[A seguir duas resenhas dos livros que tenho lido...]
SMALL, Christopher. Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music. Hanover [New Hampshire]: First UP of New England; Wesleyan UP, 1998. xi + 495 p. Paper, US$22.95. ISBN: 0585371245.
Christopher Small’s Music of the Common Tongue is a massive social, cultural, politico-historical text which explores African-American “musickin”. The text moves the reader through the emergence of African-American musicking within the context of Africans having been thrown (Geworfenheit) within the socio-cultural space of racist America, demonstrating how African-American musicking involves issues of identity formation and a sense of communal and cultural cohesiveness. The text also moves the reader through cultural fusions between African and European musicking (what might be called 'Creolization'); explores the importance of axiological frameworks vis-à-vis certain forms of musicking; delineates the dynamics involved in a blues ontology and improvisational performances; explores literacy and nonliteracy on the production of musicking; provides the reader with a very insightful reading of classical music in relationship to issues of the infrastructural workings of industrialism; and, more.
But why the term “musicking"? For Small, musicking says something about the active process of music making, though the active dimensions of musicking can be tethered and arrested by certain concepts of music that are linked directly to a certain political economy. “To music” or “musicking” implies an active and performative movement. Music is not a static object, but a protean process. “Music,” according to Small, “is not primarily a thing or a collection of things, but an activity in which we engage” (50). Hence, there is no decontextualized music-object about which we can pose questions; rather we can only ask about musicking as it is enacted within a uniquely given context. The meaning of a musical piece, therefore, is not found in the musical work, but in the musical event. The idea is to pose one’s question with the total musical situation in mind: “‘What does it mean when this performance takes place at this time, in this place, with these musicians, before this audience?’” (51-52). Hence, the process of musicking, Small reasons, provides a matrix within which identities are formed; for the process of musicking always takes place within a social context that involves various identities in relationship (55-56).
Musicking is not only concerned with the expression of identity, who one is, but expresses one’s relationship “to other people, to the natural and even to the supernatural world, and musicking is concerned with the exploration, the affirmation and celebration of relationships” (56). With phenomenological overtones, Small realizes the sheer active dimensions of African-American musicking as a process of existential meaning formation. For it was through the process of musicking (spirituals, blues, jazz, rap, and other forms) that African-Americans found new ways of surviving and being. They had to create new and hybrid (African-European) modes of existential musicking and being-in-the-world “which would give meaning to the apparently meaningless nightmare into which they had been thrust” (34). It was music, dance, and folk tales that carried the spiritual and metaphysical temper that enabled/enables African-Americans to survive (35).
Small’s thesis is that African-Americans, as a protean people, a people forced to narrate and create a semiotic stream of self-meaning, enacted processes of musicking that were disruptive, improvisational, and non-static. African-American musicking is a process of deconstructing images imposed upon them. Their musicking involves counter-narratives that say, “‘This is who I am,’ and ‘This is where I belong’, against those who would say, ‘That is who you are’, and ‘That is where you belong’” (463). Improvisational forms of African musicking enabled African-Americans to move and bend according to the oppressive conditions that they faced. Improvisation also allowed for a decentralized and democratic sense of community and being. Like a Jazz piece, African-Americans brought with them flexible structures (cognitive, aesthetic, etc.) that allowed for improvisational and (decentralized) democratic enactments, existential, political and musical. One might say that there was/is a creative tension in the given and the remembered. African-Americans had to “take from the American environment what was needed for living, and to blend it with what was remembered [and re-remembered] of the old” (463).
Linking life (movement) and music, Small argues that the beauty of music is in the performance, the act, not the score (71). African-American culture must be prepared to reinvent itself without being tied to a static structure or a musical score (240). Through the work of Albert Murray, Small argues that African-American culture works with different metaphysical conceptions of change, time, continuity, and permanence (243).
This has implications for issues of the oral tradition in African societies. The idea of not relying on the (static) written word is a deliberate epistemological and aesthetic choice. Drawing from the work of Dennis Duerden, Small maintains, “To them [Africans and African-Americans] it is the creative process that is alive, while created objects are a dangerous legacy which for later generations can stand in the way of self-realization” (66). This raises the issue of improvisation.
Small notes that John Coltrane once said that when Thelonious Monk taught him his tunes that Monk “would rather a guy would learn without reading because you feel it better and quicker that way” (231). Protean. Always something new. Paralogical spaces. Creating on the spot. “This is the way in which the work of creation is kept on the move” (231). Although African-American improvisational musicking involves freedom, spontaneity, and instantaneity, this does not mean that improvisation is “total uncontrolled invention” (290). There are always background assumptions--though always subject to change--at play (290-91). We should keep in mind that “both Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were, of course, perfectly capable of reading and writing music when it was of use to them” (233). As Small notes, however, notation-independent musicking gives the performer “the power not only of interpretation ... but also original creation within the framework of the idiom and of the given material” (234). Small also notes that in a solo concerto from the time of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven that “it was custom of those masters ... to leave a space where the soloist was expected to show his or her own inventiveness ... by improvising an extended passage, known as a cadenza” (282). But Small quickly adds that “today no [classical] soloist ventures to do such a thing” (282). With regard to contemporary classical music, “Performers are imbued from childhood with the notion that their task is to realize a written musical text ... as faithfully as is in their power” (281). Indeed, for Small, there is also the recognition, unlike in a Jazz performance, that the musical score was “created by a higher order of musicality than their own” (281).
If musicking is a celebration of human relationships (128), what does this say about classical music with its stress on lack of bodily movement, the separation of musicking from everyday life, centralized power structure (the conductor), and so on? Small maintains that it says something about how classical music imitates our industrialized society with its fragmentedness, linearity, power hierarchy, etc. For Small, this “manner of performance ... affirms and celebrates the values of the industrial state in all its singleness of vision” (168).
Hence, Small makes an insightful link between how social power--for classical musicians receive financial support from sites of power in our industrialized society--impacts the socially constructed myth that classical music is a “superior” form of music. On this construal, classical music is not music of the common tongue. Classical music is not deemed as that which is available, like language, to everyone. Classical music is not like vernacular speech; rather, it is deemed exclusive--a language that only a select group of geniuses is really capable of hearing and expressing.
Small does an insightful job of providing readers with a thick socio-historical description of the survival and celebration of African-American musicking. He demonstrates how power and politics undergird music as a cultural form. As a result, he reveals how music and aesthetic values do not inhabit an ephemeral sphere divorced from cultural and political contexts. In the process, Small leaves the reader wondering about the future social context out of which African-American musicking will evolve. As the political state becomes even more restrictive and exclusionary, one can only anticipate a more powerful musicking of combat and overthrow.
In 1975, Christopher Small, a 48-year-old senior lecturer at a London college of higher education, approached independent publisher John Calder with a half-completed translation of Fragments Théoretiques sur la Musique Expérimental, by the Belgian serialist Henri Pousseur. Small had left his native New Zealand in 1961 after receiving a grant to study composition in the mother country. There he fell in with avant-gardists he now believes derailed whatever compositional impulse he had, although he did produce several educational works as well as one called Actions for Chorus: Some Maori Place Names. Since Calder had put out titles by Cage and Ives, he seemed a good match for the recondite Belgian, but the publisher was more interested in the translator. Soon he was asking when Small would be writing his own book.
“Well, you know, every academic thinks he’s got a book in him,” Small told me recently in Sitges, Spain, a seaside outpost of Barcelona where he’s lived with companion Neville Braithwaite since 1986. Designated a “guru” by more than one admirer, Small is a tubby, affable man with a trim white beard who speaks in a ruminative murmur few would call charismatic; several times he apologized for not answering my questions snappily enough. But he certainly did have a book in him. In the end, in fact, he had three. But only Music, Society, Education came easy--he wrote his visionary critique of classical music’s industrial-capitalist apparatus in less than a year. And that, Small figured, would be that. “I expected it just to sink from sight. It never occurred to me that there was anything out of the ordinary about it.”
Soon, however, Music, Society, Education received a glowing notice from the pop-friendly English musicologist Wilfrid Mellers. “A whole torrent of reviews” followed, although Small seems just as gratified by all the “letters from undergrads and schoolkids--several letters from schoolkids--and students in music college”. What caused the clamor was that Small had examined classical music from the inside and found it wanting--humanly wanting as opposed to aesthetically wanting, to exploit a distinction he has little use for. Small’s literary presentation mirrored his musical values, which emphasize music’s function in, well, society and education. Deeply thoughtful and broadly informed without any of the usual shows of erudition (spare footnotes, no bibliography), it really was accessible to interested schoolkids, and although Small insists that it was not conceived as an “attack,” it alarmed the old guard mightily. It was both more sweeping and more unassuming than anything Mellers had in him, and its commitment to democracy had a radical edge absent from the centrist middlebrow Henry Pleasants, whose crankier Serious Music and All That Jazz, Death of a Music?, and The Agony of Modern Music Small would only discover later.
What distinguished Small from his fellow dissenters was that he wasn’t just an antielitist praising melody and rhythm, much less an elitist spinning off into some airless avant-garde stratosphere. He was driven by an overriding idea: that music is always a social activity, never a reified thing. Thus the Balinese and African musics his first book describes early on are the equals of the European classical tradition whose audience he is addressing, and perhaps its superior. The moral agenda that goes with this concept not only insists on music’s social context but challenges “the whole idea of music as communication”--especially the myth of the composer as an anointed genius with a message to impart to his inferiors in the orchestra and the audience.
It took Small 10 laborious years to reconfigure these concerns in what he calls “my favorite of my three children”--an idiosyncratic, autodidactic history of African American music. Music of the Common Tongue is an ambitious, original, moving synthesis, propelled once again by Small’s signature ideas. But because he came to the subject late and learned American history on his own, it’s awkwardly researched, and while there’s earnest charm and emotional power in the book’s flaws, they’re sometimes distracting or misleading, especially when they touch on such white-dominated precincts as Tin Pan Alley and country music. It’s easy to imagine a more smoothly executed version turning Small into a genuine intellectual celebrity. Instead, it remained surprisingly obscure--the time wasn’t right for such a radical book, and Calder did nothing to compensate. By pub date Small and Braithwaite, a Jamaican-born youth worker in music and dance, had escaped Thatcher’s England and retired to Sitges, an old Catalan community that has accommodated significant touristic, bohemian, and gay infusions.
One hallmark of Small’s modestly momentous career, grounded in classical music and then bent toward America as it is, is that he never got the time of day from the U.S. classical establishment, which he observes is far more snobbish and insular than the European. In Britain, Mellers and Pleasants were like-minded predecessors, but insofar as he was noticed at all in America it was usually by the likes of radical ethnomusicologist Charles Keil and rock critic Dave Marsh, who first told me about Music of the Common Tongue. Music, Society, Education I’d discovered on my own at St. Mark’s, which is pretty much how Susan McClary came across it shortly after it was published here in the early ‘80s. McClary was then formulating the deconstruction of music theory that would eventually blossom into the so-called new musicology as well as McClary’s MacArthur grant, and she immediately started teaching Small’s book, which both reinforced and influenced her own thinking: “It’s had a profound effect on the people who have read it--in musicology, ethnomusicology, cultural studies.” McClary and her husband, Robert Walser, have become friends of Small--they were vacationing in Sitges when I visited. Together with George Lipsitz, they edit Wesleyan University Press’s Music/Culture series, which rescued Small’s first two books from Calder and then spurred him to turn a daunting pile of manuscript fragments into 1998’s Musicking.
Musicking is calmer than Small’s manifesto or his love child. Far-ranging by conventional musicological standards, it’s nevertheless the most focused of his books, and also a return to his roots: a step-by-step examination of a symphonic performance, starting in the foyer of the concert hall and building to a meta-analysis of symphonic form and impact, with various “preludes,” “postludes,” “interludes,” and outright afterthoughts and asides along the way. Perhaps due to Wesleyan’s visibility, it’s gotten the bulk of its attention in the U.S. “In Britain it’s, “Oh, Chris Small, good knockabout stuff but not to be taken seriously”, Small says. It’s slow at times--there’s much about Gregory Bateson’s antidualistic theory of mind, which provides a theoretical framework the way Ivan Illich’s anarchist notions did in Music, Society, Education--but I think it’s his most powerful book.
First there’s the term “musicking” itself, introduced in Music of the Common Tongue to underline Small’s thesis that music is always an activity rather than a thing, but now, promoted as a title, showing up all over McClary’s wing of academia and eventually, you bet, journalistic discourse as well. And then there’s Small’s climactic point, which is that music’s ultimate function isn’t to order time, that industrial fallacy, but to provide insight into relationships: between and among notes and chords and rhythms and meters and many other classes of sound, and also musicians and listeners, composers and conductors (not to mention producers and a&r folk, DJs and critics). As Small demonstrates vividly by outlining a few sample “secondary” and “tertiary” relationships in numbingly tortuous words, it’s a very efficient way to embody and sum up relatedness, which is the essence of social if not human life. Thus, music becomes as integral to mental health as music chauvinists are forever claiming it is.
Small takes care to define “musicking” as broadly and kindly as possible. The concept definitely encompasses dancing and listening--a girl with a Walkman is one of his prime examples. But like so many pop sympathizers with folk affinities--I think of Robert Palmer in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, of Robert Cantwell in Bluegrass Breakdown, and especially of Charles Keil, who’s made a mission of teaching elementary schoolers and frat-rat klutzes to play the drums--he’s enamored of live performance and suspicious of recordings. As is my practice, I brought a few CDs I thought would be down his alley to our meeting--alt-rappers Blackalicious, the glorious Senegalese Music in My Head. Small declined to put them on. In fact, he told me, he doesn’t do much listening these days, certainly not to anything unfamiliar, although once in a while someone comes along and gives him a kick. Instead he spends extensive musicking time playing the piano as well as he can (better than he admits, I bet)--Mozart’s sonatas have been a special revelation recently. And although he’s working on a lecture he’s been asked to deliver in New Zealand, he told me he has no plans for another book. After all, if past performance is any indicator, it wouldn’t come out till he’s 80.
Having just learned that developments in sociobiology had unsettled his politics slightly--having learned, that is, that his mind was as active as ever--I could only hope he was wrong about the book. Small is a writer so humane he makes those who fulminate reflexively against the “academic” look like bigots as well as morons. He was a late bloomer, and he’s getting on. But he’s proven someone for whom teaching comes as naturally as musicking. I very much doubt he has nothing more to tell us.
[Nota-se que Christopher Small não está para brincadeira, não veio aqui a passeio, ou seja, ele "tá com tudo e não tá prosa", como diria o Chacrinha... Até segunda ordem, meus amigos, ele é "o cara"!]