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.

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