By George Burdon
Whilst studying for the ‘Affect, Technology & Biopolitics’ course of the MSc Society & Space programme, I was struck with how readily some of its themes could relate to my interest in music. Theorists such as Jane Bennett, Gilles Deleuze and Gilbert Simondon provide angles for studying how bodies and subjectivities emerge from a pre-personal field of potential, problematizing the Cartesian notion of a sovereign human subject and instead displacing agency towards the material milieus within which we are always situated. Using such theoretical angles allows us to study music not in terms of what it may or may not mean, but instead to focus on what it does – in other words seeing music as a force capable of producing and altering how we think and act.
An album from last year that struck me as a particularly interesting way of thinking through some of these themes was Sam Kidel’s Disruptive Muzak – a piece of experimental ambient music/conceptual sound art designed as a playful inversion of the ‘hold’ music (or ‘Muzak’) used by call centres. This description is taken from the Juno Plus review for the album:
“During the late 1940s and early ‘50s, America’s Muzak Corporation established a program known as ‘Stimulus Progression’. Rather creepily, this existed to develop music designed to alter behaviour, be it enticing shoppers into longer, slower browsing sessions, or making factory workers more productive. While the ‘Stimulus Progression’ program was abandoned decades ago, its principles continue to drive the development of piped mood music…
[Sam Kidel] became particularly obsessed with phone hold music, and its’ designed use as a kind of aural numbing agent; a way to ensure that potentially angry and irate callers become bored and drowsy while they wait for a ‘call centre agent’ to become available.
Ever the experimentalist, Kidel decided to flip the script, composing ‘muzak’ that was unsettling, unpredictable and ‘disruptive’” (Anniss, 2016).
Kidel then proceeded to dial up various government agency call centres and play his composition – a twenty-minute, simultaneously calming and unsettling mix of ambient and electro-acoustic music – down the phone, recording the reactions from the workers on the other end of the line. These were then layered on top of the original piece for the record’s first track (here: https://youtu.be/UeNLWF-FIA8). More interestingly for this angle of study though, is the inclusion of a ‘DIY Version’ (https://youtu.be/k4Is8J-nx2M) on the album – Kidel’s original composition stripped of the voiceovers, presented for the listener to undertake their own experiments.
Listening to Disruptive Muzak, the piece does indeed strike as unusual. It’s made up of elements that could be from a fairly ordinary piece of ambient music but they appear fractured, twisted and occasionally jarringly juxtaposed with each other. Take, for instance the section around the 15:30 mark where a piano part appears, but one submerged under resonating bell sounds and thin, ghostly chords. Every so often the whole thing will fade out and come to a complete halt, before shuddering into gear again. It almost sounds like hold music, or at least a Frankensteinian approximation of it; one that’s been hollowed out, broken down and harshly put back together again.
Following Leila Dawney’s theorising of the ‘interruption’, and recent moves within geography towards nonrepresentational theory and an understanding of bodies and subjectivities as emergent from their surrounding milieus, Disruptive Muzak can be thought of as an interruption in the pre-personal field of vibrational sonic affects. As such, the piece functions as “a point at which the body can relate something of its production as a subject” (Dawney, 2013: 634). Using Deleuzian (Deleuze, 1988; Deleuze & Guattari, 2013) terminology, the body emerges from the plane of immanence, or the virtual, within which material forces such as sound waves circulate. Importantly then, Disruptive Muzak’s affective materiality is both pre- and trans-personal, causing the emergence of subjectivity within the sensing body. Affect is inherently social – moving as it does between bodies within spaces – and as such, moments of interruption like this piece of music provides can gesture towards how bodies are constantly emergent from this trans-personal, social field:
“These moments of interruption, moments when we experience a general unease, a jolt, a sense of the untimely, or when we retch with disgust but do not know why we might react so strongly, when we react unthinkingly but then check ourselves, can tell us much about the way in which our bodies are thoroughly constituted through the social, how our muscular development, our digestive systems, and our neural pathways are always imbricated in the social and, moreover, that they themselves instantiate and perform the social” (Dawney, 2013: 637).
Where does this leave us then? I argue that Disruptive Muzak’s ‘interruption’ highlights how the macropolitical (structures of gender, class etc) is underpinned, and in fact produced by, a field of micropolitics that works at the level of the individual body and its affections. The fact that a piece of music can bring about a certain bodily state that can be used to increase the efficiency of processes like those in call centres is inherently political, albeit where the moment of politics is reconfigured as being situated before and alongside the production of subjectivity.
This certainly has consequences for how we think about how music is used within spaces to facilitate certain actions. If we are not the sole agents of how we act but that “something in the world forces us to think” (Deleuze, 1994: 135), surely we should divert attention to what this ‘something’ may be. One of the confused call centre workers on Kidel’s piece, upon being inexplicably played the music down the phone, says, “All I can hear is what sounds like background noise” – Disruptive Muzak offers us a critique of this ‘background noise’, foregrounding it and highlighting its transformative potential.
Anniss, M. (2016). Sam Kidel – Disruptive Muzak. Juno Plus [Online], available: http://www.junodownload.com/plus/2016/04/27/sam-kidel-disruptive-muzak/. Last accessed 13th Feb 2017.
Dawney, L. (2013). The interruption: investigating subjectivation and affect. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space, 31, pp. 628-644.
Deleuze, G. (1988a ). Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Trans. R. Hurley. San Francisco: City Light Books.
Deleuze, G. (1994 ). Difference and Repetition. Trans. P. Patton. London: The Athlone Press.
Deleuze, G., and Guattari, F. (2013 ). A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. B. Massumi. London: Bloomsbury.