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In Memory of Muzak

By Logan K. Young l.young@classicalite.com on May 28, 2013 02:50 PM EDT

Just because we don't talk about her much anymore, that doesn't mean she ever went away. If anything, our love affair with Muzak now need be stronger than ever before. To be fair, Muzak--with a capital "M"--might have gone the way of Marconi, himself. Video vanquished radio eons ago in Internet time, and as tit always begets tat, the Net's more or less killed the video tsar dead. The war the House of McLuhan started never was a particularly frigid one, though. Media's temperament, vigorously opposed to any kind of temperance, has always flared white hot. In a hundred years time, the apparent glasnost championed by the World Wide Web's open-table administration will have surrendered to one thousand more despots--each one less enlightened, more draconian than the last. Singularity's Ray Kurzweil has long proven that the exponential growth of Moore's Law is a real, mathematical constant endemic to media, as well. Moreover, since takeovers are inherently hostile coups, we can't exactly arm a militia to stand up to a medium we can't even fathom coming. If only we had a protest song.

Right now, such post-apocalyptic dread might seem a tad quackish, if not altogether alarmist. But take a look around; we're awful close as it is. From insulin pumps to robotic limbs to the chips embedded in Parkinson's patients, a nascent Singularity--namely, that man and machine will be indistinguishable no later than 2045--has arrived ahead of schedule. With IBM's Watson having bested both Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy!, this gauchely bipartisan Mr. Smith came to Washington last year and quickly deposed a caucus that included former Rhodes Scholar Jim Himes (D-CT) and trained nuclear physicist Rush Holt (D-NJ). For the body politic at least, hearing Muzak's death knell as civilization's own swan song should help impart some peace of mind. Despite how illusory these rose-tinted thoughts may be, in light of the menschen-machines that will eventually stop us in our tracks, everyone deserves one last dance. Gather those rosebuds while ye may, because at the rate we're going, Muzak is only the latest casualty in John Henry's ongoing war with the steam hammer.

Given our technologically bustling, but aesthetically aloof world, Muzak transmits music the way the 21st century is wont to receive it. Rightfully so, Thomas More's 1516 Utopia envisioned an isle where "no supper goes by without music." To wit, the possibility of a large-scale, electronic network broadcasting an intoxicating blend of light instrumental favorites has, in a way, always seemed plausible. She just took her time being born. Of course, Muzak has since become so much more than that. And yet, Google (i.e. Skynet?) she's not. Like so many of the 90 million listeners she sang to every day at her peak, on February 10, 2009, Muzak Holdings LLC filed for Chapter 11.

Blame the Industrial Revolution, then. It wasn't televised, but out of the combustion engine's tumult and the drone of the generator, a fledgling Muzak first emerged. The term 'elevator music' comes from the gentle, reassuring strains that mid-wifed the birth of the electrical elevator in 1887. Since most Victorians saw these buoyant death boxes devoid of all equilibrium, a tranquil, comforting music was necessary to lure the squeamish aboard. Fast forward a few years to Brigadier George Owen Squier's forays into multiplexed radio units, and the advent of the one, true Muzak looms nigh.

Synthesizing the work of Edison, Bell, Marconi and brother Orville Wright, Gen. Squire soon perfected his wired transmissions. In a portmanteau à la Lewis Carroll, or a cut-up c/o Brion Gysin, Squier rearranged the words music and Kodak to christen his new creation: "Muzak." And lo, indeed, what hath He wrought! As we kickoff the summer of 2013--three years late to making contact, if we're to believe a guy like Peter Hyams---Muzak exists as thee aesthetically superior form of music, herself. In our routinely hastened, detached and cyborg-laden epoch, this moodsong is a broadcast befitting the twilight years of humanity, itself.

Evidence of a perpetual soundtrack to accompany the rigors of life can be found as far back as antiquity. In Greek mythology, Orpheus played his lyre to inspire Jason and the Argonauts on their oceanic quest for the Golden Fleece. When the Siren chorus threatened to lead Jason and crew into aquatic peril, the strings of Orpheus drowned out their wayward song. In Homer, Odysseus, too, was forced to endure the same refrains. Dion's original "Wanderer" ordered his men to shove in their ear-plugs, strap him to the mast and let him play whipping boy as their ship sailed past the Hellenic lair of Flo, Marie, Janie and Rose. Meanwhile, not unlike Mantovani or 101 Strings, Hermes honored the mighty Zeus' request to charm the 100-eyed Argus with a reed flute lullaby. And lest we forget, the sounds of Amphion rendered the very walls of Thebes asunder centuries prior to Joshua and Jericho, not to mention Danny Kaye's spirited rendition of their battle in A Song Is Born.

Perhaps most significantly, however, the Greeks pioneered the construction of one of ambient music's first devices--the Aeolian harp. The Aeolian harp was a self-generating instrument that consisted of a rectangular frame across which a variable number of strings were stretched. Apropos, the strings were tuned to the same fundamental. The harp was then placed in an area where Aeolus, the God of Wind, would play it; any breeze would excite the strings to produce a soft, celestial hum. As the intensity increased, harmonic resonance would then be drawn from the base pitch to sound a distant, ghostly tone. Timbre and texture were thus at the whim of the wind. Later, the ecclesiastical lexicon would denote the term "aeolian mode" as the intervallic pattern of the natural minor scale. Later still, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge made reference to the instrument's "long sequacious notes" and "floating witchery of sound" in his titular poem, "The Aeolian Harp."

By the 17th century, background music had become a staple of the European aristocracy's secular confines. Furthermore, in reality, many of the classical canon's most revered works today initially served as little more than aural wallpaper. Handel's perpetually popular Water Music Suite of 1715 was written for one of King George III's grand fêtes on the River Thames. On the other hand, J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations were commissioned by Count Kaiserling, a former Russian ambassador living in Dresden, for a more pragmatic purpose. In 1742, Kaiserling sent his court musician, Johann Theophilus Goldberg, to visit Old Bach in hopes that his faithful servant would learn some klavier pieces that would cure his employer's insomnia. Back in the conurbation of Dresden, a fatigued Goldberg was forced to play Bach's thorny mixture of canon and fugue while Kaiserling counted sheep in an adjoining room. One has to wonder what Goldberg and Bach, would make of something like Seals & Crofts emanating from a tiny black box on their nightstand.

Having lived in the time of legitimate Muzak, the American composer, conductor and teacher Aaron Copland describes a musically faithful Nicaea thusly: 1. composer, 2. performer, 3. listener. If music is not heard at least as well, qualitatively, as it's been written or executed, then the travails of the composer and the performer have both been for naught. Copland's assertion is valid, though, only for that music which truly endeavors to be heard. Music must be heard to be deemed "music" at all. Forget the proverbial falling-tree-in-a-lonely-forest tautology. Indeed, that which is not heard is, in fact, not music. Period. Nonetheless, Muzak--in all her various guises--challenges this phenomenological notion because she innately displaces one's attention from music made manifest to her more surreal, inert capacities. This type of music summons a kind of peripheral, almost para-sensory listening by subtly shifting the sonic focus from figure to ground. Muzak, piped in everywhere from the Federal Reserve to your local credit union, is certainly heard in the textbook, Husserlian sense. At the risk of reducing the entire field of psychoacoustics down to a simple circuit, essentially, an electrical impulse triggers the brain's temporal lobe to court that spark as sound--voila, cognition has occurred.

Nevertheless, Muzak is not heard in the terms of Copland's Trinity. Nor should she be. The intrinsic value of Muzak, elevator music and other moodsong is precisely that they do not seek attention. And while that's a rather foreign conceit in our celebrity-obsessed, micro-blogging society, is doesn't make her benefits any less real or important. Muzak provides a 'silent partner' while eating alone at McDonald's. Elevator music makes being put on hold that much more bearable. It's a Platonic ideal of the Teutons' Gebrauchsmusik ("utility music") of which Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith--two of Western art music's biggest utilitarians--could have only dreamt. And it's pretty much what that anti-Germanic composer Erik Satie longed for throughout his own long, eccentric life. Ultimately, here on Memorial Day 2013, we are never without music, per se. Silence is overrated, and as John Cage noted in Harvard's anechoic chamber, impossible to attain. Until the machines take us, we'll always have the vibrations of the blood that courses through our tell-tale hearts.

And still, such moodsong is not bereft of detractors. Aside from the Luddites and the philistine, to this day, the American Symphony Orchestra League demands that hotel proprietors censor this banal rubbish from their elevators during its annual meeting. And since conception, the American Federation of Musicians has consistently decried that Muzak deprives working musicians of potential gigs, if not a livelihood in total. True, while she may unfortunately rob the performing stiff of a venue or two, what value remains--artistically--in a place that's already dispensed with live music? Lost wages are a different argument entirely, but the same could be said of the assembly line by erstwhile factory workers. Obviously, music itself is no longer a commodity, and we've been suffering this kind of woe well before Henry Ford ever turned crank. Alas, such is modernity. As Western pop music's best utilitarian, Brian Eno, would no doubt attest, progress is a forward march where even the snare drummer sees battle. Once you go canned, inasmuch as Muzak can be considered hermetic, there's no going back.

But there's always a would-be hero. Motor City Redman, biltong enthusiast and confirmed straight-edger "Uncle" Ted Nugent despised Muzak so darn much that in 1989, he tried to buy the company outright for ten million dollars--"a dollar for every song they've ever ruined." Once interred as chairman, his plan was to terminate the board, liquidate its assets, and bury Muzak's entire catalog one, easy listen at a time. Declining such a paltry offer, Muzak's top shareholders instead sent The Nuge an AOR version of his lymphoreticulosis anthem, "Cat Scratch Fever." Again, one must wonder if Nugent will be singing the same tune come 2045.

As it turns out, Muzak Holdings probably should have taken Uncle Ted's offer. In the years hence, the suits upstairs have tried to implement an elaborate slash-and-burn restructuring, but honestly, it doesn't sound good. And in true capitalist fashion, a failed merger with the competition only made a dire situation that much worse. $436 million in debt, ironically enough, the company now sought the very kind of protection its forebears so earnestly provided for those first elevator riders. After millennia of dancing with the ones who brought her, it would seem that Muzak's gigue is finally up. The increasing ubiquity of those little white earbuds had long since sealed her fate. In short, the iDamage was iDone. Oblivious to his impending demise, global man is now curating his own, much more autistic, moodsong. He does so at his own peril. In the end, should life as we know it get snuffed out before Kurzweil's kill date, one thing will be certain: Humanity will not go down quietly. As long as there's some kind of Muzak in the air, we simply couldn't--no, not even if we tried. So, to update that old Sondheim tune, send in the Cylons. If only for a little while longer, we know just the right song.

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TagsIn Memoriam, Muzak, Memorial Day, Fran Lebowitz, Frank Sinatra

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