Perfect Sound Forever

Christopher Small

Interview by Robert Christgau, Part 2 of 3

RC: OK, let me jump a little bit to deal with the classical tradition, which is the main subject of Musicking. You're very critical of the classical music audience, I would say.

CS: I didn't mean to be.

RC: Is that true?

CS: That's true.

RC: It isn't how it reads.

CS: I meant to simply look at it as objectively as I could. I had no intention--reviews have said this, about how I tear it apart, and I didn't really mean to.

RC: It may be true that you didn't mean to. Do you think it's conceivable that you did anyway? I believe you didn't mean to. If you say so, I believe you.

CS: My intention was to say, Now look--let's have a look at what's really going on here.

RC: Perhaps your intention was to subject them to the same sort of scrutiny to which they regularly subject their Other, and they didn't like it one little bit.

CS: Well, I was trying to turn as nearly as I could a sort of ethnographic eye on them.

RC: Right! And they found it very insulting.

CS: You see, I found right from the start, right back in Music, Society, Education, I got this response: Oh, you're trying to destroy Beethoven. Well, I said, I'd look fucking silly if I tried. [Laughter] No, really, I never--the new edition of Music of the Common Tongue, they allowed me to write a new preface. And could I just read you a little bit of it? "Somehow I seem to have given the impression that I think of African American and European classical music as being entirely separate streams, and that like Mowgli's four-legged friends I make a clear-cut distinction which somehow carries a moral or ethical load: African American good, European classical bad. Further (and in spite of what I thought was an explicit denial), I was maintaining that the former was in a state of perfect health while the latter was degenerate, its `ossification,' as one critic put it, `contrived by a threatened if not willfully malign Establishment.' It is true that I devoted a chapter to the `Decline of a Music.' I see no reason today to modify my opinion on that; the decline has become if anything even more obvious in the ten years since I first remarked on it. But I did not welcome the news then, if news it was, and I do not rejoice over it now. I certainly did not and do not subscribe to any mind- boggling conspiracy theories to explain it, and I continue to listen to performances in the European classical tradition no less than in any other tradition and to play as many of the works of that tradition as my modest piano technique permits."

RC: OK, fine, but the question I wanted to ask is actually to proceed from that, to go a little further. That is, there are certainly many members of the industrial ruling class and their lackeys--which some would say include you and I--that have no interest whatsoever in classical music. Would you be able to make ethnographic distinctions between these two subgroups.

CS: No, I've puzzled about this myself.

RC: Well, I'm glad to hear it.

CS: There's obviously nothing automatic or one-to-one about this. There's some people seem to have different ways of structuring reality that either converge or diverge. I don't know an answer to that.

RC: Well, do you think that it might be possible that for all their failings, for all their inability to understand exactly the ritual in which they're engaged, put it that way--and I don't know what I think the answer to this question is either--that their mere active involvement in any realm of the aesthetic would render them more humane? Is it possible? In other words, given among ruling-class people with oppressive tendencies there are many different kind of oppressors. Do you think it's possible that in general the bell curve would fall over a little further towards humanity for this group of people? Or do you think there's really no way to know?

CS: I think there's no way to know. You've got the famous example, of course, of Nazi concentration camp doctors getting together to play Beethoven string quartets after days of doing unspeakable things.

RC: This is obviously true. Nevertheless, I wonder, even though I'm essentially hostile to that world in a way that I don't believe you are. It's not my world, I don't come out of it, I've been taking shit from those people for my entire life, and I've really got no use for them. Nevertheless, I wonder, whether they aren't better people in some way.

CS: I don't really think so. I don't think one can make that kind of a statement. After all, there are too many bastards even among the great musicians of the tradition.

RC: Indeed, of the African American tradition too. Being a great artist doesn't make you a nice person, it makes you a not-nice person.

CS: It's a question of how you learn to structure reality and how the structuring of reality reflects back on the musicking. There's a constant to-and-fro. That's true with all forms of music, not just classical. And something like that I was trying to say with the whole question of the audience, when I talk about the members of the audience being solitary and all that sort of stuff, I was not attempting to criticize or to be nasty about it. It just seems to me . . .

RC: . . . a fact that ought to be noted.

CS: Yeah. And I think there's a case for representing these things in a neutral way if you can do so. I have rows with Charlie Keil over this. As I said in Musicking, if you're going to use the word "musicking," use it in an ethically neutral way, whether you like the way it's being done or you don't. Charlie won't have this. He talks about, this is musicking and that's not musicking.

RC: Well, Charlie's a convinced anarchist.

CS: I love Charlie dearly, he's a wonderful man.

RC: I do too.

CS: I've been on the advisory board of his MUSE outfit.

RC: I give them money myself. It's a wonderful idea. And of course that wonderful phrase of his, 'paideia con salsa,' sums up something we all believe in, I think.

CS: But I think that I really have tried not to take a critical stance about this. I make my observations, and take a point of view if you like, but I have no desire to demolish it. And to be honest, I don't much like the classical music culture at present. I don't feel comfortable in a concert hall.

RC: Well, you said that. Which is one reason people might think you're hostile to it.

CS: Yeah, but that doesn't mean I'm hostile. And I also say I make no complaint about this fact, that maybe I'm just cutting myself off from something. Maybe that you'll find it's a distinction that's impossible to hold. But I'm not trying to attack it.

RC: I don't know whether it's possible. I honestly don't know. As I say, I do have a hostility toward it--that's a fact that ought to be noted. I have it. But it is a sufficiently insular and smug world--its smugness is certainly the most infuriating to me, and most infuriating thing about it. And that means that anybody who looks at it with anything less than a completely . . .

CS: Approving eye

RC: . . . approving eye is liable to be seen as a dastardly interloper.

CS: There's another thing here too, and that is, it seems to me that the classical musical scene in the United States is far more elitist, far more . . .

RC: Oh, that's probably right.

CS: Far more smug, far more enclosed in itself than in Europe. And also--I think I said it somewhere in Music Society Education, I certainly meant to--that you get this hostility. I remember now that the editor took it out . . .

RC: [Laughs]

CS: Because I was talking about scenes in like Night at the Opera.

RC: Oh some of that's there. I just saw that a couple of weeks ago.

CS: There's real hostility there, in a way that you wouldn't get, at least not so vehemently.

RC: Did you ever read Lawrence Levine's book about Shakesepare and opera in the 19th century?

CS: Yes yes Highbrow/Lowbrow. And I think there is more of a dichotomy. And I got this way way back, even when I was a 20-year- old science student. I used to read Etude magazine, which I now realize was the sort of bastion of those attitudes. I used to think the sun shone out of it, you know, simply because it was high culture and I was ignorant, a backwards boy. But there is in America this much much stronger hostility between popular and classical musical audiences and musical societies than there is Europe. I don't hear much of the kind of hostility that you just voiced, for example. People will say, Oh well.

RC: Well, my hostility is unusual.

CS: No it's not, not in my generation.

RC: It's unusual among people who could be called intellectuals, put it that way.

CS: I get it all over the place. Charlie for one, Charlie hates it. I mean, Charlie's Charlie. But all sorts of other people I run up against, there is a great degree of hostility. And I'm not surprised. When I first went teaching in an American university I was amazed at some of the attitudes. when I actually ran up against them in this college department, the smugness and the absolute resistance.

RC: Well, it's a little less pronounced these days.

CS: That was only five years ago.

RC: Really?

CS: [Chuckles]

RC: Well, I'm told it's gotten better. I wanted to ask one more question about the symphony orchestra and it's mainly because it's something that's always interested me. In addition to the story that the symphony tells and the social relationships embodied by its performance, do you think there's anything about the symphony orchestra in terms of its literal sound, its physical sound, or of the kind of precision and uniformality and discipline it requires of its members that in addition to the structural and relationship questions.

CS: Oh, I think that in the social structure . . .

RC: Beyond the social structure, I'm asking if there's a strictly aural, A-U-R-A-L, element to it.

CS: Oh yes, there is, the precision of pitch that's demanded, for one.

RC: And the notion of sweetness, too, perhaps?

CS: The notion of sweetness, the eschewing of attack sounds, the search after smooth attack, the general need for total precision, and also uniformity of sound between the players. Each string player makes approximately the same kind of sound.

RC: And how would you say that signifies, just in a few words, if you can?

CS: Well, to put it crudely . . .

RC: Yes, please.

CS: I would say it's industrial discipline.

RC: Thank you. Now I'd like to ask another question. Somewhere, I think it's early in Common Tongue, you say that the African American tradition fulfills a need in white culture. You said there's a felt need in white culture for this. Can you try to describe, briefly and crudely, what that need would be.

CS: Well, I thought I did.

RC: I think it would be useful for our purposes for you to sum it up.

CS: Well, it's the acting out of visions of communality, intimacy. Will that do?

RC: Yes it will, but let me ask you this...

CS: Again, of course, one has to remember that these aren't necessarily absolute directions, that a lot of people will run a mile from a small town because of its communality and intimacy.


CS: And these values are not necessarily absolute goods, but they're just things that people seem to feel are missing from their lives.

RC: In one of the places that you talk about this, you say, in addition to the rhythmic and sonic--can you talk a little about how that attraction works? In other words, is there an intrinsic attraction to the rhythmic sophistication, that's not the best word, complexity, development of African-based music that draws people on its own?

CS: I can only speculate.

RC: Of course.

CS: It has to do with a kind of multilayered concept of what reality is. To get access to structures of feeling that are more than monovocal or univocal--the way notes get approached suggests a more sidelong look at things, a more . . . not subtle, because . . .

RC: Oblique--well, that goes without saying.

CS: Yes, oblique would help too, yes.

RC: Playful?

CS: And playful.

RC: Well, I'm going from sidelong to oblique and trying to see where it takes us.

CS: Of course, Mozart can be very playful.

RC: I was going to say that devotees of the European tradition would say that none of these things are absent. But what you're saying is that the rhythm conveys it in a different way. I mean, I thought the sidelong--not knowing the classical tradition I can't be certain that this is right--was getting at something that I thought was quite brilliant, frankly. It's obviously a deep conundrum.

CS: And there's another thing, that we're talking about classical music as it is today, which isn't necessarily, take Mozart, as Mozart was in Mozart's day, or even as Mahler was--we know that for instance violinists in Mahler's day [hums, first in strict meter and then more supplely]

RC: But even so, in that period there were also people being drawn to African-derived music and there must have been a reason for that. While there was clearly more rhythmic freedom--I mean, you establish that, you're not the only one to talk about it, there's no doubt that you're right. "Ossified" is not such a terrible word for what's happened to this tradition, I'm sorry, it's just not. But even a hundred years ago, when that tradition hadn't yet ossified, that attraction still existed and there must have been something else going on. Or was there? Was it purely that it was an imaginative realm in which you can imagine freedom that you incorrectly attributed to this dark-skinned Other and that was all it was about? Or was it sonic as well?

CS: Yes, it must have been built into the sound as well. All this is built into the sound.

RC: And there's something about the way rhythm works, or African rhythm works. Maybe it's about the foregrounding of rhythm. That's a relatively obvious concept that's only occurred to me recently. It's more where it goes in the music and that in itself . . .

CS: But however you slice it, it is there in the actual sound. In Susan McClary's new book, Conventional Wisdom, she talks about this a lot, with blues and so on, and also with Vivaldi and with Mozart--the sound quality. She's quite subtle in some of her analysis of the way in which the sound quality figures in the overall social structure that's being articulated. Yes, sure. And again with Mozart, one of the things that upsets whatever certainties I have had is that in recent years I've been practicing the Mozart sonatas, and the further I get into them the less sure I am of anything [chuckles] except that they're wonderful, and that they keep on beckoning, "Come on, come on, come on, come on," and you never quite get them right. There are rhythmic subtleties which are not notated at all, and I don't think that when you listen to most performances, I think there's a whole culture in Mozart which is being lost in the public classical tradition.

RC: Did you ever listen to Wynton Marsalis's classical trumpet records?

CS: Not very carefully, no.

RC: I don't think very much of Marsalis in many respects, but it is amazing how both the sound and the flow of that music, even to a completely untrained person like myself, to me it seems completely obvious that this is a different sensibility that's attacking these works, just because he's grown up in a tradition in which a different notion of rhythm is taken for granted. So I'm sure you're right.

CS: On the other hand of course we also have to remember that African Americans have been strongly attracted to classical music, and if that hadn't been so we wouldn't have the music--Handy, for example--and the sort of bands and the orchestras that used to play, you know?

RC: I would like to move on to another issue. It seems to me that there are two what seem to me to be contradictory tendencies in your work. In the "Solitary Flute Player" chapter, which is clearly where you go furthest with this way of doing things, to use that as an example, there is a tendency to make all music, all musicking, equal. But there are other places if you look for them, which I then did, where you're not averse to making value judgments. You say, talking about Beethoven--you used "power," "authority," "complexity," "subtlety." I was struck that two of them were really about power, though, power and authority. Or you talk about Aretha Franklin's version of "Amazing Grace" on the live gospel album, and you talk about these being titanic creations. So on the one hand we have a solitary flute player, on the other hand we still have you making value judgments all over the place.

CS: Two questions. One, what do you think I think of Aretha Franklin doing "Amazing Grace"?

RC: I think you think it's great, and you probably think it's as great as Beethoven in its own way or something like that.

CS: I wouldn't . . .

RC: Something like that. I understand you're not making that comparison, but still you have enormous respect for it.

CS: Yes, of course I'm not averse to making value judgments, in their place. But the flute player, I've got into a lot of trouble over that flute player.

RC: I know you have, and I'm basically in favor of it. But I do see it being contradictory.

CS: I don't see why. I can't see any reason why it's contradictory.

RC: Oh, that's interesting to me. Let me see if I can articulate that. Because that isn't some special flute player, that's any flute player. It seems to me you did more than say, he has a right to do this, it's valid in its own terms, it requires creativity in its own way. You don't say that. You say the kinds of creativity it achieves are commensurate with the kinds of creativity in any Western music, either the black or the classical tradition, and while I personally--I mean, I make value judgments for a living, so I'm sensitive on this issue. I don't claim they're absolute, but I don't believe they're arbitrary either. I believe it's possible to talk meaningfully about what's better and what's worse.

CS: Of course.

RC: You really don't see?

CS: I don't think I ever said that the flute player is as good as Beethoven or anything of that kind. What I did try to say is that all ways of musicking are approximately as complex as each other. And that the--I wasn't setting that poor little guy up against Beethoven, or even Arehta Franklin, or even anybody. I was just saying, 'Look, this guy may be in his level of skills anything from elementary to...'

RC: Let's make him 50th percentile, just for the sake of argument.

CS: All I was trying to say, maybe I didn't say it, was that there is, no matter how primitive it may appear to ears attuned to other kinds of complexity, there is sufficient complexity in any way of musicking to keep anybody happy and also of course to make it possible if not necessary to say he's doing it well, or he's not, or he's doing it absolutely fantastically. He may be playing the same damn flute. This is what I was driving at, not trying to abolish all ideas of--I mean, I've said it repeatedly, within any division there are people who do things well and people who don't do them quite as well.

RC: The Ben Ratliffe piece about you in Lingua Franca said sometimes that he thought your ideas worked best for self-contained musical subcultures.

CS: Yeah, I was quite cross about that.

RC: Well, but . . .

CS: I suppose I'm not cross . . .

RC: I don't know if you know exactly what it is I do. I'm best- known for something called the Consumer Guide. I listen to music 14 hours a day. I come from my own sensibility which is, basically, Chuck Berry at the very heart and then it exfoliates everywhere. And I rate records, every year I find 80 to 100 A or A minus records and there's a small cabal of people all over the world who make it their business to buy every goddamn one of them. Basically what I believe and what my own listening experience suggests is that it's possible to spend your entire life listening to nothing but great music in a fairly wide variety of traditions. So that's where I'm coming at this from. I guess it seems to me that this is a big advantage of industrial capitalism. It's industrial capitalism that lets us do this, and I think this is positive. And so the reason I'm asking about value judgments is that I'm very attached to this way of hearing music. Do you think that people are just as well off being in one tradition?

CS: I've thought about this and I don't really know the answer. I can just kick the thing around a bit. In some ways I can answer yes. After all, that's where most people have been.

RC: But you wouldn't do it yourself.

CS: No, I have my central tradition.

RC: You certainly would feel impoverished if you didn't have much of what you've learned.

CS: I, yeah--less and less, I listen to music less and less. I play an awful lot. But I listen less.

RC: We're going to get that.

CS: I think it's obviously a good idea if you at least have an idea that there's something else beside your tradition going on. I mean, this is what's the matter with the classical tradition, maybe. But I don't know what the, not to say natural, the traditional position would be, probably in most cultures there's a great deal of overlap between traditions, and they're not usually behind one. It's a bit like languages. Bilingualism, if not more, is the common condition of most people in the world today.

RC: Yeah, but I'm suggesting that something like tourism--and I use that term knowing it's a pejorative term--has its own particular rewards, and they're rewards that are actually appropriate to the technological and political conditions under which we live. And I wish more people could live, and without being too stringent an economist, would like to believe it's possible they will live.

CS: It's certainly nice to be able to listen to all these other musics. [Slowly] But I don't find it necessary.

RC: Because?

CS: Wait a minute, I'm not sure what I even mean there. I'm sorry, I'm not a good interviewee because I'm not . . .

RC: You've said this, but you've been fine.

CS: I'm not good at . . .

RC: Thinking on your feet.

CS: . . . and I forget things. Where were we, tourism? It's OK, and it's obviously--not obviously, but I suppose it's a good thing to be aware of other musical traditions. But there's so many different human conditions. I can think of so many ways in which it would be a good idea and so many ways in which it wouldn't be a good idea. I can't feel any answer to that question.

RC: Well, I think that's because--let me move on to another contradiction that I hope to explore with you. In Musicking, you're very explicit very early about saying that musicking includes listening. And late in the book, when you're talking about examples of musicking, in one series you quite explicitly and I'm sure self-consciously include a girl walking with a Walkman in the list. And I think that a part of you really believes this, but that there's another part of you that definitely valorizes performance over listening. That the ability to play an instrument--at any level, I'm not saying you're being elitist about any of that stuff, or the willingness to sing or even dance, to you seems more important, a better kind of musicking--at some level, even though you say, no, I shouldn't be making these judgments, there's something in you that tugs you in the other direction. You think that there's some truth to that?

CS: I do . . . yeah, I wouldn't be so coy about it, actually.


CS: I would like to say that everybody should be in a position to be some kind of performer. The person who is not able to perform at all is in some way deprived. Yeah, I would be quite explicit about that. That said, that doesn't mean we all need to be virtuosos.

RC: That's not an issue. It's quite clear that you don't feel that. That's no contradiction. I don't feel any inconsistency at all in your assertions about that.

CS: I'd actually put it this way, that performing seems to me, whether it's musical performing, seems to me a built-in human need of some kind. You know, all the usual sentimental things come to mind, mother singing to children. Down here, I saw an English dad singing to his little girl yesterday, horribly out of tune, and I thought, great. Performing is a dimension of human experience which I do think would be lacking if one doesn't do it in some way or other.

RC: I take this seriously because I do not play any instrument and as I've told you, I've tried a few times, basically because I thought it would be good for my writing, and I just never had the time to practice even enough to get there. I just didn't have those hours a week it would have taken for me to get the manual dexterity in my thirties, which is when I gave it a try. But I guess more than that I feel as if I am very actively engaged in music without performing at all. And I also--you know, I told you about these people who collect records, I think that most of them are just like me, only they don't write as well as I do. These are not collectors--there are collectors and they serve a function but I think they're a little silly. These are people who love music. And I get these thank you notes, You turned me on to Brian Eno's Another Green World, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, whatever, something I never would have thought of, jazz, this that the other thing. And, I'm sorry, I believe those people are very passionate about music, and that music has great meaning in their lives, whether or not they play any instrument or not, and the ones I've met don't.

CS: That's fine. Certainly better with it than without it. But I still think that in the sort of fullness of musical experience, whatever it is, however basic, a little performing is necessary for a full understanding of the musical process. Performing and listening. And now I may be retreating at the moment, I'm getting old, from new listening experiences. Sometimes somebody comes along and kicks me out of it and I think, Great, thank you. And here the situation in Sitges aren't particularly interested in new music and I tend to go around and around in the same thing. Yeah, it would be nice to have new listening experiences, which is something I am maybe deprived of. Maybe the answer is . . .

RC: For me, many people think that--I'm 58, and I love hip hop, and I always have. And certainly there are people who think I'm faking it, or--but I'm not. My only problem is that I don't have enough time to listen to the music I know I love, which is another question I hope we have time for. But I guess what I would say is that that full understanding of the musical process? I don't believe that anybody is ever going to have a full understanding of the musical process. I mean, you know that too. Let's put it this way. There's no doubt in my mind that there are excellent performers that understand the musical process much more poorly than I do. I'm sorry--I have no doubt about that. I've met them. And they're narrow people. Classical musicians especially, in America are not people whose company I generally enjoy.

CS: Well, OK, I don't know what to say except that that's how I . . . Whatever your interests in the musical process, it's enhanced.

RC: That's the reason I tried to learn to play piano. And I just finally decided that I had to do other things with those hours.

CS: Well, maybe that wasn't the right performance for you, I don't know. Because I think anybody . . .

RC: Well, I'll sing to my daughter, but I do it very poorly, and I don't do it anymore. My wife is much better than I am. And my daughter much prefers having my wife sing [chuckles].

CS: I suppose in a sense I'm talking about an ideal social situation, where there's so many social factors against performing, including the uncharitable excellence of so many performers.

RC: The thing is, if pop is your basic orientation, that's simply not--clearly, there are many people in pop who have exactly the same attitude, but it's nowhere near as hegemonic as it is in classical music. And it's obviously true that many people of small technical accomplishment have done great things in popular music.

CS: Yeah, well, that's not what I'm talking about. I still think that the act of performing in whatever situation, however modest it is, is an integral part, an essential part of the musical experience. And one is poorer without it.

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