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Thinking About Musicking

Music is always a social activity.
photo: Carola Dibbell

In 1975, Christopher Small, a 48-year-old senior lecturer at a London college of higher education, approached independent publisher John Calder with a half-completed translation of Fragments Théoretiques sur la Musique Expérimental, by the Belgian serialist Henri Pousseur. Small had left his native New Zealand in 1961 after receiving a grant to study composition in the mother country. There he fell in with avant-gardists he now believes derailed whatever compositional impulse he had, although he did produce several educational works as well as one called Actions for Chorus: Some Maori Place Names. Since Calder had put out titles by Cage and Ives, he seemed a good match for the recondite Belgian, but the publisher was more interested in the translator. Soon he was asking when Small would be writing his own book.

"Well, you know, every academic thinks he's got a book in him," Small told me recently in Sitges, Spain, a seaside outpost of Barcelona where he's lived with companion Neville Braithwaite since 1986. Designated a "guru" by more than one admirer, Small is a tubby, affable man with a trim white beard who speaks in a ruminative murmur few would call charismatic; several times he apologized for not answering my questions snappily enough. But he certainly did have a book in him. In the end, in fact, he had three. But only Music, Society, Education came easy—he wrote his visionary critique of classical music's industrial-capitalist apparatus in less than a year. And that, Small figured, would be that. "I expected it just to sink from sight. It never occurred to me that there was anything out of the ordinary about it."

Soon, however, Music, Society, Education received a glowing notice from the pop-friendly English musicologist Wilfrid Mellers. "A whole torrent of reviews" followed, although Small seems just as gratified by all the "letters from undergrads and schoolkids—several letters from schoolkids—and students in music college." What caused the clamor was that Small had examined classical music from the inside and found it wanting—humanly wanting as opposed to aesthetically wanting, to exploit a distinction he has little use for. Small's literary presentation mirrored his musical values, which emphasize music's function in, well, society and education. Deeply thoughtful and broadly informed without any of the usual shows of erudition (spare footnotes, no bibliography), it really was accessible to interested schoolkids, and although Small insists that it was not conceived as an "attack," it alarmed the old guard mightily. It was both more sweeping and more unassuming than anything Mellers had in him, and its commitment to democracy had a radical edge absent from the centrist middlebrow Henry Pleasants, whose crankier Serious Music and All That Jazz, Death of a Music?, and The Agony of Modern Music Small would only discover later.

What distinguished Small from his fellow dissenters was that he wasn't just an antielitist praising melody and rhythm, much less an elitist spinning off into some airless avant-garde stratosphere. He was driven by an overriding idea: that music is always a social activity, never a reified thing. Thus the Balinese and African musics his first book describes early on are the equals of the European classical tradition whose audience he is addressing, and perhaps its superior. The moral agenda that goes with this concept not only insists on music's social context but challenges "the whole idea of music as communication"—especially the myth of the composer as an anointed genius with a message to impart to his inferiors in the orchestra and the audience.

It took Small 10 laborious years to reconfigure these concerns in what he calls "my favorite of my three children"—an idiosyncratic, autodidactic history of African American music. Music of the Common Tongue is an ambitious, original, moving synthesis, propelled once again by Small's signature ideas. But because he came to the subject late and learned American history on his own, it's awkwardly researched, and while there's earnest charm and emotional power in the book's flaws, they're sometimes distracting or misleading, especially when they touch on such white-dominated precincts as Tin Pan Alley and country music. It's easy to imagine a more smoothly executed version turning Small into a genuine intellectual celebrity. Instead, it remained surprisingly obscure—the time wasn't right for such a radical book, and Calder did nothing to compensate. By pub date Small and Braithwaite, a Jamaican-born youth worker in music and dance several years Small's senior, had escaped Thatcher's England and retired to Sitges, an old Catalan community that has accommodated significant touristic, bohemian, and gay infusions.

One hallmark of Small's modestly momentous career, grounded in classical music and then bent toward America as it is, is that he never got the time of day from the U.S. classical establishment, which he observes is far more snobbish and insular than the European. In Britain, Mellers and Pleasants were like-minded predecessors, but insofar as he was noticed at all in America it was usually by the likes of radical ethnomusicologist Charles Keil and rock critic Dave Marsh, who first told me about Music of the Common Tongue. Music, Society, Education I'd discovered on my own at St. Mark's, which is pretty much how Susan McClary came across it shortly after it was published here in the early '80s. McClary was then formulating the deconstruction of music theory that would eventually blossom into the so-called new musicology as well as McClary's MacArthur grant, and she immediately started teaching Small's book, which both reinforced and influenced her own thinking: "It's had a profound effect on the people who have read it—in musicology, ethnomusicology, cultural studies." McClary and her husband, Robert Walser, have become friends of Small—they were vacationing in Sitges when I visited. Together with George Lipsitz, they edit Wesleyan University Press's Music/Culture series, which rescued Small's first two books from Calder and then spurred him to turn a daunting pile of manuscript fragments into 1998's Musicking.

Musicking is calmer than Small's manifesto or his love child. Far-ranging by conventional musicological standards, it's nevertheless the most focused of his books, and also a return to his roots: a step-by-step examination of a symphonic performance, starting in the foyer of the concert hall and building to a meta-analysis of symphonic form and impact, with various "preludes," "postludes," "interludes," and outright afterthoughts and asides along the way. Perhaps due to Wesleyan's visibility, it's gotten the bulk of its attention in the U.S. "In Britain it's, 'Oh, Chris Small, good knockabout stuff but not to be taken seriously,' " Small says. It's slow at times—there's much about Gregory Bateson's antidualistic theory of mind, which provides a theoretical framework the way Ivan Illich's anarchist notions did in Music, Society, Education—but I think it's his most powerful book.

First there's the term "musicking" itself, introduced in Music of the Common Tongue to underline Small's thesis that music is always an activity rather than a thing, but now, promoted as a title, showing up all over McClary's wing of academia and eventually, you bet, journalistic discourse as well. And then there's Small's climactic point, which is that music's ultimate function isn't to order time, that industrial fallacy, but to provide insight into relationships: between and among notes and chords and rhythms and meters and many other classes of sound, and also musicians and listeners (not to mention composers and conductors, producers and A&R folk, DJs and critics). As Small demonstrates vividly by outlining a few sample "secondary" and "tertiary" relationships in numbingly tortuous words, it's a very efficient way to embody and sum up relatedness, which is the essence of social if not human life. Thus, music becomes as integral to mental health as music chauvinists are forever claiming it is.

Small takes care to define "musicking" as broadly and kindly as possible. The concept definitely encompasses dancing and listening—a girl with a Walkman is one of his prime examples. But like so many pop sympathizers with folk affinities—I think of Robert Palmer in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, of Robert Cantwell in Bluegrass Breakdown, and especially of Charles Keil, who's made a mission of teaching elementary schoolers and frat-rat klutzes to play the drums—he's enamored of live performance and suspicious of recordings. As is my practice, I brought a few CDs I thought would be down his alley to our meeting—alt-rappers Blackalicious, the glorious Senegalese Music in My Head. Small declined to put them on. In fact, he told me, he doesn't do much listening these days, certainly not to anything unfamiliar, although once in a while someone comes along and gives him a kick. Instead he spends extensive musicking time playing the piano as well as he can (better than he admits, I bet)—Mozart's sonatas have been a special revelation recently. And although he's working on a lecture he's been asked to deliver in New Zealand, he told me he has no plans for another book. After all, if past performance is any indicator, it wouldn't come out till he's 80.

Having just learned that developments in sociobiology had unsettled his politics slightly—having learned, that is, that his mind was as active as ever—I could only hope he was wrong about the book. Small is a writer so humane he makes those who fulminate reflexively against the "academic" look like bigots as well as morons. He was a late bloomer, and he's getting on. But he's proven someone for whom teaching comes as naturally as musicking. I very much doubt he has nothing more to tell us.


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