Irritations Of Modern Life

8: Muzak
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The Independent Culture
MUSIC IS my passion. I like it neat, not watered down. But, as in all the best love affairs, I have to be in the mood to indulge in it. I don't like it thrust on me without my consent. Not some tinny travesty of Telemann or Tchaikovsky. No vile versions of Beethoven or Vivaldi. I refer, of course, to muzak, that prolific impostor insidiously and increasingly putting itself about like some insolent upstart. That aesthetically offensive, pernicious product of our consumerist culture. Depressing enough when confined to supermarkets and shopping malls, but increasingly used as a device to keep us fuming with frustration on the end of the line.

That immortal refrain, "I'll just put you on hold", can signal some excruciatingly painful moments. I steel myself for the intrusion and brandish the receiver several feet away from my ear, thereby risking being cut off and having to go through the whole caboodle again. I can feel my stress levels rising.

And there is no escape. It is everywhere: banks, newspaper offices, even the doctor's surgery. Hi-tech telephone systems mask a multitude of dins. My accountant, a classical musician, finds her office's shiny new jingle particularly obnoxious and has been desperately trying to erase it. In my own case, I'd have thought twice before buying my latest answerphone had I realised that a tacky electronic version of Beethoven's "Fur Elise" (referred to only as "a melody" in the user guide) was part of the package.

The longer the wait to speak to a Real Person, the greater the build- up of rage and frustration. In pre-jingle days, it was quite common to hear clicks on the line, indicating a human presence out there somewhere. And an occasional interjection of "Hello, are you there?", might elicit a response, even if it was only "Trying to connect you". Not any more. These days you are at the mercy of the resident robot's repeated mantra: "Sorry. All our lines are busy at present ..." And before you can say "Stuff the jingle, silence is golden", you're in for another dose of Baroque, or much worse. We hangers-on are well and truly grounded.

Unsolicited music, like the uninvited guest, invades your privacy and peace of mind. For me, music is an intimate pleasure, to be enjoyed on my terms, no one else's. I want to savour it at leisure, in a place of my choosing, be it home, church, concert hall, disco. Or, when I'm in transit, on my personal stereo, where it doubles as a necessary antidote to the mobile phone.

If only the powers-that-be would realise that theirs is an abortive strategy, that what presumably is designed to keep me hanging on and happy, actually has the reverse effect. Instead of soothing, it makes me seethe. Instead of entertaining and uplifting, it nearly drives me to destruction (as well as distraction).

When some of our greatest composers are reduced to the level of the uniformly bland, expedient soundbite, it's hardly surprising if everything winds up sounding the same. When experienced in such an artificial context, a much-loved piece of music can be ruined for all time. Handel's Water Music, to name one favourite of mine, is forever tainted by being played to death down the line.

Muzak, as well as being a grotesque abuse of "real" music, is aural pollution, period. Our environment is already awash with other forms of pollution, over which most of us have little or no control. Muzak has to be the most banal, avoidable form of it. I'd like to see it banned throughout the telephone network. Or, if that is too radical for today's technocrats, then perhaps we can be offered an additional "option" to the usual list: press zero for Silence.