September 10, 2011
Christopher Small, Cultural Musicologist, Is Dead at 84
By BEN RATLIFF
Christopher Small, a New Zealand-born writer and musicologist who argued that music is above all an active ritual involving those who play and listen to it and only secondarily a matter of “black dots,” as he once called written music, died on Wednesday in Sitges, Spain. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by the musicologist Susan McClary.
On the strength of three books, originally published in Britain, Mr. Small’s influence on American academics and music critics grew in the 1970s and ’80s, and again in the ’90s, when Wesleyan University Press gave them new life in the United States.
With elegant simplicity, using jargon-free prose for a general audience, he made broad comparisons between musical traditions in Africa and Asia and between Europe and America, talking about ritual, cultural identity and the rise of western music as a mercantile, nonparticipatory art.
He also wrote about the classical tradition as well as popular music — he preferred the term “vernacular” — in his efforts to understand western music as phenomena of capitalist societies. At the same time, he wondered about the most basic questions of music: why we pick up instruments or raise our voices together in the first place.
In “Musicking,” published in 1998, he argued that music is an action, not an object; a verb, not a noun, as the title implied. He framed the book around the rituals of a symphonic concert in a modern hall: the concertgoer’s experience of the building’s size and interior spaces, the ticket-taking, the seated arrangement of the players, the standards of excellence in individual performance, and the inevitable opining after the concert about whether it was any good.
Mr. Small’s aim, he wrote, was to “decipher the signals that are everywhere being given and received.” He stressed that all people involved in a musical performance — the musicians, audience, roadies, publicists, cleaning crew — are part of its ritual.
His other two books were “Music, Society, Education” (1977) and “Music of the Common Tongue” (1987).
Some of his statements were provocative. Though he was trained in the classical tradition as both a musician and teacher and continued to listen to Mozart and Haydn, he called the works of the standard symphony repertory “bedtime stories told to adults.”
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