The Fetishization of Music and the Regression in Listening (2007-10)


Overhearing / Underhearing

Programming / De-programming.

Mobilization / Demobilization

Involvement / Immersion.

Musique d’ameublement, Musak, ambient music, installation.

Hearing / listening.

Background / Foreground.

An informal chain of reactions which appears to lead to our work. (These references were largely out of the picture, however, when the work was made. )

- Erik Satie – Furniture Music (musique d’ameublement) (1902 – ). Music that was to be “heard, but not listened to.” (Milhaud) Distinction between (active) listening and hearing.

(see Nicola Bernardini – Erik Satie’s Musique d’Ameublement, some ninety years later. Online)

Satie: «We now want to introduce music that satisfies the ‹useful› needs. Art does not belong to these needs. ‹Musique d’ameublement› generates vibrations; it has no other purpose; it performs the same role as light, warmth—and comfort in every form.»

In the midst of an art opening at a Paris gallery in 1902, Ambient music was born. Erik Satie and his cronies, after begging everyone in the gallery to ignore them, broke out into what they called Furniture Music–that is, background music–music as wallpaper, music to be purposely not listened to. The patrons of the gallery, thrilled to see musicians performing in their midst, ceased talking and politely watched, despite Satie’s frantic efforts to get them to pay no attention. (Kenneth Goldsmith) (identification / representation)

In pamphlets, which have since become famous, he suggested extremely functional music intended to fill embarrassing pauses in conversations during dinner or to cover up unpleasant interfering sounds. Satie criticized that department store music, which at the time was still played live by musicians, was a simplified adaptation of concert music.

- One might think musique d’ameublement as a direct precursor to Musak and ambient music. Its real intent, according to Bernardini, was in “breaking the (identification) representational model and function of bourgeois music performance, possibly recovering/discovering other functions for music”.

Cage 4’33” : repointing : the frontal magnetism of the concert stage dissolves into a 360 site of sonic potential, emphasiszing the listener “at the centre of his own experience”.
“Its harmonic texture and its counterpoint are designed to create a circular endless form whose repetition constitutes alwayus a new starting point while being completely expectable. (…) Repetitions are always strictly identical…there are no variations, no extensions, there is no evolution in the strict sense. The message is exasperatingly static, and it does not seek to offer any solution nor escape to its staticity”. (Bernardini)
Satie: Vexations:

Vexations: listening moving in and out of focus: overhearing. Has an “anonymous” quality, but a highly aestheticized anonymity.

- The Musak Corporation (1934 – present) and the customization of social space (see Lanza). (Note the distinction between “foreground tasks” and “background music”)

From Wikipedia: “The company conducted its own psychological research and began customizing the pace and style of the music provided throughout the workday in an effort to maintain productivity (a technique it called “stimulus progression”). It began recommending the music be provided at low, almost subliminal, volume levels and discovered alternating blocks of music with periods of silence increased the effectiveness of the product.” (…)

“The style of music used was deliberately bland so as not to intrude on foreground tasks, and adhered to precise limitations in tempo and dynamics. This style of music blended into the background as intended in most situations, but was sometimes noticeable (particularly in quiet spaces such as elevators). Thus the word “Muzak” began to be used as a synonym for this type of “elevator music”.

The music may be bland but it is still based on songs which have hooks, which hover on the edge of consciousness. Our attention goes in and out, as the recognition of the shards of a familiar tune ebbs and flows.

The music moves you THROUGH a space. (British anti-Musak site)

- John Cage’s unrealized Silent Prayer (1948). The injection of silence / self-reflexivity / self-consciousness in a corporate, controlled environment. (see LaBelle, Background Noise)

- John Cage: “To compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4 1/2 minutes long – those being the standard lengths of “canned” music – and its title will be Silent Prayer”.
- replacing a false articulation of individuality (along models arrived at through psychological studies and focus groups) with the possibility for self-reflection
- locationally sensitive, self-consciously social, acoustically expansive and perceptually aimed (Labelle)

This piece stops you momentarily and turns you inwards.

- Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (1975) is built around self-similar, self-generating musical structures which are continuously varied (at the microlevel), but curiously static at the macrolevel. The perception of stasis, despite subtle underlying variation, creates a paradox which draws the listener in (involution). The absence of any clear, teleological signposts relieves the listener of living through dramatic peaks and valleys of a given song (becoming emotionally “involved”), but rather keeping the listener always on the threshold of boredom, but never quite attaining it.

Reduces the level of involvement even below Musak – almost invisible, but still somehow compelling.

- Music for Airports (1978) extends the generative ideas of Discreet Music into a spatial context, where the music works on a subliminal, but still perceivable level.

- (The curious phenomena of field recordings which capture the background music (Musak) in a given corporate space, restoring it to consciousness (after the fact), while it remains at an unconscious level when perceiving it in real space and time.) Returning elements to their proper balance, post facto.

- (Furniture Music, Ambient Music and Musak as forerunners of sound installation?)

We’ve been moving over the past few examples towards a sense of decreasing presence of sound, barely holding our consciousness

- Max Neuhaus’ Times Square (1992 – present):

I often make a sound which is almost plausible within its context when you first encounter it. The point where a person realizes that it is not plausible is when he jumps into the piece; he’s swimming on his own from then on. (…) You change the scale of how you hear. When you change scale, you start to look at things differently. When you look atpainting your visual scale also changes. The same thing can happen with sound.

Contemplation without awareness of where the focus is.
- Robin Minard’s barely audible alterations of the built environment (Silent Music), which he terms between sound art and acoustic design (which implies different modes of reception / perception).

Returning your senses to an expanded sense of place, no longer about a frontal contemplation with an object to be listened to.

- Somewhat related: Paul DeMarinis’ elaboration of Adorno’s idea of the Hörspielstreifen – the background, surface noise in any given technological reproduction, as the prerequisite for the suspension of disbelief which accompanies the perception of reproductions (in sound recording as much as in film).

- Signal-to-noise.

- (The Musak which imparts a thin coat of sound barely over and above the din of surface noise, conditioning thought, is close to the Hörspielstreifen in film, which conditions the viewer to suspend disbelief, conditions which are essential within cinematic space.

Theodor Adorno noticed the new role that surface noise was taking in the sound cinema as a backdrop for continued attention and suspended disbelief and coined a term for it – Horspielstreifen, or hear-strip, “the delicate buzz during a film of recorded silence whose purpose it is to subliminally confirm the presence of a reproduction underway, thereby establishing the minimum existence of some type of presence.”

- Couroux-Pivato – The Watergating project (2006-) as a means of making the unconscious/heard, momentarily conscious, “listened to”. A response in retrospect to Satie, Silent Prayer and Music for Airports.

See Watergating: multiple manifestations:

And below…

Listening / Overhearing
Moving through / Stopping in
Outwardly directed / Inwardly directed

Marc COUROUX and Juliana PIVATO
The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression in Listening (2007 – )

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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