Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Christopher Small 1927-2011

Christopher Small was a musicologist, and a few of his fellow musicologists swore by him. But musicology is an exceptionally hidebound and exclusionary academic discipline even now--especially in insecure and hence snobbish America, as Small, a New Zealander who taught in England, was the first to point out to me. As a result he had at least as much impact on journalists. Dave Marsh was the first to tell me about Music of the Common Tongue, and when I wrote the Times's Jon Caramanica to make sure he knew not just that Small had died but how important he was, he wrote back to let me know that the same book had had a major impact on him as a student.

In 2000 I met him in at his retirement home in Sitges, near Barcelona, for a Voice piece called "Thinking About Musicking," and eventually Perfect Sound Forever published a transcript of our conversation. Musicking was the title of the third and most theoretical of his books, my own favorite--a prolonged argument based on a concert performance that rather than an art concerned most fundamentally with time, the standard view, music is an art concerned most fundamentally with relationships, and also that music is more properly a verb than a noun. He did a brief lecture tour in the States a few years later and he and his then companion, later husband Neville Braithwaite came over for dinner along with PSF's Jason Gross. They were both extraordinarily kind and gracious men. Charles Keil wrote recently:

Somewhere in the early 1980s I remember finally reading the chapters of Chris's first book and feeling elated, healed, challenged, and most of all, surprised that points I was trying to make in anger, filled with righteous indignation, could be made concisely, clearly, elegantly, in a prose style for which I still can't find the precisely "right" adjective--the word that means non-polemical, even gentle, ways of proceeding that nevertheless inflict great and lasting damage on a powerful and opposing point of view.

Chris had been ailing since shortly after Neville's death in 2007, and just a few weeks ago his friend Susan McClary--the American musicologist who's done the most to combat the same tendencies he did (and who has the facts at mcclary@case.edu if anyone is interested in doing coverage)--asked his admirers to put their feelings into words to help cheer him up with the end clearly near. Keil's passage comes from his tribute. I asked the regular commenters on my Expert Witness blog to offer their thoughts. You'll find a few of those comments after the jump--one from an academic, one from a journalist, one from a devoted music fan. That all three should be so eloquent is a pretty great tribute in itself.

I will try to put this as clearly as I can: Christopher Small completely changed the way we study, teach, and live popular music. His concept of "musicking" is central to contemporary academic formulations of music production and reception: it is only the ubiquity of the formulation that sometimes makes it difficult to see the contribution made by each of his individual works. I know that when I read Common Tongue when I was in graduate school (and Musicking a bit later) my own approach to teaching and writing about popular music and the history of race relations in the United States was changed for good.

Jeff Melnick, Cambridge, MA

Christopher Small's Music of the Common Tongue exemplifies the virtues of thinking big. It ranges over the vast story of how African music in America became African-American music and finally the essential American music. Along the way, Small reveals a secret history of sound that was all around but never nailed down before. The apt music comparison to the book is not to a single masterful album, but to an entire music library -- or, perhaps, because Small prefers the act to the record of the act, a club with a superb show every night -- that one can visit for new insights and excitements, forever.

Milo Miles, Brookline MA

Oh man. Musicking made me feel proud about loving music. It made me feel like the act of listening to music helped to create music that had already been made, like music had the power to disrupt the continuity of time. Bono owes me royalties on the basis of that book. Come on!

Cam Patterson, Chapel Hill NC

2 Comments

By John McKinnon on October 11, 2011 10:53 AM

As a professor at a small liberal arts school, the writings of Small helped me to stretch pedagogical boundaries (to the point of teaching with a new definition of "music" in mind), re-think course content and re-design a music degree that emphasized and articulated the important social interplay of music making. Over the last twenty-five years, I have watched the categories of music education, musicology, ethnomusicology and performance studies begin to knock on each other's door, and slowly my students and I feel the mending of head and heart, classical and vernacular, technique and creativity and the engagement of two musical worlds, one outside the academy and one inside. Small's concepts gave permission for "everyday" music to join the academy, putting Beethoven and "mbaganga" in the same uniform. Thanks to him, my students now see their ipod tunes, their orchestral playing and their guitar studies as all part of the vital, toe-tapping, mind-expanding, hand-shaking, impossible-to-ignore "blast-fest" that all music is supposed to be.

By Jones on October 19, 2011 4:38 AM

Just read the 2000 interview you held with Christopher Small and of course mention here. The ideas are very agreeable. For me the music courses optional within schools and university--they always put way too much emphasis on classical, and (as if to rub it in) dry, notational analysis. What little abstractions they offered up by way of pop music was either institutionally acceptable (Queen) in the same way Mozart and Bartok are commonplace or stricken and impoverished by the approach and context in which they served their purpose (as you wrote for the review of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and I'm paraphrasing here, Louis Armstrong's vocal asides weren't to provide comic relief from the music--it's all comic relief. Or something like that).

Articles, Sept. 8, 2011


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