Monday, April 9, 2012

More Kitsch

Last month I put up a post on Kitsch, Cliche and Professionalism. It is hard to nail down precisely what kitsch in music is without getting very technical, though it is certainly the easiest thing in the world to hear. The classic example of musical kitsch is elevator music, some of which I put up in the previous post. Just as a reminder, here is some more:


We might extract the rules underlying this kind of music as follows:

  • Everything has to sound very familiar, nothing unusual to catch your interest
  • There can be no strong melodic, harmonic or rhythmic features
  • Instead of clear phrases and sections, the music is seamless, undifferentiated
  • Kitsch music may use sounds typical of the current styles such as, in this example from 1974, wah-wah pedal guitar, popularized by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix a few years previously (the wah-wah pedal was invented in 1966 and was used extensively in rock and soul recordings throughout the 70s)
  • Musical kitsch uses familiar elements in familiar ways and presents them as if in a kind of musical haze, with nothing sticking out to catch the attention
Kitsch is also found in visual arts and because it is visual, it is easier to 'read' than musical kitsch. Here is a striking example:


This is by painter Thomas Kinkade who just passed away at the early age of 54. He was an enormous commercial success. What is kitsch about this is that it depicts, in a soft, impressionistic fashion, an imaginary world that no longer exists (if it ever did). In this Christmas, we ride in a horse-drawn carriage and go to a small, stone church in the country, overlooking a picturesque valley. There is musical kitsch that resembles this more than my elevator music example. Music by Secret Garden, a Norwegian duo, is a good analogue. Here is one of their pieces:


This is the kind of thing you come up with if you go to YouTube and seach for "beautiful music" or "just beautiful music". How does this resemble the painting? It is also soft, impressionistic music, with hazy outlines. The equivalent to the anachronistic setting of the painting is the romantic melodic idiom. The melody is simple, folkloric, but in a setting with soothing string accompaniment. But notice the understated pop beat underneath. It has a kind of never-ending quality as the chord progressions never build very far or reach a conclusion, but merely circle around.

Another thing that all these kinds of kitsch have in common is that they tend to put you into a stupor, the music more than the painting. I suppose this is one of the attractions: this is supposed to be relaxing. Unfortunately, and this is probably why I am a musician, things like this make me edgy and jittery because I want the music to do something and go somewhere and instead it just sits there, rotating pointlessly with a hazy veil of redundant strings. Notice how the painting does something similar with the background fading off into the cloudy, vague distance. Ooohh, pretty!

For contrast, let's hear something of real musical quality that is often called musical impressionism. This is a short piece for orchestra by Claude Debussy dating from 1894. The title in English is "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and it is based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.


Notice the differences? Yes, also pretty, but with structure, contrasts and direction. Notice that the flute melody we hear at the beginning comes back? You can only bring something back if you have gone away from it. This is musical form: present one theme, vary it or move to a different theme and then you can come back to the first theme. Musical kitsch has no real form, it is just a seamless blob. Notice how this music breathes: it has moments where it pauses, then pushes ahead. A painterly analogue would be something like this, a painting called "Rising Sun" by Claude Monet dating from 1872.


Debussy hated to have his music called "impressionist" but the label seems to have stuck even though the techniques are quite different. You could say his music was "symbolist" because he was more influenced by the poets of that school. But drawing the parallels with the poetry would be a lot trickier! We can hear a lot of subtle use of orchestral color in Debussy's music and that gives us a superficial link to the subtle colors and textures of impressionist painting. I suppose...

2 comments:

RG said...

You know I am a self-confessed cretin with no aesthetic sensibility. So you will not be surprised that I liked the Muzak and Secret Garden music. But I totally see your point. The Debussy is in a whole other level of human endeavour. As I write, I am laughing at my pathetic (ignorant) "appreciation" of those other bits of refined sugar. You have convinced me. Music is something quite different from pretty sounds. Thanks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks! I think I can count this as a totally successful post, then!