Themes Like a Weird Place

“I like listening to classical music because it’s so relaxing,” is something I hated to hear in high school when all I listened to was classical music but I hated the term “classical” because it, I knew, referred to the rigorously harmonious work of Mozart and Haydn and their peers whereas the compositions for orchestra and chamber ensembles that I preferred were written in the last fifty or a hundred years and they were rough, dissonant, and nasty. This music—and really, any classical music—was not supposed to be relaxing at all if you listened to it properly. It was supposed to be rigorous, moving, engaging.

Piano and Violin Variations sounds like the title of a piece of twentieth-century music, a product of high modernism, when composers gave their works blunt titles that excluded suggestions of extramusical content, downplayed the complexity of the music they named, and—most importantly—used the same terminology found in titles of the past but mixed it up, just as the composers used traditional instruments but extracted new rhythms and harmonies from them. Instead of “Variations on a Theme of Haydn for Violin and Piano”—“Piano and Violin Variations.” But the Piano and Violin Variations I’m talking about isn’t a piece of music. It is a web site made by Michael Bell-Smith (henceforth MBS). It is a collection of photographs of rooms in various Marriott Residence Inns that are decorated with stock photographs of a piano and a violin, licensed from Getty Images. The photos of the rooms have been gathered from the sites of the Marriott Hotels and reviews of them on TripAdvisor.

“Variations,” we know, is shorthand for “Theme and Variations.” MBS dropped “theme.” What is a theme? In music it is a sequence of notes that can be recognized by the intervals between them and the rhythm in which they succeed each other. Online there are themes for the Gmail inbox (backgrounds and color schemes) and themes for WordPress (appearance and organization of text elements). Theme in music is about time. Theme in design is about space. Piano and Violin Variations suggests a musical theme but the theme that gets varied in it is a spatial one: a design template produced by some mid-level brand manager at Marriott’s corporate headquarters, and realized with slight differences in each of the many Residence Inns. There is a dramatic dash of red—a red pleather divan with a back that slopes like a grand piano’s soundboard. The rest looks boring—the beige curtains, the beige-brown grid of the carpet, the pale wood of the end tables. The piano and the violin are photographed at jaunty angles. But the instruments are at rest. No one is playing them.

One reason why people think classical music is relaxing is because it is impersonal. Especially in its recorded form it erases human presence. Of course there are operas, cantatas, lieder, and so on, but the kind of classical music that gets on the radio stations and upscale Muzak compilations that are listened to by people who listen to classical music to relax—this is instrumental only. Hands move over violins and pianos busily but so skillfully that they are inaudible. Hands merge with the instruments and vanish in them. Classical music is so unlike pop or rock, where crooners emote at you, trying to elicit feeling. Voiceless classical music simulates solitude… aaah!

Muzak organizes space by creating an innocuous, unobtrusive sonic environment. The photographs of the piano and the violin—without a pianist or a violinist—fragment and crystallize the idea of relaxing to music. And why does classical music relax people, why does it soothe them? Even in its rigor it has a sameness—the predictability of the tonic’s quest to the dominant, followed by its triumphant homecoming; the thumping satisfaction of the dominant seventh’s resolution; the deceptive cadence that you know is coming but gives you goosebumps each time anyway. These are the things that let Schenker say that every piece of classical music can be reduced to three notes! And now guests at the Marriott Residence Inn get it in two pictures.

Junkspace is what happens when the kind of patterns that are found in cultural forms fill the world. Rooms at the Marriott Residence Inn are as standardized as the sonata form, but instead of elegance and tradition their sameness speaks to the boredom of business travel, the frequent flying, the shuttling from the dry halls of the airport to the marginally cozy sterility of the hotel. It is movement stripped of life. So it is with the theme of the Residence Inn rooms. Only the red pleather sofa, with its sexily arched back, screams: “Someone designed this interior! And made an unusual choice…” That person’s choice sticks out like the wrong note of an inexpert player who makes the same mistake again and again.

We see it in MBS’s collection of all the variations. They sit in a grid, like the one on the beige-brown carpet. The Tumblr theme homogenizes visual space like Marriott’s theme homogenizes people’s travel experience. In the ungraceful junkspace of the business-class hotel chain, space functions like information, space sounds like Muzak. Its sameness is meant to soothe like classical music radio does with the impersonal voices of pianos and violins. The photos collected by MBS were taken to function indexically, to show what the Marriott Residence Inn’s rooms look like. In that sense they are unlike Getty’s stock photos of the piano and violin, which are meant to evoke a mood vague enough to be open to use a variety of environments, like a Muzak CD. But when MBS brings all the photos of the room together, their indexical function recedes and the shape of the space in them comes forward. Its contours describe how space melts into stock space, how junkspace functions as an image.

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