can be implemented. "That is the encouragement. And it worked backed then. We can work on co-existence – both in the highest form of our cultures and also in our daily lives. This we can learn from Andalucia and Edward Said," he said.

Encountering the Other

A major aspect of Said's work is the encounter with the Other. Said himself supplies the methodology for this approach, namely the musical concept of "counterpoint" – the combination of several voices that are melodically and rhythmically independent while still harmonising with each other – which he transferred to other areas outside music, such as his description of the life of an exile.

On the basis of this concept, Makoto Harris Takao of the University of Illinois explored the performance practice of Jesuit missionaries in sixteenth-century Japan. Brigid Cohen of New York University found parallels to Said's thought in the performance art of Yoko Ono, for example in "Cut Piece" (1964), which is interpreted as being a protest against the bombardment of Hiroshima and confronts the audience with Ono's Asian body. Ono has said of this piece that her viewers initially "did not know what to make of it".

Dr. Makoto Harris Takao, University of Illinois, Professor Brigid Cohen, New York University, Dr. Clara Wenz, University of Wurzburg, and Professor James Helgeson discussed music in the context of global colonial contact (image: Peter Adamik)
Dr. Makoto Harris Takao, University of Illinois, Professor Brigid Cohen, New York University, Dr. Clara Wenz, University of Wurzburg, and Professor James Helgeson discussed music in the context of global colonial contact

Starting with Said's theory of post-colonialism, other lectures explored the themes of cultural appropriation, representation and mutual influence, taking the example of Cairo, the analysis of musical techniques in pre-colonial Africa and Said's focus on opera. In his closing keynote lecture, Kofi Agawu, distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, called on musicologists to focus on African art music, which has hitherto been a little explored field but is full of potential for discovery.

Both days featured concerts by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, who founded the orchestra with Edward Said in 1999. 

WEDO: from experiment to the stages of the world

The friendship between the Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said (b. 1935) and the Argentinian Israeli pianist and star conductor Daniel Barenboim (b. 1942) was short, but intense and highly impactful. Both were convinced that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible and that music in particular facilitates transcultural dialogue.

Their lively, sometimes public exchanges about art, politics and the paradoxes and parallels of life, which continued until Said's death in 2003, and their shared utopia manifested itself in the foundation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) for young Arab and Israeli musicians.

What began in 1999 as an experiment in "mutual listening" is now a world-renowned orchestra that performs on the great stages of the world, such as the Royal Albert Hall in London or the Salzburg Festival, without ever losing sight of its message.

"It is our belief that the destinies of these two peoples, of the Palestinian people and the Israeli people, are inextricably linked and it is our duty – all of us – to find a way to live together. Because we either all kill each other, or we learn to share what there is to share. It is with this message that we have come to you today," said Barenboim at a WEDO concert in Ramallah in 2005.

The moral and musical triangle

The Barenboim-Said Akademie was established in this same spirit in 2015. It provides conservatory education for talented, young musicians in particular from the Middle East and North Africa and attaches great importance to also giving these students a comprehensive grounding in the humanities. Barenboim and Said were presented with the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord in 2002 in recognition of their services to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. In 2016, the UN designated the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as a United Nations Global Advocate for Cultural Understanding.

In her lecture at the Edward Said Days, Clara Wenz from Wurzburg University highlighted the fact that the Barenboim-Said Akademie is one of several Arab-Jewish encounters in Berlin in recent history. She noted that the Barenboim-Said Akademie fits into a tradition of dialogue that has included the Lebanese record company Baidaphon or the Sherbini Bar, a jazz club where Egyptian exiles performed and a popular meeting place for Berlin's Bohemians in the 1920s, and is thus flourishing in a moral and musical triangle.

Ceyda Nurtsch

© 2023

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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