The Sound of Understanding: Music and International Relations

Political conflict and international relations aren’t usually the first things that come to mind when listening to classical music. As a genre made up largely of European repertoire from days past, it’s more likely to conjure up images of cathedrals, lavish opera houses, and modern concert halls rather than, say, the United Nations headquarters. A new project, however, seeks to change the way that classical music interacts with foreign affairs and global problems. The Barenboim-Said Academy is a new initiative in music education that reimagines the standard model of a music conservatory. Unlike most music schools, the academy will host only students from the Middle East and will offer a course of instruction leading to a two-year degree that not only includes intensive study of music, but also international relations, political science and the humanities, including courses in both Arabic and Hebrew. With a donation of €20 million from the German government and nearly €14 million in private donations funding the construction of concert, teaching, and practice facilities, the Berlin-based academy is set to open in 2016 after a pilot phase this year.

The academy is the product of a relationship between two illustrious individuals in the worlds of music and academia: Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. Barenboim is a renowned Argentine-born Israeli conductor who has conducted the Orchestre de Paris, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among others. Said is a well-known Palestinian-American literary theorist and public intellectual. His work in post-colonial thought has influenced the way that scholars think about modern societies, especially the Middle East. Both men joined together in 1999 with a vision to start a new orchestra, one that would include only young Israeli and Arab musicians who would practice and perform together. They named their new project the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, after a poem by Goethe, the renowned German poet known for his interest in Eastern cultures. Following the death of Edward Said in 2003, Daniel Barenboim has continued their joint mission of making music that crosses boundaries.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has become an icon, performing around the world, mostly outside of the countries its musicians call home due to security concerns. It has drawn the praise of world leaders and scholars from Kofi Annan to Pope Benedict XVI. In 2005, the orchestra performed a noteworthy and highly publicized concert in Ramallah in the West Bank, where Daniel Barenboim encountered a young girl who told him, “You are the first thing I have seen from Israel that is not a soldier or a tank.” The orchestra has also been uniquely involved with Brown University and has visited the campus twice: once in 2006 and again in 2013. Both visits were marked by a series of events to engage the Brown community, including campus conversations with Daniel Barenboim, performances by the orchestra and a special performance of Mendelssohn’s popular octet, combining the Providence Quartet and four of the orchestra’s musicians. Michael Steinberg, a professor of music history who serves as Brown’s Vice Provost of the Arts and as the director of the Cogut Center for the Humanities, met Daniel Barenboim while traveling abroad in Germany and has since been heavily involved in his projects, including the design of the new academy’s curriculum. “Music education is a form of understanding how people communicate without speaking to each other, and what it means to communicate over very large areas of difference,” including serious political and cultural differences, he said in a recent interview with BPR, adding that “professional music education does not pay much attention to these issues.” Its proponents hope the academy will carry forward the spirit of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and engineer a new form of music education that emphasizes a holistic view of music and society.

Daniel Barenboim is not alone in his quest to use music as a means of conflict resolution. Similar projects in classical music have been undertaken in many places, including classical music projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina that work to unite Muslim and Catholic communities in the wake of civil war. During a performance in Mostar made up of an ensemble of both Bozniak and Croat musicians, the leaders of the divided city displayed an unprecedented degree of hospitality toward one another in the wake of the violent conflict. Musicians Without Borders, an NGO whose mission is to use various genres of music to repair broken communities and diminish the effects of war, has sponsored projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Palestine and Rwanda, all areas known for recent conflict. In Mitrovica, Kosovo, for example, Musicians Without Borders created a rock school that helped bring together youth from various conflicted groups and forged friendships between them. Another organization with a wide following is Playing for Change, which produces incredibly popular music videos that feature songs from musicians around the world. Their mission is preventative rather than remedial; the charity hopes to bring people of different nations together in general, not necessarily in the realm of conflict.

Organizations like these raise an array of questions about the role that music plays in conflict resolution. Do such efforts really contribute in any substantial way, or do they simply obscure the realities of political conflict with meaningless spectacle? Should music be a priority in conflict resolution? What can be expected from such efforts, if anything at all? Answering these questions necessitates thinking about music and how it relates to people and societies.

Daniel Barenboim has adamantly denied that his Orchestra is a project designed to bring peace to the region its members call home. He prefers to speak of it as an “orchestra against ignorance.” This model acknowledges the ultimately limited impact of the arts on international relations. Nobody expects an orchestra or a music school to solve the intractable problems facing Israel and the Arab world. In total, both projects will only directly engage a few hundred people, an insignificant sum compared to the millions of people who live in Israel and the surrounding Arab nations. Despite the limitations of these efforts, however, music is still a powerful cultural force, and it, like any element of human culture, is political. Warfare throughout the ages has traditionally made use of music to organize large groups of soldiers and to keep up morale; one well-known example is the iconic drum and fife typically associated with the American Revolution. Additionally, music often plays a role as propaganda, as seen recently at the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, where both sides blast provoking music at each other. Besides its demonstrated ability to work as a tool of power, music is also valued for its therapeutic value. The recent advent of music therapy as a way to treat a range of psychological disorders such as PTSD is a further testament to the power that music holds over the human mind, which is, after all, the primary locus of politics and political conflict.

In the realm of conflict resolution, the practice of making music itself is often key. Musicians who collaborate together speak a common language and must act in synchrony. The very act of making music necessitates mutual respect and collaboration, giving the community of musicians a superordinate goal in the form of creating a piece of complex music that help bring musicians from conflicting groups closer together. In the words of Michael Steinberg, “Listening itself is a practice that is political. It has to do with giving time and subjectivity and dignity to someone else.” By combining political issues with music as a way to develop listening and empathy, peoples can be brought together to solve complex problems in a way that would be impossible otherwise. Far from obscuring the issues at stake, music complements international politics, providing a space for groups at odds with each other to develop empathy, even though they may still disagree.

The Barenboim-Said Academy is still in its final stages of preparation, yet when it is finished it will become an important experiment in empathy and understanding, while potentially transforming music education and the practice of music itself in a way that relates more fully to the social and political realities of the world.

One comment

  • Sebastian, this is a well written article. You are quite right music is a powerful tool in therapy, for it is the language of emotion, without any need for words.
    Words so often –when not chosen wisely– divide, while music always connects. Music is the first sensation an infant recognizes (even when still in the womb) and it is the last to go in old age when dealing with dementia.

    Music touches our heart and breaks through barriers of resistance.

    Dr. Gabriele Chorney

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