The Fetishization of Music and the Regression in Listening (2007)

Marc Couroux and Juliana Pivato

The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression in Listening

In his seminal 1938 essay The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression in Listening, Theodor Adorno asserted that the “capacity of listeners for active, structural listening has seriously declined in this century”. Indeed, the advent of the Musak Corporation (founded in 1934, two years before the death of Pavlov) ushered in the notion of a background soundtrack which, rather than requiring conscious listening, was designed to condition and manipulate the emotional state of anyone coming into contact with it.  Until recently, most musak found in malls, offices and subway stations, consisted of instrumental reworkings of popular tunes of the day, a kind of flattening out, a “blandification” of already well-worn songs.

We propose to reverse the polarity between the listener and the listened, and return the potential thoroughfarer to a state of active listening, though still subconscious in nature. The listener passing from the mall environment to the parking lot will have experienced a strange subliminal sensation, a momentary repointing of his/her auditory faculties, opening up towards a source of confounding stimulation.

A computer running MAX interactive software accessing a large database of current popular songs (from the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s), selects random 3-second segments from 5 randomly chosen songs, spitting them out to two performers (a vocalist and a keyboardist) via headphones. The performers must learn these fragments and then slowly and smoothly string them together. Because of the competing forces of accurate memory and effective consolidation, these fragments will be at times inaccurately re-presented, and then further distorted in the name of creating a continous, smooth resultant song.

This project is meant to operate a form of Situationist détournement on the musak environment: instead of further flattening an already well-known song to more efficiently militarize the social space, it aims to creatively pull together disparate musical phenomenon to produce an eccentric hybrid, smooth like musak but strangely out-of-place, to pull the listener from placid acceptance into an active, reactive space.  In so doing, we will follow the musak paradigm of programming in 15-minute blocks, followed by 15 minutes of silence. This concept of “stimulus progression”, in which a subconscious sense of forward movement is programmed (for work efficiency, to better quell the disquiet which might arise in the context of workday alienation), will be also rerouted here. The performance-in-progress will impede the forward movement of the passerby, subliminally taking in a smooth succession of increasingly contradictory and irreconcilable materials (climaxing in complexity at each 15-minute mark, precisely where the last musak tune usually leaves the listener on a carefree, giddy note), forcing a kind of paradoxical implosion from within. Once the new amalgamation effortlessly enters the passerby’s concsiousness (or subconsiousness), it then slowly (but surely) implodes from its own internal contradictions. In the end, our resolutely non-functional constructions are geared towards reducing efficiency, forcing contemplation and active mental / intellectual processing, towards opening up areas for questioning instead of quietly (but most effectively) shutting them down : a kind of strange, momentary stoppage of the capitalist mechanism (fueled by rampant consumerism and endless personal debt, both collaborating to eradicate introspection and social activism).

For maximal effect, each performance should last at least 75 minutes (alternating 15 minutes of music with 15 minutes of silence: on-off-on-off-on) and take place 4-5 times per day, during periods of relative activity (rushhour) or calm, the nature of which will invariably influence the manner in which the hybrid constructions are more or less easily absorbed by the passerby.

The performance should take place in an area which does not arouse undue attention from passers-by, but rather operates in a dissimulated, subliminal fashion, in a zone where an acoustic crossfade / cross-contamination between the mall musak and the reconstructed collages-in-progress can productively occur. Some confusion as to the nature and location of the constructed sound source is desired.


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