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2006-08-14 - 5:13 p.m.

Over the weekend I re-skimmed most of Edward Said’s Musical Elaborations. This comes after having read his Late Style in the summer. There’s a good punchy discussion of Said in general and Late Style in particular from Chandras Choudhury at:


And here’s a specially interesting extract:

‘Whatever its flaws," the scholar Malise Ruthven wrote in an obituary for Said in 2003, "Orientalism appeared at an opportune time, enabling upwardly mobile academics from non-western countries (many of whom came from families who had benefited from colonialism) to take advantage of the mood of political correctness it helped to engender by associating themselves with 'narratives of oppression', creating successful careers out of transmitting, interpreting and debating representations of the non-western 'other'."

From my personal experience of six years studying the humanities at two different universities, I would say this is correct, and it is my opinion that Said's influence was mostly for the bad, not least in the field of literary criticism, where (although Said was himself a critic of the highest class) it has generated a great deal of obtuse, tendentious work. But the revisionary sense attached by Said to the word has now become pervasive. Understood as part of a larger imperialist project, "orientalism" has, in a decolonized age, now become an attack word for the other side, as it were.’

Worth mentioning that Said along with Barneboim was a co-founder of the East-West Divan orchestra.

I found Late Style stimulating, especially in terms of what it had to say about Mozart, Adorno, Glenn Gould and Beethoven. In fact it was a book I didn’t want to end. Choudhury suggests that Said maybe overdoes the Adorno – but who am I to complain about that. Said caught me at the right moment as far as Mozart is concerned – between The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. His discussion is mostly about the moral compexity /ambiguity of Cosi fan Tutti.

Musical Elaborations is especially good with its idea of musical performance as an extreme occaision and his fascination with Glenn Gould and his rejection of concerts as a way of communicating the essence of music. On the basis of this I bought a Gould DVD – Gould’s first Goldberg Variations was the first CD I bought in the 1980s after I changed technology – a lucky accident. The DVD has Gould talking about Busoni and for a while after this I was obsessed with finding guitar fingerings for a Busoni characteristic dominant chord – a mix of I7 and II7.

The essence of Musical Elaborations is that people can come together in society to listen to music for a variety of reasons and not all of them are good, beneficial or progressive. By luck I was taking to James about Brown University on Rhode Island (where he had thought of going last year) and an hour later I bumped into a book by an academic there – Michael Steinberg – on the history of the Salzburg Festival – which seems to have been a maelstrom of cultural/political wars. At least some of the time Mozart’s music was embedded in a national cultural framework with some pretty suspect aspects. People seem to think that the Schaeffer play was an important step in his rehabilitation.

The question – why are these people listening to this music in this way? – is a good one and it seems that Adorno’s grand theory was accelerated by the work he did in the late 1930s when he first arrived in the USA looking at the likely impact of broadcasting classical music . This followed some heated debates with Brecht and Lukacs over what progressive/modern art would really be like – this was at just the time that Shostakovich was finding his way through the minefield.

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