Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Monday, September 19, 2011

In memoriam Christopher Small

The musicologist Christopher Small has died at the age of 84. His three books republished by Wesleyan University Press, Music, Society, Education (1977), Music of the Common Tongue (1987), and Musicking (1998) were a formative influence on me as I studied ethnomusicology at Brown University. (Small also published a monograph on Arnold Schoenberg, not mentioned in the Times obituary.)

Not only did I find his ideas provocative, but I also was fascinated with him as an individual.
  • Like me, he began with an early interest in the natural sciences (in his case, zoology), before turning to music.
  • Also like me, he grew up away from major musical centers (in his case, New Zealand) before moving to the metropolis.
  • Also like me, he had made some attempts at composition but had become discouraged with the task, and this discouragement led to an ethnomusicological point of view.
If I were to pick out one book that convinced me of the necessity of a global discipline for studying music, it would be Musicking. Small starts with a radically simple idea: rather than think of music as a thing that we can buy, sell, and study, think of it as an activity that takes place among a certain group of people in a certain time. In other words, turn the word music in a verb.

(If you reflect on how we talk about dance, this approach is not as utopian as it seems. Dance can be a noun, but more often it is a verb that describes an activity. And if we do speak of "a dance," we usually mean a genre classification such as waltz, samba, and so forth. There is no such thing as a "dance store" that sells recorded or notated versions of dances, for the simple reason that at least until the 20th century, it was impossible to record or notate dance. Today there are notation systems for choreography, such as Laban movement notation, but these are only used by specialists and are not sold to a mass public like musical scores.)

One of the advantages of thinking of music as an event rather than a thing is that it makes it easier for us to develop a musical discipline that is not biased toward a specific time or place. In music studies we have a strange disciplinary situation that our colleagues in visual art and linguistics must find puzzling: there are some disciplines (historical musicology, music theory) that primarily study notated compositions of Western art music, and other disciplines (ethnomusicology, folklore) that primarily study non-Western or non-notated music. (Mass-mediated popular music is a political football kicked between the two camps.) To the first camp, the object of study is a musical score, while to the other camp, it is a field recording or transcription. The two camps have different institutional and intellectual histories, and it can be hard for them to talk to each other.

But each side leaves out an important part of the story of musicking.
  • To a composer in the Western art music tradition, musical material and its meanings partly come from the unwritten music that exists in the composer's world but does not reach the page. Historical musicologists and theorists have sometimes forgotten this, focusing exclusively on the biography, psychology, or technique of a genius composer.
  • Conversely, unwritten musical traditions may have concepts of authorship and a persistent musical work, even in the absence of prescriptive notation. Ethnomusicologists and folklorists have sometimes forgotten this, ascribing unwritten music to groups of people rather than to individuals.
To me, Small's work offered a possible way out of the horns of this dilemma. In effect, he is advocating that we take the same point of view toward written compositions that linguists take toward written language. To the linguist, spoken language is always the primary phenomenon and writing secondary. Description of a language must be grounded in observations of speaking, not in the prescriptions of the guardians of written language.

The idea that music is fundamentally an act of performance is, of course, not original to Small, and he could be faulted for failing to acknowledge the progenitors of his ideas (for example, John Dewey's Art as Experience.) But as an evangelist for a bracingly contrarian point of view, Small was without peer.

One passage from Musicking stands out as a direct impetus for my own research with choral singers. As part of his criticism of Western art music concerts performed by a few star professionals for a passive and uncomprehending audience, he poses a thought experiment:

"If we imagine a performance in which the members of the orchestra sold the tickets themselves, arranged their own seating and moved the piano around and where everyone, audience as well as conductor, soloist and orchestra members, stayed afterward to clean up, there would be brought into existence another set of human relationships, another kind of society. It would not necessarily be a better society, but we may be sure that those taking part would not remain strangers to one another for very long.” (Musicking, pp. 35-36)

If you have any experience with an amateur or volunteer chorus, you know that what Small describes is no utopian fantasy. It is the everyday reality of making a choral concert happen. I took it as a challenge to do fieldwork among choral singers to demonstrate empirically what Small had surmised.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Reflections on fieldwork, ten years later

It's hard to believe that it has been over ten years since I began the fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology, which I received from Brown University in 2004. Looking back now as a busy parent and professional, the time I spent living in Pawcatuck, Connecticut (across the river from Westerly, Rhode Island) and studying the culture of choral singing in that area seems an unimaginable luxury. (Photo from 2004: The Blue Mitten Thrift Shop, "The Store That Helps Westerly Sing")

Moreover, my professional and personal lives have taken a different course than I imagined they would. Trying to accomplish one thing, I wound up setting myself on a path that I could not have envisioned in 2001. And perhaps my assessment of this path in 2011 will seem just as subject to revision in another ten years. My work as a musician remains a work in progress.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I am again reminded of how different the world is now. As I was planning my dissertation research, the long-predicted deflation of the tech bubble had begun, and the nation had gone through the trauma of the 2000 presidential election, but in so many ways the future of the United States and of the world seemed brighter. On later reflection, my decision to do ethnomusicological fieldwork close to home, rather than abroad, was a product of this era of relative international calm and domestic prosperity. My ideas about "American culture" have surely changed during a decade that has seen terrorist attack, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the abandonment of New Orleans, erosion of civil liberties, attempts to legalize torture, and a prolonged economic malaise.

When Americans talk about history, they often talk about changes in technology. Sometimes these technological changes are mere surface detail, more visible but less momentous than intangible changes in behavior. But I do think there have been some truly transformative changes when I compare 2001 and 2011. Here are some vignettes:
  • I decided to sell an old computer. The way to do this, I assumed, was to place a classified ad in the local newspaper, the Westerly Sun. I walked over the worn threshold into the Sun's office in downtown Westerly, paid a considerable sum of money for a small ad, and waited at home for the phone to ring. It never did. I forget what happened to that computer, but I didn't sell it to anyone via classified ad. Of course, since 2001 Craigslist (here for southern Rhode Island, here for eastern Connecticut) and similar services have decimated this mainstay of a newspaper's income stream, and it's hard to be nostalgic for the old way. Today I would be able to sell the computer, and without having to pay for a placement, either.
  • One of the concerts during my tenure with The Chorus of Westerly featured Debussy's infrequently performed cantata for women's voices, La damoiselle √©lue. At the first rehearsal, not enough copies of the vocal score were available, and in fact, Kalmus had to print more to meet the demand. Today, the website IMSLP has a reproduction of a public domain edition of the work, available for the cost of printer paper and an Internet connection.
  • In 2001, the Chorus of Westerly had a website, but online ticket sales were still not possible. One had to call the office during business hours from Monday to Friday and give a credit card number over the phone.
It's also hard not to ignore the rise of social networking software like Facebook since 2001. Today the Chorus of Westerly, like many arts organizations, uses Facebook to stay in touch with its stakeholders. Its manager, Ryan Saunders, frequently posts updates of the chorus's activities, complete with pictures. Facebook is a boon for someone like me who no longer lives in Westerly and cannot be actively involved with musical life there, but who wants a stronger connection than a monthly mass mailing.

Surely some of my research would have taken a different course if tools like Facebook had existed. Part of my task was to map out a social network (actually, a nexus of several overlapping but distinct social networks). At one point, I actually had a map of southern Rhode Island tacked to poster board, with push pins representing different actors in the social network. With a tool like Facebook, such a task becomes much less laborious. Imagine, for example, that 20 members of chorus A are "friends" with the director of chorus B, but only 2 members of chorus B are "friends" with the director of A. At a glance you learn something important about the social world, something that might emerge only gradually through patient interviewing when doing fieldwork pre-Facebook.

Another thing I noticed when Facebook came online was a social distinction between the Westerly social world and the other singing subculture I have studied, New England area shape-note singers. I find that the shape-note singers are more intense users of Facebook than the Westerly singers. I could venture several reasons: shape-note singers tend to be younger, tend to have a professional background (especially in the sciences), and in general tend to come from the demographic of early adopters of technology. But also, I would say that that shape-note community is self-consciously a scattered community: in Kiri Miller's term, a diaspora. Shape-note singing may look to the rural South as its ancestral home, but it is also a movement that can take root anywhere. On the other hand, the Westerly singing subculture is more closely tied to one place on the map (though this place also has a summer satellite, Camp Ogontz in New Hampshire). But perhaps the use of Facebook may give the Chorus of Westerly more of the aspect of a dispersed movement, as stakeholders outside of its geographic reach become incorporated into the organism that is an online social network.