The word “classical,” the Lathe of Heaven, and the Velveteen Rabbit

(I’ve added to this, so I bumped it for any nonexistent readers. I think it’s settled out into something approaching a final form.)

It’s a useful word. People are fearful about the perceived elitism in the word (who tend to be somewhat elitist themselves), but all it means is that this stuff has stood the test of time. “Classical” is just the word one uses to describe something that you still like and enjoy even 200 years after it was completed. Timeless. “Classical” isn’t a particular type of music, really. (Ignore the fact that one of the periods in classical music is the Classical period. I’m talking about small-c classical music.) It’s just the sum total of the Best of the Best, the boiled-down concentration of Western music from the past 800 years or so that people still love and listen to. 800 years of the Billboard Top 10.

That’s all it means. It stuck around. We still love it. We still know it. We still hum it to ourselves even if we don’t know who wrote it. Whatever genre they may be in, that is the common thread running between Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in Dm, the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” Haendel’s “Fireworks and Water Music,” Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Beethoven’s 5th, and “West Side Story.” It is, in fact, the only common thread. And it’s an important one, which requires a word to encapsulate it.

That word is “classical.” It didn’t used to mean that. Back in the day, it was distinct from Baroque (Haendel and Bach were not called “classical”). Nowdays, it isn’t. The Top Hits of the Second Millennium. That’s “classical music.” That’s all it means. No, it didn’t used to mean that 200 years ago — too bad. It means that now.

You know, I think this is part of the problem with “classical” music nowdays and why its following has gone into the toilet. It’s almost … social Darwinism in a way, where the participants in the system itself are trying to consciously determine what’s “fittest” instead of simply letting the system make that determination in its own sweet time. Insiders seized on the word “classical” and decided that they would force it to mean what they wanted it to mean, that they could write it on a gum label and slap it on their favorite kinds of music. That one could say, “I write classical music.”

The problem is, you can’t say that. You can’t make that determination yourself. Whether your music is timeless and beloved enough to be “classical” is not something you can say, any more than a social Darwinist can say, “What is fittest is what I think is fittest.” Naturally of course, the speaker considers himself in that group. No, you can’t say that you write “classical music.” In 150 years, we’ll be able to tell whether you wrote “classical music,” but you won’t be around to know, which many people consider a frightening thought.

Again, you can’t say that something is fittest because you have decided it is. You have to let things play out, let go and just allow the environment to do the weeding. Once participants in a given system try to force the system in a self-referential way, things go strange.

In the past, I’ve said of the pundit-driven conversations about the “dying culture of classical music” that they struck me as a little bit too Lathe-of-Heaven, composed of people who were damned bound and determined that they could force things to go their way if they just pushed hard enough. And then when everything goes pear-shaped on them and the system insists on twisting free in its own way, they can’t see why.

Classical music is not dying. Classical music will only ever be added to. That’s the nature of it. It’s a slow diffusion process as stuff that has hung around for a while and been well-loved starts to move into Velveteen-Rabbit territory. Music that’s hung around for 400 years will hang around for 500, trust me. And even wildly popular music that went for nearly 200 years without being performed — as many of Haendel’s operas did from 1754 to 1920! — will resurrect to take over today’s opera houses … as many of Haendel’s operas are doing.

Yes, maybe your favorite avant-garde pieces might be resurrected like Haendel’s operas. (It’s worth noting that his operas were crazy-popular at the time of their creation and remained that way for a couple decades, though. They were never a niche interest. They were made for the people, not for a small market of insiders.) But you can’t say that they will be. You can’t call them classical music because they might survive.

You can’t make a brand-new Velveteen Rabbit. And not all stuffed rabbits make it. If your favorite type of avant-garde stuff isn’t in there, which you artificially labeled “classical,” maybe it will seem to you that Classical Music Is Dying. It’s not. It’s just that that gum label that you keep trying to stick on the lapel of your favorite music keeps falling off, because it’s not within your purview to stick it there. A pretender to the label of classical music is simply being demonstrated not to have been fittest, and is fading from sight as things that are not fittest tend to do.

At bottom, you aren’t fittest just because you decide you are. And your music isn’t classical just because you call it classical. Once this realization begins tugging at the mental pant legs of people who backed the wrong horse, they then begin an assault on the word itself and insist that they shouldn’t even use it, that it means nothing! That it’s elitist! A rich comment coming from a crowd that demonizes that which is popularly beloved, dumping it all in the landfill of Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, and that prizes forms of music requiring vast and expensive graduate-level musical education to even understand much less “enjoy.” There is a difference between “that which is popular” and “that which is popular after three generations have passed,” and it’s a difference that they don’t want to acknowledge, as the endless Justin-Bieber-Britney-Spears comments reveal. If they acknowledge that persistent, long-lived popularity matters, then a lot of their favorite music won’t make the cut. (A lot of mine won’t either!)

However, even if they choose not to see it, they can’t erase the fact that the concept of an aggregate sum of music that has survived several centuries of distillation into the essence of what is greatly loved is a concept that needs a word, whether their favorite form of music is in there or not.

Stop being Dr. Haber. Just let that distillation happen, because it’s going to whether you want it or not.

And just for the record, here’s my guess at Music Of Today That Will Wind Up As Classical Eventually — and it’s not all stuff that I’m personally wild about: substantial sums of Paul Simon, John Williams, Lennon/McCartney, Howard Shore, “West Side Story,” and *gasp!* Andrew Lloyd Webber. In other words, heavily attended summer pops concerts that the orchestras whine about playing. That’s what classical music is, people: The distilled essence of 800 years worth of pops concerts.

Fifty years ago, when the obscurist lovers of serialism were doubtless laughing at the silly long hair and cigarette pants of the Beatles, and their mad hordes of fainting teenybopper fans, would any of them have guessed that in 2010, the Los Angeles Philharmonic would have their music on the program? With the benefit of fifty years of hindsight, the obscurist Cool Kids claim the Beatles as their own, but in 1964, would they have?

I imagine that the obscurists could run off to Google and find the one guy in 1964 who did foresee it and conveniently ignore the fact that his colleagues probably all thought he was nuts, as well as act like they all would have agreed with him. It’s a bit like certain political commentators — which I will not name because I don’t want to go down that path — who pretend that they have pinochle lunches with the founding fathers every second Tuesday, and had they lived in the Colonies in the late 1700s, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that every single one of them would have been a Tory. This is the same thing. In 20 years time, the LA Phil will be scheduling other fatally uncool rock music disdained by today’s obscurist art-rock crowd, like “A Salute to Queen!” and “The Ballads of Journey.” Guaranteed. And in 20 years time, the obscurists will all act like they saw it coming.

There’s a marvelous interview with the ungodly successful music producer Kevin Shirley where he makes a few comments relevant to this whole topic. He was asked about working with preposterously popular multi-platinum bands, and how he helps them to stay in touch with their mojo. “The trick,” he says, “for me, is to make them feel like they’re 19 again.”

When asked how he does that, he replies:

“By getting them to write great songs and not be too clever with their musicianship. Stop thinking about the press and the reviewers. Do it for the right reasons. Make music to pull chicks and stop worrying about turning on the Steely Dan guys.”

The hardcore “Steely Dan guys” and more often their non-musical acolytes — the Dr. Habers of the music world, whether they be rock’s art-music devotees or the acoustic art-music lovers — always get it wrong. And not because they like Bad Music, whatever that means, but because they presume to write “classical” on the gum label and act like they can stick it to things in the first place.

They cannot control this word. It will by definition expand to absorb the forms of music that are still loved and listened to after three generations have passed. We can try to get ahead of that expanding wave, we can try to anticipate it, we can try to ride it, or we can try to get out of its way.

The one thing we cannot do is steer.