This is the archive of bits about Music
A couple weeks ago a friend of mine asked me to write a piece of original incidental music for a film he’s making. The scene takes place in the lobby of a corny hotel and he needed a piece of suitably corny background music. We talked a little about it, but we didn’t need to say much because it was obvious. Everyone knows what kind of music plays in corny hotel lobbies: Muzak.
Muzak, though a trademarked brand, has become synonymous with what is derisively called “elevator music”. Muzak is actually a company founded in the 1920’s that provided background music to subscribers through direct electrical lines as opposed to radio (hence the term “piped music”). Despite later ubiquity in shopping malls and department stores, the earliest markets weren’t public retail venues, they were workplaces trying to improve productivity. The company did research to improve the effectiveness of music to this end and eventually started producing their own music. Early on Muzak was even recorded by popular orchestras and big bands of the day.
The style of music they produced was an early version of what came to be called “Beautiful Music”, a now extinct radio format from the 50’s and 60’s that splintered off and begat “Easy Listening” and then the insipid “Light Adult Contemporary” radio format (which is becoming less common itself). Beautiful Music was music that could be played in the background without distraction, creating a pleasant, soothing aural environment, like wall paper for the ears.
Anyone born before, say, 1980 is instantly familiar with this style of music. Instrumental, light strings, little percussion, organs, mallet instruments, orchestral arrangements, pop melodies and endless repetition. But today there’s almost nowhere you can hear this music. There are quite a few examples of Beautiful Music that were recorded and sold on LP: Mantovani, Percy Faith, and Henry Mancini for instance, but I imagine the vast majority of Beautiful Music/Easy Listening/Muzak has disappeared and will never be heard again, lost once and for all to our cultural memory. No one is producing this style of music today. It wasn’t composed or recorded to be sold to music fans and because of this, as far as I can tell, there are very few documents archiving it.
I’m fascinated by this sort of commercial music. Like any music, it has a history, star composers, and an evolution of style. But unlike most music it has virtually no fans. Many small musical subgenres have been recorded, analyzed, historically documented, and passed down through generations and musical evolution. In some cases the appeal of the music broadens with time. This music is different. Despite having immense, widespread audiences, it seems the only people who think about this music are the people who work in the industry that produces it. Instead of a devoted small core, this music has a completely oblivious broad audience. It has no crossover or hybridization, and doesn’t directly influence music that people actually listen to on purpose.
Soft music isn’t the only genre that suffers from this. The traditional music of serialized daytime soap operas has an interesting history too. The familiar motif of dramatic organ riffs sounded the way it did for a reason: originally the organ was used because it was less expensive and easy to produce for live radio and television. The melodies were written and performed to reinforce dramatic tension, particularly right before commercial breaks, and to signal the beginning and return to the program after commercial breaks. Organ music was replaced by orchestral arrangements in the 70’s because they could be easily recorded and reused. Orchestral recordings in turn were supplanted in the 80’s by the then new, cutting edge, synthesizers because of their flexibility. This early synthesizer music was groundbreaking at the time, but is now lost.
Classic game show music is a distinct and interesting form of utility music. Think about the themes to 1970’s era game shows with their uptempo brass arrangements. Unlike Beautiful Music’s soothing sounds or soap opera soundtracks’ sentimentality and melodrama these themes were intended to excite the listener, coming at you in short energetic bursts. There are still a few examples of this kind of music being used today (The Price is Right for instance) but for the most part its gone, unrecorded and unavailable.
Radio and TV news music is another idiom that has a long musical tradition. News Music is an entire industry with a number of production houses dedicated to writing and producing lead ins and themes. They even have awards (they’re called the Emmy’s). You can sample dozens of samples here: http://www.southernmedia-nmsa.com/ Its impossible to imagine the news without music, from the various arrangements of NPR’s “All Things Considered” (available hereto “The Situation Room” to the local news you watched with your parents as a kid. But if you’ve never heard News Music from the 60’s where could you hear it today?
Unlike pop, rock, jazz, classical, r&b, folk, or country its difficult to trace the musical lineage of any of these styles. As the original musicians composers and producers pass away I wonder if the unrecorded history of these styles of music will be lost forever. It would be a shame. Much of this music has cultural merit belied by its utility. The potential power of this music is great. I imagine there are a range of musical styles waiting to be revived in new contexts. Familiar to the ear yet distinct, unconventional, and uncommon, in the hands of a clever producer the recontextualization of these styles could be powerful, like eating a long lost favorite food from your childhood. I’d love to hear a Daft Punk interpretation of game show music or an A-Trak or Santogold song that sampled a classic horn bit from a news theme using the beeping sound of the incoming wire in the beat. Antony and the Johnsons could make an incredible “Beautiful Music” album. Any takers can thank me in the liner notes.
Yello is a group that I find endlessly inspiring. Their early musical and video output is an perfect recipe: campy, sleazy, debonair, scary, funny, trashy, and unexpected. Enjoy.
a brief history: Yello is the collaboration between two Swiss Gentlemen, Boris Blank (1952-) and Dieter Meier (1945-). Neither of them is a trained musician. Blank is responsible for the musical output, Meier for lyrics, vocals, management, videos, and presumably art direction. Meier was born to a millionaire industrialist family, has been a successful conceptual artist since the 70’s, a sometimes professional poker player, alternate on the Swiss Olympic golf team, and has a ranch in Argentina. They are the same Yello that made that song “oh yeah” from Ferris Bueller and that Twix commercial, but don’t hold that against them.
One of the joys of record collecting is getting to create new taxonomies of music. Record stores do an passable (albeit subtly racist) job of organizing records so they’re easy to find, but most of them don’t do much to help create new connections and genres of music.
Every time we reorganize our records we create a new system before we start shuffling things around. The joy in the end is discovering cultural associations and musical connections that we didn’t know existed before. Suddenly artists we’d never connected to one another sit side by side on shelves. The gaps in our collection are exposed, and most excitingly, new genres emerge.
A genre I would love to see gain wide acknowledgment is Soft Prog. Soft Prog is (or should be) a cousin of traditional progressive rock, but with a decidedly smooth sensibility. Think about it like this: if there is a bleed on one end of the spectrum from early metal bands (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple) into prog groups (King Crimson, Jethro Tull), then soft prog would be the other end of prog that interfaces with smoother, “light” rock and “easy listening” (The Captain and Tennille or Barry Manilow for example).
As a fan of this wholly contrived genre, I’ve compiled a few examples below. They span from the early 70’s to the early 00’s. I’ll refrain from any amateur musicology that would attempt to articulate the common musical thread and instead let these songs do the work for me. Enjoy. Next up: Avant Soul.
10 CC | I’m not in Love
The Band | Whispering Pines
Roxy Music | Mother of Pearl
Alan Parsons Project | Eye in the Sky
Robert Fripp and Daryl Hall | North Star
Robert Wyatt | Shipbuilding
Sebastien Tellier | Universe
The Ronettes were one of the greatest girl groups of all time. This clip devolves into a sort of hysteria induced collapse. I imagine Ronnie Spector as a preacher in a church of teenage cool who’s being driven by a mass hypnosis machine devised by her mad svengali husband. Its funny to think that parents were scared of rock n roll, because this has clearly taken over these kids minds.
Michel and I came across this video yesterday. I was already thinking of doing a bit about how cool Marty Stuart was in Lester Flatts’s Nashville Grass. After seeing this I couldn’t imagine posting any other bluegrass video. Even Lester Flatt was just Bill Monroe’s side man, and Marty was Lester’s side man. As cool as he is, when Marty Stuart is standing on stage with Bill Monroe he’s just a man standing next to an icon. So here’s the original, Mr. Bill Monroe.
Niney the Observer’s Classic. I can listen to this song all day and all night.
Throbbing Gristle are performing in New York tonight. I’m too excited to think about anything else.
Its hard to explain my love of this group.
I don’t think there are many casual Throbbing Gristle fans, I’ve never heard someone say “oh yeah, my friend put one of their songs on a mix. I kind of liked it.” I can’t recall ever hearing a Throbbing Gristle track played in public.
They are role models for me, examples of how people can live (not just perform, but actually live) creatively and uncompromisingly in the face of mainstream/mass culture. Most musicians fall into one of two categories: Performers who are just pretending on stage, and performers who have made enough money to pretend wherever they are. This isn’t the case with TG. They’re just people, but they have made it ok to not be “ordinary” people.
I find it telling that their music hasn’t been successfully co-opted like virtually every one of their contemporaries. I can’t imagine “Hamburger Lady” being used in a commercial or as the stirring soundtrack to a movie. Even though its thirty years old, their music isn’t nostalgic for me, its the music that I want to hear today. Its intellectual, its visceral, its primitive and complex, its smart, vulgar, brutal, and caressing all at once. And I’ll bear witness tonight.
Hot on the Heels of Love
I used to be fixated on an idea of making a kind of music that would explore ultraviolence, at a social level rather than an individual level (which is another topic). I thought of it as a conceptual exploration that could obviate any sort of “angry young man” music, my rationale being that a teenager flipping the bird or even a serial killer was absurd in the face of German tanks rolling into Poland. Now I’ve returned to an interest in subversion, but more in the subversion of personal identity specifically as we create spaces for ourselves within some sort of social/cultural/historical context. I don’t care about subverting “the Man”, I’m interested in art that subverts the self, (because, after all, aren’t we our own “the Man”?) Martin Denny encapsulates this very nicely for me.
I was first introduced to Martin Denny and “Exotic” music not in the context of the late nineties lounge kitsch revival (blech), but through Industrial culture. I remember seeing a book about his music in the local occult shop, sitting amid a shelf full of photocopied zines about radical body modification and BDSM. It couldn’t have been a starker contrast, and I guess that’s why I remember it specifically and the other publications on the shelf have been generalized into a slurried memory of pale emaciated people in leather exposing themselves.
Martin Denny’s music is of course the prototype for most of what we call lounge music. Judged by that context alone, it might strike you as comically banal. In fact, I’m not sure if his music is legitimately creepy or if its creepy because of my own introduction to it, which is the thing that interests me. The placid calmness of it is in such diametric opposition to the most brutally aggressive music that demands submission (see: Whitehouse, for example). Denny’s music is hypnotic, familiar and peculiar at the same time. Where aggression fails to intimidate me into submission, Denny coerces me, which is just as much about surrender of will.