Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Perspectives of Polyphony in Edward Said's Writings

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Perspectives of Polyphony in Edward Said's Writings

Article excerpt

As a child, Edward Said attended a recital by Umm Kalthoum. He was greatly puzzled and disturbed by it, and missed above all counterpoint, to which he was used because of his early familiarity with Western classical music. Later in his life, he re-evaluated Umm Kalthoum's art. It would play a fundamental role for him in the formation of alternative ways of listening to Western music, emphasizing elaboration rather than development. In itself, her music functioned as a 'contrapuntal voice' to Western practices in Said's maturation as a listener and as a thinker. The article concentrates on polyphony, with its constitutive practices of counterpoint and harmony, as a key concept in the interpretation of Said's reflections on music, and a metaphor for humanistic emancipation.

I. An Early Experience: Umm Kalthoum and a 'Lack of Counterpoint' (1)

When Edward Said was eight or nine years old, he was taken to a musical recital for the first time in his life. The singer whose art the child was witnessing, turned out to be none other than the grand lady of Arabic music, Umm Kalthoum. In an interview for Dutch television, recorded in 2000, Said gave a surprising comment on this seminal event:

   It was a dreadful experience for me.... It did not begin
   until 10 o'clock at night. I was half asleep. I was a kid.
   And there was this great crowded theatre. There did not
   seem any order to it. The musicians would wander on
   stage, sit down and play a little bit, wander off, and
   then come back, and finally she would appear. And
   they would sing together with her orchestra. And her
   songs would go on for forty to forty-five minutes. And
   to me there was not the kind of form or shape [I was
   used to in Western classical music], it seemed to be all
   more or less the same. And the tone was mournful,
   melancholic. I did not understand the words. Above all
   what I missed, I realize now, was counterpoint. It is
   very monophonic music. I think it is designed to send
   people, not exactly into a stupor, but it would induce a
   kind of melancholic haze, which people like. And I
   found it very disturbing. Mentally it made you inactive.
   [My assessment of this music practice] ... is entirely
   subjective. So I very early on rejected it and began to
   focus exclusively on Western music, for which I hungered
   more and more. (2)

Said's childhood judgment is rather similar to the way Western listeners, well-versed in Western classical music, used to comment upon music from the Middle East. It resembles very much an 'Orientalist' stereotypical prejudice about Arabic music, and Oriental music in general. (3)

Edward Said, a Palestinian by birth, was raised by parents who were ardent lovers of Western music. It was this kind of music, and not Arabic music, that he was made familiar with, although he was introduced by his mother's brother to some of the repertoire of the oud at family gatherings in Lebanon. Said's family did not possess Arabic recordings, but had a collection of discs with Western classical music (mainly Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini, some Bach, Wagner, and Richard Strauss) (Zeeman).

In his book Musical Elaborations, after almost five decades, Edward Said returned to Umm Kalthoum, with observations on his early experience of her art:

   The first musical performance I ever attended as a very
   small boy (in the mid-1940s) was a puzzling, interminably
   long, and yet haunting concert by Umm
   Kalthoum, already the premier exponent of classical
   Arabic song. I had no way of knowing that her peculiar
   rigor as a performer derived from an aesthetic whose hallmark
   was exfoliating variation, in which repetition, a sort
   of meditative fixation on one or two small patterns, and
   an almost total absence of developmental (in the
   Beethovenian sense) tension were the key elements. The
   point of the performance, I later realized, was not to get
   to the end of a carefully constructed logical
   structure--working through it--but to luxuriate in all sorts
   of byways, to linger over details and changes in text, to
   digress and then digress from the digression. … 
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