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Territories of Sound by Jonathan Marshall
Muzak for Concrete Chaos by Laurence Isabelle

Territories of Sound
by Jonathan Marshall

During a recent trip to Europe and America I mused on the sonic experience of travel. A low, white noise buzz permeates the hermetically sealed cabin, a windy physical and sonic tremor which one can cover (but not altogether escape) by judicious use of the head phones. The dialectic between the intermittent tremor of the vehicle and the sonic envelope of listening describes the experience of modern travel. Sound and space are constructed so as to normalise traveling, to the reduce the spatio-temporal shock of movement by wrapping one in a constant, FM acoustic space that represents everywhere and nowhere at once. The airplane is the paradigmatic ‘non-place’ of contemporary experience, a spatial shell devoid of specific character that lies between actual geographic spaces and times. Like the station, the shopping mall, the anonymous hotel room and even the recording studio, the airplane (and the score that accompanies it) is a standardized realm designed according to universalized models of efficiency and flow. Vectors of human, economic and cultural traffic are funneled in and streamed out. The full terrifying vision of space, its expansive illimitability and variation, is collapsed and contained by its mediation through familiar, universalized places like the transit lounge or McDonalds, their anonymity sustained by soothing, familiar muzak. These non-places are defined by their lack of geographic fixity or sonic specificity. They are like Tardises of Dr Who lore, dotting the landscape and enabling us to carry our own space and sense of place with us as we negotiate the potentially unfamiliar. The space of travel is a layered space, of sounds on top of and contained by one another, of different ways of feeling at home hierarchically arranged and stratified. I listen to the headphones and stare distractedly out of the window at gaseous matter, barely aware of the hissy, foamy sound of unseen motors, air circulation and diffuse structural stresses.

The way in which contemporary travel contains spatial complexity and variation has been allied to both utopic and distopian conceptions of global economics. On the one hand, the spatial universalism and lack of fixity of non-places like the super-highway offer a sense of freedom, of the transcendence of spatial, economic and psychological restrictions. This McLuhan-esque vision is expressed such popular works as “Around the World,” by French house group Daft Punk. The cheesy mantra of the title is repeated endlessly as though the global transmission of its radically de-territorialised sounds, devoid of acoustic or cultural specificity, offers a positive end in itself. Sound travels around the world through the non-place of the modern night-club, a far cry from the fiercely territorial, marginal black and gay venues from which disco and house first emerged. Space, video and sound are not however as free as the experience of the WASP consumer or bourgeois backpacker might suggest—“as the many Rodney Kings of the world will tell you,” Samuel Collins points out.

The contemporary experience of travel, the non-place, global capitalism and “Super-Modernist” architecture (the same efficient 7 Eleven blueprint deployed in old Paris or modern Johannesburg) are based on an indifference to spatio-cultural complexity and difference. The construction of the non-place facilitates the ‘free’ exchange of goods—individuals, passengers, culture and capital—across boundaries in ways that benefit some more than others. The ubiquitous use of looped pygmy vocals for example—popularized by World Music group Deep Forest as a strategy for the representation of Rosseau-esque ideals of ‘ancient primitive wisdom’—has had little if any positive consequences for those sampled and disseminated in the realm of ‘free’ musical exchange. In the context of this metaphoric (and sometimes literal) strip-mining of cultural capital from the margins of global power, the re-territorialisation of space, sound and the bodies that move through them takes on political significance. Sound and the architecture of the body act as sites for the dramatization and contestation of global commodity exchange.

The work of French/UK electro trio Battery Operated (Chases Through Non-Place and Vecuum) offers an example of these practices. Their music draws upon the history of music in the workplace, commerce and architectural theory, leading them to describe their acerbic, grating funneling scores as “inverse-muzak.” Unlike the acoustically ‘pure’ sounds of house music (and French house in particular) Battery Operated explore the simulation and deformation of acoustic space. This is not the clean, abstract electro sound of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports or Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, but the mulched, muddied, screaming tones of contemporary electro-acoustics. The only ‘space’ that one imagines to accommodate “Around the World” is that of the anonymous club or the video’s flat images of equally anonymous bodies moving in unison to the global beat. The extruded noises of Battery Operated though create a complex virtual geography defined by linkages across realms, and squashed bleed-throughs from one acoustic space to the next, of environments varying from the oppressively dense, shattering overload of the distopian city, to abstract yet disquieting non-places characterized by dispersed, uneven muzak.

Battery Operated deploy the metaphor of “the chase” to describe these spatio-sonic deformations. The intermittent drum’n’bass beat establishes a musical pattern which metaphorically charges and stumbles through the score, pursued and opposed by other sonic textures but never fully arrested by them. This is not the idealized vision of travel as facilitated by the non-place, but rather a representation of the sonic violence that such a conception entails. For space to collapse into the familiarity of the universalized non-place, other sounds must be hammered out of one’s consciousness. The listener must succumb to the desire of the muzak programmer and fail to notice the variations and localized characteristics of the realms one moves through. Battery Operated encourage the listener to cease to simply be seduced or distracted, and to listen carefully for the patois of the supermarket patrons or the sounds of an ocean storm upon the roof—to ‘say no to muzak’ as the dominant sonic presence within social, spatial and acoustic environments.

Battery Operated’s net site (www.batteryoperated.net) provides a critical gloss on these sonic interventions in global transit and how this translates to musical tropes like the intermittent beat. The oppositional qualities of the rather different aesthetics of drum’n’bass, hip-hop and Afro-American music are invoked in this context to justify a political reading of the otherwise chaotic sounds produced by Battery Operated. While this has a certain merit for those who catch the references, it fails to account for the most striking aspect of Battery Operated’s strategies—namely the deployment of noise.

The manipulation and invocation of musicological history and its elements makes up the language of music. Sound on the other hand is pre-linguistic. Isolated sonic events devoid of context, place or musical order have no inherent meaning in and of themselves. Noise therefore has the potential to act as a pre-linguistic babble, an amorphous onomatopoeic jumble similar to the speech of babies. When realized through a powerful sound system such as Battery Operated used in Melbourne, this has the potential to disrupt not only the global implications of muzak, but musical logic itself, generating a sonic assault so strong as constitute raw anti-meaning. Only such a radical challenge to sono-musical structures can come close to hinting at the immeasurable variation of space, time, geography and culture that travel negotiates. It is not therefore at the level of music that Battery Operated most forcefully contest the ideal of the non-place, but rather at that of sound itself.

The aim of muzak is to marginalise noise, the uncontrolled, that which has the potential to divert the individual from such acts as shopping in the mall, work in the office, or indifference in the train carriage. To return noise to the act of social movement and travel is to break down the walls of the non-place and let the full, illimitable potential of cultural difference, space and politics into one’s consciousness. Once one has become aware of the hiss in the headphones, the idealized acoustics of FM transmission can no longer hide the other sounds and sensations emanating from both inside and outside of the aircraft. To take off one’s headphones and listen to the jet-stream takes on a political content here, announcing the individual’s refusal to go with the disinterested flow which is facilitated by the non-place and the vectors it houses.

If a refusal to ‘go with the flow’ of global economics and its sonic manifestations constitutes an act of resistance, then theatre company Not Yet It’s Difficult offers a somatic version of these strategies. NYID work with the forms of space sustained and endured by the body. Director David Pledger’s physical explorations may be thought of as an ‘acoustics of the body.’ Just as sounds bounce off hard surfaces or are deflected by softer ones, causing noises to inhabit each space in a characteristic way, so the sensorium of the body is affected by the materials about it. It is no accident that Pledger has been using the scores of Japanese minimalist Ryoji Ikeda for recent performances. The rhythms of the body are highlighted, its contingent features and responses are dramatized and manipulated.

Pledger too uses the metaphor of the chase to explore the potentially oppressive effects of social and cultural space. NYID’s most recent work Scenes From the Beginning of the End began with the choreographed flight of the performers from the startling, red emptiness of the desert environment near Lake Eyre projected behind them, into another apparently uniform space—the ‘cultural desert’ of Australian suburbia. In the literal desert a certain abstract poetry possessed the body, a potential openness which was nevertheless threatening for these urban subjects (black or otherwise). As they charged down the road however an even more disturbing threat became manifest, the hyper-mobility of urban spaces and highways, an excess of roads, signposts, vehicles and urgency. The bodies quaked and gestured in response. Little wonder then that so many Australians come to rest in the suburbs, a region characterized by a quiescence and seeming sameness which enables one to escape both the threat of empty space and the overabundance of urban space. Though the suburb does not promote flow or movement in a significant fashion, perhaps its appeal lies in it being the ultimate non-space of contemporary Australian experience.

- Jonathan Marshall

Net sites:
http://www.batteryoperated.net
http://www.nyid.net
http://www.cocosolidciti.com
http://radiantslab.com/stichting_mixer/index.html


Jonathan Marshall is an M.A. graduate and Ph.D. candidate of the University of Melbourne working on the dramaturgy of late 19th century French psychiatry. His writings on performance, dance, theatre, circus, new music, the avant-garde and cult film have been published in RealTime, Antithesis, IN Press, The Big Issue and The Age.

ADDENDUM:

September 11 witnessed a brutal caesura in the non-place of contemporary aero-travel and Western capitalism. The sonically standardised models offered by the non-place and traditional muzak were however quickly marshalled to fill the void. The World Trade Centre attack has been endlessly rehearsed and discussed as an event without precedent, as though multilingual murmurs and screams have not been incessantly emerging from American cities, the Middle East and elsewhere. The Bush administration has attempted to cover this gap in public historical consciousness, this interruption in the flow of capital, sound and lives, with national anthems and allegedly unanimous, orchestrated soundings of support for the state-sponsored terrorism proposed as a just response to the crime. Sonic strategies have ranged from Congressional applause to pop music benefits, or disturbingly uniform reportage endlessly repeating the same dialogue. Images of the towers, shot from every angle, have been widely distributed and transformed into a newly standardised iconography of 21st century Western tragedy. Yet few of the original recordings were accompanied by sounds. Where sound was included, it was that of the spectator reacting—not that of the event itself. Despite governments and commentators attempting to provide a soundtrack to this disaster, the attack continues to lie at the boundary of human comprehension precisely because no sound can match it (TV news’ saccharine string scores notwithstanding). Here at least the sonic non-place has yet to become established and we have space to reflect and mourn. Perhaps it is time to listen to the clash of languages emanating from regions such as Palestine, rather than forcing these voices back to the sono-political margins by blithely returning the headphones to our ears.



Muzak for Concrete Chaos
by Laurence Isabelle

One of the highlingts of the Hobart Fringe Festival in Tasmania,(Australia) in February-march this year, along with Greg Kingston’s guitar act, was the experimental electronic sound performance given by the sound duo who call themselves Battery Operated.

It was at the Working Men’s Club, in the upstairs area transformed to host the surround sound performance, that the artists had installed their equipment on one of the cafe’s tables in the centre of the room, as opposed to being elevated on a stage. Immersed in amongst the audience they transmitted their electronic sounds to the 4 speakers on the corners of the room and the audience, seated at small tables around them, could experience the movements of the sounds as they reverberated and explored the dynamics of the space. The artists known as Battery Operated have composed, a 45-minute sonic tale divided into 8 Chases through Non-Place. Each of them being designed for, and using the sounds of specific spaces they define as ‘non-places’. The artists describes non-places as being ‘spaces that cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity.’ Non-places such as airports, hotel chains, convenient stores, train stations and communication networks are a measure of our time and they expound concretely upon the tendency towards globalisation. These supermodern and very coded architectures that anthropologists also call areas of ‘cultural contract’ are spreading rapidly across the planet and buildings such as Seven - Eleven, McDonald’s and other shopping malls are ‘ virtually a virus made concrete’ as the sound duo put it. Their designers do not consider the socio-political, racial or sexual grounding of the urban context they will be part of.
Architects such as Greg Lynn take the movement of people through and around the buildings as bases for their design. Ironically, the experience of the traveller as they pass through these spaces, en route to elsewhere, is reduced to signs, billboards and other textually mediated substitutes rather than of actual places.

As these buildings are the symbols of a movement within global culture that negates contextualisation, Battery Operated recorded the ambient sounds at the Melbourne airport, the casino and the supermarket. Using found sounds they have composed 8 sonic narratives that reference and are critical of the muzak which usually emits within these types of buildings.
Soundtracks for chase sequences were constructed for each architecture, using the location recordings. The chase, being by nature unplanned and chaotic transgresses the repetitively coded contracts usually enacted in those buildings.

Effectively, each track is composed following a structure that incorporates sonic elements themselves linked to a wide range of origins in the culture of sound and music. The end results are a mixture of processed and non-processed sounds. The processed sounds, representing the non-place architectures is a ‘fucked up version of muzak’ as the duo names it. Layed upon it is the unprocessed and more percussive, semi chaotic sounds that act as a metaphor for the chase: the beats.

The sound artists affirmed that their inspiration was mainly Music Concrete, Muzak and also Hip-Hop culture.The techniques they use: recording on location using a DAT machine, then processing these sounds and creating loops. This way of creating soundtracks is partly derived from Pierre Schaefers experimentations with Music Concrete. At the end of the 1940’s Sheaffer proposed a way to rethink the traditional musical notation system and to redefine what could be considered as music as opposed to sound and noise. One could not use the same pitch, time, volume and tonal system whilst the envelope, density and space movement had to be added to the description of sound.

Thus what is the most interesting part of a live performance by Battery Operated is not so much the structure of the pieces, (the composition is done previously using digital editing tools) but rather the way in which the sound occupies the space when elements of it pan from a speaker to another when the artists twist and turn the nobs on the desks in front of them. Consequently the notion of live music performance is transformed as the course of the chase is sonically pursued. The fleshy and smoothly toned ‘inverse’ Muzak produced by Battery operated, is more stable and unflagging delineating the architecture of the non-place. Meanwhile the jumbled and jagged percussive tones derived from Break Beats and Drum’n Base culture effectively pursue one another throughout the space, between the tables.

The way in which Rap culture, and later Drum’n Base culture challenged notions of urban space in the inner cities with ‘Tagging’ and ‘Graffiti’ often done on forms of public transport render them more than relevant forms of music to use in a sonic composition that questions transient urban space. These activities emphasise the individuals right to express their identity in an urban space which otherwise refuses to acknowledge their presence.

The status of the beats in Battery Operated’s composition signifying the chases while the buildings that stage them are sonicaly depicted by a strange version of Muzak or ‘elevator music’ synonymous of mass culture and consumerism is also a pertinent play. The juxtaposition of the once subversive Hip Hop beats and Muzak, (which was originally used as an industrial efficiency control tool (Taylorism) and later in shops and hotels), within a sound piece is crucial to the duo.

Take this and then mix it with the production and theories inspired by the techniques of Music Concrete which also questioned attitudes towards composition (but within a totally different demographic group), and you have a potent work which moves every time you try and pin it down. The ethereal echoing sounds that constitute the ‘inverse’ Muzak when layed against those uneven and frantic but often soft beats render some rather relaxing, almost hypnotic sound scapes to immerse oneself into. The two contrasting elements complement and bounce off each other to constitute strangely harmoniously balanced pieces. On one hand the beats that tie those sound scapes back to Hip Hop culture seem to have lost the harshness they often conveyed when part of that once controversial genre. They have taken on a more cartoon like quality that makes them almost affectionate and humorous.

On the other hand however, the ‘inverse’ Muzak takes a functional formula of sonic production and turns it on its head, As Muzak was and still is used to sooth and lull shoppers into a false sense of economy (thus they have more money to spend on credit than they really do) Battery Operated take it and make it disruptive and unruly.

This deconstructs the formula of Muzak (a term coined by a military General - George Squier by mixing the words music and Kodak) which was once used as a tool to sooth the mood of workers and invigorate consumers. Muzak was made and programmed for business environments to reduce stress, combat fatigue and enhance sales. All this originally done with the War effort of the Second World War in mind. Muzak was to the surprise of many a product of the military industrial complex and remains a well-researched and used management tool.
The sounds produced by Battery operated which they themselves call ‘Inverse Muzak’ (a reworking and deconstruction of the formulas strategically laid down in the 1940’s) means that the tracks take on more of a nightmarish rather than reassuring or invigorating air. Hence one could easily imagine some of the sonic works as theme tunes for dystopian cities in a science fiction set of the late Twenty First Century.

In the post-Y2K anticlimactic climate we are currently experiencing, the transient nature of architecture is of interest as much as the contingent mobility of the chase. There is never clearly an end result to those chases and they seem an appropriate antithesis to the mass panic and cultural anxiety that occurred in response to the Millennium Bug: a metaphor for collective apocalyptic fears. Those non-linear abstract narrations seem to unfold continuously through diverse layers of time rather that culminating on one precise end point.
The chaotic sound tracks act as questioning tools, which urge an audience to reflect on the spaces they live in, and through. Rather than actively enhancing the individuals productivity or passivity, Battery Operated breed a mix of psychologies which propose collision, contingency and miscommunication as viable modes of behaviour. A proposal which holds some credence as cities increasingly develop and rely on surveillance mechanisms and the mandatory codes of behaviour within the transit temples of society.

Effectively these sound works demonstrate a clever incorporation of several different cultural signifiers in the genres of Music concrete, Muzak, and Hip-Hop culture. The social and critical structures of the compositions lending themselves to critical analysis along the lines of what is more traditionally written about in Installations and visual artwork.


Laurence Isabelle is a writer and multimedia artist working in Canada and Australia.


 
 
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