Sunday, 15 February 2009

Guilty Pleasures, Part 7 – I Heart Muzak

I spend an inordinate amount of time in Pret (sans laptop, as I’d only pour latte into it); one of things I love about the place is the incidental music that's piped into the store (or to use the correct parlance, Muzak). For the most part, it’s a pleasing mash-up of samba, laid back jazz, Vegas lounge and 70s porno movie soundtrack. Intrigued, I asked what it was. “Dunno – we get it from Head Office.” Further enquiries on the Pret website led me nowhere. So there we have it – one of life’s great mysteries: where exactly does the music in Pret come from?

The weird thing about muzak is that it isn’t really designed to be heard, or at the least properly noticed: aural wallpaper, I suppose you’d call it. It’s predominantly designed to create a pleasing ambience in whatever (mostly retail) space it’s used in. Of course, no discussion on ambient music would be complete without a mention of Brian Eno (and in particular David Toop’s book, Ocean of Sound, which contains this immortal line: Anal scents: what was their relation to a cultural shift?). Eno’s best known ambient recordings date from 1978: in the original liner notes, Ambient 1: Music for Airports contained references to Muzak Inc, and was even installed at the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia Airport for a while.

Even though the Ambient series is superb, Eno’s influence in the muzak sphere is vastly overstated. You’re more likely to walk into a department store and hear a recording of clapped out old session musicians murdering Oasis’s Wonderwall than some weighty Eno composition: and to me, that’s half the fun of muzak. It isn’t meant to be all po-faced seriousness, minimalism and heavyweight classical references (I couldn’t imagine going into Pret and sitting down to Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic - great music, but not something to sup your mocha to, unless you’ve got a couple of cyanide tablets to hand); it’s more likely to be Richard Clayderman-inspired piano foppery, or tacky instrumental arrangements of pop standards. And you know something? I love all of it: the more clapped out and cheesy the better.

The best muzak I’ve heard recently is the Beastie Boys album, The In Sound from Way Out, a collection of instrumental music culled from various albums released between 1992-96. Like the soundtrack to my Pret coffee, it’s a collision of influences – jazz, soul, laidback funk – all fed through a peculiarly seventies sensibility. And surprisingly for a bunch of instrumentals it’s funny, and delivered with exactly the right amount of cheese. Even the French sleeve notes are (unintentionally?) demented:

Un des premiers voyageurs de hip hop, il ont connu pour un mix de humeur et style. Avec leur beer swilling et glue sniffing (tactiques Brechtienne) ils ont ecrit leur signature definitive sur le face du rap.

Those crazy French, eh! As above, muzak is best served up without great dollops of silly pretension. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a coffee to finish.


Elinor said...

Most enjoyable Chip! Though I suffered word association. I read the David Toop sentence beginning 'anal scents...' then re-read 'retail space' as rectal space.

Chip Smith said...

Thanks, Elinor! I've been looking for a name for my new band for a while now, and I think 'Rectal Space' is the winner!