Richard Powers ending

I’ve finished the Richard Powers book I talked about earlier, 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…

!!!! WARNING !!!!



…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, 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.

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  1. says

    I’m glad you read this book. I read it a couple years ago and was blown away. I don’t agree with his thesis for the future of music – lots of people play football and are perfectly willing to watch professional football players execute feats that they never could. And football’s whatever the opposite of stuffy is. (Wait, I got it – crass!) But classical would have to mean something in people’s lives for anyone to want to watch incredibly skilled people enact that meaning, and for most people I know, listening to classical music is like looking at 18th-century art: beautiful but distant.

    Anyway, whatever one’s thoughts about the current state and probable future of classical music, “The Time of Our Singing” has the best fiction writing about classical music I’ve ever read, plus it’s a kick-ass novel. So everyone reading this blog should give it a look. Here endeth my pronouncement.