Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Classical Shmassical is a new blog about music that originates with semantics, or perhaps I mean with vocabulary. Really, I just mean: with words.

My musical adventure started, as most journeys do, in ignorance. I stumbled into music class as a child, gradually became habituated, started exploring on my own, and, not surprisingly, eventually fell in love.
But what is this “Classical music” thing I fell in love with? Nearly everyone in the music life is quick to qualify any effort at genre categorization: “Well, calling it ‘this’ or ‘that’ is a bit restrictive – what I’m talking about defies categories to some extent, but you know what I mean…” Right. We often know what we’re talking about, even when it’s hard to talk about specifics.

But there’s one aspect of this generally-acceptable communication morass that I just can’t get comfortable with: the use of the word “Classical” to refer to a “genre” of music that is, in fact, dozens or hundreds – face it, thousands – of genres, types, styles, eras of music. To call the term insufficient is to underrate the complete impossibility of trying to wrap up several centuries and countless regional and personal styles into a single category.

Worse still is the term itself. True, it’s not the word’s fault that it was drafted to do an impossible job. Don’t blame “Classical” for being insufficient to an impossible task. But don’t excuse it from blame entirely. “Classical” has picked up a set of connotations over the decades, and a lot of them are demeaning and misleading. To many, it means: staid, proper, prissy, uptight, pretty but no soul. Fine for TV commercials, certain movie soundtracks, weddings, funerals, and presentations that require an air of seriousness. That’s wrong! But words are powerful, and sadly, “Classical” music is now stuck with a reputation that couldn’t be more misleading – all because of a word. It does apply, with only the usual genre-categorization caveats, to a certain period of music – Bach’s sons through early Beethoven, say. The rest of the time, it’s basically being drafted for a job no word could possibly manage, and it’s doing damage in the process.

So: the word is insufficient and full of misleading connotations – what to do? We’ve gotten along fine with this bad word serving as a moniker, if not a proper description, for the music we love. Hadn’t we better either come up with a better one or, failing that, learn to accept the one we’ve got? My case is this: we’re NOT getting along fine with this lousy word as our music’s best and only name. More and more of the public sees “Classical” music as a ghetto full of snobs with standards but no taste, a place they might visit briefly when necessary, but wouldn’t want to live. Play the stuff for people and they love it. Ask them if they love Classical music: not so much.

Yet, decry “Classical” it as I do…I’ve never been able to come up with a substitute. I’ve tried! I searched and discussed and tried and tried! And I failed. I can’t come up with a word to replace “Classical.”

This failure is a sign. There most likely is no word that can do what we’re attempting to do with “Classical.” So my personal solution is, as much as possible, to turn my back on the whole name thing. “Classical” is terrible; there’s nothing better; might as well give up on naming it at all. Perfect idea!

Most likely you’re familiar with the whole Yiddish “sh” negation thing. In case you’re not: basically, saying a word, then saying it again sticking “sh” or “shm” in front of it is a kind of clever, complicated negation. It doesn’t merely contradict the original word, it shows attitude toward it. There’s a bit of “who cares?”, some “as if!”, quite a lot of “no way!”, and more than a touch of “forgetaboudit.” So there’s no good word for “Classical” music? Hmmph. Fine. I say: Classical Shmassical!