DATE October 30, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Chris Hedges discusses his knowledge of terrorist cells
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a European dragnet in
eight countries has fanned out through London, Madrid, Milan and other cities
to hunt down militant Islamic terrorist cells with links to Osama bin Laden.
Authorities have arrested more than 30 suspects in France alone, with more
arrests coming daily.
My guest, Chris Hedges, has covered the European investigation for The New
York Times, reporting from Spain, France and Belgium. From 1991 to '95,
Hedges was The Times' Middle East bureau chief, based in Cairo. During the
Gulf War, he was one of several reporters captured and detained by Iraqi
soldiers. Hedges reports that the European terrorist network is composed of
two major groups. One is the Takfiri, a radical, ultra-conservative group
that traces its origins back to Egypt in the 1960s. The second group are the
Salafis, who trace their roots to the Algerian insurgency against the French.
I spoke with Chris Hedges this morning about how these terrorist organizations
operate. I asked him about one of the plots recently uncovered in the
investigation in Europe, to blow up the American embassy in Paris.
Mr. CHRIS HEDGES (The New York Times): ...tip-off to the plot came from
Jamal Beghal, this French Algerian national who was picked up in Dubai. And
police swooped down in Belgium, primarily where they were planning the attack,
and confiscated huge amounts of chemicals, some weapons and plans to carry out
the assault, which was to take place at the end of this year or the beginning
of next year.
BOGAEV: Now what has the plot revealed to officials about how these terrorist
attacks are orchestrated? For instance, did the directives come straight from
Osama bin Laden, or did the group, a specific group, plan and aim to carry out
the attack independently?
Mr. HEDGES: In this case, it appears that the directive did come from Osama
bin Laden. Beghal talks about a final meeting where he was given the date, or
the approximate date the attack was to be carried. He was given about $60,000
to fund the attack. He was on his way back--he was actually traveling--he was
coming from a camp in Afghanistan, and was on his way to Morocco, where he
would go to the Algerian or the French embassy and say that he lost his
passport--this is a very common technique--essentially allowing him to travel
into Europe without record of his journey into Afghanistan and Pakistan. And
then he was supposed to go on to Spain and up into France and give the green
light. He, of course, never made it.
So in the large attacks, it does appear that there is a direct link, or at
least a seeking of approval on the part of the bin Laden organization. The
planning for the attack in Europe was very slipshod. For instance, the
plotters in Brussels bought all of their chemicals at the same store. They
just did not have the precision or the care that a Mohamed Atta, the
ringleader of the hijackers here, had. So one sees, I think, that the caliber
or quality of those carrying out these attacks varies, and of course, makes a
tremendous difference in what is possible and what isn't.
BOGAEV: Now the Bush administration has focused on Osama bin Laden and
al-Qaeda as the ringleader of the September 11th operation, and listening to
the evidence and the information that's come out of the investigations in
Europe, it seems as if that conception of a top-down organization of terrorist
networks has been called into question. Do you find that happening among
Mr. HEDGES: Yes. And the French are particularly adamant about this, and
they see it as a point of contention with the American intelligence services.
And the French have been doing this well and been doing it longer at this
point than just about anyone else. That's exactly right, that, you know, they
said that these notions of networks and cells are our attempt to impose a
structure on a group or a group of people who essentially don't have much of a
structure. Many of the organizations are freelance. They look at Osama bin
Laden as a kind of, you know, ideological godfather or, you know, they--I
mean, for instance, they just--the Italian police had bugged this apartment
outside of Milan, of this group of north Africans who considered themselves
followers of Osama bin Laden and members of, sort of, this radical vanguard;
however, there isn't any evidence they actually had any contact with Osama bin
They talked a lot about carrying out various attacks in Europe. I think they
even mentioned, you know, using poison and other things. But they appeared to
have been self-motivated, self-directed. It reminded me very much of when I
covered the conflict in Algeria after the military took over in the middle
'90s. The fighting there was quite intense. It subsided, but it was pretty
nasty. I mean, I think the regime was about to go. And I would meet with
members of the Islamic--it was all clandestine meetings, and we go into a
neighborhood, like Balkour(ph), and I would be picked up by an appropriate cab
driver and always left in a house under construction, and about a half hour
later, the leaders would come, give an interview, and then they would leave
and I'd have to wait another hour before I could leave for security reasons.
But there was a fear, even among the leaders--I mean, these were high-ranking
leaders in the Islamic resistance--for my own safety, because they said, you
know, `You're safe with us, but three or four blocks away, Ahmed Mohammed may
have gotten their hands on a pistol and see a foreigner and decide to, you
know, carry out a liquidation in the name of the revolution.' And I think that
that kind of chaotic nature is also part of the sort of loose terrorist
network in Europe; that oftentimes people who define themselves--and we saw
this again with the Palestinian uprising, especially the first one. People
who define themselves as being members of the organization, the actual, the
titular heads of the organizations may not know of their existence.
BOGAEV: Now given the chaotic and the tangled web of associations among these
organizations, what's your sense of what dent the arrests to date have made in
Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think the arrests have been significant, at least in the
short term, because they did manage to get people who were clearly planning to
attack American interests in Paris. There's no question. I mean, they found,
in the basement of a small restaurant in Brussels, the Nile, all of the
chemicals and material to create a pretty powerful explosive device. So in
the short term, I think they've done pretty well.
In terms of penetrating the organization, when one speaks to officials in
Europe, they're very nervous because there are many self-defined cells that--I
mean, we talk of them as sleeper cells. I think that's a bit of a misnomer
because sleeper cells--that refers to the old sort of Soviet system of sending
people over, and then having them work 10 years and then having them carry out
an activity. I don't know that these cells have left a centralized location
with the notion that they'll be tapped one day. I think it's more that they
have that sort of personal affiliation and are open, should the need ever
arise or the proper contacts arrives, to carry out activities on behalf of
Osama bin Laden's network or people who claim to represent Osama bin Laden's
And then because these people have no--unlike past radical groups, they live a
lifestyle that often makes it appear that they are integrated into European
society. Many of these people are second-generation Algerians or Tunisians or
whatever, and they often don't even speak very good Arabic. They've been
through the French system. They often carry a French passport. Because of
their concept of what is permissible under this type of jihad, they are
unshaven. They wear Western clothes. There's evidence that they drink, that
they--and this makes them--at least, outwardly they appear to have assimilated
into European culture when, in fact, they're waiting to strike back.
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. He spent the
last month in Spain, France and Belgium, reporting on the radical Islamist
terrorist network in Europe. He was the Middle East bureau chief for The
Times from 1991 to 1995, based in Cairo. We'll talk more, Chris, after the
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Chris Hedges. He's an investigative journalist for
The New York Times. He spent the last month in Spain, France and Belgium
reporting on the radical Islamic terrorist network in Europe.
Chris, is there a pattern emerging from the arrests made so far about how
young Muslims in Europe become radicalized? And many reports I've read say
that the path leads through London; that London is referred to as a finishing
school for terrorists.
Mr. HEDGES: I think that's correct. There are interesting patterns. Many
of the people--now this, of course, is not true in the case of the hijackers,
but in the case of the European groups, a large number of the--a huge
percentage of the people who are involved in these groups often were either
born in Europe, in France, or came to France when they were very young--four,
five, six years old. They tended to grow up in these huge government
subsidized housing projects that ring French cities. I went out and did a
story about one in Paris where several radicals had grown up and come from.
And it's very tough in Europe for immigrants to integrate. It's tough in any
society for immigrants to integrate, but I think our society is a little more
perhaps, certainly in the urban centers, a little more accommodating. In
France there has long been the sting of racism. France, of course, has its
long history with the Algerian war of independence where one million Algerians
died. And there's no question that, you know, a huge percentage of the prison
population in France in immigrant.
I went up to towns around Lille and unemployment for immigrants or the sons
and daughters of immigrants is running at 10, or 20, 30 percent. That's two
or three times higher than the unemployment rate in France. So there is this
terrible tension that many second-generation immigrants feel. And that is
that they don't really finally feel that they belong in France, as Frenchified
as they are, and they don't belong in the home country where--or their country
of origin because they've, essentially, grown up European. And this has
created a very volatile and dangerous kind of identity crisis.
You find, also interestingly in these European networks, French citizens,
young men who tended to also grow up in these housing projects. They
have--the nickname for them of `the white Moors.' And we saw in several of
these cells French converts who had gone to Bosnia or Chechnya and who were an
integral part; in some cases, led some of these cells.
The difference between these--this--these new terrorist groups and the old
terrorist groups is that the old groups would tend to congregate around
mosques. Here people get involved in sort of the study of Islam, but one of
the marked features of both the Salafis and the Takfiris is that they tend
not to pray or carry out their worship in public places. They do it in their
apartments in tiny groups. They withdraw from the mosques, themselves, which
makes it much harder for police and intelligence to track them.
BOGAEV: Is that why they do it?
Mr. HEDGES: I think they do it for two reasons. One, they are security
conscious, but also their radicalism is one that shuts them off from--I went
up to a town, Roubaix, outside of Lille, where many of these people came
from and talked to the people in the mosque. And they said that there was a
group of about 10 or 20 young men who went on sort of a crime spree in France
and carried out several attacks and killed a policeman, etc. And they said
that the group--this group of young men just became more and more radical
until, finally, they--the mosque, itself, was too staid and too conservative
for them, and they pulled out. So I think that one has to remember that this
is a really tiny, you know, extremely militant strain, even within
conservative Islam and that they often--and that they're very unforgiving.
They--their breaks--I mean, it's a real black-or-white situation for them. I
mean, one is either with them or against them. There are very few nuances.
So the recruitment is often done in the mosques by the Takfiris and the
Salafis, but then as they become involved in these organizations, at least
from what we've seen, they tend to pull out of the mosques.
You mentioned London. London is key. You're right. London is sort of the
clearinghouse for these groups and that--the ideological leaders of these
groups are based there. There's three or four. They decide who goes on to
Afghanistan, who gets selected. And one saw with those people that rose sort
of within the ranks of these groups or became important figures in Europe that
at one point or another they all ended up in London. And they moved,
eventually, from London to camps in Afghanistan. But, yes, London was,
certainly with the French, the clearinghouse. And the French have complained
frequently to the British about the presence of these clerics. The French
judicial system is just much tougher. I mean, they just don't allow
these--they just don't give these people visas and they throw them out.
They're just--it's very hard for organizers or leaders to survive very long in
BOGAEV: Now you write that there's evidence that many of these terrorist
cells in Europe have formed alliances based on shared military experience in
Bosnia. Can you talk about that? Did Islamic holy warriors come from all
over Europe to fight in the Balkans?
Mr. HEDGES: Yes, they did. And I covered the end of the war in Bosnia in
1995 and the mujaheddin, while not terribly numerous--probably four, five,
6,000 people--were a fearsome, you know, well-trained fighting force, many of
whom had combat experience either from Afghanistan or from Chechnya. And this
has been probably the most important bond that brings these radicals together
and the glue that holds these particular cells or groups together; that the
shared combat experience in these places--and I think that's true, you know,
with soldiers soldiering anywhere--is the element that fuels the movement.
And people don't trust anybody outside of that circle. So you repeatedly see
in Europe that when the leaders of these cells or groups or networks, whatever
you want to call them, are picked up, most of them have had combat experience
in Bosnia or Chechnya or Afghanistan. And most of the people, the other
ringleaders that they work with were people who they fought alongside. It's
an extremely important element into how these groups are structured.
BOGAEV: You say they were a tightly controlled fighting force. Did they
have their own code of honor, their own military instructions or codes?
Mr. HEDGES: Well, they weren't a force that we were allowed to get near.
And reporters who tried often--I got chased away from a mujaheddin based in
the town of Zenica with a guy wielding an axe. Other people have had their
windows of their cars broken. And they just were a very hostile force, very
distrustful of outsiders, especially Western reporters. So those of us who
tried to get anywhere near them, we really didn't last too long.
Now there were fairly well substantiated reports that they did practice a real
kind of brutality toward the Serbs. And I was with Serb forces and they had
captured--or, no, they had fought a mujaheddin unit and killed several
mujaheddin and taken photos off the bodies and--which I saw. And the photos
showed mujaheddin fighters kicking a severed head of a Serb around on a soccer
field and holding it up and jeering and, you know, that old sort of story of
the body being a trophy in war. Let me just add that the Serbs were not much
better. I mean, this was--you know, this kind of brutality was a feature of
the war in Bosnia on both sides, but the mujaheddin were certainly not
excluded from it.
BOGAEV: Now what happened after the war ended? Did they stay in Bosnia for
a time before dispersing throughout Europe?
Mr. HEDGES: They did stay in Bosnia. This was a great source of concern for
the Clinton administration. They put a lot of effort into watching them.
The--you know, the CIA kept very close tabs on them because, of course, they
feared an attack on American forces stationed in Bosnia and we just--there was
just reports a few days ago of a group being broken up in Bosnia that
intelligence officials say was planning to do just that; carry out an attack
against American forces in Bosnia. So they were--there was a lot of pressure
put on the Izetbegovic government in Sarajevo to get the mujaheddin out of the
country. And they did manage to diminish their numbers.
However, many of them were given Bosnian passports and, partly, that was
because a lot of them married Bosnian women, but also, a lot of people who
fought in the war were given Bosnian passports. And this has allowed them to
come and go around Europe, essentially, as Bosnians and particularly into
Canada. And Canada has also proven to be one of the sort of major stopping
points for many of these Islamic radicals. And that Bosnian connection is
key. The Canadians are very open towards permitting Bosnian refugees in, and
one has again seen that some of these radicals who may in fact be Algerian or
Egyptian or, you know, Middle Eastern nationality travelling on Bosnian
passports are able to get in and out of Canada. You know the Los Angeles
Airport was done--and he drove over the border from Canada.
BOGAEV: Chris Hedges is an investigative journalist with The New York Times.
We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Barbara
Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
Let's continue our interview with New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. He's
spent the past month in Spain, France and Belgium tracking Islamic terrorist
networks in Europe. Hedges was The Times' Middle East bureau chief based in
Cairo from 1991 to '95. During the Gulf War, he was one of the reporters
captured and detained by Iraqi soldiers.
This summer he traveled to Khan Yunis, one of eight Palestinian refugee camps
in Gaza. He wrote the cover story for the October issue of Harper's magazine
about his experiences there. I asked him why he went to the Occupied
Mr. HEDGES: I wanted to write a story that tried to explain why
young--Palestinian young men are so willing to go into shopping malls in
Israel and blow themselves up. And I also wanted to explain what it was like
to be a Palestinian in one of these refugee camps in Gaza. I think that many
Americans aren't aware of how horrendous life is for Palestinians and the kind
of pressure that they're put under. So I didn't want to do it rhetorically.
I spent seven days in the refugee camp and just wrote about what it was like
on a day-to-day basis.
I picked Khan Yunis because it's surrounded on three sides in a kind of
horseshoe-shaped position by Israeli military, by settlements, by Jewish
settlements. And the Israeli tanks will go up on the dunes and fire into the
camp. There's shooting almost every day between Palestinian gunmen and
Israeli soldiers. You know, on any given day there are, you know, four or
five wounded. The kids are killed all the time. There's use of live
ammunition. It's a particularly brutal and horrible place. And because the
Israelis can cut Gaza in half, Khan Yunis is often cut off, completely
isolated from Gaza City and from the rest of the strip.
BOGAEV: Could you contrast for us life in the Jewish settlements and life in
Mr. HEDGES: It's remarkably like the raj in India. You have within these
settlements--of course, they control the aquifers. There's an unlimited
supply of water. They have--I went up and looked through the fence. I mean,
you can see it from the camp. And it's sort of emerald-green lawns,
white-washed villas with terra-cotta roofs. They have little resort hotels on
the beach and horseback riding trails and swimming pools.
The camp, itself, in Khan Yunis--I mean, I did this on purpose as one of the
worst, but within a stone's throw of the settlements--is one of the most
crowded places on the planet. It has never been allowed to expand in size.
That's not completely the Israelis' fault. When the Egyptians held Gaza,
they didn't allow the camps to expand, either, but it now houses twice the
number of registered refugees--almost 60,000--than it did five decades ago.
And you have to remember that the Palestinian growth rate--or the population
growth rate for the Palestinians is one of the highest in the world, 3.7
percent, compared with 1.7 percent in Israel.
You know, the situation for Gazans--there are 1.1 million Palestinians who
live in Gaza--is such that the disparity between control over the land means
that 20 percent of the territory belongs to the 16 Jewish settlements, which
have about 6,000 Jewish settlers. So, in other words, one-fifth of Gaza is in
the hands of .5 percent of the people who live there.
These people can't travel. Now, because of the closure, they can't work. The
average Palestinian, I think, is living on, you know--two-thirds of
Palestinians are now living below the poverty line. And the--there's no hope
of marriage, no hope of employment, no hope of housing. And I found that the
only way for these young men finally to affirm themselves is to, essentially,
become a martyr. And the whole culture is a kind of horrible necrophilia
that's taken over the society where this is the way you assert who you are,
which is through death.
BOGAEV: You describe daily encounters between Israeli soldiers and
Palestinians there. And most of those killed are young Palestinian boys.
What did you see of this fighting while you were there? How did this shooting
Mr. HEDGES: Well, every afternoon--you know, you could almost time
it--around 3 or 4, the Palestinian kids, who have nowhere to play, would
play--would go out on the dunes and they'd have kites or rag balls and this
kind of stuff. And I remember--I heard it the first day. And I speak Arabic,
so I'm listening over the loudspeaker to the worst curse words in Arabic, and
phrases like, you know, `All the Palestinians who live in Khan Yunis are
dogs,' which is calling an Arab a dog is particularly insulting. And I
couldn't--I just couldn't believe what I heard.
And I walked out towards the dunes and they were--the--over the loudspeaker
from an Israeli army Jeep on the other side of the electric fence they were
taunting these kids. And these kids started to throw rocks. And most of
these kids were 10, 11, 12 years old. And, first of all, the rocks were the
size of a fist. They were being hurled towards a Jeep that was armor-plated.
I doubt they could even hit the Jeep. And then I watched the soldiers open
fire. And it was--I mean, I've seen kids shot in Sarajevo. I mean, snipers
would shoot kids in Sarajevo. I've seen death squads kill families in Algeria
or El Salvador. But I'd never seen soldiers bait or taunt kids like this and
then shoot them for sport. It was--I just--even now, I find it almost
inconceivable. And I went back every day, and every day it was the same.
And it became, of course, a subtext to my story where I just, one, you know,
kept interviewing parents and imams as to why they let the kids go. The
answer being that, in essence, they couldn't control them. There was no room
in the houses. There are just too many kids. I found that imams were
preaching in the mosques, asking the kids not to go, but the problem is that,
you know, the funerals became political events. You know, they would carry
the bodies of the newest Shaheed through the camp. Hundreds of people would
go along behind. They would fire their guns in the air. On the news that's
all they talk about are the new martyrs. On the radio it's the same. So the
kids are almost indoctrinated into this sort of culture of martyrdom, culture
And it is something that many parents, who, despite, you know, the rhetoric
that we often read about, `I'm so proud my son died,' I mean, that is
something totally handed out for consumption by Western--for Western reporters
or outside reporters because sitting around the houses with these people with,
you know, the puffy eyes and the 1,000-yard stare, it's clear that these
parents are as devastated as any parents would be to lose their child. The
militants take over these funerals. They put up their banners. They put up
their signs. The bodies become props; a kind of political prop to make a
political statement. The parents lose control of their children even in
BOGAEV: You talked to many Palestinians about their conception or their hope
or their vision of peace. What did they say?
Mr. HEDGES: I think that, you know, my piece--I was very bleak. I don't see
that--I think the Oslo agreement, the Oslo Accord signed in '93, there was a
lot of hope after that. I think there was the possibility that the radical
Islamic groups, such as Hamas, could have been vanquished or at least made
marginal forces, if there was real economic improvement, real investment, if
Arafat and the Palestinian Authority had granted real press freedom and some
kind of democratic representation, which they have not. He rules the place
just like the thugs who rule the rest of the Middle East. And there's such a
terrible sense of betrayal and such a sense of disappointment. And life has
become so much worse for Palestinians since the peace agreement was signed,
since the Oslo agreement was signed, that there is now such a sort of rage and
despair that I don't see that chasm being bridged. I walked away, you know,
in deep despair.
BOGAEV: What insights does your experience in Gaza and the West Bank give
you into the rise of militant Islam in Europe or what parallels have you
drawn between these two experiences?
Mr. HEDGES: That all of this is primarily about self-destruction. That's
what it's about. And when you have nothing left to live for and no hope; when
you--you know, you can't even assert your own identity; when you can't be
anything other than a sort of--you know, a walking bomb or a force for
violence--that what this is ultimately about is, you know, `I'm gonna go down
and I'm gonna take everyone with me.' And I think that that is a common
thread, both among the radical sort of Palestinians who carry out these kind
of suicide attacks, and these deeply alienated, deeply dislocated, deeply
frustrated young men who drove planes into the World Trade Center.
BOGAEV: Chris Hedges, I want to thank you very much for talking with us
Mr. HEDGES: Thank you.
BOGAEV: New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. He served as The Times' Middle
East bureau chief for four years in the early '90s. His article about his
trip to Gaza is the cover story for the October issue of Harper's magazine.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach talks about
his life as an orphan after World War II and being a conductor
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This past Sunday a memorial was held at ground zero in Manhattan for the
families of the victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
My guest, Christoph Eschenbach, conducted the orchestra of St. Luke's at the
service. Eschenbach has personal associations with war and devastation. A
native of Germany, he was five and an orphan when World War II ended.
Originally a concert pianist, in the last decade he's become one of the top
conductors in the world. He's recently been named the new music director of
the Philadelphia Orchestra, a position he'll assume in 2003. He also holds
posts with orchestras in Paris, Hamburg, Chicago and Houston. Let's listen to
Christoph Eschenbach's latest recording. This is from the First Movement of
Mozart's "Concerto in D major for Violin and Piano", with the NDR Symphony
Orchestra, Midori on violin, Christoph Eschenbach on piano, also conducting.
(Soundbite from Eschenbach performance)
BOGAEV: Christoph Eschenbach, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH: Thank you for receiving me here.
BOGAEV: It's unusual for a conductor to both perform as a soloist and
conduct at the same time. It seems to me as if you would need four sides of
your brain working at once; that you'd need an entirely different focus to
play an instrument than you do to conduct an orchestra.
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Well, it's not easy, but it was in Mozart's time the habit.
And Mozart did, himself, play and conduct his own piano concerto many times.
And so did Beethoven until he couldn't do it anymore because he got totally
deaf. And composers perform their own pieces; also conducted, like Schumann
conducted his own symphonies. Beethoven did so; Mendelssohn, Liszt until in
the middle of the 19th century as the role of a conductor who conducts other
people's works and is not a composer came into the picture, like Boulez. But
the habit to perform from the piano a piano concerto is actually an old habit
which got lost.
BOGAEV: How do you physically do it? You're just at the piano when you
play. Do you conduct with your head or...
Mr. ESCHENBACH: I conduct a bit with my head, very much with my eyes.
I--sometimes with one hand, which is just free for two or three beats in a
measure. And, you know, it works.
BOGAEV: Can you talk about the physical act of conducting; how you cultivate
that, and whether you're conscious of what you look like to an audience or
just completely oblivious to it; do whatever, it works?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: I do whatever works for the orchestra, not whatever works
for the audience because it's much more efficient. If I do what works for
the orchestra and get the sound which I want or the temper which I want and
which makes a conception acceptable for an audience and convincing for an
audience, then the audience will not argue about my body language, I guess.
On the other hand, the body language is something also--on the other hand,
really, also very important, which has to be very perfect in the signification
of or in giving signs--giving the right signs for the right movement at the
right moment. And you have, sort of, say, swallow it, the conscious of what
you do this gestures. You have to forget it. You have to totally make it so
much your own that it is like you eat a meal or like you speak with your mouth
and you don't know what movements your lips do. It is the same thing with a
BOGAEV: Can you give me an example of something you wanted to evoke from an
orchestra and a sign that you had figured out, that just didn't work that
well, that you had to amend or change in some way to make it work?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Well, of course, in my area of years, then you do--I have
done things which are not so efficient, and I worked on them to get efficient.
And--for example, you have to be very much independent with your two arms and
two hands. If you always do, simultaneously with both hands, the same thing,
it's not very efficient. You have to find more possibilities to express. So
the left is mostly is a way--is a hand for expression and for sentiment and
for emotion, which you--and you draw with your left hand, often, emotions out
of the orchestra. Whereas your right hand is more for precision.
BOGAEV: Do you sometimes try to evoke a certain lyricism from a musician and
speak to them in terms of emotion or a more romantic coloring to a piece and
they don't get it? And, then you have to say, `Well, perhaps you need to
attenuate this phrase longer,' change your language to...
Mr. ESCHENBACH: It's the other way around.
BOGAEV: Oh, really?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: It's the other way around. It's more that you can evoke a
very, very lyrical approach to a phrase by speaking about lengths of notes,
about a certain way to play it on a stringed instrument and a certain--with a
certain amount of bow, or a certain place between the bridge and the
fingerboard, or with a wind player, attacking a note different than the other,
then to talk about the blue sky and sun rising over a cornfield, you know.
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Christoph Eschenbach. He has just been named the
new music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He's the conductor laureate
of the Houston Symphony. He's chief conductor of the orchestra of Paris and
also holds post in Chicago and Hamburg. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back with conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach. He's just been
named the new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
You were born in Breslow in 1940, which was then part of Germany. Your mother
died during your birth. Were you cared for by your father?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: No, my father was--I haven't seen my father more than three
or four times because my father was banned by the Nazis into a--he was a
musicologist, a professor of musicology in the university in Breslau, but he
was banned into a provincial place, first, and was not allowed to get back to
Breslau and to see me.
BOGAEV: He was anti-Nazi?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Anti-Nazi, yes.
Mr. ESCHENBACH: And then he was coming in disguise, so to say, to get--see
me and was found out, etc., and he was sent to punishment--Betayun(ph)--in the
war and was killed very immediately. So I have no real recollection of memory
of my parents.
BOGAEV: Who took care of you during the war?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: My grandmother, the mother of my mother.
BOGAEV: So World War II ended when you were five. What did you and your
Mr. ESCHENBACH: We were refugees for a year. And then my grandmother died
in a refugee camp, and typhus broke out and I was the only of 60 people in
this camp who survived. And in the last minute, my--a cousin of my mother,
who lived nearby, who had gotten a postcard of my grandmother, but had gotten
it six weeks after she died, tried to rescue me from this camp. The camp was
under quarantine, and she gave some money to somebody and so I was pulled out
of this disaster at the last minute, actually.
BOGAEV: So she was a musician.
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Yes.
BOGAEV: A singer and a pianist.
Mr. ESCHENBACH: A pianist, yeah.
BOGAEV: Is that when you first heard the piano.
Mr. ESCHENBACH: That's true, yeah. And during a rather long convalescence
time, I heard her play and teach. She was not playing publicly at this time,
but she was teaching a lot. And I was so fascinated by what I heard that the
moment I could speak again--I was also kind of speechless for a year from
BOGAEV: You couldn't talk at all?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: I didn't. I could, but I didn't. I was so full of
impressions. And music was then the vehicle as an outlet for the impressions
which were so, so painful in me, that I could communicate again and express
BOGAEV: So you didn't speak for a year--over a year. Do you remember your
internal process at that time?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Well, it was a process of processing these impressions. And
the music was the thing which really helped me to get over it.
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Listening, first, and then doing it.
BOGAEV: Do you remember when you first started to speak again?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Well, I said, `I want to play.'
BOGAEV: That was the first thing you said.
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Yes.
BOGAEV: What is immediately clear when you started playing piano that you
were very talented?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Talented or not talented, I was obsessed. And I think
everybody is somehow talented and in one field or the other. And that music
was my field, that was evident at a very--immediately.
BOGAEV: Now when did you know you wanted to be a conductor? Did that, also,
become apparent very young?
Mr. ESCHENBACH: When I was 11 years old my stepmother took me to a concert
with Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic. And not that I saw the first
time a conductor, but it was the first time a conductor of that stature. I
was so fascinated to see how one person can inspire 100 people around him to
make, also obsessively, music. And then my mother discovered that I really
was totally overwhelmed by that and by the profession of this man, who was a
superior, to say, of these other musicians, and asked me if I would eventually
go into this direction, and I nodded my head yes. And she was very clever and
she gave me a violin. And a week later I had violin lessons because she said,
`You must learn an orchestra instrument if you want to have something to do
with orchestra.' And from this time on I played for 12 years violin. And I'm
very, very grateful for that because I know very much about string playing now
and her--helped me a lot. And from her singing lessons, which I listened to
very carefully, I got very much about breathing and about, actually, wind
playing and, in general, about music making, which has to be always--has to do
always with breathing or with diction and was a way to give life to a musical
BOGAEV: I know this past Sunday you conducted at the memorial service for
relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks at ground zero in New York City.
I know your own life has been marked by war. Could you tell us what your
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Well, it was highly emotional. And arriving there at the
site was like arriving in a bombed city of--in 1945 in Europe. I went to the
site--physically, I had an impression of the enormous hole which is there, and
the air polluted and smelling and the smoke still burning, ashes. I hardly
could breathe, but music making, I think, helped and hopefully helped people
who were there, the families and friends of the victims.
BOGAEV: Christoph Eschenbach, I want to thank you so much for talking with us
Mr. ESCHENBACH: Thank you.
BOGAEV: Christoph Eschenbach was recently named the new music director of the
Philadelphia Orchestra. He begins his tenure in 2003. Tonight he conducts
the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.
He's Eschenbach playing the rondo from Schubert's "Piano Sonata in A." For
Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
(Soundbite of music)
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