Edward Said as Musical Thinker

Edward Said’s writings on music are well known and highly respected. I would like to take a more expansive view of his work and propose that what made him an incisive and powerful critic was his musical understanding of cultural matters in general. Music gave him not only several major works to analyze but the very means of listening to the world.  He “understood the world through music.” Said was fundamentally a musical thinker – a person, scholar, teacher, and activist whose terms and modes of thinking always drew on the entire spectrum of the cultural phenomenon of classical music. His defense of a worldly, democratic, contrapuntal criticism was grounded in an intrinsic understanding of classical music as a pivotal cultural institution.

Said believed that, beyond its artistic importance, music is unique as “a mode of thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices” (Musical Elaborations = ME, 1991, 105). According to Daniel Barenboim, his “other self,” “he actually formulated ideas and reached conclusions through music; and, along the same lines, he saw music as a reflection of the idea that he had regarding other issues” (“Maestro,” Critical Inquiry 31:2, 2005, 526). Barenboim illustrates with examples his conviction that Said’s “concept of life and of the world originated and lay in music” (528).

To Said music meant classical music only, nothing else. He never showed the slightest interest in any other kind of music. His critical thinking, which is thoroughly musical, must be understood in terms of classical music. Furthermore, he was interested only in canonical composers from Baroque to late Modernism (Henze, not Glass), and did not explore any others. He believed that the creation, distribution, and consumption of their work constituted a separate cultural system with its own legitimacy and rules: “Music is of fundamental interest therefore because it represents the rarity, uniqueness, and absolute individuality of art, as well as its intermittent, fragmentary, highly conditional, and circumstantial existence” (ME, 75). On this basis “his passionate interest in Western classical music served to draw into focus some of the very cultural processes and problems that had come to exercise his work more generally” (Tregear in Curthoys & Ganguly, eds.: Edward Said, 2007, 206).

Said was a total modern musical person. He was an ideal listener of classical music in that he could hear, study, play, discuss, and interpret it.  Crucial to his musical immersion was the fact that he had at home both a piano and a music library. Thus there was a continuum from his study to the recital hall and back. Before or after a recital he could sit at the piano with his own score. At the same time, he did not limit his focus to individual pieces: while he heard works, he listened to entire interpretive traditions; while he heard performances, he listened to transmitted guild legacies. No musical occasion was an isolated experience for him. Everything fit in the functionally differentiated and internally self-regulated sphere of classical music. He also followed the scholarship of the “new musicology,” which was informed by critical theory and cultural studies, and he could compare its approaches with literary ones, which were his area of disciplinary expertise. He remained a scholar engaged in both music and literature, a “pianist who writes critical essays and who, simultaneously, is a critic who plays music” (Jim Merod, “The Sublime Lyrical Abstractions of Edward W. Said,” boundary 2 25:2, 1998, 130).

Said considered classical music the modern art par excellence, the one with the greatest artistic autonomy and cultural heteronomy, and consequently the most self-contradictory and self-reflexive one. The paradigmatic site of this art (which may be compared to sites like the archive, the museum, and the seminar) is “the concert occasion” which represents “the result of a complex historical and social process” (ME, 11). Classical music in performance constitutes the most comprehensive modern artistic form. His most comprehensive reflections on culture examine musical, not literary works. His discussions of literary works were more detailed but lacked the scope of his musical analyses. He was interested in the practices by which a piece is composed, circulated, performed, transcribed, reproduced, recorded, understood, appropriated and so on. He was equally interested in the figure of the composer, the musician, the listener, the producer, the publicist, the amateur, the critic and so on.

Most of Said’s basic critical terms and notions are based on his concrete musical thinking. The list is long: “elaboration” comes from Bach (not Gramsci), “worldly” from Beethoven, “craft” from Richard Strauss, “transgression” from “affiliations between music and society” (70), “interpretation” from performance (89), the “essay” from the recital, the “critical” from contrapuntal, the “canonical” from concert programs, “identity” from melody, “writing” from improvisation, “quotation” from transcription, “comparative literature” from polyphony, “reference” from summoning Schumann while playing Brahms, “understanding” from listening to Alfred Brendel, “memory” from listening to Maurizio Pollini, “secular intellectual” from the passion of Glenn Gould, “cultural enterprise” from the Toscanini industry, “humanism” from The Ring, “social context” from the Mastersingers, “Orientalism” from Aida, and the archetype of the Jewish Erich Auerbach arriving in Istanbul in 1936 to promote Western Bildung comes from the Jewish Ignace Tiegerman arriving in Cairo in 1933 also to promote Western Bildung.

Despite the tremendous and long-lasting impact of his Orientalism (1978), Said felt that literature-based discourse analysis was politically impotent because it practiced little more than self-defeating textual resistance, and embarked on a music-based contrapuntal analysis, his model for the “worldly criticism” launched in The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) and later deployed to structure Culture and Imperialism (1993). “A ‘contrapuntal’ analysis that can map social relationships beyond the limits of discourse would become, for Said, the basis of a ‘worldly’ consciousness that could in turn produce an awareness of how one might become an interventionary agent of social change” (Ben Etherington in Curthoys & Ganguly, eds.: Edward Said, 221). This musical approach leads also to an awareness of cultural transaction: “Said’s trope of contrapuntality is closely related to the specific transactions of translation and cultural negotiation, and just as generous” (Michael P. Steinberg, “Edward Said and the Question of Musical Cosmopolitanism,” forthcoming). Musical transgression becomes a central trope of language translation: “Moreover, the fluid mobility of music that enables it to transgress boundaries does not mean that music exists beyond language, as it would be understood through a Romantic sensibility, but as what perhaps enables the translation of language – or of languages, in the plural – at the same time that it is itself literally a language of translation” (Stathis Gourgouris, “Musical Dis-Possessions,” in Braidotti & Gilroy, eds.: Conflicting Humanities, 2016, 246).

Contrapuntality as a scholarly and pedagogical principle remains central in his work. “At least implicit in Said’s formulation is the possibility of fundamental transformations in the ways in which we read literature and culture. It enacts a complex relationship with the notion of tradition—linguistic, national, civilizational—that it both takes seriously and puts into question by opening up any particular tradition to interaction with other such purportedly discrete entities. [] But, at its most expansive, contrapuntality is an argument about the nature of culture in the modern era. Through it, we come to see all ideas of cultural autonomy and autochthony as phantasmic in nature. We come to under- stand that societies on either side of the imperial divide now live deeply imbricated lives that cannot be understood without reference to each other. It begins to encode a comparativism yet to come, a global comparativism that is a determinate and concrete response to the hierarchical systems that have dominated cultural life since the colonial era. What is striking here is that Said saw that this disciplinary revisionism involves in part a return to the past, viewing it as a radical renewal of the long since lost humanistic ‘mission’ of the early notion of world literature as a comparative terrain for the mutual interaction of the world’s numerous literatures, while understanding that ‘the field [had been] epistemologically organized as a sort of hierarchy, with Europe and its Latin Christian literatures at its center and top,’ which ‘assume[ed] the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world.’ For its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century proponents, the comparative study of the world’s literatures was to ‘furnish a trans- national, even trans-human perspective on literary performance’ [quoting Said’s Culture and Imperialism]. This mission of comparative literary studies needed now to be reformulated and radically renewed in tune with the global demand for social justice and emancipation in the twentieth century” (Aamir Mufti, “Global Comparativism,” Critical Inquiry, 31(2), 2005, 477–78).

With his turn from discourse to contrapuntal analysis, Said lost interest in Michel Foucault, who had empowered theoretically the philological rigor of Orientalism. His new major critical interlocutor became Theodor Adorno, a fellow major musical thinker who, like Said, considered seriously in his youth a career as a musician. From then on, in everything Said heard and argued he was always debating and challenging with great respect the author of the Philosophy of Modern Music (rather than Aesthetic Theory). Adorno was also Tomas Mann’s major interlocutor while he was working on his Doktor Faustus (1947). In this musical novel, the humanist philologist and Schoolmaster Serenus Zeitblom tells the sad story of his dearest friend and Kontrastfigur, the demonic and self-destructive composer-intellectual Adrian Leverkühn, who died at 55 having signed a pact with the devil and foregone love in order to become the greatest composer of his time by writing large-scale variations. The parallel with Said’s massive investment in classical music is uncanny: In his musical reflections, the humanist philologist and Center Director Edward Said tells the sad story of his dearest idol and Kontrastfigur, the demonic and self-destructive pianist (and composer)-intellectual Glenn Gould who died at 50 having signed a pact with the devil and foregone love in order to become the greatest pianist of his time by performing large-scale variations. What Said wrote about Gould, Leverkühn’s “embodiment” (Said, Music at the Limits, 22) applies to both musicians: “What he wanted was an escape from everything that determined or conditioned his reality as a human being” (ME, 29). Both philologists, Zeitblom and Said, told at length their sad stories of a Bildung gone astray because they felt that nothing less than the fate of classical music, if not Western culture, was at stake in the lives of Leverkühn, the fictional musician, and Gould, the musician who sought to become a fictional one.

Some ten years after, with Gould’s death, Said lost his Adrian Leverkühn, he was immensely fortunate to find in the early 1990s a great friend, his “other self,” in the person of another “Dionysian” intellectual pianist, Daniel Barenboim, who, in sharp contrast to Gould, had (and still has!) an insatiable drive to collaborate in public in as many ways as possible. Here is Barenboim’s testimony on their friendship: “I feel at home in the company of very few close friends. And, I must say, Edward to me has become the one friend with whom I can share so many things, a soul mate. I feel very at home whenever I am with him” (Barenboim and Said, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, 2002). With his example Barenboim showed Said that thinking musicians do not need to do penance by adopting an “antinatural antisensuality” (Said, Music at the Limits, 9) and following Leverkühn and Gould in a pursuit of Adornian, solipsistic, self-negating authenticity. Their creative friendship unfolded in numerous public spaces – lectures, interviews, concerts, classes, etc. Their ultimate collaborative work was a consummate enactment of comparative literature through a powerful transgressive act – a reactivation in Goethe’s city (Weimar) on Goethe’s anniversary (1999) of Goethe’s Weltliteratur in a collective/common of contrapuntal musical Bildung: the creation of the “West–Eastern Divan Orchestra,” a classical orchestra with contrapuntal membership of young people performing canonical repertoire in contrapuntal locations. This has been the apogee of Said’s life project “to assimilate to canons these other contrapuntal lines” (Said, “Criticism, Culture, and Performance,” in Marranca & Dasgupta, eds.: Conversations on Art and Performance, 1999, 163).

Said compared the public role of the intellectual to the social function of music: “Overlapping yet irreconcilable experiences demand from the intellectual the courage to say what is before us, in almost exactly the way Adorno, throughout his work on music, insisted that modern music can never be reconciled with the society that produced it; but in its intensely and often despairingly crafted form and content, music can act as a silent witness to the inhumanity all around” (Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 2004, 143). It is the responsibility of the intellectual to interpret in public (that is, to perform!) contrapuntal works (be they music, fiction, or philosophy) in contrapuntal ways. True to his “vision of the intellectual as musician” (Tregear 217), Said not only thought but also wrote in a musical way. For example, he focuses his Musical Elaborations “on the most contingent and ephemeral moment of music – the making and receiving of a performance. He then structures his book so as to embody the many strategies it describes both to live in that moment and to expand it. [] Indeed, Said suggests by his formal techniques as well as his ideas how music helps humans come to terms with the contingency of their own time and place in the world” (Rose Rosengard Subotnik, review of ME, Journal of the American Musicological Society 46, 1993, 484). What has been aptly said about his philosophical mentor applies to Said as well: “In order to achieve his large-scale critical and humanistic objectives, Adorno takes great pains to ‘complete’ nineteenth- and early twentieth-century music through critical configurations as individualized as is that music itself; and like that music, his criticism tries to demonstrate the necessity of individuality by rendering the latter absolute within itself” (Subotnik, Developing Variations, 1991, 53).

Said’s musical universe (and the corresponding worldly criticism) is dominated by two major forces of classical development which I define using his musical terminology. One kind of development unfolds through domination, leading to recapitulation and eventual resolution. (Such illusional reconciliation results in co-optation.) The other kind of development unfolds through variation, leading to proliferation and promoting polyphony. (Such a way of inhabiting the music encourages its remaking.) The former development is a sonata formation (which includes major genres, like the symphony and the concerto), creating identity and establishing imperial culture, while the latter is a contrapuntal formation, practicing critique and advancing humanistic politics. Said proposes this musical understanding as a basis for the study of all culture: “Those are the culture practices that I think one could use as a typology of other culture practices” (“Criticism, Culture, and Performance,” 154).

The project of The West–Eastern Divan Orchestra has now grown to include the Barenboim-Said Foundation in Seville (2004), the Barenboim-Said Conservatory in Nazareth (2006), and the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin (2015). I cannot think of a richer friendship with a greater cultural legacy in modern times! I have tremendous admiration for it as I too am a literature scholar whose “other self” and close public collaborator is a pianist intellectual, Pantelis Polychronidis. Yet, despite the broad admiration for Said’s musical writings and initiatives, there seems to be no appreciation of Said the musician in the public domain: For example, I could not find any descriptions, clips, or recordings of his solo and duet piano playing. Didn’t anybody tape Said playing Schubert, alone or with Barenboim? This unfortunate silence, together with the widely admired breadth of his cultural vision, also make me think that it is time to discover Edward Said as a musician and a fundamentally musical thinker.

April 29, 2016

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