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.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Spain: Meeting Christopher Small, III

This is the final post of our meeting with Professor Christopher Small in Sitges, Spain.  Again, those of you with an interest in the Arts in Our Communities may find this particularly interesting.  Next we move on to Madrid and Andaluc√≠a.

Once in Barcelona, I telephoned Small and arranged a day, time and location where we would meet.  He said he would be waiting for me at the train station.  Instead of the giant man of letters I expected to meet, I found a small, somewhat shy, graying older man holding a cane; a gentleman of delicacy and reticence, ready to receive strangers from abroad as his guests.  It was this meeting of Christopher Small, the person, that explained the "heart" I had seen in his work -- its deep core of humanity and compassion that is evident throughout.

As we gathered in the living room of his apartment filled with books, artwork and a piano, Chris (at his initiative, we quickly moved to using our first names) talked about Sitges, a charming seaside village, where there is always something interesting to do, usually something connected with the arts.  He also talked fondly of his long-time partner, Neville, who died in a local hospital some four years ago, from a brain tumor.  He dedicates Music of the Common Tongue -- which I think is his most passionate work -- to Neville, writing: "To Neville Braithwaite, who taught me what it was all about."  Chris praised the Spanish healthcare system, thankful that their European Union passports gave them both access to it.

Sitting comfortably in the living room and sipping the good local red wine Chris brought out, we began talking about his work, and I gave him the letter of gratitude Irvine Foundation's Director for the Arts, Josephine Ramirez, had asked me to deliver.  As he read, it was clear that he was moved.  He quietly said he is pleased that his work is being put into practice, not limited to being read in academia.  It has been only in the last ten years that his books have received much attention, which still surprises him, he said.  He pointed out, too, that none of the books have ever gone out of print.

Chris seemed reluctant to talk much about the substance of his work, seemingly satisfied with my simple -- perhaps simplistic -- summary of it.  He refuses to be pigeonholed, however.  When I asked if he considers himself a musicologist, he simply said, "I'm a musician who thinks about his music," refusing, even, to contend that his music is art -- maybe because even that would be too much of an abstraction.

He did venture one strong opinion:  He said he doesn't much care for the music of John Cage.  He said music requires "human intentionality" that is missing in the chance and random ambient-sound orientation of much of Cage's work.  He didn't say this, but from his comments in Music of the Common Tongue,  I think Chris might have added, if given the chance, that Cage is too much the precious and disingenuous elitist for his taste.

Chris disagreed with me on one point.  I had suggested that lagging ticket sales at performing arts centers would make for a good reason to apply his ideas.  My argument was the more "everyday" people are encouraged to engage personally in the arts, the more likely they will also increasingly support and attend professional performances that arts centers promote.  He wasn't specific about his reasons for challenging this, but Josephine Ramirez agreed with him in a later letter to me, saying "[E]verybody wants to do that but, at least originally, when we created it, our [Active Arts] program was never supposed to do that."  Further, she said "In my years of looking at these things, there's no data yet to solidly suggest that programs like Active Arts ... are helping to remedy falling attendance at PACs."  She also expressed concern that the acceptance of that argument might even lead to giving undue attention to "the old butts in the seats" model of PACs.

After finishing the bottle of wine, we moved from Chris' apartment to an Argentine restaurant on the water, just a half block away.  Several people warmly greeted Chris as we strolled by, asking not only about him, but also about local activities that they shared an interest in.  Chris is clearly well known and an engaged local favorite.

Returning after lunch, and as I gathered my things to leave, I snapped a few photos -- the ones you see here -- and turned to ask: "And what about your own music, Chris?", pointing to his piano.  "I'm afraid I haven't been much inspired since Neville's passing," he said.

We said our goodbyes and expressed our appreciation for each other with a big "abrazo," a bear hug.  And, as I worked my way through Sitges, back to the train station -- a tad tipsy from the wine -- I couldn't help marveling at this experience; at having come from a half a world away to meet this giant man of letters, with a heart to match.

Here are a few more photos from our time in Sitges.



  1. Thanks for the post and for sharing. I particularly like the quote "I'm a musician who thinks about his music" - it made me realize that in my own case 'I am a musician who thinks about teaching'. My colleagues and I believe in many of Chris's philosophies and have incorporated them in our ethos at The Dallas School of Music and even online in our discover, learn, and play community. We even dubbed our company 'musicked' as an homage to his writing. Cheers from Dallas and continued success.

  2. Thanks Eugene. Care to leave a couple of links to the organizations you mention?


  3. and - our blog is also and extension of the musick philosophy and we believe strongly that the future of music education will hinge on partnerships formed outside of academia. The blog can be found here:


  4. Hi Richard,

    I am a Chris Small fan and stumbled upon your blog. I was wondering how I can email you directly with a quick question? You can reach me at Thanks. Safe Travels.