Terry McLaughlin: Changing the tone through music
In 1999 Argentinian-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
The aim of the orchestra was to find young talented musicians from across the Middle East, bring them together for two months, and give them an opportunity to perform on some of the world’s most prestigious stages.
After receiving more than 200 applications from Arab music students, the ensemble, named after an anthology of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first met in Weimar, Germany — a place where the ideals of the Enlightenment are often overshadowed by the Holocaust.
Though this experiment was intended as a one-time event, it quickly evolved into a legendary orchestra, now based in Seville, Spain. Barenboim welcomes musicians from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, hoping that being able to humanize the “other” may lead to a way to imagine a better future for all.
In a recent interview on television’s “60 Minutes” Barenboim was asked if it was surprising to him that bringing good Arab musicians and good Israeli musicians together could result in their making beautiful music. Barenboim’s response: “Of course it is surprising, because from their education and where they come from, they are taught the other is a monster.” But, he added, “In the orchestra, we have equality.”
Barenboim has no illusions about what he can accomplish, and has said about the ensemble that “The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and I’m not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to … create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”
One of Barenboim’s young musicians reinforced this point: “Barenboim is always saying his project is not political. But one of the really great things is that this is a political statement by both sides. … The orchestra is a human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with the other.”
The example set by the young people of this orchestra, and the lessons learned, are something that certainly can be applied to our own country and our own community. In the past I have written about the concept of “Living Room Conversations”, and other members of this community have expanded upon that subject recently in their own opinion pieces. Living Room Conversations is a program designed to create a non-confrontational setting in which people with different opinions and differing world views can communicate without the fear of being belittled, berated, or harangued. These conversations create an opportunity to open one’s mind to other viewpoints.
Just as Barenboim has indicated that he is not trying to convert Arabs to the Israeli point of view, or vice versa, the intention of these conversations is not to change minds, but to acknowledge that we can disagree and “not resort to knives”, or name calling or hatred or violence. And an added bonus may be the discovery of new friends — those with whom you may disagree on almost every topic, but with whom you can develop a warm relationship, in spite of your differences.
One does not have to participate in a structured event such as Living Room Conversations in order to achieve the same goals. One need only be willing to communicate in a civil and respectful manner, whether dealing with friends, co-workers, family, or political adversaries. I often receive emails from readers who wholly disagree with my point of view on a particular subject. Some of those emails have resulted in an on-going dialogue that has been educational, informative, and totally enjoyable — as we find that while we are in disagreement on a wide range of topics, we actually see eye to eye on many others. The positive aspects of these digital conversations were only made possible by our willingness, on both sides, to discuss a topic with civility and respect.
As we find ourselves in yet another election cycle, with some local incumbents in contentious races for their elected positions, we need to remind ourselves that we have the same goals — the well-being of our citizens, the desire for well-managed financial stewardship, the education and safety of our children, care for our elderly and disabled, respect and appropriate care for our Veterans, and so much more.
Conductor Daniel Barenboim does not believe that he can change the world. He acknowledges that the Middle East is not an orchestra and people are not instruments, saying “I know, I know … I am a conductor. I’m not a politician. I’m a conductor. And therefore, I do what I feel I can do.”
Perhaps we cannot change the world, or even change a single mind. But we, too, can do what we can do — change the tone and nature of our debates, one person at a time.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at email@example.com.
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