Perfect Sound Forever

Christopher Small

Interview by Robert Christgau, Part 3 of 3

RC: Can I move on to a related matter? You still with me, or are you beginning to get tired? I'd like to talk about recording. Actually, you're quite explicit about it toward the end of Music of the Common Tongue, that it's a distortion of what you regard as . . . do you think distortion's too strong a word?

CS: Yes.

RC: Well, what word would you use?

CS: Well, it alters it.

RC: It's an alteration, there's no doubt, and for many of the reasons that you cite. I mean, for the very fact that there's no physical presence, there's no audience, it has to be intensified in other ways or it doesn't have the same sort of impact. But do you think it's possible that that alteration can be a completely viable alternative, or do you think it's always inferior?

CS: No, I'm not . . .

RC: I'm asking. That's not a leading question.

CS: No no, I don't think so. It's a different kind of experience.

RC: Because one of the most interesting developments in the past 15 years has been in hip hop, where what's happened is that people who related to music almost entirely through records and were active listeners then began to take those records and create music out of them.

CS: Yeah, sure. And if you take the whole art of DJing and all that stuff, it's taking something and giving another twist to the wheel. I'm with you completely. But just the act of sitting and listening to records is a different kind of experience, not necessarily inferior.

RC: Certainly it's a different kind of experience and it has its drawbacks, which . . .

CS: . . . are obvious.

RC: . . . which are obvious. But also in some cases--I keep hearing these stories of young African American men, middle-class men, who have absconded with their fathers' record collections. I mean, there's 20,000, 100,000, there's some vast number of people who are right now trying to figure out what they can do with this panoply of sound to make it some other kind of sound.

CS: Then that's becoming something different, then you're taking an active . . .

RC: I understand that it's different. But it begins with the listening, and then it moves on. All right, I have two more questions that I'd like to ask and then we can close it down. You say that musicking is one of the qualities that makes us human. Do you think it's possible to be human without musicking?

CS: I think probably not--I'm hedging, but not as a fully developed human being. I mean there are so many people in whose lives music plays no part whatsoever, and I don't know what sort of people they might be. I've never met any.

RC: Oh, I have met some. But I'm like you--basically, almost everybody I know cares intensely about music one way or another, and that includes people who are not involved in the music world at all. But I guess I'm always a little suspicious, even when it's my own kind, when somebody asserts, Well, we are the human beings, and those other people are not. Do you understand why I would feel that way?

CS: Yeah, I wonder how it can be possible to go completely . . . It must be something got turned off at the very early stage of development. It does seem more and more that, speaking evolutionarily, that protomusic and protodance precede protospeech, by probably a long way, and how the music gets dropped out and this whole, what Edelman calls 'neural Darwinism,' neuropathways not taken up at an early age atrophy, and the same would happen with speech and occasionally does happen with speech, and how it's possible to become a functioning human being is something I find very hard to understand, but apparently it is. And I don't know the reason.

RC: I'm sure we can think of people we like more than Mrs. Thatcher.

CS: I don't know what happens, but I just feel that there must be some developmental lack there somewhere. I don't know if anyone's done any investigation into it. I do know people who claim to be tone deaf, for example.

RC: Yes I know, there's a nice peroration on the term "tone deaf," it's in Musicking isn't it? I was very pleased to see it.

CS: But I just wonder what is the real status of this unmusicality. I don't know.

RC: Let me ask you just one more question to get back toward the beginning. How do you feel about the effectiveness of your work? It seems, as near as I can tell, it's people like me who respond most enthusiastically, that in the world that you come out of and which you still say you regard as your central musical orientation, do you feel you've had the effect you would like to have?

CS: I mean if I go back to Music, Society, Education. I walked into John Calder's office in 1975 with a proposal that I should I do a translation of Henri Pousseur's book Fragments théoriques I sur la musique expérimentale, which I'd done a large chunk of. Because he had the reputation of being a very interesting maverick publisher who'd published Ives and the Cage books and those sort of things. I had no intention of writing a book when I walked in there. So after a while he said, 'Well, when are you going to write your book?' Well, you know, every academic thinks he's got a book in him. I said, 'Well, I can have a go.' He said, 'You give me an outline and we'll give you a contract,' and that's how it happened. And to this day I am amazed at the book's reception, because I never imagined that anyone would take the slightest interest in it. I expected it just to sink from sight, it never occurred to me that there was anything out of the ordinary about it. When it got its first review, which was from Wilfrid Mellers in The Guardian, I couldn't believe it. And then suddenly there was a whole torrent of reviews all over the place. And then Calder started chivying me for another book. Calder and I by the way had parted on not good terms at all. He owes me I should think somewhere near $2000 which I shall never see. But I never really thought of it as having a mission at all. I'm very gratified that people--one of the things that did happen with Music, Society, Education, I got a lot of letters from undergrads and schoolkids, several letters from schoolkids, and students in music college, and I suppose it began to occur to me that I did have a point of view. But I have really not much contact with the kind of effect it's had. Susan [McClary] keeps telling me about people picking it up and so on. It's interesting that for all we're saying about the States, that it's in the States that it's had the best reception. In Britain it's, 'Oh, Chris Small, good knockabout stuff but not to be taken seriously.'

RC: She knows more about that than I would, actually.

CS: Well, she's closer to it. OK, I taught a semester in the university of North Texas, in '95, postgraduate students, and that seemed to provoke responses. I'm told that "musicking" has become a term that's just been bandied around, but I get the feeling that people are not understanding what I really mean by it.

RC: But basically you feel that you've done far more . . .

CS: I suppose I think that I've done more than I ever expected. I never thought of myself particularly of having a mission. You know, I had these ideas, all of which have come out of my experience of performing.

RC: And teaching.

CS: And teaching.

RC: The first book especially, I felt--that's the reason I asked you about your teaching experience, because it was a teacher's book, I thought. The last two chapters are about teaching.

CS: Oh yes, sure, that. I thought you meant that I had actually been teaching this.

RC: No, that it was a book that reflected your experiences teaching. And a lot of the feeling in it, it seemed to me, had to do with a feeling for young people.

CS: Oh yes.

RC: Which I could see from the way Neville was talking, I wondered whether that was a feeling that had been developed in concert with him in some way.

CS: Well, a little bit, but we hadn't known each other that long. But yes, I tremendously admire his work, the work that he was doing. Yeah, it did obviously grow out of my teaching. I mean, I wrote that first book, it just came out like that, you know. The second one, of course, took me six years, just about killed me. And the third one took a long time too. I ditched at least half. But mission--I've always been absolutely amazed at the attention these things have got. Keep saying if I'm so famous why aren't I rich. [Laughs]

RC: You have to be more famous than that to be rich. It's another level of fame.

CS: I don't know if that answers the question.

RC: It seems to me that I see two different strands here. One is that because you speak for progress and right reason, there are Susan McClarys today in the world of academic musicology, for instance, whereas there were no such creatures. But it's conceivable that would have happened without you. You think alike, Charlie Keil thinks alike, and people have come upon these ideas separately, because there's this contradiction inherent in the way music is produced and people see it. On the other hand it looks to me as if the establishment, especially the one that is the central focus of this book, is completely impregnable.

CS: I don't see myself making much impression on them.

RC: I know, I don't either. And I just wondered, does that make you feel bad? I guess it doesn't. You just say, oh well.

CS: Well, of course it does. Not bad personally but to think that they aren't in touch with that situation. The only thing that's gonna make the bottom fall out of that world is lack of money. They stop getting supported, then--and I don't see that happening. I mean, the amount of money going through Covent Garden Opera House, goes up and up and up and up and up and up and up and up. All these scandals erupt and they just get their wrists slapped and they still get more money. Most of it goes straight into the pockets of these superstars.

RC: I find all that stuff really odious, needless to say--utterly odious, infuriating. If you feel up to it we can continue to chat for a few minutes. We come at things from opposite directions. I began by believing that the social was the source of meaning in the music I cared about, and after 35 years of listening to music in a critical, serious way I'm not comfortable with that idea. I feel as if there's something else there. It's like a person who gets older and really starts to believe in God. Maybe that's what it is. [Laughter] I grew up religious and became an atheist and I'm not quite as much an atheist as I used to be. I've come to be uncomfortable with the notion that there's no such thing as the realm of the purely aesthetic, which is an argument you make somewhere in Musicking. And the reason I asked these questions about sound and about whether the rhythm itself attracted people is because I can't believe that there's nothing intrinsic about those sounds, that has some sort of a physiological--or whatever it is, maybe it's spiritual, whatever that means--attraction, I'm not comfortable anymore thinking it's all socially determined and about social relationships, which definitely is where I began. And that even goes for the concept of beauty itself, which I used to believe was completely relative. And I believe this is just a matter of listening to music for so long, I can't quite believe anymore--it just seems to crude and simplistic to say that isn't a factor. That this thing that people always talk about is sheer mystification. And I'd be interested to know--in this book, you also speak quite negatively of your own attraction to the way of musicking that's the center of all your life, and I felt you were too hard on yourself. I felt, No, it isn't just because you're a pensioner living a comfortable life in Sitges that you like Beethoven.

CS: I didn't mean to say that.

RC: But that you identify with those values that you believe and articulate. Another question, you say all these symphonies tell basically the same story. That's a very important thing to say, and it's a provocative thing to say. The people who live in that world need to be told that until they finally can't get it out of their heads. They have to hear it a hundred times and maybe eventually it will sink in, because at some level it's absolutely true. But they tell different stories, and some of these stories probably shade these facts differently than others. You say that yourself when you talk about the Tchaikovsky that you analyze at the end. And there's also, once again, that sonic--I mean, melody itself, for instance, seems to me, as a musical illiterate, exerts an attraction that I find difficult to believe is simply a matter of how one is trained to hear when one is young and all of those things. They must inflect it, but I can't believe that's the only explanation, the only factor. I've talked for a long time, how do you feel about that?

CS: Well, as far as the whole question of relationships is concerned, I go back to Gregory Bateson, Bateson in what he calls "The Question of the Epistemology of the Sacred," he's on the right track. I got and get enormous faith from Bateson. Relationships are not just social relationships in the narrow sense.

RC: No, it's formal relationships as well,

CS: It's also how we relate to ourselves, and to the cosmos if you like, putting it in the windiest possible terms. And this whole notion of the pattern which connects which I keep bringing in, that our notion of music seems to be of something being beautiful, is in relation to what we think is the pattern.

RC: Do you think that maybe some of that isn't socialized, though?

CS: Some of it isn't. I don't think there's any way around it, finding out which is which, than setting out to find out if there are any human universals in reactions to this. Of course it's very difficult anymore to do this, because practically the whole world has got in on the act. And of course my African player never was untouched by outside influences.

RC: Oh no, you're very good on those. I mean, you do it in Music of the Common Tongue, too, that the whole notion of the unspoiled culture you're properly dismissive of, I'm very glad to say.

CS: It's obviously strongly socialized. But how much of it is really inherent in our sense of relationships I don't know.

RC: So, in other words, you're saying, Yes, you do believe in beauty in some way.

CS: Yes, essentially.

RC: So do I.

CS: Well, of course.

RC: Well, for to me that wasn't so obvious. I know I believe in it now. I wouldn't have said that 25 years ago.

CS: I did talk a little bit about it there. I didn't mean to be dismissive about it.

RC: I have to go back and look at it. Certainly the impression I took away was that you were--once again, you're being polemical here. You're speaking to a bunch of people for whom the notion of beauty is an absolutely sacrosanct, ossified concept which they never really ponder at all, and so you were challenging--and maybe because that was the thrust of who you were speaking to it sounded more that way than you thought it did.

CS: Obviously I'm very receptive and moved by beauty, which sounds like the lady who said, 'I accept the universe.' Carlyle said, 'Madam, you'd better.' [Laughter] Yeah, of course, I mean, there it is. I didn't mean to dismiss it, I was trying to probe into what it could possibly mean, and somewhere it means to me it's alive to this notion of the pattern of relationships.

RC: All right, which needn't be entirely a matter of your socialization, although your socialization certainly affects it. I could have misread you, but I understood you to say something a little more extreme than that. And I felt that you really had moved in a more extreme direction in this book than you had in the first two books.

CS: Well, that's what I was meaning anyway, and I hope to hell I didn't fuck it up. [Everyone chuckles] I mean, what can you do, you can't scotch the notion, there it is. This sort of Grecian urn thing, you know.

RC: You're making general arguments, and so sometimes specifics do get lost, too. It's good that you did what you did analyzing those two symphonies, because you quite clearly isolate that as a way of thinking. Which doesn't happen--well, I guess it does happen sometimes in Music of the Common Tongue, it does about William Billings, for instance, very much. I was reading this stuff about the narrative and I was thinking, well, there are different stories that I want to hear, they're not all exactly the same.

CS: Oh yeah, of course they're not exactly the same, and I hope I didn't . . .

RC: No you didn't. But there is that moment when you say it can be reduced to three things in about 10 words: "Order is established. Order is disturbed. Order is reestablished."

CS: But that's true of all narratives, well all narratives that are familiar to us in any case. I'm not the first person to say this, it's a sort of commonplace in literary theory, I'm told. That is the structure of every novel.

RC: I relayed this to my wife. She wasn't so sure she agreed.

RC: There's one other thing, actually, if you don't mind backtracking. You say a great thing about how Beethoven couldn't have expected anyone to hear the Ninth Symphony more than eight or nine times in his life, and how you think that maybe its effect gets worn out, which I think possibly is true. But I have to say, that as a listener to much simpler works than that, I don't find that they get worn out after eight or nine times at all. There are certainly songs that one can hear hundreds or even thousands of times and get--now maybe it's because the effect is a simpler one that it's more easily repeated?

CS: I don't think I said worn out. I think there was something else, something about losing its ability to shock. TC: Well, I think it was a little weaker than shock, what you said.

CS: There may be another thing too, which is that the popular song is designed to be played over and over and over and over and over again, whereas I don't think Beethoven intended the symphonies, and there are elements of surprise in Beethoven symphonies which there are not in popular songs, or very little of the deliberate waylaying which there is in Beethoven, like for instance the end of the third movement of the Ninth comes to rest so peacefully and so wonderfully you're in heaven, and then suddenly bah dah-dah-dah- dit-dah, all hell breaks loose. Jesus Christ, you know. That's deliberate. There's nothing of that.

RC: It's a different aesthetic experience too, I suspect. You know, there's something in pop songs called the hook, which I'm sure you've heard of. Now some hooks are just things you want to hear over and over again, but sometimes they are surprises of the sort you're talking about, and obviously they do cease to surprise. So what they do instead is that they please you by popping up at the very moment that you know they're going to pop up.

CS: Well, that's what I was talking about here. It's exactly the same.

RC: But the kind of enjoyment is much less pretentious. I mean, are the people who listen to the Beethoven, are they pretending?

CS: No, not necessarily.

RC: But many are just saying, 'oh, here it comes, I can't wait.' That seems OK to me.

CS: Yeah, OK. Like my father, who used to say, 'Let's listen to the dear old Fifth Symphony.' That's exactly what I mean, He was very fond of the Fifth Symphony. But it's not what Beethoven intended. He wanted a fist in your face.

RC: If artists got what they wanted, we wouldn't really like what they gave. We're able to use it for ourselves.

CS: Yeah we take it all and use it. I can't stop people from taking what they want from this.

RC: Correct. That goes for us too. Absolutely.

CS: And I'm absolutely astounded at some of the things that people have taken from what I've written.

RC: It's OK though.

CS: I suppose it's OK.

RC: I mean you just have to . . .

CS: Whether or not it's OK it's there. Sometimes they're attributing to me more attacking attention than I had and I do think that's a misrepresentation and sometimes I think a willful misrepresentation. I never intended my books as an attack on anything.

RC: As polemics.

CS: OK, an argument, to try and change people's--polemics to that extent, but not really as an attack on the classical tradition. I can give my opinion on it, which is another matter. I can't help my opinion showing, and much of it is because I care passionately about it. And the more I go on the more I feel that the trouble lies not in any inherent characteristic of the music so much as in the way it is being approached in our time. At the moment I'm putting a lot of energy into trying to find out as much as I can about the way Mozart sounded in Mozart's day, for example.

RC: Do you think you might write about this eventually?

CS: I don't know. I'm running out of energy. I've got to prepare a big lecture for next year in New Zealand. The International Society for Music Education asked me to give the keynote speech at a big conference in Auckland. Which is lovely, because it's the first time in my life in my own country.

RC: Right. How can you say no?

CS: So I've got to put that together. And I think it may get me going again. After all, each of these three books took 10 years time.

RC: I know.

CS: You know, I probably won't be around in another 10 years.

RC: So you were 50 when the first book was published?

CS: [Pause] I was a late developer.

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