I’ve finished the Richard Powers book I
aboutearlier, The Time of Our
Singing. And what I could only guess at (because I hadn’t finished the
book) in my earlier post turns out to be true — this is a long and serious
novel (by a MacArthur prizewinner, yet) one of whose themes is the future of
classical music. Or, rather…
SPOILER AHEAD — DON’T
READ WHAT FOLOWS IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE BOOK, AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW
…or rather classical music’s lack of a
future. Because classical music loses in the end.
The character most identified with it dies unhappily, and the characters who
give it up are the ones who prosper. Powers has a very strong vision of what’s
wrong with classical music — it’s too European, too white, too far away from contemporary
life and especially from nonwhite culture. It’s also, in the modern world, a
little artificial, a little precious, a little forced. Note that he says this
even though he himself seems to love classical music, even though he offers
some of the most vivid and accurate writing about it that I’ve ever read, and
even though he creates unforgettable characters of an older generation whose
love for classical music goes to the marrow of their bones.
Nobody, in other words, can accuse him of taking cheap shots
at classical music, or of not knowing the power of something that, in the end,
he thinks is inadequate. What Powers offers in place of classical music, at the
end of the book, is a vision of music that’s completely participatory — music
created by anyone and everyone, music that everyone can join in with, music
that doesn’t require composers, music schools, or hierarchies of talent. This
music sounds like a blend of African-American music and the kind of free
improvisation that goes on in new music circles, though by saying this I
cheapen Powers’s vision a little, and certainly bring
down his excitement, by tethering him to existing musical genres that don’t
fully offer the exhilaration or discovery or wonderful freedom that the music
he imagines does.
Powers’s vision is very much in
tune with Christopher Small’s notion of musicking (in his book of that name) according to which music
should be defined as an activity, and not as an object (exemplified, as the
western classical tradition insists, by a notated musical work). The novel could
also almost be a commentary on Small’s first book, Music of the Common Tongue, which in alternating chapters contrasts
classical music with African-American music. Or, on the other hand,
style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>Music of the Common Tongue could be a take
on Powers’s novel.
Not that you need any prior knowledge to read Power’s book.
(Though — paradoxically — the more you know about classical music, the more you
might like it.) It’s lively, powerful, and profound, and it throws a challenge
to classical music that classical music had better figure out how to answer.