In Other Words: A Musical Love Tale for Valentine’s Day

A dreamy cheesecake laid the foundation for Friday morning girl talk with a friend. She asked me whether it was difficult for Valentin and I to bridge our backgrounds, by which she was referring to all that was obviously different in the way we grew up (language to begin with).

I didn’t fail to point out that we are both cellists.

To strengthen my case, I emphasised that growing up, we both sat with a cello between our legs during much of our after-school time; we practiced the same things, heard the same tunes, and were both enveloped by the four walls of our practice rooms. “So I’m not sure our backgrounds really are all that different,” I told her.

My friend was excited. She festively announced “Music bridges cultures!”, and went on to say how beautiful it was that music makes people from distant backgrounds understand each other. I took another bite from that dream of a cheesecake and said to her: “well.. not really… though it is nice that people who had an intense long-term classical-music education tend to understand other people who had an intense long-term classical-music education”.

My friend is the only non-musician friend I have, and for that I will cherish her friendship for the rest of my life. We found lots of ways to bridge the gap between our backgrounds, some of which were even dairy-free.

I asked Google what music was, and it quickly suggested that music is a universal language. One trillion is the number of times this was claimed by well-tempered, well-mannered people; however, they are usually referring to a very specific type of music as comprehended by a very specific type of people.

How many Westerners understand the language of Persian classical music the same way they understand the language of their own traditional classical music? Does “universal language” apply to all types of music, including ancient Dhrupad, ambient techno, Renaissance sacred music, John Cage’s silences and a Helmut Lachenmann opera? And even if it did, how can we jump to the conclusion that music promotes peace? Are there any documented historical events in which music has helped mark territorial borders, sign peace treaties or dismantle a terrorist organisation?

We tend to give music supernatural powers, comfortably blind to the fact that most case studies are carried out on groups of people who are anyway in peace with one another.

High five if you’re also thinking about Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan. The orchestra is said to be a place where Israelis and Arabs find mutual ground onstage, playing music instead of hating each other. But honestly, the fact that Arabs and Israelis succeed in playing breathtaking programs in such harmony and with such mutual understanding—seemingly forgetting their national identities—generally accounts to the fact that many of them identify as “musicians” first and foremost, rather than as “Israelis” or “Arabs”.

They do so because they have been musicians for as long as they can remember, or at least since an age where it was easier to grasp what music was than national pride. In other words, they play well together because they are professional musicians (or on their definitive paths to becoming them). There is not much to bridge between people who spent most of their lives studying and practicing the same art, even when those people come from conflicting countries. This in no ways means that music has brought peace to the Middle East. Nonetheless, it’s a story worth telling, simply for the purpose of letting people know that being “Arab” or being “Israeli” plays a much quieter role once you have something as meaningful as music in your life.

Those who grasp the reality that music cannot solve political issues or protect human rights blame the Divan and agnate projects for being too pretentious or gimmicky. Personally, I believe that in claiming that we play music to overcome cultural hostility, we are painting cultural hostility in a bad light. Forget about music for a second and focus on the latter half of that statement. It’s not as if the non-musicians in the audience are left worrying that they won’t be able to understand those who differ from them simply because they are not musically trained. Instead, they walk away from the concert hall acknowledging tolerance and understanding as beautiful things. Perhaps like music.

Valentin pretending to be a devoted Gambist; me being too serious.

Anyway, although spending our childhood in a similar way, Valentin and I had a very different take when learning for our future jobs. Valentin once recorded himself practicing scales and then played the tape over and over again, so his parents thought he was diligently practicing, while he was reading comic books in his room. I, for the other hand, practiced one afternoon a C-major scale for a total of four hours. On other days I watched CSI New York on mute, while endlessly repeating tricky passages on a slow tempo.

Somehow, we found each other, despite such polar personalities. Thanks to language barrier we don’t fight much. Occasionally, when circumstances call for it, we lend each other our instruments thereby easily solving logistical problems, which is almost as intimate as sharing underwear. That is how well we bridge our cultural backgrounds.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear MOUNT DELA readers!

4 thoughts on “In Other Words: A Musical Love Tale for Valentine’s Day

  1. A very nice and moving essay. I wish I would have known you in the age of that beautiful photo. When you came to me you were 9 already, much too old.

    1. I was thinking about you when writing this – obviously – because it’s all about beautiful childhood memories, for which I have you to thank for. The best, smartest, thoughtful teacher a girl can have.