The other evening, I was sitting in a smartish restaurant in Seville, drinking a pre-dinner sol y sombra (a wonderful tonic after a hard day) and listening to the chatter around me. I was on my own, so I had time to become aware of the noise of the place. Neatly-dressed staff were ushering visitors to seats at little tables, and offering them menus to peruse while they waited. Drinks were being glugged out of bottles behind the bar. There was the general noise of talking, and this being Spain it wasn’t particularly subdued. Traffic roared past outside. Somewhere in a back room a heavy metal object was being pushed across the floor, making intermittent, ear-piercing shrieks as it went.
I had noticed that all this racket was increased and complicated by music, some woman singing a vaguely Spanish popular song, it seemed. Why a human voice, uttering words set to music, should be considered an appropriate accompaniment to conversation has always baffled me; this was neither quiet enough to be ignored nor loud enough to be properly followed. We weren’t there to listen to it, and no doubt I was the only person who made the slightest attempt to decipher it. Maybe everyone else recognised it: maybe they were comforted, reassured, by a familiar number.
Then I noticed that the music had changed. Again, I expect I was the only one who did. It was now, quite inconsequentially, the second movement of Brahms’s third symphony. Not a voice, competing with all the other voices, certainly; but the outpouring of a great musical mind who, when his work is performed, demands attention. It certainly doesn’t go well with the screeching of dragged metal objects. Brahms wrote a good deal of lightish music – Hungarian dances, the Liebeslieder Waltzes and other short pieces for entertainment – which might well be used as agreeable ‘wallpaper’. His symphonies, like any great nineteenth-century symphonies, are in a different category. What sort of person, what sort of mentality, could come up with an excerpt from one of them as indistinguishable background noise in a bar?
Another question: what ‘atmosphere’ was being aimed at, that was served by both a popular song and a Brahms symphony? A few minutes later, I picked out a few chords audible above the increasing din that told me the disk, or tape, had reached the first movement of the same symphony. It’s a stirring, heroically aggressive movement quite unlike the tranquil, slow second movement, and so at odds with any presumed aim of establishing a relaxed mood. But if you’re going to choose them, why not play the movements in the right order?
The answer is, of course, that the actual works performed were a matter of supreme indifference to the managers of the restaurant. They may have felt that it ‘warmed up’ the bar to have something on in the background. But my guess is that the disk was being played simply because piped music is played in nearly all public places now. From supermarkets to restaurants, from railway stations to delicatessens, not just in Spain and Britain but all over the Western world, and farther afield too, muzak is part of the social contract: you shop/eat/travel – you get music.
It goes without saying that ‘music’ is a euphemism for what is generally pumped out of the system. But let that pass: the point is that no one, not even the choosers of the music, is listening to find out what it is. At a prestigious art fair in London last year I heard, behind the bustle of fashionable people debating whether to pay large sums for works of art, the strains of Mozart’s Requiem. I thought I would enquire why this particular piece had been chosen.
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The young woman in the administration office was nonplussed by my question. It was just a CD they played. She took it out of the machine and peered at it as though I’d accused it of misbehaving in some obscure way. I was quite unable to convey to her the idea that playing a Requiem Mass as accompaniment to such an event might be inappropriate. It was Mozart, wasn’t it? That means smart, a bit intellectual, with overtones of a more Gracious Age. What more suitable to an art fair?
My problem is that I actually like music – I love it. I listen to it when I’m disposed to commune with great creative minds of the past, or indeed the present. I listen to it as I read literature, to enjoy the company of worthwhile friends. That means that I only want it at certain times, and emphatically don’t want to listen to someone else’s choice, turned on at random. That’s like having someone else’s cigarette smoke puffed in your face: as an American would say, it’s an invasion of my personal space.
If you complain about muzak – and I object to being put into the position where I have to complain simply to obtain a normal state of affairs – you’re told that no one else does – ergo, it is implied, everyone else likes it. The ironic truth is that most people don’t even notice it. So ubiquitous is piped music now that it really is an unnoticed part of life. People will automatically turn on television or radio as soon as they enter their homes, thereby ensuring that there is a perpetual burble of reassuring noise as background to everything they do. Even their communal meals take place to the accompaniment of ‘music’ or its close ally, mediababble. The noise becomes a matter of course. No wonder they don’t object.
But presumably at home they exercise their right to choose what sort of noise they want. And it’s all a matter of personal taste. Trapped in a Post Office queue one morning, I was forced to listen to an offensive stream of execrable music and DJ’s patter from a radio until my turn to be served. I mentioned to the manager behind the counter in the little local shop that the muzak was intrusively loud. He was characteristically baffled by my objection. I explained that I happened not to like the music. “What’s wrong with it?” he asked. “It’s not as though it was that awful jazz.”
The situation is serious. An ineluctable law of modern life is being acted out: if the technology exists, it will be used, regardless of whether it is desirable to do so. The more people are bombarded with muzak, the less they will notice it, and the more difficult it becomes to suggest that it is wrong to impose such a thing on the public. There are real political and social reasons for treating its inexorable advance as a grave infringement of our liberty. On a perhaps trivial level, it inhibits choice by making certain places – and now a majority of them – unpleasant to be in, and so restricts the number of pubs, restaurants and shops we can use. More important, it influences behaviour, and is used in supermarkets and such places to create docility and suggestibility in consumers.
If this sounds like paranoia, think of the practice of certain totalitarian countries, where citizens are roused each morning to martial music, and may have to spend the better part of the day listening to harangues from the nation’s leader. (I have experienced this myself in Cuba.) The more we are inured to background noise the less clear mental space we have for private thought and the development of individuality – and the more easily we can be manipulated. We are familiar with the idea of ‘subliminal advertising’, but don’t apply the principle to muzak. You may not mind being manipulated by the capitalists, but the politicians, you may be sure, will be quick enough, in due course, to avail themselves of the national passivity induced by a non-stop of diet of slush music and mediababble. Perhaps they’ve started already – has anyone been listening?
It’s difficult to see the trend being reversed, but if you care either about music or about freedom – freedom to go where you want, to listen to what you want, even to buy what you want – you can register your protest by joining Pipedown, a brave pressure group which is supported by a galaxy of serious musicians, artists and writers, all of whom know the dangers of taking music so much for granted you no longer hear it.
Pipedown, PO Box 1722, Salisbury, SP4 7US. If you live in Germany, the address is Dorfstrasse 11, 25482 Appen-Etz.