Perfect Sound Forever

Christopher Small

Photo: Carola Dibbell

Interview by Robert Christgau (October 2000)

Christopher Small is one of the surprisingly small number of classically identified commentators to suggest any kind of parity between popular music and the operatic-symphonic tradition. In England he was preceded by composer-academic Wilfrid Mellers (Twilight of the Gods, Music in a New Found Land) and critic Henry Pleasants (The Agony of Modern Music, Serious Music and All That Jazz). In America he was followed by Susan McClary, who eventually won a MacArthur Fellowship for championing what is called the new musicology, an endeavor influenced by Small's first book, Music, Society, Education, which explored many of the ideas she'd been thinking through in the early '80s. Small has also been a close long-distance associate of radical American ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, whose Urban Blues was the first book of rock criticism ever published.

Never what you'd call an academic powerhouse, Small published only one book while he was still teaching at the Ealing College of Higher Education in London. The other two--1987's Music of the Common Tongue, an utterly original history of African-American music, and 1998's Musicking, an analysis of an imaginary symphonic performance that climaxes with the highly unorthodox speculation that the root subject of music isn't time, as is so often held, but relatedness--appeared after he'd retired with his companion, Jamaican-born music and dance educator Neville Braithwaite, to Sitges, Spain, a beach town outside Barcelona. There we undertook this conversation in July. I wanted to talk to Small because I sensed that, although he and I shared many ideas and attitudes, there were ways in which my feelings about such matters as the autonomy of the aesthetic had become more conventional than his. Since I have no classical training whatsoever and regard myself as a populist radical in artistic philosophy, I thought this anomaly worth airing out. In addition, I just wanted to talk music with the man--because few have thought more deeply or unpretentiously about music than Christopher Small.

Robert Christgau is a senior editor at the Village Voice. His latest book is Christgau's Consumer Guide : Albums of the 90s (Griffin). His previous book, Grown Up All Wrong (Harvard University Press), is now available in paperback and his first book, Any Old Way You Choose It (Cooper Square Press), has just been reprinted.

RC: You were born in New Zealand in 1927. Where in New Zealand?

CS: Town called Palmerston North.

RC: What did your parents do for a living?

CS: My father was a dentist and my mother was an ex-schoolteacher. They were both keen on music. My father was quite a good pianist. My sister Rosalie and I, she's older than I am, both became sort of good child pianists, you know--lots of mistakes but lots of expression--and he rather gave up and I'm always sorry about that, looking back. I remember him singing and playing sort of hearty songs.

RC: And was your mother musical?

CS: My mother came from a musical family, yes. My grandfather used to conduct a choral society in Wellington in the 1890s. I have a presentation baton that his choir gave him, made of oak weighing half a ton. They were giants in those days.

RC: Was Palmerston in rural New Zealand or was it an urban center?

CS: It was about 90 miles north of Wellington. For the time it was quite a big town.

RC: But that's still pretty isolated.

CS: No, it was a dump. We all hated it. It was a boring town by any standard. People think New Zealand is boring, which it is not and never was to my mind. But Palmerston North was a boring town. It had no real sort of social-cultural life. And it was very snobby, sort of nouveau riche snobbish. And we all hated it. But my father had settled there and made his practice there, so . . .

RC: Your undergraduate studies were in the sciences?

CS: My parents wanted me to be a doctor.

RC: What was your major?

CS: What happened was I started in a medical course. And it was the year all the soldiers came back from the Second World War and I couldn't get into the medical school because they were all given preference and quite rightly so. So I switched to a science degree, thinking that I would enter the medical school by the back door. I majored in zoology. By the time I finished the degree in 1948 I decided I didn't want to be a doctor anyway.

RC: And then you went on to study music?

CS: They had just established a new department of music in Victoria University in Wellington for, I suppose, the first professionally trained composer, a man called Douglas Lilburn. He had studied in England with Vaughan Williams and he was the first New Zealander really to come back with a professional composing technique. The music department consisted of one lecture hall over the chemistry labs; it always stank of hydrogen sulfide. It doubled as a recital room. They put a standard lamp in there at night. One office, a record player, and a piano and that was it.

RC: You got a bachelor of music. What does that mean in American terms? Is that like a master's?

CS: It really doesn't figure particularly with anything. It was fairly unspecialized, and you could get it without being able to play a note on any instrument. No instrumental tuition was included at all. It was rather like an old-fashioned English degree. But the one thing they did expect and that is that every student compose-- automatic, to get your degree, you had to compose a large work for chorus and orchestra. And I think that was a good thing. It made me take a fairly casual attitude toward composition. I never thought of myself as . . . well, after the initial time . . . I never thought of myself as a composer.

RC: Your teaching career?

CS: I taught in secondary schools in New Zealand.

RC: Starting when?

CS: '53. And at the same time I was working with a small company trying to establish itself making animated films. That was an interesting, not very good experience. But still, I learned a lot-- composed for films of all sorts.

RC: You were teaching in a secondary school, which in the end proved to be more significant for your thinking.

CS: Yeah, I suppose so. But I was still very much tied up with the venture.

RC: You were teaching music?

CS: Well, no, but it was a small country school and I had to teach anything, practically--I was doing sixth-form chemistry, French, English . . .

RC: And then you moved to London?

CS: Yeah, well, I was invited to write the score of a ballet which was going to be the first ballet ever totally created choreographed designed by New Zealanders as far as we knew. So I did the score for that. And it was produced in Wellington it was quite successful--amateur dancers, there was no professional theater in New Zealand at all at that time. It won me a scholarship, a New Zealand government scholarship to study composition and I went to Priaulx Rainier in London. That was in 1961.

RC: But pretty soon there you also were teaching.

CS: No no, not for a long time, because I had a two-year scholarship and then I knocked around for about two years, two- three years after that. I'm not quite sure what I did with myself. I suppose looking back I was assimilating a whole other thing. I worked for a publisher for a while.

RC: As an editor?

CS: Well, editing and on the production side. And then finally I decided this wasn't my metier and I applied for a teaching job. And they wouldn't take me as anything but a rookie teacher so I had to go back to and take a rookie's job. Taught in a marvelous school in Wembley. And then I got a job in this teacher's college.

RC: And so you were teaching secondary school in those first four years. But this teacher's college was a little beyond that.

CS: And then I came back London, to Ealing, where I was teaching at the undergraduate level. As I was doing for the rest of my teaching days.

RC: Ealing College of Higher Education. And you did that for about 20 years.

CS: Well, '71 to '86.

RC: And you were a music teacher solely at that time? When you were teaching from '64 to '68 were you a music teacher as well, primarily?

CS: Not quite. Primarily, not quite.

RC: And at the same time you got caught up in the avant-garde scene? Cornelius Cardew and . . .

CS: Yeah, I knew him slightly. Bernard Rands was the . . . I haven't heard from him in 20 years or more. I don't know where he is now. Last I heard of him, he was in Boston.

RC: Let me backtrack just a little bit. When you first got interested in music as a child, how would you describe what you were attracted to?

CS: Well, I loved playing the piano. Didn't like practicing [chuckles].

RC: Is there a child who does?

CS: I remember long before I ever had my first lesson I would sit at the piano and just pretend to be a virtuoso although I'd never heard of the word. And of course it was a musical environment and we were encouraged. My older brother played the fiddle.

RC: It seems unlikely to me that you were merely being dutiful or going along with the family flow.

CS: Oh no, not at all. I loved it. And they had whole sets of records, 78s of course, which they bought. I remember they had set of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, black label HMV Records proudly proclaiming the new electrical process. And we had a set of The Gondoliers, Gilbert and Sullivan, we had a set of the Schubert "B Flat Trio," various pieces like that, and all sorts of bits and pieces, God knows where all the records came from. Old popular songs. Dame Clara Butt's "Land of Hope and Glory."

RC: What I'm really driving at, although I probably shouldn't be revealing it, is whether it was the relationships and the secondary and tertiary relationships which you describe so vividly in your most recent book, or whether there was some more fundamental or--I don't know, that's not the right word--more purely sensual or . . . it's a very mysterious . . .

CS: It's a very mysterious thing, I . . .

RC: I know that. But you've thought about it a lot, so I'm asking you to unravel the mystery.

CS: I haven't really thought about it with regards to myself.

RC: Um, I thought perhaps you hadn't. That's one reason I wanted to ask [laughs].

CS: When I was a kid I had quite a lot of illness--when I was very young, four five six years old--and we had one of these big old- fashioned HMV gramophone consoles with Grand Rapids style machine wood-carving all over it. And they used to put this beside my bed and I can still remember my bed covered with these records. God knows where these records came from. All sorts of comical records. There was a piece I remember which I thought the most beautiful piece in the world, it was called "Herd Girl's Dream." And I can still play it, it was by a trio. All this stuff I remember . . . someone singing, I don't who the hell it was, singing Negro spirituals.

RC: Yes I did the same thing. I mean, I'm younger than you by 15 years but I did have the same. My parents were not musical the way yours were, but they had a piano and both played piano a little bit and had records and I loved to listen to them.

CS: And then my brother who was eight years older, quite a lot older than I was, he went off to university and came back with some Duke Ellington and a whole lot of music by these British bands like Harry Roy and the Ragamuffins, who were trying to get jazz established in England in the '30s. They were much more serious musicians than they were given credit for. And my parents wouldn't let him play them on the big gramophone.

RC: The records in my house were all popular records--South Pacific and Bing Crosby singing "Swinging on a Star," and there was a Fats Waller record that I loved. It was different things that attracted me. But I loved music. I loved to sing although I never wanted to play the piano, I never learned to play an instrument, I've tried a couple of times as an adult. I didn't have the time to practice.

CS: I never knew what was classical and what wasn't. It was nothing of that at all. But jazz apparently was not allowed in the house. I remember my brother Larry bought himself a little portable record player. He brought his records up to his room and I used to listen to them up there. My parents relented after a while. I still remember he had "The Blue Room," Duke Ellington.

RC: There's one more general thing I'd like to ask: how you would describe your political orientation and history, which is clear enough but never exactly explicit or programmatic in your books.

CS: Well, I was always inclined toward the left.

RC: Your family is not? Your family is liberal?

CS: Yeah, sort of, I suppose.

RC: But you were inclined toward the left?

CS: Yes.

RC: And this is true even the '40s?

CS: Oh yes, very much so. Well of course, in those days, New Zealand was a very left-wing country. The 1935 Labour government introduced the first comprehensive social security system in the world, and we took all this for granted. And when the British elected the Labour government after the Second World War in 1945, it all seemed a sort of natural continuity. We were very naive, of course. And this is why when I encountered the horror of Thatcherism, I was horrified perhaps even more than most people because it just seemed as if, suddenly, at a stroke, she was able to completely destroy everything that had been carefully built.

RC: It's been terrifying for all of us.

CS: I remember that in my primary school days our teachers--we had a map of Spain up on the wall, and we were following the course of the civil war, and my teacher shouting, "If there's a God in heaven why isn't He stopping this?" And we knew something about Hitler and the Jews and all that. I mean, teachers today would be sacked if they carried on the way ours did.

RC: Right.

CS: I mean, we just took it for granted. The whole orientation was like that.

RC: So that's your initial orientation, but there's clearly some time--I don't know when, after you leave New Zealand, perhaps, or earlier--when you move further left than that?

CS: I don't know, it doesn't seem like it.

RC: You think you have exactly the same--look, I don't want to argue with you, I'm asking because you're the one that knows.

CS: Mutatis mutandis, of course, but I don't feel any different politically than I did.

RC: Well, can you label yourself with any comfort whatsoever?

CS: It's very difficult.

RC: I'm sure.

CS: Some sort of liberal socialist, I suppose. But I wouldn't like to, um, pin a label myself at this point. Socialism has become such a dirty word.

RC: Well, that's all right, it's not a dirty word with me. I'm quite stalwart about using it unpejoratively in my prose. I come from at best a centrist background myself, and a nonprofessional background, so it's a little different for me. But in any case--I mean, I would say, all the references to Ivan Illich in the first book, and the analysis of the evolution of African American music, references to The Society of the Spectacle, to me, place you in some sort of anarchist tradition, I would--infer. But as I say, you're never explicit about it, and maybe that's wrong.

CS: Yeah, there was a time when I thought of myself as an anarchist, that's true.

RC: But no longer?

CS: I don't know anymore.

RC: When was the time?

CS: Not so long ago, actually.

RC: Till when?

CS: It still strikes a chord. But there's so much science and psuedoscience produced that I don't know where I stand anymore.

RC: Explain to me what you mean by that.

CS: About evolution . . . .

RC: You've lost me, and I think that's because you know about things I don't know much about. So try to explain.

CS: The whole issue of sociobiology, for example. I try to tell myself that I don't believe a word of it. Nevertheless, it's unsettling.

RC: Which would suggest to you that the anarchist model isn't altogether appropriate to what human beings actually are.

CS: Yes, I don't see that we can actually do it, lovely idea though it is.

RC: Can you place when you began to feel that way? Because it makes a difference in terms of your work.

CS: Yeah, I think it's in the last few years.

RC: Since Musicking?

CS: Oh no no, because Musicking's only a couple of years ago.

RC: I know, but then it was written before then, so I assume it was done by '96 or so, right?

CS: Yeah, it was done, '97.

RC: So you would say sometime in the '90s.

CS: Sometime in the '90s I would say, yeah. And of course the other thing, as I said, is the speed and the ease with which all this was able to be undone. This whole triumph of this . . . a term I like is totalitarian capitalism. It just appalls me, and sometimes I think, 'Thank God I'm on my way out,' because I hate to think what the next decade is going to be like.

RC: I must say I don't feel that way. I think it's conceivable we've bottomed out. I mean, I have some hope. OK, I'm very glad I asked you that, because it's not altogether clear in your work.

CS: No, I didn't even ever try to voice political opinions-- explicitly political opinions.

RC: I wouldn't say that.

CS: [Chuckles.]

RC: I would call many of the opinions in your books explicitly political.

CS: Well, OK.

RC: Now I want to move on to explicating your ideas about music, and the first question I would like to ask is a question that you ask at the beginning of Musicking, but didn't answer in a way that I fully understood what you thought, put it that way. You say, "How do musical cultures become dominant?" You said that was one of the questions you were going to address. And I didn't feel that the question was addressed.

CS: Did I say that?

RC: I'm afraid you did. I'm not gonna try and hold you to it if you feel you didn't answer it and don't really know yourself, I have no problem with that. To me, it's a very interesting question, and one I'd be curious to know your thoughts on. Apparently you feel that it's pretty complex as well.

CS: Yes, it is. I certainly know that I didn't answer it, even if I did pose it. And it's something that I've been thinking about, the whole business of the relationship between music and power and who has the power to say what and who has the power inside a musical ensemble as well as in relation to . . .

RC: The reason it seems to me like a complex question is that there are two fairly obvious but not especially consistent answers, one of which would be that the Western classical tradition has spread in the way you say it's spread--I don't think it's spread quite as much as you think it has, but nevertheless it has--because it mirrors the patterns of industrial capitalism as industrial capitalism spreads. It could be said that those values have been imposed by the power of the West, which is where the music originates. But the odd thing is that the same thing can be said about the other tradition you write about, which is, in many respects, as you say many times in many different ways, a rather different tradition. And people would say that that the popularity of the African American tradition, which is also very widespread, is an imposition of capital, an imposition of American power specifically. And I'm not sure either of those things is true. I'm not convinced either is true.

CS: I'm not so sure if I mean--maybe I said it--about the word imposed.

RC: That's my word and not yours. You said, "How do musical cultures become dominant?" I'm saying, these are the commonplace answers, and the word "impose" is used in those commonplace answers.

CS: I'm not sure it can--I'm not good at thinking on my feet. It can't do it unless to some extent it reflects something of the way people think reality is structured. And that can be imposed.

RC: Yes, that's right.

CS: That can be imposed--just think of the way over 20 years people have accepted the destruction of their lives, thinking that this is all for the good. People can be . . .

RC: Brainwashed.

CS: Brainwashed, persuaded against their own interests.

RC: But on the other hand?

CS: But on the other hand, no.

RC: Is there another hand? I thought there was going to be. Well, let me give you another hand, and ask what you think of it. Is it possible that people are not entirely brainwashed and respond in a relatively autonomous and felt way to specific organizations of sound, and that some of them, perhaps, have more easily assimilated--to avoid the word universal--usefulness than others.

CS: Yeah, I would go with that, yeah. That's something like what I was trying to say at the end of Music of the Common Tongue. There's obviously a push-pull between dominance and resistance, which is both expressed and structured by musical action and activity.

See Part Two (of Three) of the interview

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