Friday, October 29, 2004

Specialization? Daniel Barenboim on Edward Said's Musicianship

Daniel Barenboim in the Guardian writes about his friendship with Edward Said, who was (as is well known) an accomplished pianist as well as a world-class intellectual.

The best thought in this essay is also one that raises questions for me:

His fierce anti-specialisation led him to criticise very strongly, and very fairly, the fact that musical education was becoming increasingly poor, not only in the United States - which, after all, had imported the music of old Europe - but also in the very countries that had produced music's greatest figures: for example, in Germany, which had produced Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Schumann and many others; or in France, which had produced Debussy and Ravel. Furthermore, he perceived a sign that bothered him exceedingly, a perception that was to unite us very quickly: even when there was musical education, it was carried out in a very specialised way. In the best of cases, young people were offered the opportunity to practice an instrument, to acquire necessary knowledge of theory, of musicology, and of everything that a musician needs professionally.

But, at the same time, there existed a widespread and growing incomprehension of the impossibility of articulating the content of a musical work. After all, if it were possible to express in words the content of one of Beethoven's symphonies, we would no longer have a need for that symphony. But the fact that it is impossible to express in words the music's content does not mean that there is no content.

Again, the enemy is specialization. Within literary theory -- and particularly, in Foucault -- the enemy has in recent years come to be "discipline."

The fact that I do a blog where I write about such a disparate array of topics suggests (I hope) that I myself am opposed to the plague of specialization. But at the same time, I wonder about whether Said isn't being too idealistic: isn't it only possible to make a successful critique of specialization from the vantage point of professional accomplishment? Aren't strong technical fundamentals required in order to play Beethoven -- or write a paper on Joyce -- in a manner that others will find compelling, and correct?

Practically speaking, how does one teach technical basics and universal meanings at the same time? Earlier in the semester I attempted to teach formal and technical aspects of poetics (rhyme, meter, poetic form) in my "Intro to the English Major" undergraduate course. The subject is difficult enough for me that it took nearly all of my concentration just to ensure that I was correctly scanning the poems that I was asking my students to scan. There wasn't room left, after noting the metrical deviations in Browning's "The Last Ride Together," for what the poem means, and why they should read it to begin with. (I should say I do find the balance easier to achieve when teaching prose.)

I think the critique of specialization works best when students already know all these basics -- either because someone else taught it to them, or because they learned it on their own out of a natural proficiency and enthusiasm for the subject.
In effect, the kinds of knowledge that are often derided as mere specialization are every bit as necessary as the general humanist competency that makes someone seem like a serious musician or literary critic. The two pull away from each other -- and seemingly contradict one another -- but both are essential to success.

(Of course, I haven't said anything about how the demands of the market -- which are often compelled by delusion -- skew even the most modest attempt to talk about ideals and practicalities in pedagogy)

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