Music at the Limits

January 31, 2008

Pick up an English-language newspaper in search of music criticism and you will find terse, clipped accounts of concerts, CDs and DVDs (far more pop than classical). Such reviews may well be accompanied by a star rating, presumably designed to indicate to readers whether to dig into their pockets.

Music at the Limits thus seems to be a review compilation from another world, one in which Edward W. Said was given space to ruminate on his great passion - Western classical music - at some length and with extensive historical and comparative references.

One is tempted to say that his reviewing was part of a "late style", and refract an echo with his book On Late Style published posthumously in 2006. "Late", in this case, would not be a period within Said's life, but within the life of serious (non-academic) intellectual discourse about Western classical music.

In fact, it would be hard to point at much of a golden age of music journalists to which Said is a coda, for they are something of a rarity, as are press organs that wish to give them space. Yet Said's mode - dialectical discussion of performance and politics or virtuosity and power, flamboyant position-taking regarding musical intellect and emotion - does nonetheless have a ring of a less anxious or inhibited bygone age. It probably did so even while he was writing.

The book does not tell us whether it is a comprehensive collection of Said's reviews, but it does seem to give us both the first (on Glenn Gould in 1983) and the last (a book review in 2003). The presentation is chronological, following a foreword by Daniel Barenboim, conductor and co-founder with Said of an orchestra of young Jewish and Arab musicians, and a preface by Said's widow, Mariam. Most of the pieces appeared first in The Nation, and occasional essays included are taken from UK and US-based literary journals.

A lucid essay on Israel's ban on Wagner performance came out originally in Al-Hayat and Al-Ahram, before being reprinted in Le Monde diplomatique. This piece reveals the political kernel of Said's ambition, which at base is to prevent the suppression of discourse by keeping questions flowing.

He asks here why our understanding of Wagner's music should be "curtailed" by framing it exclusively as anti-Semitism en route to Auschwitz. Behind his query is not only an imperative against collapsing music into politics (which can suppress creative and critical aesthetic exploration), but also a critique of the way that the necessity of the Jewish national refuge can curtail critical thought. Halting at the historical moment of 1948 places the subsequent behaviour of the refuge beyond reprimand.

Elsewhere in the volume, Said addresses political contexts for both composition and production in opera, the relationship between music and commerce, and he is plainly intrigued by performers' pacts with power. Pondering Gould's unfathomable capacities, Said echoes Thomas Mann to remark that mastering counterpoint is akin to playing God. He also reads performers' repertories through cultural geopolitics, thus Andras Schiff offers "a musical experience ... located neither in royal court nor established church nor aristocratic coterie but in some entirely authentic and as yet unformalized site in European culture".

This isn't a book that many will wish to read from cover to cover, and individually some of the essays frustrate, chaining together reflections on a group of concerts too loosely to satisfy at this historical distance. There are moreover peculiar typos - Bach appears once as "Back" in the opening essay, for instance.

Nevertheless, the pulsating rhythm of Said's prose, along with his startling boldness and flair, means that a proliferation of gems is there to be found by anyone dipping in. He was a thinker of great fervency, and it can make for exciting reading.

Music at the Limits

By Edward W. Said
Columbia University Press
ISBN 9780231139366
Published 19 October 2007

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