Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

All Art Is Performance Art
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 7 2007 2:53 PM

Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands


Since we are talking about improvisation creeping (back) into classical music, and classical musicians "trying to move away from the formal concert ritual and toward something more relaxed," we should say hello to Christopher Small.

Born in 1927, he is a New Zealand writer and musician, classically trained, who moved to England to teach and compose and then started writing books about music. Now he lives in Spain, down the coast from Barcelona. I feel close to a lot of his writing, but I especially admire Musicking, his last book. It's about how music is, or should be, a two-way ritual: the performers and the audience. In it he says:

All art is performance art, which is to say that it is first and foremost activity. It is the act of art … that is important, not the created object.


His ideas are so rooted in everyday human action and interaction, rather than the finished products of culture, that they inevitably shock you a little bit—"beauty" is a construct, composition is somehow fundamentally controlling and hostile, so on and so forth—and then, in my case at least, they make you feel very happy. He's making suggestions, more than anything; he's letting you see the underside of the way we've come to think about music in the West. And he doesn't try to reconcile his distrust of composition with his love of Bach. Why should he?

On the other hand, what makes Ahmad Jamal great? The degree to which he is a control freak. There is a fantastic and wicked tension in certain kinds of music caused by control, and I like that, too. I can hear it not just as control in some fundamentally negative or depressing sense but as a kind of generosity; all music is to be played to someone else, after all.

You and I have both been talking about ritual, and the thing about ritual is that by definition it goes on and on, whatever it is. That's what we hope from our favorite music—we never want it to stop in our lives, whether it's free improvisation or composed top to bottom. I was worrying a couple of days ago about whether people in the future will be able to tell the difference between great composer A and mediocre composer B, but rereading Chris Small makes me not care so much: These are not the worries that we should be having. We should care only that people listen to, respond to, and play music with great care and enthusiasm, whatever it may be.

Be well. I will be digging out my Strauss and Sibelius.

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at the New York Times since 1996. His new book is Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.


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