NMSAT :: Networked Music & SoundArt Timeline

1933 __ Muzak’s beginning
Comment : According to Muzak's website, in 1933 they "began transmitting music over phone lines. Central studios played records - the first 33 1/3 rpm records and the first ever done on vinylite rather than shellac." So it sounds like they were probably using RCA Victor's long playing "Program Transcription" discs. "As International Style modern architecture spread in the postwar era, Muzak spread with it. Muzak punctuated activity on the floors of the Johnson Wax Company building, Lever House, the Seagram building, the Chase Manhattan bank building, the Pan Am building, the Sears Tower, the Apollo XI command module and countless other modernist structures. Muzak is the hidden element in every Ezra Stoller photograph of a modernist office interior. By 1950, some 50 million people heard Muzak every year. Muzak made modernism palatable sonically. The new, hermetically sealed office buildings that the glass curtain wall and postwar air conditioning system permitted were capable of blocking out distracting sounds from outside, but without these sounds, two new conditions emerged. In some areas, office machines, building control systems, and fellow employees became more distracting while in others, you simply had too much quiet making the artificial lack of environmental sound uncomfortably noticeable. Broadcasting Muzak ensured a superior, controlled background condition. Muzak’s slogan during this period was “Muzak fills the deadly silences.” But Muzak isn’t just invisible to the eyes, in the company’s own words, Muzak “is meant to be heard, but not listened to.” Aimed at a subliminal level, the immaterial gestures of the Stimulus Progression were neither ornamental nor representational, but rather physiological. Whereas in the 1930s Muzak was essentially the same as popular music and radio, by the 1940s it had gone its own way, creating a different level of attention and its own medium. Muzak had pioneered the use of long playing 33 1/3 rpm records in order to create more seamless soundscapes for its functional music. Theodor W. Adorno may well have outlined the program for postwar Muzak in his 1938 “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” when he stated that since contemporary music is “perceived purely as background,” it no longer has anything to do with taste: “To like it is almost the same as to recognize it.” In a world of completely identical choices, recognition itself has become impossible. Preference, Adorno suggests, “depends merely on biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard.” Adorno contends that active listening is at odds with contemporary music as it would reveal the banality of its arrangement. Instead, of attention, Adorno suggests, contemporary music is based on mindless repetition of certain material and performers. Like air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting, Muzak originally emerged as an acclimatization technology for the extreme environment of the skyscraper but it soon undid its host structure. Muzak made vast, horizontal interior spaces, previously usable only for warehouses, habitable by covering up the noise that would build up in large floorplates. The lower costs of building these new, flat structures in less expensive suburban locations and the growing efficiency of the same data communication technologies that Muzak itself employed, soon made tall buildings obsolete. During the 1960s, Muzak began to shift its attention, calling itself “environmental,” thereby acting as a sensory stimulant that added coloration to a space. Muzak now faces individuals with a changed sensorium. The constant flow of changes across society has made us less responsive to any particular change. Over time, our sensorium has grown more able to tolerate the shock of the new. Always ahead of the curve, Muzak abandoned the “Stimulus Progression” in favor of “Audio Architecture” in the 1980s. At this point, the amount of stimulation received in the daily environment far exceeded any ability of the engineers at Muzak to modulate such forces. Overstimulated, individuals can no longer be affected by increases in data alone. In response, today Muzak’s programmers don’t style themselves as engineers or scientists. Instead they harness this excess of data to become “Audio Architects,” a term that indicates that they construct environments, and that Muzak is as much art as science. The sensorial overload of contemporary culture means that even original songs are no longer distracting. Today most of Muzak’s channels broadcast originals, not reorchestrated versions. The result is that Muzak’s audio programming has become even more invisible: if the music is audible, its source is no longer discernible. For the post-Fordist marketplace, Muzak addresses its audience’s emotions, creating moods rather than seeking to manipulate attention. Muzak employs the technique of “Atmospherics” to create a distinct ambient audio environment for a particular retail environment. Through a careful choice of music, together with appropriate selections of colors, furniture, and accessories, a store can conjure the image of an entire lifestyle. Inside a store, Muzak’s cozy, ordered atmospherics offer a contrast to the chaos outside and stimulate the consumer’s desire to purchase. Disoriented by noise, the proliferation of signs, and the emptiness and hustle that occurs within the vastness of either the mall or the contemporary city, the individual enters a store seeking solace and emotional comfort within a clearly ordered set of goods and experiences. Atmospherics also solve an earlier problem that Muzak faced in stores and restaurants. Directed at transient occupants of a space, the old public area Muzak channel had a shorter programming cycle, thereby irritating workers who had to be in the space for the entire day and felt relentlessly sped up. In contrast, Atmospherics aim at a culture that unites workers and shoppers in a total community. Within the workplace, Muzak not only helps stimulate employees so that they produce more, Atmospherics form a corporate culture that supports group hegemony and shared cultural references among radically different individuals. With Muzak, the ultimate product of the retail or corporate space becomes consumers and workers themselves.". (Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis, "Blue Monday", Muzak Fills the Deadly Silences)Architecture Urban Design Collaborative - AUDC).The Canadian composer and writer R. Murray Schafer has questioned the validity of Muzak's claim to 'mask' less desirable sounds such as factory machines or supermarket clatter. He has satirized the famous brand-name, calling it 'Moo-zak' and has described the product, in its growing ubiquity, as an invasion of privacy and a denial of freedom of choice. He also sees in Muzak the seed of a general dulling of aesthetic sensitivity, whereby the inescapable exposure to its quasi-music could make unwary ears gradually less and less receptive to the conscious listening experiences not only of true art- and entertainment-music but also of the natural environment. (John Beckwith, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)
Source : Sumrell, Robert & Varnelis, Kazys (2007), "Blue Monday — Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies", Actar, 2007.
Source : Vanel, Hervé (2008), “John Cage's Muzak-Plus: The Fu(rni)ture of Music”, In Representations, Number Spring 2008, N° 102, University of California Press, Pages 94–128.
Source : Lanza, Joseph (1994), “Elevator Music : A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening and other Moodsong”, New York: Picador.
Urls : http://www.audc.org/blue-monday/ethics/muzak-fills-deadly-silences (last visited ) http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=U1ARTU0002525 (last visited )

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