"But is it MUZAK????"

Ambient Music - from Satie through Cage to Eno

with a digression concerning "The Regression in Listening" by Adorno.

by: Bobby DeVito



Muzak is one of the most insidious parts of our modern-day culture. The quintessential Heavy Metal guitarist Ted Nugent (without much doubt the antithesis of the sedate style of Muzak composition) once made a bid in 1989 of ten million dollars to buy the company simply so he could erase the tapes. The company responded by making a very light version of one of Nugent's biggest hits, "Cat Scratch Fever," just to infuriate him. Why is it that musicians as well as music listeners often dislike Muzak so vehemently? While many people may think that Muzak is a harmless way of helping people to pass time and avoid silence as well as boredom, This form of music is also a powerful tool for manipulating human emotions and behavior. In 1979 alone, according to the essay "Facing the Muzak"by Bruce MacLeod, more than 100 million people were exposed to Muzak daily in over 25 countries throughout the world. Also, only seven out of 150 of the largest corporations in America during that time were not customers of the Muzak background music system (italics mine). By 1992, the Muzak Corporation had branched out and started its own satellite music transmission system, as well as its own video channel called "ZTV." This "muzak music" has permeated modern culture quite thoroughly in many public spaces as well as within the consciousness of music listeners, and it behooves the attentive music listener to understand Muzak more fully, and to be aware of the effects that it has upon listeners. Also, it is quite important to understand this modern phenomenon to distinguish the differences between Muzak and the style of ambient music.

Almost all of the music that originates from the Muzak corporation is recorded especially by the company for use in working environments. This music is usually recorded with some of the best studio musicians in New York. This may seem contradictory to the blandness and banality of the arrangements, but this is entirely the intended effect of the music. Over and over again programmed music sales literature stresses that their music is to be heard, not listened to. This music is supposed to affect listeners in a subconscious fashion, attempting to evade the usual listening practices of evaluation and attention. There is no intended entertainment value; in fact, if a customer actually writes to Muzak with the intention of informing them how much they may have enjoyed a particular arrangement, that specific recording will rapidly be re-recorded in an even less attention-grabbing manner, so that most of the potential for interest in the music performance and composition is removed. Ambient music, in contrast to Muzak's reception and compositional strategies, is not meant to merely regularize or make safe (silence-free) an environment, nor is the intent to just provide an aural soundtrack by which consumers can shop without anxiety. Eno has stated his position concerning this distinction:

"I like it (ambient music) as an ambiguous term. It gives me a certain latitude. It has two major meanings. One is the idea of music that allows you any listening position in relation to it. This has been widely misinterpreted by the press (in their infinite unsubtlety) as background music. I mean music that can be backg- round or foreground or anywhere, which is a rather different idea. Most music chooses its own position in terms of your listening to it. Muzak wants to be back there. Punk wants to be up front. Classical wants to be another place. I wanted to make something you could slip in and out of. Ambient music allows many different types of attention."

Also, ambient music is not recorded by studio musicians in a derivative, banal manner like most Muzak. Ambient music is usually recorded and composed by the composers with a completely different intent both compositionally and in receptional intent than Muzak, and furthermore, ambient music doesn't have to conform to the rigid musical rules and structures that the Muzak corporation forces upon their recording staff and musicians. Muzak is recorded in a very formulaic and unoriginal fashion, where ambient composers have a much greater range of choice available.

A main selling point for background Muzak in the retail world is the use of this music as a sales tool. 3M markets its background music by asserting "Music helps make people happy and more contented, while it helps you make more money." MacLeod makes the cogent point in his essay that any music not consciously listened to becomes background music. This raises one of the most interesting points yet to be considered about the distracted, or background use of music. If we as listeners use music as a background to other activities, surely this reveals deeper assumptions about the place of music and its value in our lives. "It does not seem to be the programmed music which is at the heart of the matter. It is, rather, our society's values, which allow that music of any kind need only be heard, not listened to. " Even the Muzak Corporation understands this fear of silence that we seem to have as human beings, as it is revealed by their old slogan "Music fills the deadly silences." MacLeod even goes as far to compare this fear of silence with our twentieth century drug-oriented culture. Background music is seen as a mask for undesirable stimuli by providing one continuous, reliable stimulus to our environment. Many people use the television in much the same way, by turning shows on while simultaneously not paying conscious, focused attention to the show. The mere sound of the television calms many people during times when their domestic space is silent. It does seem that we have a need to "mask reality" in many ways, and this honestly does not seem that far away from the alcoholic who must mask reality in his or her own way, or the heroin addict who must do the same. It is society's own passivity which is found at the end of this chain of reasoning. Ambient music may indeed fall prey to this fault that MacLeod has indicated with the use of Muzak, or indeed any music used as background music. It is true that many music listeners use music as aural wallpaper, sound that keeps the silence in the environment from becoming too predominant. However, the intent of ambient music composers, such as Eno, is quite different than that of the Muzak Corporation. And, as Eno has stated earlier, he wanted his compositions to allow listeners to find their own methods for listening, their own modes of reception for his ambient music. Muzak, in contrast, basically imposes itself upon the listener in the way that it has been manufactured to do.

Eno intends his listener to approach listening to his compositions as he or she would to common popular music. Instead, the listener is invited not to focus closely upon the music, but to play it at soft volume levels so that it gives the room or art installation a subtle feel that the space wouldn't otherwise have. To quote Eno again from his liner notes from Music for Airports:

"Ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. It must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is listenable. Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, ambient music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produ- ced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, ambient music retains these qualities".

There are several main compositional and perceptual differences between Muzak and the ambient music style. The compositional intent, the recording style, and the intended effect are three important distinctions to be made between the two. Perhaps one of the most important distinctions to be investigated about the ambient music style would be the difference between focused and distracted listening, and this subject was brought up many years ago by a philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School of philosophy--Theodor W. Adorno. It is a testament to Adorno's scholarship and insight that his essay, "On The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening," written in 1938, raises issues that are still quite relevant to music production and reception in 1996. Ambient music violates many of Adorno's precepts, but the style of ambient composition does have its own concepts and reasons to exist as a viable, respected art form, despite Adorno's criticisms.

There are several main points made by Adorno that concern this essay on the ambient style; one of the most important would be that we, as individuals and music listeners in our capitalist, commodity-driven economic system, are discouraged from listening to music in a structural fashion, and furthermore that we have lost the freedom of real choice when it comes to what we listen to. While some music scholars might attack this essay due to Adorno's Marxist orientation, the essay on its own stands apart from a merely Marxist critique, and any critical orientation such as that is likely to completely overlook the points that Adorno wishes to make. The essay is powerful both in its remarkable delineation of the growth of the culture industry, as well as the decline in aesthetic response of the individual within a capitalistic society.

An important concept raised by Adorno in this essay is the trend he terms "the regression of listening." He claims that we as listeners and consumers have lost our freedom of choice and responsibility, as well as the capacity for conscious perception of music. Adorno states:

"The delight in the moment and the gay facade becomes an excuse for absolving the listener from the thought of the whole (piece of music), whose claim is compromised in proper listening. The listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser."

Adorno also claims that "Regressive listeners behave like children. Again and again and with stubborn malice they demand the one dish they have once been served." Adorno goes even further and asserts that we have become "forcibly retarded". This retardation is connected to the machinery of the music business, distribution and advertising in Adorno's essay, and he states "Regressive listening is tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly by advertising." In this way all music is passed through a narrow channel, and a great deal of it ends up as nothing more than a corporate trademark. The reliance upon the "hook" in a song is tied directly to advertising; (imagine if Adorno could see what is happening now with endorsements, and songwriters writing songs directly for commercials, or an even worse case, where older songs are appropriated and used for advertising. Many children know little about "classical" music except what they have been exposed to through the Saturday morning cartoons). This regression of listening is a serious issue, and Adorno was critiquing both composition as well as reception with this concept. He saw distracted listening as being largely a passive activity, and that passivity could have, in his view, led to even greater passivity in the masses, and to a possible fascist society as a whole. And, as a Jew who survived World War II, Adorno was no stranger to the dangers of wide-scale passivity of the masses, and vehemently attempted to avoid the recreation of this state by his works on the sociology of music. Passive acceptance of art would lead to the passive acceptance of politics as well in Adorno's view, and this was to be avoided at all costs. Music for Adorno should foster active, structural listening practice with a critical ear.

Adorno raises another important concept within his essay which is relevant to ambient music composition and reception, and that is what he termed "deconcentration". Adorno asserts that deconcentration is "the perceptual activity which prepares the way for the forgetting and sudden recognition of mass music." His point is that we, as passive music receivers, are no longer able to listen in a concentrated manner, partly due to the limited structural range of most all popular music. Distracted listening is seen by Adorno as "retarded listening" because the listener takes in so much less information than with classical music, such as with a Beethoven symphony. He relates this: "They (the listeners) cannot stand the strain of concentrated listening and surrender themselves resignedly to what befalls them, with which they can come to terms only if they do not listen to it too closely." Careful active listening of popular music leads to almost instant boredom in Adorno's view for the average music listener, since there is little, if any, structural sophistication within the popular music that Adorno was familiar with. This decline in concentrated listening is a big issue for Adorno, and directly relates to his concept of the "regression of listening", and it will also be important to an understanding of how the style of ambient music negates some of these concepts later within this essay.

Also within his essay, Adorno asserts that much of popular music and art has fallen prey to fetishism, which he first defines in the context of repetition. This fetishism is a result of several factors: many years of the "star" system, the manipulation of taste by the media, and the commercial distribution networks used by almost all of the major music recording companies. The most popular works become those that are most repeated over and over again. It is a cumulative process that becomes, in Adorno's words, "a fatal circle." Ownership of song rights is also challenged by Adorno, in which he characterizes the use of modern copyright law as "the composer's idea, which one thinks he can put in his pocket and take it home." "Great" music in Adorno's perspective would be compositions that require close, attentive, active listening by the receiver, such as works by Schoenberg or Beethoven. However, this places Adorno in an insulated, very elitist position. These types of music that Adorno heartily endorses as "great" require a high degree of education, as well as an active understanding of what is going on with the composers' technique to be fully appreciated and understood by the receiver. Music, in Adorno's conception, needs to be part of an "active" listening experience, and he felt that popular music was regressive at best, and was just easy listening, allowing itself to be understood easily with little attention, and that popular music contained very little structural interest that would sustain the interest of an active listener.