[Dixielandjazz] The divine sound of silence

Fr M J (Mike) Logsdon mjl at ix.netcom.com
Sun Nov 25 10:56:17 PST 2007

[Long, and not OKOM, but very interesting to those who understand the 
power of art and music.]

URL: http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2007/11/22/no_music_day/print.html

The divine sound of silence
Britain's No Music Day offers a welcome hush over
a noisy world. It can't come to America soon
By Kevin Berger

Nov. 22, 2007 | One can dream. What if no music
blared from airports, supermarkets, bars,
department stores or restaurants? Imagine being
able to sit down in your neighborhood cafe and
hear your friend talk without having to parse her
words through the strains of "Sweet Child o'
Mine." My god, that would be something for which
to give thanks. On Nov. 21, a surprisingly wide
swath of Britain honored "No Music Day." Radio
stations, stores, recording studios and scores of
music lovers took a laudable vow of musical
silence. Should No Music Day come to America
tomorrow, it wouldn't be soon enough.

The day of respite was cooked up by musician and
conceptual artist Bill Drummond, best known as
the mad genius at the controls of the KLF,
British progenitors of ambient house music. As
Drummond testified in the Guardian last year, his
love of music had been rattled out of him by its
ubiquity. "I decided I needed a day I could set
aside to listen to no music whatsoever," he
wrote. "Instead, I would be thinking about what I
wanted and what I didn't want from music. Not to
blindly -- or should that be deafly -- consume
what was on offer. A day where I could develop

Not being able to hear yourself think, or feel,
or escape "Hotel California," is indeed what
makes music in public places a nightmare. Your
poor senses are crushed every time you step out
of the house. By hammering you with pop tunes
before a movie, Cineplexes manage to kill your
appetite for a film. And can't we just daydream
in a market's fluorescent aisles, ruminate over
whether we want to prepare salmon or ravioli
tonight, without having to hear "once, twice,
three times a lady"?

I love the Doors, Otis Redding, the Clash, Public
Enemy, Lucinda Williams and Arcade Fire as much
as the next music fan. But why do bars insist on
pummeling us with their songs at the decibel
levels of NHRA drag races? Bars are supposed to
be an oasis from work and noise, places to sort
out life in conversations with friends and
lovers. I don't understand why bar owners insist
on undermining their storied and welcome culture
with eardrum-splintering music and now panoramic
TVs playing "Mission Impossible II." These days,
I gauge the sound level before deciding to sit
down and have a drink. One blast of "Once I had a
love and it was a gas" and I'm on to the next

In fact, I know why music is piped into bars,
markets, restaurants, department stores and Jiffy
Lube waiting rooms. It's based on pop psychology
and pseudoscience spouted by marketing and
advertising executives. As David Owen informed us
in a nifty New Yorker article last year on Muzak,
"The Soundtrack of Your Life," the company for 50
years was based on a trademarked concept called
Stimulus Progression, which held that "most
people really were happier and more productive
when there was something humming along in the
background." Elevator music probably earned its
name from the soothing tunes piped into early
skyscrapers, designed to calm people as they rode
the claustrophobic new contraptions to top floors.

In the '90s, Muzak reinvented itself with a new
philosophy called audio architecture. The company
sold music in public places not as a tranquilizer
but as a means to enhance the shopping
experience, as the marketing jargon goes. As
Alvin Collins, a founder of the concept,
explained to Owen, he was creating "retail
theater." Muzak wasn't about soothing music
anymore. "It was about selling emotion -- about
finding the soundtrack that would make this store
or that restaurant feel like something, rather
than just being an intellectual proposition."
That's why you now can't escape the Cure in Urban
Outfitters or the Gipsy Kings in any
Mediterranean restaurant; both are trying to
match their wares to the music their target
audience supposedly likes. Whether or not a
particular business is a client of Muzak's, they
are driven by the same concept: Retail theater is
all about consumption and music is a star of the

That leads to a deeper reason that music in
public places gets under your skin. You hear
songs that once lifted your spirits employed to
sell you a computer. I don't see much difference
between using music to make you feel good about a
dining experience and using it to sell you a car
on TV.

I can easily picture the bright and musically
savvy employee who came up with the idea to use
Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" to promote Volkswagen's
new Cabrio model. Pull an esoteric song out of
rock's demimonde to show off Volkswagen's
coolness to its college-crowd target. I have
never been more disheartened by the use of a song
in a commercial, or the response to it.

Afterward, many, including Drake's sister, said
the singer, who died in 1974, an apparent
suicide, benefited from the commercial because it
exposed millions of people to his music. That's a
pretty specious defense. One of the most
extraordinary qualities about Drake's sad and
lovely folk music is that it has grown in
popularity over the years by being passed between
friends like a tender secret. The commercial did
help the Drake estate sell records but at a
terrible cost to "Pink Moon." The emotionally
fragile song, whose central image is a haunting
metaphor for encroaching depression, is now
forever bound to an automobile. It's an
incredible shame and a phenomenon sadly taken for
granted, even endorsed.

A few years ago the talented Moby made a splash
by licensing his songs to Intel, the teen TV show
"Charmed," Nokia phones and Rover SUVs, sometimes
before they appeared on albums. Again, he
succeeded in introducing his soulful pop grooves
to a wide audience, but at the expense of having
them associated with other media.

Moby and a new legion of pop fans may be puzzled
that I see that association as regrettable. The
artist was exploiting new avenues of
distribution, and what does it matter whether you
hear a song on the radio, a TV show or a
commercial? The difference is that today's retail
theater, designed to coerce and sell, robs music
of its own visual and emotional power. I once
admired Moby's album "Play" but never listen to
it because of its association with the oppressive
drone of consumerism. Is that the legacy a
musician wants? Does the human spirit find
release in a phone commercial? I can't believe
that Bob Seger and John Cougar Mellencamp don't
regret the choice that eternally welded their
music to Chevy trucks.

The offensive Muzak philosophy that music can
condition consumer behavior or create a psychic
soundscape shows up in all kinds of public
places. I was once talked into going to a rural
spa where, after sipping tea in a Zen garden, you
are placed in a tub of hot cedar chips to drain
the toxins and stress from your body. I must
confess I began to relax like Buddha, except for
one thing. Once I was in the tub, the whispering
attendant asked me if there was anything else she
could get me. Yes, I said, could you please turn
off the soporific New Age music? Once she did I
could listen to the rain outside hitting the
spa's roof, and that's when I began to sink into
genuine tranquility.

I don't mean to sound crotchety. I can be sitting
in a bar and smile in solidarity with the
bartender who programmed the wistful and witty
Mountain Goats song into the sound system. And I
relish the Chopin nocturnes that my corner cafe
sometimes plays in the morning. I also don't mean
to raise the hoary complaint that music in public
is further fraying some grand social fabric, as
if life in America in 2007 is supposed to
resemble a 1920s Paris salon. I'm in love with
the modern world. I am.

Social critics like to bemoan the iPod, complain
that society has collapsed into everybody living
in their own private Idahos. But in fact
listening to music on an iPod, or accumulating
songs through file sharing, is a way to reclaim
music from the manipulations of the marketers, to
escape the claws of the behaviorists. Carving my
way through the crowded city, while listening to
music on my iPod, allows me to feel in touch with
my surroundings. Art that doesn't manipulate is
what forms real social bonds.

"We do not like to be pushed around emotionally,"
the avant-garde composer John Cage once said.
"The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the
mind, thus making it susceptible to divine
influences." I know that sounds high-minded, but
it also sounds right to me. I daresay the spare
piano pieces by Erik Satie and the minimalist
organ works by Arvo Pärt owe their enduring
popularity to how delicately they slice through
our congested soundscape. They allow us to hear
the hum of our own consciousness, to hear
something like enlightenment.

Which brings me back to why No Music Day is
wonderful and why we should launch the aural
holiday in America. What it's really about is not
escaping the incessant and unwanted drone of
music in public. It's about learning how to
listen again.

Copyright ©2007 Salon Media Group, Inc.

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list