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Other people’s music

January 12th, 2008

A bit belatedly, I’m reposting my piece on the Fin from last week, on background music, a topic we’ve discussed previously.

Also in the Fin Review section (paywalled) a couple of weeks ago was a piece by Andrew Ford which inlcuded an observation I’ve made myself, that contemporary music in the classical tradition often sounds like the soundtrack to a horror/thriller movie, and went on to point out that David Lynch has actually used ‘modern classical’ compositions in this role. He asks why people who are perfectly happy with the music as a soundtrack are totally unwilling to listen to it in concert. I think the potential audience falls into two groups, both small
(i) classical concert-goers who like horror/thriller movies
(ii) horror/thriller fans keen enough to go to a concert performance of the soundtrack

Anyway, here’s the article

A New Year brings a sense of new possibilities. Perhaps the change of government really will, as has variously been threatened and promised, change the country. But there are some changes that go beyond the capability of governments and prime ministers to bring about, and for these, especially New Year is an appropriate time to wish.

Not all utopian hopes are large ones, and my wish for 2008 is small, but no less utopian for that. I would like a world less thoroughly saturated in other people’s music.

I am certainly not the first to wish for this. Sixty years ago or more, George Orwell was already complaining about the ubiquity of music. Pejorative terms like ‘Muzak’ and ‘lift music are commonplace. And on 21 November, a hardy few celebrated No Music Day, the brainchild of musician and artist Bill Drummond. But despite these objections the spread of background music continues.

In many contexts, music is so firmly established that we don’t even think about it. Most of us do not take very seriously the kind of film in which the characters spontaneously burst into song. But even in the most serious and supposedly realistic films, the dramatic action is accompanied by background music.

In portraying a world that is itself full of background music moviemakers sometimes run into difficulties. As the scene of the action shifts to an interior, the audience may be left in two minds as to whether the music they can hear is supposed to be audible to the characters, or only to those looking on.

Background music for film is so longstanding and ubiquitous that it has become, quite literally, part of the background assumed by viewers. We mostly don’t notice it, and we would quickly notice its absence.

In the last few years, though, background music has escaped from the constraints that once confined it. At the same time, it has become steadily louder and more intrusive. Documentary and current affairs shows were once largely music-free. As production values came to predominate over content, however, there was increased emphasis on establishing shots and linking sequence, designed to protect viewers from the dreaded spectacle of ‘talking heads’ as long as possible.

In the last few years, this process has been taken to its logical conclusion, with music being played over the top of commentators and speakers in what are supposed to be serious programs about science, politics and culture.

The problem is most evident with the ABC. As a national, publicly-funded broadcaster, the ABC is under an obligation to serve all viewers. Yet playing music and speech simultaneously must cause difficulties for older viewers, those with hearing difficulties and those for whom English is not a first language.

It’s impossible to please everybody. Apparently, making the program audible to viewers interested in the program content must be sacrificed in order to appease those who need mood music if they are to be induced to watch at all.

The response offered by the ABC to complaints is that viewers might get better discrimination with a more expensive setup including separate speakers. Apparently, low-income households can be added to the list of those whose interest in science or politics takes second place to musical accompaniment.

However, the suggestion of a technological fix raises hopes that escaping other peoples’ music might not be such a utopian idea. Already, every second person in public is insulated from the ambient noise with an iPod. The cost of such devices is plummeting. The additional capacity to receive and transmit wifi and radio signals is becoming commonplace. So, instead of imposing a single musical offering on their customers, many of whom are already jamming it, department stores could podcast a range of channels, and let the customers choose. Some people might even want to listen to continuous announcements of Red Light Specials.

The solution for broadcasters is even simpler. Instead of broadcasting a package and leaving the audience to separate the signal from the noise, they could simulcast their programs and the musical accompaniment on different channels, maybe even offering a choice of soundtracks. With digital technology, this ought to be easy.

If all this comes to pass, there is one channel I’d particularly like. It would be devoted to continuous play of John Cage’s 4′ 33”. This classic work for piano consists entirely of silence.*

* In Cage’s original conception, the content of the work was to be the background noise heard by the audience. But the simpler interpretation of complete silence is the one I’d want to listen to.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    January 12th, 2008 at 13:04 | #1

    I tend to agree. To give an example that will get round to the point, I enjoy Stanley Kubrick’s movies yet they seem strangely full and empty at the same time. I wonder what the auteur is giving me. His stories are not original. His music is not original. It leaves one with the horrible feeling that his entire art is pastiche. Even his visual style derives essentially from still phtography.

    I wonder whether the ubiquity of music reflects an age where ‘art’ consists of pastiche and propaganda in about equal proportions. Cinema (and TV) are essentially pastiche forms. Advertising is pure propaganda. Music is superb accompaniment to propaganda.

  2. Hermit
    January 12th, 2008 at 17:52 | #2

    I hope we move to a time where any unrequested background music is considered presumptuous. In fact I’m looking into water cooling of my home computer so I don’t have to listen to the fan.

    The progression for audiovisual entertainment seems to be that live theatre (including the orchestra) was the big day out until early 20th century. That gave way to talkies with music in the background. The next step seems to be video on demand over the interwebs. If it ends up we can select the balance between dialogue and music I hope by then we will also be able to erase the station ID on TV channels.

  3. melanie
    January 12th, 2008 at 20:57 | #3

    And I suppose the only way to get rid of the incessant tinny noise from other people’s iPods is to get one yourself!

  4. conrad
    January 13th, 2008 at 06:19 | #4

    Speaking of documentaries, the other thing that seems to have happened in the last years is that there is an almost overwhelming trend now for often crappy “re-enactments” whether it happens to be human ones or others (e.g., dinosaurs eating other for 15 out of 25 minutes). That might be appealing at a story telling level, which is good for some groups, but it often means that the information content is lowered to almost zero.

  5. wilful
    January 14th, 2008 at 11:19 | #5

    Speaking of documentaries, the other thing that seems to have happened in the last years is that there is an almost overwhelming trend now for often crappy “re-enactments� whether it happens to be human ones or others (e.g., dinosaurs eating other for 15 out of 25 minutes). That might be appealing at a story telling level, which is good for some groups, but it often means that the information content is lowered to almost zero.

    I reckon that’s a bit harsh. Humans are innately visual, and for the overwhelming majority of us that aren’t palaeontologists or forensic scientists, we’re only looking to be entertained anyway. I reckon the “Life of Dinosaurs” or whatever type shows, which are generally soundly science based, slip in a lot more information to a far wider audience than some pointy head talking at the camera. The main quibble is that there’s generally a lot more certainty about what we know on those sorts of shows than exists in the scientific debates. But who cares.

  6. wilful
    January 14th, 2008 at 11:27 | #6

    A book I’ve got on my shelf at the moment about teaching children to speak (I have a toddler) stresses absolutely the importance of relative silence, so that the kid isn’t distracted and can learn to discriminate by listening to you. It’s fundamental – turn off the TV, the radio, to get your child speaking well (seems to be working).

    I must say, I really haven’t noticed any additional intrusiveness of music on ABC shows in recent years. I can’t agree with you Professor, I don’t think it’s there. But now I’ll have to pay attention, see if I’m just not noticing it. I certainly notice when the commercial channels turn the volume up for ads. Bloody annoying.

  7. conrad
    January 14th, 2008 at 11:32 | #7

    I don’t deny that there’s a market for those documentaries and that they are good at some levels (and it certainly depends on what the area is — perhaps I am being too harsh). Its just that that style seems to have taken over completely in some areas — it appears to me that the majority of new BBC science docos follow this sort of style (not that I watch a whole of TV), whether it is approproate or not. In case you live in Australia, a good example of this is the BBC documentary last night on IQ — most of the show was devoted to a small number of people doing a small number of tasks supposedly related to intelligence. The amount it was possible to learn about IQ from that was approximately zero. Too much game show and not enough science as far as I’m concerned.

  8. gerard
    January 14th, 2008 at 18:55 | #8

    Spare a thought for the poor workers in supermarkets and shopping malls who are subjected to crap background music (almost never of their own choosing) for hours on end, day after day. This must become utterly excruciating around christmas. Definitely an issue for the unions to take up.

  9. January 15th, 2008 at 00:52 | #9

    Hear hear John! (groan… sorry) As an occasional online watcher of the 730 Report, I’ve been aghast to see ham-handed musical stings manifest themselves in their news reporting. Film soundtracks I can deal with, if you’re paying your quids for popcorn escapism and fictional emotional manipulation anyway, might as well go the whole hog. But in straight news reporting? Vile.

  10. smally lerned
    January 15th, 2008 at 17:22 | #10

    I like a lot of creepy modern music that is well-suited to accompany horror scenes (Ligeti, Schnittke, etc) but I don’t fall into either category (1) or (2)

  11. cp
    January 16th, 2008 at 14:43 | #11

    gerard: agreed! Part of the reason that I almost went mad in my second job (and ultimately left it) was the music store across the way playing the latest hits, very loudly, on high rotation (“Zombie” in particular). And I seriously avoid the shops around Christmas.

    I can’t do serious thinking work with music on (instrumental or vocal). I particularly despise background music in restaurants and cafes. 90% of the time it is too loud, for one. I will simply move on. Unfortunately this happens all too often.

  12. Be A Super Dad
    January 22nd, 2008 at 04:12 | #12

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  13. LJOD
    January 22nd, 2008 at 11:13 | #13

    You are right in observing that the type of contemporary ‘classical’ music you are referring to is heard far more often in movie theatres than in concert halls, however I question your assumption that the only audience for this music is one that associates it with film. Don’t forget that most of it was composed with the intent of being heard in isolation and often is (David Lynch’s latest film for example, Inland Empire, uses the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, much of which was written in the 1960’s and has enjoyed a long tradition of live performance). Film-makers have effectively used it to enhance their own work by translating their interpretation of the music into a visual language that is less abstract, yet this denies the audience their own interpretation, imposing a singular vision on something that can be much more complex and multi-layered. The music still stands on its own and in many cases offers something completely different when heard seperately to what it offers within the context of a film. Your first category should read “classical concert-goers who like contemporary music�

    I think the crux of the issue (i.e. why this audience is so small) is that most people lack the attention span/imagination that is required to make sense of this music without it being interpreted and explained for them via moving images. I believe this is directly related to the points you raise regarding the ubiquity of “background music�. We are so overloaded with music in all aspects of our everyday lives that we have trained ourselves to ignore it and in the process forgotten how to listen to it. Most people treat music as aural wallpaper rather than a serious form of expression and are consequently unable to comprehend anything more complex or involved than a 3 minute pop song.

  14. wizofaus
    January 26th, 2008 at 12:24 | #14

    To suggest “contemporary music in the classical tradition often sounds like the soundtrack to a horror/thriller movie” indicates a rather limited exposure to genuinely contemporary classical music, especially as far as Australian composers go. Try Ross Edwards, Richard Mills or Nigel Westlake for starters.
    Most orchestral movie music is more closely linked to late 19th and early 20th century classical music, though a few scores have been more adventurous.

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