Muzak was my first love

And it's the ultimate urban sound. Joseph Lanza explains his infatuatio n with the piped background music of airport, restaurant, mall and lift. Believ e it or not, it's therapeutic
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The Independent Culture
My first love affair with Muzak, or elevator music, was as a teenager on a high-school trip to Europe. It was my first trip away from home and on an aeroplane, not to mention across the Atlantic. I was, needless to say, dis-oriented, excited and queasy. Making a stopover at Orly en route to Madrid, I entertained fears of suffocating in the claustrophobic Air France cabin or of the plane exploding at lift-off. These evil thoughts soon faded when sweet, airy-fairy violins and a wordless Claudine Longet-style chorus sprayed like mist from the overhead speakers.

Most of my fellow students scowled and cracked jokes about what they heard. But to me, these were melodies from heaven - the perfect music for people mid-way between home and the unknown, bracing for another ascent into mid-air. Being between planes is like being in an elevator or a dentist's waiting room. These are transition centres filled with nervous anticipation. It soon struck me that elevator music is, likewise, a melodic mediator at a tenuous transfer point between classical, jazz, rock, folk, religious hymn and all other musical styles.

The experience did not make me an elevator music fan overnight, but, from then on, I took fond notice whenever I heard it in hotel lobbies, offices, malls, and (though seldom) in elevators. I soon realised that the aspersions cast on this music - "passionless", "ultra-derivative", or just plan "tinny" - are the very attributes that make it so wonderful. As music, it bears little difference to the many middle-of-the-road instrumental recordings that sold millions of records through the decades. Even its mono sound, an economic and practical necessity, has a minimalist, even mystical charm suggesting the halcyon days of transistor radios.

Famous recording artists, as well as skilled session musicians, have carefully fashioned this music with enough of a melodic shell to trigger nostalgic memories but without obtrusive glitches or cloying emotions that deprive mall shoppers of their rightful place at centre-stage.

The commonly used term "musak" is a misnomer, deriving from the trademark, Muzak. Muzak is one of several corporations that pipe in elevator music. It has been the biggest over the years, but other companies such as 3M and Rediffusion in Britain have done the same. There is also "mood music" that has been available on records since the Fifties, put out by such distinguished artists as Mantovani, Percy Faith and Martin Denny.

Muzak was the brainchild of a retired army general, George Owen Squire, who, in 1922, applied his knowledge of cable wiring for a patent on piping music into restaurants and stores. In 1934, Squire changed the company name from Wired Radio to Muzak, combining "music" and "Kodak". Through the years, Muzak perfected its technique, keeping abreast of and even helping to introduce new sound technologies. In1937, a British study showed that listening to Muzak helped people to overcome fatigue and boredom in the workplace, especially in munitions factories. The authors of the study experimented with programmes playing progressively stimulating music in quarter-hour blocks throughout the day to help keep moods up, even playing livelier tunes at mid-morning and mid-afternoon when the blood sugar has a temporary meltdown.

Today Muzak boasts a $100m business that broadcasts at least 12 different styles of music to more than 200,000 business locations, with close to 90 million listeners and to 11 countries outside the United States. The Environmental Music programme, available to subscribers through cable remains Muzak's biggest seller.

Some people object to this "musical wallpaper". They assume that music is still meant to be heard on an in-person, touchy-feely basis with "live" players and rapt audiences. Most curious is the notion that "silence" is preferable, or even possible, in urban settings; that the presence of background music means an absence of "reality". Unless you live in a cave, real life is a constant barrage of audio and visual pitches: advertising disguised as music, fashion labels, political posturing, architecture for architects rather than people, packaged controversies, even car alarms. Such half-hearted civic remedies as outdoor concerts in parks or brunch Baroque at restaurants are less about making music and more about marking territory. They block out noise with bigger noises and are legitimised by arbitrary standards of "good taste".

Played at the proper low volume, elevator music offers a dose of homoeopathy. I like the glib analogy often made between piped-in music and air-conditioning. In a soot-infested city, air-conditioning is therapeutic air, just as elevator music, in a worldof conflicting musical attitudes, is therapeutic music. It is filtered, purified, properly portioned. Musical Esperanto for the babble-beleaguered hordes.

Among my favourite elevator music places is the Pennsylvania Station in Newark, New Jersey. Here, the background music plays reconstituted popular standards. Unfortunately, my latest visit to the Newark terminal had me pelted with sonic smog. A live jazzband played so loud that I could not understand the ticket clerk. And what were the commuters doing? They stood around, gawking like serenaded sheep, screaming into each other's ears amid the din, instead of going about their usual business.

This reminded me of the composer Erik Satie's frustration when some gallery patrons responded to his background "furniture music" by actively listening to it. Satie reportedly jumped into the throng and pleaded that everyone continue their affairs and let the music counterpoint the activity. I took refuge at the nearby McDonald's until departure time.

In recent years, there have been fascinating background music experiments - replacing the melodic lifeline provided by Muzak, Rediffusion and other companies. "Ambient" music often consists of blurred and shifting "tone colours" that evoke meditative andat times sinister moods. This may be the elevator music for a new generation nurtured on, and more comfortable with, media images of catastrophe and romantic angst.

One of the privileges of living in the New York city area is being able to retrace the steps of elevator music history. This is where Muzak set up its first big-time corporate headquarters back in the Thirties. Though the company has since moved to Seattle, the ghost of Muzak past still haunts this metropolis. Background music issues daily from such places as the Howard Johnson's restaurant in Times Square, some of the swanky hotels along Central Park west, and the World Trade Center concourse.

Strangely enough, I recently visited 888 7th Avenue, the old Westinghouse building, where Muzak once had its offices. I expected to still hear "Music by Muzak" in the lobby but instead encountered a lonely piano cordoned off in a corner, waiting for a three-dimensional pianist who would soon supply imitation piped-in music.

Fortunately, the 20th century has de-sanctified "live" performances. The moment music started coming out of wired contraptions, we had already forged a Faustian pact with alien choruses that have brought entertainment, not damnation. Elevator music simply carries this "virtual" virtuosity to its logical end.

Joseph Lanza's `Elevator Music: a Surreal History of Muzak, easy listening and other moodsong' is published by Quartet Books.