Rachel Beckles Willson, Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Rachel Beckles Willson (RBW): In 2004, I was puzzled by the way that the English press—specifically newspapers that are usually rather critical, The Guardian and The Observer—responded to some western classical music initiatives in Ramallah led by the celebrated conductor Daniel Barenboim. It all seemed to be wildly admiring, while also reproducing imperialistic discourses about Arabs and Europe (the former in need of the latter’s civilizing missions). This was all the more peculiar, because Barenboim had collaborated with the recently-deceased Edward W. Said in the early stages of his work with Palestinians, and the initiatives continued to be associated with Said’s name and indeed family. A further layer of interest was Said’s own relationship with music. His deep love of western classical traditions led him to write brilliantly about them, but always within a discourse that had its roots in German nineteenth-century idealism. This meant that even while allowing some critical voices in the texture of his writing, he tended to preserve western classical music from truly critical scrutiny: he drew back from recognizing it fully as a worldly and mediated practice. In sum, then, the situation suggested a new form of cultural imperialism, one in which Said himself was entangled.
I began in 2006 by conducting fieldwork on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth ensemble conducted by Barenboim since 1999, with which Said had also collaborated. The players come from a range of Arab countries, the broader Arab world, Israel, the US, and Europe. I published two critical articles on the orchestra, but as I shifted focus beyond it and onto Palestine, interviews with Palestinians promoting their own music education projects led me to recognize a broader phenomenon, which was largely a product of post-Oslo funding. Such interviews also led me to sense a fascinating history, traceable in part through Palestinian family genealogies. At the same time, a research fellowship provided by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation led me to spend twenty months living in Berlin, where my study of German-language sources on Palestine reinforced my sense of the importance of recovering neglected histories of intervention.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RBW: The book could be understood as a study of three forms of cultural imperialism—religious, state, and neoliberal—as they intersect with western classical music among Arab communities in Palestine from c.1840 to the present day. I use the term “mission” rather than “imperialist” for many reasons. It highlights the problematic religiosity of what continues today in relations between Europe and Palestine (in part because of ingrained ideas about the “Holy Land” and in part because of religious attitudes to western classical music such as Said’s). It also triggers awareness of the manifold natures and scales of quasi-imperialist practices in music (whether led by individual missionaries, music teachers, or government officials managing a state broadcasting apparatus, for instance). It allows me to flesh out a deep history of how “civilizing” missions developed in close entanglements with the nineteenth-century rise of bourgeois music culture in Europe, the association of this culture with “civilization,” and the increasingly market-driven interests of practicing musicians. Finally, missionizing of Arabs has led to the cultivation of particular tastes, often including an uncritical valuation of western classical music (Said’s preferences are indicative, but not unusual). People shaped by this influence work today with (or against) new “missions”—which are constituted by generally rather well-meaning individuals who may unwittingly perpetuate old discourses and even practices of cultural domination.
I drew upon sources from a range of archives (missions, schools, government), and conducted multiple interviews (with musicians and music promoters/funders). Theoretically, I drew substantially on postcolonial literature, as well as literature on nineteenth-century missions and recent critical writing on NGOs. Literature specific to Palestine and Israel was also important. However, Jewish communities settling in Palestine have rarely undertaken activities falling within the framework of my interest (it is rare to find cases where a Jewish Israeli has sought to enhance an Arab’s life through western classical music), so my focus was not primarily on such relationships. Central to my historical narrative is the outgrowth of Enlightenment fantasies about “restoring” Jews to the Holy Land, and both internal and foreign missions to Jews within Europe and in Palestine. These initiatives were in part symptoms of a perceived need to rescue Christianity from modernity, but were in themselves typical of modernity in their strategies of categorization, which culminated in the British division of Jew from non-Jew in a project to create a “national homeland” in Palestine in 1917. Through a deep history of the present the ironies of “missions” come into focus: whereas the British wished to divide, and indeed used music to do this, today the discourse is all about building bridges...and using music to do that.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
RBW: Directly prior to this project, I worked on western classical music politics in a different context but in (partly) the same period. My focus was on Hungarian art and music as it developed in the lead up to, and during, the Cold War. I was dealing with occupation (that of the Soviet Union), but a closed period of history rather than an ongoing situation. I was truly a novice in the Palestine region, having had no connection with it whatsoever prior to this project. I was raised as an Anglican Protestant, but have never felt any connection with the church. My training as a pianist in the western classical tradition, however, and my subsequent movement into musicology, made me sensitive to the product that was being, and has long been, used in such diverse ways around the world.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RBW: The book is written primarily for academic researchers and students. It should provide a new perspective for scholars interested in the legacy of Said, and/or Orientalism more broadly. My drawing on little-discussed German-language sources, and contrasting the religious interpolations into Palestine with the secular interventions into Egypt, may set into motion some new ways of considering cultural imperialism in the region and elsewhere. It is also written for those working within the various disciplines of music studies—whether musicology or ethnomusicology—where questions of power and authority are pressing, and where critical work on classical traditions is very much underway. It may also shed fresh light on the occupation today, because I insist on framing this within the history of European intervention and Europe’s creations of categories, rather than simply using such categories as they are often employed today.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RBW: As I drew to the end of the fieldwork, I bought an ‘ūd. I’ve been working on playing that since then, and exploring historical Arab music theory and repertoires. At the moment I am particularly interested in recordings of dawr and mouwashshahat by performers such as Marie Jubran and Sabah Fakhri. It is very early days, but there is enormous potential in these sources. Responses to music are always shaped by our conceptual and political histories, but our sonic and tactile receptors are involved in mediated ways. How, I wonder, can we focus attention on our senses of sound/music in transcultual spaces while maintaining alertness to the political frameworks in play?
Excerpt from Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West
During his brilliant, controversial, and sadly curtailed career, cultural theorist and literary critic Edward W. Said had two particular passions, namely Western classical music and Palestine. Playing the piano, attending concerts, and writing about music were the main expressions of the first; the second emerged through membership of the Palestine National Council, writing, and international lobbying. The two seem to have occupied quite discrete spaces for most of Said’s life, but they came together in 1999. That year, within Weimar’s Cultural Capital of Europe program, he contributed to music workshops involving Jews and Arabs led by conductor Daniel Barenboim.
The success of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the ensemble that grew out of that collaboration, has tended to place its founders under spotlights. As a Palestinian and a Jew working together, they could seem to offer a model for resolving the problems of Israel and the Palestinians. Interested observers might be left with the impression that these extraordinary individuals, their friendship and shared passions, were the forces behind the orchestral project. And such views probably have some truth.
Yet there are always broader contexts to consider, whether they involve history, politics, or any other matter. The last decades have seen the emergence of a range of attempts to address the conflict of Palestine that use music, along with several Western classical musical initiatives that seek explicitly to involve Palestinians. These are in themselves examples of a much broader contemporary phenomenon in which the arts are brought into sites of political conflict or other strife. My book seeks to explore this phenomenon as it connects with the Palestinians.
As my title indicates, one key will be provided by Said’s important and much-discussed legacy in theorizing European and US relationships with “the Orient.” The intertwining of political imperialism and cultural practices that he observed characterizing the nineteenth century has not been banished to the past: rather, it continues to take new forms today, and it offers one context for considering the appropriation of Western classical music for an initiative connected to the Middle East. In broad terms, then, I will be contributing here to research that addresses relationships between Western music and “the Orient,” Western music and its musical “others,” and broader discussions about cultural imperialism in music. What I expose should also resonate with general studies of music’s connection with place, and add to sociological research already undertaken on the global dissemination of Western classical music.
My other key theme, mission, is plainly a broad one that intersects in part with imperialism. Postcolonial methods have triggered some deeply critical inquiries, in contrast to the turn of the twentieth century, when histories of mission were largely affirmative. We can now read about missionary encounter in a range of locations, with beautifully nuanced approaches. But it is one of the most recent developments in the study of mission that has shaped this book even more, namely a trend in constructing historical trajectories that link the nineteenth century with the present day. For example, William DeMars has traced the history from “single-issue movements” of the late eighteenth century that were led by dissenting British Protestants towards today’s transnational networks for aid distribution. Similarly, Nina Berman has observed German philanthropy in Africa develop through nineteenth-century missions of (Christian) “civilization” through to late twentieth-century “humanitarian” interventions. My book places music in this frame. What I offer is a discussion about changing relationships between “the West” and the Palestinians since the mid-nineteenth century, as mediated through Western classical music. It should demonstrate that the Palestinian case can contribute to discussions about both international aid and the political appropriation of the arts in a range of disciplines.
My historical chapters in Part I begin in the early nineteenth century, a time when American and European travels to Egypt, India, Palestine, and elsewhere were on the increase. I begin by exposing how visitors heard music in the region—thus complementing recent work on European Orientalist writing on music. But I suggest a parallel movement as well, one that scholars have tended to treat separately, namely the spread of music education (and consumption) in Europe. The two movements are undoubtedly connected: they are developments of eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, combined with the growth of industry, travel, and a new bourgeoisie. And they converged when music was dispatched worldwide by missionaries and colonizers, as William McGuire’s work on the Tonic Sol-Fa movement in Victorian England has demonstrated.
In Part II I focus on more recent years, probing the consequences of a widespread belief that Western classical music can have beneficence on a global level, discussing initiatives led on the West Bank and in Israel. Such projects, I suggest, share a legacy of nineteenth-century European idealism, and often a conviction that the symphony orchestra can transcend some of the dilemmas of an alarmingly fractured world. Said himself said of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, “strange as it may seem, it is culture generally and music in particular that provide an alternative model for the conflict of identities.” What he was expressing was not only an individually cherished view, but one version of an optimism that has swelled, in recent decades, regarding the capacity of the arts to take over where politics have failed. I hope that my historical perspective may provide a fresh contribution to the emerging field of research into music and “conflict transformation,” which tends to deal primarily with the present.
Ultimately the book is about the pressure to join the global march to nationhood and modernity as defined by Western industrialized nations. It is structured through a series of ideas that articulate moments in the history of interactions between Europeans (and to a lesser extent, North Americans) and the Arabs of Palestine. Each chapter relates to a specific period as well as an idea, with some overlapping between them. In the center of the book, in a chapter entitled “Provincializing mission,” I decenter the historical missionary and reflect more closely on the lives of Palestinians. I finish the book with a return to the legacy of Edward Said.
[Excerpted from Orientalism and Musical Mission: Palestine and the West, by Rachel Beckles Willson, by permission of the author. © 2013 by Rachel Beckles Willson. For more information, or to order a copy, click here.]