... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Music for Living:
Joseph Lanza's "Elevator Music"

The mere mention of Elevator Music or "Muzak" often brings about violent reactions in people and evokes the most peculiar memories. Everytime I hear "Theme From A Summer Place", I am three years old, sitting in the doctor's office with an incredible throbbing ear infection, my head resting against my reassuring and comforting mother. I see the subdued tones produced by track lighting hidden behind well-placed palms and the soothing storybook wallpaper with it's endless tableux of a small New England village, ever repeating in shads of grey, tan, and dull cyan. My ear hurts just thinking about it -- the "do-wah, do-wah, do do" of the trombones make the pain almost unbearable.

Hearing Micheal Jackson's "Billie Jean", I recall working in the Greensboro Triad International Airport. A string arrangement of the tune always seemed to be blaring from a speaker over the row of urinals that would automatically flush as you stepped away. (The local rednecks who had never seen anything like it were always amused.) "Billie Jean is not my lover...do wah..do wah..."

In Joseph Lanza's Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, the reader will learn more about this ever-present aural bombardment than he or she would ever care to know. It's remarkable that Lanza writes about the subject with such passion -- but we soon realize that deconstructing Moodsong and placing it in a historical and pop-culture perspective, makes it more threatening and Orwellian and even charming, in a peculiar way -- Big Brother wants to be sure that not only our working hours, but our leisure time as well, are immensed in a soothing and production-enducing landscape.

Elevator Music had it's roots in classical music, in the works of such composers as Erik Satie, who was upset that his audience was actually being quiet and listening to one of his works. Above all, the music is to be present and perceived by the listener, but not to be heard. The idea of Stimulus Progression -- using background music to make shoppers shop, eaters eat, and workers work -- was fostered by developments in the emerging areas of radio and electronics in the 1920s. Muzak was a product of its time -- the amazing advance of scientific developments at that time made people look at using technology to solve all kinds of everyday problems and make life more enjoyable and enriching for everyone.

Originally, Muzak was conceived as a service that could be piped directly into the home for $1.50 a month, much like cable television today, as an alternative to the then unreliable technology of broadcast radio. Three channels were offered -- news and announcements, light music, and classical. As the technology of radio improved, Muzak found it's niche in providing commercial-free music to businesses such as restaurants, dentists offices, and, of course, public spaces like elevators. Lanza recounts study after study that was performed during the Depression that showed how well programmed music would make workers more productive. The industry really took off during World War II in the large factories that supplied the war effort.

Paralleling the development of Muzak as a tool for altering behavior, there emerged a genre of "non-offending" background music that the author refers to generically as "Moodsong". Profiles of the artists that typified this style -- Andre Kostelonenz and others -- are included. At that time, the music was referred to as "light classics" and it's artists represented a breed that catered to low-brow audiences that wanted an alternative to pounding jazz and difficult to understand classical music. Entire careers were made by performers and arrangers, carrying their music to wide audiences through radio programs, recordings, and concerts. Many, such as Henry Mancini and Ray Coniff, started their careers composing for commercials or radio and television programs.

The connection between the medium of film and television and "Moodsong" is established by Lanza early in the book. Films in particular, Lanza argues, "trained" audiences to expect a soundtrack for their everyday lives. The genre had it's heyday in the 1950s -- as troops returned from the War, they were exposed to the image of the perfect suburban home, touted by Madison Avenue. The fifties home was seen as a controlled environment, with modern technology (provided by converted War industries) catering to your every need. Ambient music -- a soundtrack for everyday life -- emerged as a part of that controlled environment and the new LP record players were seen as just another home appliance.

Various subgenres of "Moodsong" emerged to appeal to every home. Recordings for quiet reflection and reading, entertaining guests, or working around the house were typified by LPs such "Sounds for Soothing Baby" or "Music for Better Living", with their colorful covers picturing the perfect fifties family in the perfect suburban home. The "Mystic Moods Orchestra" series, popular into the 1960s, pre-dated many of the sound techniques used in modern IMAX theaters and theme parks, combining ambient sounds such as surf or forest with orchestral music. Jackie Gleason produced a series of recordings "for the average slob" to woo his girl, the covers featuring erotically posed females. "Tiki Lounge" music, typified by Martin Denny's hit "Quiet Jungle" used native percussion instruments and even the calls of exotic birds to provide background and a taste of the exotic for GIs that missed (or never experienced) the South Seas. ("Tiki Lounge" music -- along with the exotic mixed drinks and decor of the lounges -- has made a recent strange comeback, with guides to this tacky form of music and decoration published in many popular magazines over the past few months.) Perhaps the most colorful is "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" that early Hi-Fi enthusiasts used to show off their stereos. The LPs often included notes on the technical aspects of the recordings and the music included all kinds of unusual stereo separation and sound effects to put the equipment through the proper demonstration.

 "Moodsong" survived through the sixties and seventies as an alternative to rock n' roll. "Beautiful Music" FM radio stations emerged and had their hey-day during this period, with stations playing Feirante and Teachier, 101 Strings, and Lawrence Welk. As the eighties approached, the format changed names to "Adult Contemporary" to avoid the stigma to "elevator music" that began to be attached to the style -- the Carpenters being the most well-known example. The format survives today, spearheaded by artists such as Gloria Estefan. (It should be noted that one of the most popular Adult Contemporary stations in North Carolina, 107.5 -- the Eagle, based in Charlotte, was a Beautiful Music station in the 1970s.)

With the increasing pressures of everday urban life, "New Age" music has emerged to provide a soothing soundtrack for living. George Winston, Yanni, Adreas Wollender and others perform on CDs that are marketed in a manner similar to the classic "Moodsong" LPs of the 1950s -- Windhall Hill, for example, designs its album covers to convey a certain mood and often do not picture the artist. Also, modern composers are drawing on "Moodsong" as an inspiration. Brian Eno produced a series of ambient recordings that imitated and subverted the Muzak style. The Twin Peaks television series used a dark, minimalist soundtrack to convey the perverseness of a small town.

Lanza points out a fascinating tidbit of information -- the Muzak headquarters and Sub Pop records (the label that started the "Grunge Band" movement with acts like Nirvana and Nine-Inch Nails) are both located in Seattle. In fact, the individuals that started Sub Pop records did so while working in the offices of Muzak. Muzak returned the favor by adding it's own unmistakeable arrangements of Grunge Band hits to its rotation. Lanza also notes that there is a certain political and cultural power at play with Muzak -- it is heard on every continent of the planet and even on space flights. When stuck in an elevator, mall, doctor's office, or airport, Muzak leaves you with no choice but to be influenced or irritated by it's choice of selections and arrangements.

At the same time scholarly, thought-provoking, and entertaing, "Elevator Music" includes a useful bibliography and discography. The book also includes a center section of album cover art and photographs, all in black and white. Lanza is a very adept researcher, drawing on journals, popular magazines and newspapers, and even materials from the Muzak archives. Unlike some authors who write about popular music, Lanza shows a knowledge of the material itself and one gets the impression that he has actually listened to all these recordings -- a major feat in itself.

Good or bad, soothing or irritating, depending on your point of view, Muzak and Moodsong are here to stay. When rocker Ted Nugent offered to buy the Muzak corporation for five million dollars just to have the priviledge of "erasing the tapes", Muzak simply added a stringed-out version of "Cat Scratch Fever" to its playlist. The rainforests may disappear, the AIDS crisis continues, and the planet may bury itself in garbage, but Muzak is there to make it all seem so much better.


(c) February.7.1995