Are You Experienced?

by Ben Ratliff

MUSICKING; THE MEANINGS OF PERFORMING AND LISTENING • by Christopher Small • Wesleyan University Press • 239 pp • $19.95 • July

My job is to take part in the ritual of musical performances. On one recent night, I stood among a crowd of waist-winding, put-together young Latin couples and heard a Puerto Rican band that was taking a hundred-year-old percussion tradition, the bomba, and inserting it within a contemporary New York dance-band context. Another night I traveled to a loft apartment in Harlem to hear a semisecret performance by a cabal of young, white bohemians who live there and occasionally share their completely improvised music with an audience; the small crowd sat absolutely still, some of them closing their eyes and enjoying the cool thought that it really might be the early 1970s all over again. A third night, not far from the loft, I heard an oldies group in a famous Harlem theater that pumped out the rhythms of fifteen-year-old funk as if they were telegraphic codes; the middle-aged black crowd, reliving college memories, responded by shouting at the band, who shouted right back at them, like distant cousins in a big living room.

The connection between these apparently disparate performances has to do with action rather than static definitions of musical language: Each group was enacting its own ritual, one connected to the specific event.

Most people who regularly hear different kinds of music in performance start to think about what the audiences bring to the event, about the nexus of listeners and performers. But there are commanding voices telling us that such thinking is beside the point. The rhetoric of music reviews, in the newspaper I write for as well as in the rest of the print media, dwells on the copyrightable music itself as the paramount issue. The audience vanishes from the account, as if the concert happened in an empty room. In these reviews, the critic might gripe that the soloist played composition x with humorous impertinence--puzzling, given that the composer intended x to be a lamentation for fallen soldiers. Or that the rising major-minor melody seemed to echo the theme of the piece, which was the rebirth of a spirit. Or that the jazz improviser delivered a solo so good it sounded like a composition. Outside of journalism, music is treated even more restrictively: With the exception of ethnomusicologists, academics in music deal mainly with the question of how a composer produced certain effects of harmony or melody or rhythm or structure.

Newspaper critics focus on musical material because it is...material. As for observations about the social aspect of a concert--what it means to attend one--these are perceived as fluffy generalizations, the kind anyone can make. Reporters write them, rather than critics, and they take the form of style-page pieces: a first-person article about a man attending the womanist Lilith Fair, or a kid's-eye view of a Spice Girls concert.

That's why it's shocking to encounter the following:

Properly understood.... all art is performance art, which is to say that it is first and foremost activity. It is the act of art...that is important, not the created object. Clearly, what we choose to create, to exhibit, to look at and so on is significant, as is what we choose to play and to listen to in a musical performance, but it is the object that exists in order to bring about the action, not the other way around.

That certainly doesn't sound like an ethnomusicologist reporting specifics from the field: It's a blanket statement, applicable to all music. It is a dicey and wishful thought, but has a rational touch. It's Christopher Small, typically plainspoken and outrageous, from his new and--as he has told his publisher--final statement, Musicking.

Small, now seventy, was senior lecturer at Ealing College of Higher Education in London and since the late 1980s has lived in the Catalan village of Sitges, Spain. From that removed position, he makes a perfect outsider critic, the kind of wise, generalizing mind who sees the whole picture; he's the opposite of a striving, circumspect academic who has followed the trail of specialization toward the goal of tenure. Though educated in the classical tradition and thoroughly at home with its canon, Small has shown a rare catholicity of interests; his 1987 book, Music of the Common Tongue, explored the Afro-American musical tradition and extended its net along the way to include country music, ska, and punk, as well as jazz and blues. Like all generalists, he repeats himself a great deal, making his books chunks of one ongoing lesson that keeps returning to its own strongest points; he comes across as personal and confiding. And like all gurus, Small teaches more about how to live in relation to the subject matter than he does about the subject matter itself.

Hence the book's title. "Music," Small suggests, ought to be a verb; the fact that we use it only as a noun demonstrates just how impoverished our attitudes about it are. "To music," accord ing to his definition,

is to take part in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone. They, too, are all contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance.

In Small's view, the registered sheet music of dead composers has come to acquire far too much power over our understanding of music in the West. And much of Musicking is devoted to the ways in which this dynamic repeats itself on the classical stage, where a celebrated, overpaid conductor leads the poor lumpen members of the orchestra, who are dressed in identical clothes and forbidden to look at each other, their own creative relationships stifled for the sake of high fidelity. The logical extreme of this process, Small argues, is the authenticity movement, the vogue for playing old music on period instruments, which he sees as tantamount to following the text into a hole in the ground, so hostile is it to the personal and the here and now.

All these opinions, he assures the reader, are separate from the issue of, say, Bach's greatness. But as Small takes parenthetical breathers from his description of symphony-hall concert ritual--the building, the assembly of musicians, the conductor, the score--the reader gets the picture that a more democratic system of musicking can be found elsewhere: in jazz, where changeable nuance and collective improvising are part of the basic idea; or in rock, where audience members take an active role in the proceeding. Forget about the modern sub-definitions of high and low art: When the idea of art won a separate designation, according to Small, we became forever confused about the true purpose of musicking. We put a lifeless object above our own lively relationships.

This isn't, of course, the first time someone has made music a verb, stressing its social-ritual aspect, the where, when, and who of it. Thelonious Monk titled one of his pieces "Rhythm-a-Ning," making action out of an idea. Amiri Baraka titled one chapter of his 1963 book Blues People "Swing--From Verb to Noun." Charles Keil's 1966 study Urban Blues cracked the seal on the performance practice of blues musicians, rather than continuing the white blues scholar's tradition of dry, distanced analysis through records and lyrics. Since the 1980s, ethnomusicologists like Edward Herbst and Steven Feld have depicted music as a fluid set of social relationships rather than an object with a fixed set of aesthetic criteria. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who found his way to an understanding of culture as lived experience through what he calls "thick description," looms over all this work.

But Small's strength is openness. He fiercely believes in the universality of the musical experience and seeks to make his understanding of it accessible to the general reader. With just a bit of editing, Small's book could be published by a commercial house as a kind of self-help guide for ethical living. (Ironically, his willingness to give the game away, to make the dialogue about music as transparent as possible, has probably prevented him from being taken as more of a threat by specialists.)

Small states his arguments simply. Downplaying his academic and music credentials, he repeatedly describes himself in his books as an amateur pianist, and he prefers to speak to his cultivated readers as if they too were amateurs. Though Small casts general aspersions on the practice of music criticism, you can't imagine him attacking a single critic; he hovers far above that kind of grub-street aggression. He writes as if he's giving a fireside chat, and this kind of speech abhors specificity. The most important aspects of music theory, he explains, are commonplaces in which we're all fairly expert. "Those readers who are not versed in the technical language of Western concert music," he writes, "may think that they do not understand tonal harmony, but in fact everyone understands it as they understand their mother tongue.... If they did not understand the way harmony operates, they would not feel those tensions and relaxations, those climaxes and reso lut ions...that have been the essence of Western music for nearly four centuries."

Still, he feels compelled to shore himself up with just a bit of outside thought and makes sure that it's not all musicology. John Berger's writings on the experience of art, especially Ways of Seeing, come to his aid; more unexpectedly, he draws on the neurologist Gerald Edelman's suggestion that dynamic human relationships, not genetic certainties, determine the workings of the nervous system.

But this is only a prelude to Small's use of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson's idea of "metamessages," the gestural language surrounding the text of human interaction. Gestural language, or paralanguage, Small believes, is one of the best inventions of humankind; the hand signals, body movements, diction, and nuance that frame a statement strengthen relationships while making the statement itself more complex and alive. Performance in the Western classical music tradition, he fears, is depending less and less on paralanguage and more and more on language, as evidenced by the disappearance of ad libitum passages from scores and the decline of improvisation.

Within the field of musicology, Small's influence has been limited but deep. In the 1970s, he was among the pioneer musicologists who argued that music is always connected to power relationships, hierarchies, and rituals and never simply "music alone." Since then, he has become part of a loose circle of scholars that includes the American musicologists Charles Keil and Robert Walser, the British Marxist pop critic Simon Frith, and the gender theorist Susan McClary. Small has something to say to educators, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, practicing musicians, and, as I can vouch, music journalists.

At the same time, the gist of his arguments is so diffuse, so open, that he hasn't made a major disturbance among any of these groups. Insofar as he is an ideologue, he is an ideologue of suggestion rather than prescription. And Small has put himself into a curious double bind regarding his audience. His views are most likely to startle the classical music world, but classical music scholars wouldn't read a musicologist who attacks the concert-hall tradition with the support of a two-page bibliography. For students of popular music in America, who are more likely to support his message, his teachings are useful but obvious.

Small is an idealist, and whenever I have presented his ideas to a non-idealist, the same two questions arise: Can his vision of music be sustained, and if so, does it produce good music? In his 1977 book, Music, Society, Education, Small invoked the Balinese gamelan orchestra as a paradigm of near-perfect musicking. But is gamelan music good--is it art? Wrong question. The Balinese, he notes approvingly, have no word for art: "Art is not regarded as in any way a separate activity but simply as part of the Balinese concern for 'doing things as well as possible.'"

That's a radically rustic position when you bring it back to Western classical music, but Small walks the walk. Three years ago, in a letter to Ethnomusicology magazine, he wrote about performing Haydn piano sonatas for his Catalan neighbors. "Only if I play as well as I am able will the encounter we create be rich and gratifying for us all. In other words, my primary responsibility is to my fellow-musickers, not to the black dots, not even to Haydn (bless his memory)." And in Musicking, he writes: "Just as there is no such thing as music, neither is there such a thing as beauty. There are only qualities in an object or action that arouse in a per ceiver a pleasurable response and make him or her perceive it as beautiful."

The creation of self, rather than beauty, is Small's main concern. Even so, his conception of identity looks fairly antiquated, given today's great trend toward genre blending. In Musicking, Small writes that musickers on stage and in the audience at any given performance are saying, in effect, "this is who we are." The idea of music as self- identification works best when a single group attends a single sort of music. But most big-city dwellers live in many musical worlds at once. We can easily love, say, reggae, without ever having been to Jamaica--the persuasiveness of rhythm trumps "who we are." And for practical purposes, music lovers in big cities depend on slightly reified notions of music; it's those static definitions that determine our daily decisions-- whether and where we are going to spend our money on salsa, or acid jazz, or trip-hop.

Small is not always a reliable guide to the music he celebrates as an alternative to our increasingly sclerotic classical tradition. As culturally sensitive as he is, as often as he invokes Edward Said's Orientalism as a guide to avoiding blind, patronizing valuations of the "other," Small can make breezy assumptions. He mentions that the representational style, based on preplanned codes of harmonic "meaning" (major for happy, minor for sad, etc.) is found especially in "white" music and less often in "black" music. Where black music is concerned, I assume he's referring to blues tonality--the microtonal flattening of certain notes in the blues scale, the use of seventh chords, and the vocalized tones of blues and jazz musicians that result in emotional mixed messages. If so, his statement seems correct in a general way, but it begs for development. More troublingly, he argues that in the performance of "nonliterate" (not notated) music, "the power relationships among those taking part are diffuse, uncentralized; all will have some authority and bear some responsibility." Sounds friendly, but that wouldn't be true in a band led by James Brown or any number of other tyrannical bandleaders in "nonliterate" music.

His most personal book, Musicking can be read as a bold divestment of his own cultural training, ending in a man standing naked before his peers. In the penultimate chapter, "A Solitary Flute Player," Small considers the music of an African herdsman in the night, alone with his wooden flute. Coming perilously close to exoticism, Small argues that because the herdsman's world is not literate, it is "flexible"; his will "to music" isn't controlled by Western thought, which looks like an opportunity for expansion but is really one great gilt door closing. I think it's not too reductive to assume that the solitary flute player is Small himself, living far away from the latest technology and intellectual currents but finding that the remoteness enriches his own language and thoughts.

But it's the final chapter, "Postlude," where he really flashes his hand. A "white, middle-class male academic on a comfortable pension," Small was raised to be part of the classical tradition. But, he admits, "there is a decreasing number of such works that I do like to play and to hear as the years pass, partly perhaps because so many of them have exhausted their interest for me...and partly because of my increasing distaste for the violence and the egotism that I hear in so many of them."

You expect Small not to do things the normal way, but this is an extraordinary moment of rupture, tantamount to the conductor turning to the audience and telling them that he's had it. What he has tried to outpace has finally gained on him; a life spent analyzing music has turned some of his favorite pieces into things. And so it ends, a release with an ad-libbed feel. Not even an idealist, he admits with a shrug, can escape his own reality. It's a bittersweet conclusion--not major or minor but a sort of unresolved resolution, something bluesy, like a dominant seventh chord. •

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