Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kitsch, Cliché and Professionalism

A week or so ago I put up a post about professionals and amateurs that elicited a number of comments. Today I would like to go at it from a different angle. I'll start with a bit of autobiography. The early stages of my career were in pop music. It was only after three or four years that I discovered classical music and became a convert. During that transition I was occasionally hired for some interesting 'gigs'. One was to play guitar for a New Year's dance in a trio. The problem was that I couldn't take this music, especially when played in this kind of context, seriously any more. So they fired me! I think it was the only time I was fired from a music job. They were right to do so, of course. I wasn't able to be 'professional' in that context. Now what does this tell us?

Kinds of professionalism

Let's look at what professionalism really is. It is a cultivated ability to deliver what is needed in defined contexts. A professional musician in an orchestra can quickly learn to play orchestral parts with clear rhythms, good sound, nicely phrased and responsive to the conductor and do so flawlessly on every occasion. A professional studio musician, the kind that records soundtracks, can read anything at sight and play it flawlessly. A professional teacher of music can teach others to do these things. But look what we are leaving out: real expression. Because involvement with what you are doing, on the personal level, would just get in the way.

Something similar is true of composition. A professional composer these days, is someone who writes soundtracks for movies or television. There are certain procedures that, when followed, will enable you to deliver the goods predictably, week after week. Some professionals seem to do it better than others, but what the job is, is clear.

Some Examples

Let's take a soundtrack, for example.

That does the job nicely of setting up a mood that is both eerie and yet somehow, familiar. Orchestral color from Tchaikovsky:

Done as a Viennese waltz, but with more rigid phrasing. The secret of this kind of professionalism is to have minimal creativity. This example is at the top of the heap, of course. Minimal creativity has made John Williams famous. Way down at the bottom is what we call 'elevator' music: soulless arrangements of vaguely familiar tunes.

This is where the words kitsch and cliché come to mind. This kind of music is absolutely mechanical, with a rigid beat, no phrasing allowed! The arrangements are watered down collections of clichés and the result is kitsch. Doing anything creative in this context would be unprofessional and probably get you fired.

What is cliché in music?

Every genre has its own clichés. The determining factor is the use of a device, harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic, that has been used many times before in just the same way. In the 'elevator' music example the clichés include the Latin rhythm track, the harmonic progression, the syncopated accompaniment and finally the melody. Also a cliché is the length of the phrases: everything appears exactly when you expect. This is professional delivery of the perfectly predictable. John Williams is operating on a much higher level, but what he is delivering is just slightly disguised clichés: the color of the celeste, the rhythm and phrasing of a Viennese waltz and a melody that is foursquare but with just a touch of chromatic inflection.


Is the opposite of the above. Instead of the precise professional reproduction of the predictable and expected--the cliché--you search for the new, the different, the unusual, that which develops its own context and doesn't just give the listener what they expect. Of course, in doing this, you need a highly developed sense of taste, because doing the different and unexpected often means you will come up with something not very pleasing... But sometimes that's ok, too. Some composers have made entire careers out of the creation of unpleasant music. But original. And not a cliché...


RG said...

"[Professionalism] is a cultivated ability to deliver what is needed in defined contexts." Very nice!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks! Of course all my remarks here are specific to professionalism in music. If you get too creative in medicine or the law, there may be unfortunate consequences!

Nathan Shirley said...

That last example was one of the most obnoxious things I've ever heard. And I've heard some bad stuff! Especially after just leaving the Magnificat...

What if the problem with professionalism in music has more to do with how it's taught (which you hint at). When teachers are forced to give grades and scores for creative arts (performance/composition), it's no wonder creativity is often pushed aside in favor of things that can more easily be measured, like technique. "Interpretation" becomes such an abused term it no longer has anything to do with expression and creativity, but instead historically correct phrasing, articulation, etc. In systematized institutions like music conservatories, cutting creativity out makes everything so much easier.

When a generation of professionals have been trained this way, and then become teachers themselves, creativity is further diminished.

The old concept of apprenticeship with the goal of creating your first masterpiece in order to 'graduate' as a true artist is practically non-existent today. But perhaps it really is the ideal route for all artists? It might well lead to more 'creative professionals' (which I don't consider an oxymoron, just sadly uncommon).

Bryan Townsend said...

Frank Zappa is kind of fascinating because, yes, his music always seems to sound ugly and he mentions as an inspiration Edgar Varese who, to me, writes music that is also rather ugly. But they are, for sure, original.

I'm of two minds about your thoughts on teaching. On the one hand, yes, teaching music can lapse into a soulless technical exercise. On the other hand, music schools can also fall into a kind of navel-gazing where they offer their students no career guidance. Where do you go and what do you do after you graduate?

Isn't the apprenticeship system still one of the most important, functioning in small circles of gifted students surrounding the great teachers?

Nathan Shirley said...

I've heard Zappa that I like before, but that one... the melody and rhythm and tone of it make my skin crawl.

Maybe students would find more work if they weren't coming off the assembly lines like robots? But that's a tricky issue for sure which has a lot to do with supply and demand.

I think music schools on the outside seem to be set up at least a little bit like apprenticeships, but I don't think they really function this way. When I was in school I had practically NO time to compose or practices, which didn't even matter because I wasn't required to compose or practice all that much anyway. Undergrads often get brief private lessons, once a week, just like they did when they were 8 year old! There is lots of superfluous stuff as many schools know how to maximize income (more students, more big pointless classes, less teachers).

Most teachers have only the best intentions, and I'm sure a good many even manage to do a great job. But I think the system is a bit backwards. Grad school is closer to the apprenticeship model, but by this point most performers are doing more musicology work than studying performance (or composition). And most of these teachers are STILL the same teachers who put technique and testable knowledge before artistry.

Still, great performers manage to come out of the system (many don't bother with grad school!). And I don't think the problem is as bad with performers as it is with composers.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm realizing from your remarks that I had a very unusual musical education. I was part of a, I understand now, very elite group of students gathered around the great Spanish maestro Jose Tomas. As an undergraduate performance major I got a fantastic variety of performing opportunities, including paid work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. I even got to do a couple of concertos, a Baroque one with orchestra. I also took private composition lessons that I paid for myself (he charged me what I charged my students!). I have a feeling that things have changed a bit. Canada may also be a bit different than the US...