Signal Hill has long been a communications point on the Southern California landscape. In an earlier era, Native Americans signaled their brethren with fire and smoke, from Santa Catalina Island to the foothills of the Coastal Range bordering what is now L.A.

Today the signals are electronic, connecting us--at the click of a mouse--to vast, new worldwide networks.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Spain: Meeting Christopher Small, I

This launches a series of three posts about a meeting that began in Los Angeles and culminated, a half a world away, in Sitges, Spain.  Those of you interested in the Arts in Our Communities may find this worth reading.

Meet 83 year-old professor and much respected author Christopher Small, who devotes his life to trying to understand the meaning and significance of music in our lives.

I learned of Small at the Los Angeles Music Center where I volunteer in its Active Arts program.  Small's works, among those of others, provide the intellectual grounding for this program that promotes amateur music making in Los Angeles.

When I learned that the now-retired Professor Small lives in Sitges, just 30 minutes by train southwest of Barcelona, I resolved to visit him -- a sort of mission of our tour of Spain.  To do this, I contacted his publisher, Wesleyan University Press, then started a communication with him via e-mail, and also contacted others influenced by his work, including Josephine Ramirez, to make this visit a reality.  She eagerly offered to write a letter of gratitude to him for me to deliver -- this becoming a poignant focal point of the visit.

Ramirez is the individual most responsible for the creation of Active Arts and is the former Vice President for Programing and Planning for the Music Center.  She is now the Arts Program Director for the Irvine Foundation, administering more than $20 million each year for the arts in California.  (You can see her on the video at the Active Arts Web site linked above.)  She discovered Small's works while on a year's sabbatical at Harvard in 2002-03, and from that created a loose theoretical framework about building arts policies and programming with "everyday" people as its focus.

The Active Arts program at the Los Angeles Music Center is putting Christopher Small's ideas into practice, as the Center broadens its mission from being a performing arts center to becoming a civic cultural center for the city.  The program challenges our passive, detached-connoisseurship orientation to music, so often encouraged by performing arts centers, and exhorts us to personally engage in the arts -- to unleash the artist in each of us.  It encourages us to step back to an earlier time of parlors and dusty porches, when we actually made music, rather than simply purchased it.  Small's work provides both a catalyst and rationale for this.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to give brief remarks to the Music Center board of directors, to share what Active Arts means to one of its volunteers.  At the meeting I heard one of the directors ask, "How does this relate to our core programs?"  Josephine Ramirez, who was moderating the meeting, replied spontaneously, "This is a core program."

In our next post, we will present some background on Christopher Small and try to summarize his thinking.

-- RCH

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