Artpress SEPTEMBER 2001 - by Christophe Kihm


Some changes of perspective in the history of artistic forms or practices can only be grasped if we first understand the foundations on which they are based and around which they are articulated. In the history of Western music, orchestration is one of the nodal points from which types of music diverge, and around which cultural registers and aesthetic families are determined. Not that there is a single model at the base of all musics, but they are all, even if by default, linked to shared structures. There is a very real history of forms in which Brian Eno, John Cage and Erik Satie come together and sketch out a framework that questions the technical, aesthetic and political conditions of the appearance and disappearance of music - its spatial and symbolic dimensions. This historical strand is linked and articulated in relation to the history of the orchestra and orchestration, even when it rejects or contradicts it, but also to that of technology. Its critique of aesthetic modernity is also founded on an openness to modern technology. Edison, Muzak and transistors all play an important role here.


In countries adhering to the Western musical tradition, the number of instruments and instrumentalists in a symphony orchestra were finalised and formalised in the 19th century. The aesthetic criteria of music in relation to which orchestra and orchestration would be defined and redefined in the future were laid down by Berlioz in his Traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration (Treatise on Instrumentation) of 1844. This treatise established the primacy of the written score, of the orchestral ensemble and of the concert form, while setting out the spatial hierarchy of the constituent instruments. This reform, which led gradually to the ascendancy of sound, timbre and the mixture of intensities and harmonics (as opposed to the relations of the pitch, frequency and intervals, which had long dominated Western music), also includes the highly programmatic precept that, Any sonorous body used by the composer is a musical instrument. Thus noise, too, is officially recognised as part of the score.

We see here the meeting of two contradictory intentions: the desire to broaden the aural spectrum, both the orchestra's and the music's, and to include non-music as part of the music, but also the will to define the status, authority and rights of the author through a musical object: the work and its performance. This reification of music marks the culmination of a Western program in which composition, execution, and then melody, harmony, scale, tempo, tonality, atonality, the structuring of time and precise and standardised instrumentation all established a system whose domination grew continuously. The musical act and object are defined by their varyingly complex forms, resting on the triad of composer, performer and listener. The idea of the work of music is what links these three actors. No active listening is necessary. The work is written. The model is the score on paper. It is, though, an ambiguous model because it guarantees the fixity and transmission of music, organizes the distinction between creator and executants but erodes the geographical frontiers between different musical styles.

The industrial musical object stands in absolute contrast to the Romantic musical object. When Edison patented his phonograph in 1877 (the first words of this talking machine were Mary had a little lamb), he was introducing the public to an invention that combined two key scientific qualities: the imitation of aural reality by means of a reproduction (hence the terminology around fidelity, all the way to high fidelity, which could compete for musical performance on its own terms), and a support: recording (first on cylinders, then on wax), enabling this to be preserved. Here was a real challenge to the idea of uniqueness, and to conceptions of time. Now the Romantic triad of composer, performer and listener was confronted with that of product, machine and use. The industrial musical object pushed the original event, the performance, into the background. What mattered now were the transmission, reproduction and rendering of sound.

Not many people know that the phonograph was also used to analyse the mood of its listeners. In 1915 Edison even tested his invention in factories. There was a perception that music and sound could act as a kind of social medicine. It so happens that 1915 was also the year Kurt Weill composed his Gebrauchmusik, a suite of pieces for playing in the home, designed to remove the barriers between art and usage. Even more significant here is Berlioz's description of his own musical activity as phonoscientific, whereby he signalled his rejection of the Wagnerian and Impressionist aesthetics in favor of an interest in sound and its reproduction via the industrial musical object. Satie was employed as a pianist at the Chat Noir cabaret and at the Auberge du Clou, where he played along behind other artistes, and he composed songs - coarse filth - for Paulette Darty. Debussy called him a medieval musician, a reference to the use of plainsong in his compositions. But Satie was no medievalist lost in the modern world. His wariness of the expression of feelings and lyricism and his concomitant interest in sound spaces, opened up a new avenue towards the modern aesthetic. For if the orchestra defined by Berlioz in 1844 welcomed both music and noise, Satie put the emphasis on silence in relation to sound, on a certain form of phonography. (1) He took two decisive steps in this direction with the Vexations (1893) and Musique d'ameublement (Music as Furniture, 1920)


In his accompanying comments on Vexations, Satie mentions that, In order to play this theme eight hundred and forty times, it would be a good idea first to prepare in absolute silence, with some serious immobility. What matters in the Vexations is not so much the musical structure as the duration in which it is conveyed. The sequence is repeated, mechanically reproduced until the melody is exhausted, emptied - until, in a word, silence takes over. (2) But if phonoscience makes it possible to achieve the erasure of music by the repetition of melody, this can also be achieved by drowning it in space. The Musique d'ameublement, which Satie conceived as a simple background, achieves this second aim of phonoscience by exploiting the relatively modest volume of the instruments that play it. This piece no doubts marks the culmination of Satie's experiments. However, his ideal of inexpressiveness should not be taken literally but seen in relation to the polemical context in which it was produced. Darius Milhaud, who was involved in the first performance (the Musique d'ameublement provided interludes between the different tableaux of a theatrical show by Max Jacob), recommended that the music should not be listened to but simply heard, that we should not pay it any special attention because it was designed to make a contribution to life in the same way [...] as the chair on which you are or are not sitting. The Musique d'ameublement is a diffuse entity, to be tried and tested as a modest element of everyday life, mixed in with the noise of conversation. But one that also points up the ruin of the musical object. After Satie's death, Milhaud acknowledged the pertinence of this vision for an age when children and housewives fill their homes with the impersonal music, reading an working to the sound of their radio.

After the Musique d'ameublement the next stop is muzak, that industrial sound track for interiors, or musical wallpaper. The Muzak© Corporation, founded after World War II by Brigadier George Owen Squier, was in fact dedicated to a social utopia. By linking geographically remote regions over the airwaves, by creating a post-industrial site between entertainment and engineering with its musical programs for the workplace, it set out to reduce worker stress while at the same time increasing company sales (we can see here the direct continuation of Edison's experiments in the workplace). This was the foundation of industrial background music. Muzak soon began trying to create mixtures of sounds and musical elements that would be sure to please the masses. This led to the emergence of a kind of musical Esperanto, a language devoid of pathos, an amniotic fluid for listeners. (4) But Muzak© was about more than music (and certainly never about less). Its permanent radio program, which could be heard in every home, even if its source remained inaccessible, would be the unifying principle of a perfect harmony, like a celestial aspiration sending out the sound of paradise. One can imagine Muzak's phantom orchestra being conducted by God himself, providing a rhythm for our lite society, filling up the empty spaces and measuring the duration of passing time, as if to accompany the transition from the market economy to the consumption of culture.

More seriously, these industrial musics were symptomatic of a radical change in our listening habits that occurred during the twentieth century. The phonograph is our musical life, wrote John Cage. This movement from an external locus to an interior one was indeed the major transformation in our musical life. The status of music had not really changed, but its social function had been modified by its availability. Music became what we carry around with us. Radio and the media for reproducing and playing music massively extended the space for the reception and consumption of music. The record, a rendering without performance, brought about new uses. The best new developments in this life of music (we are already familiar with the worst) sought to break with the passive listening generated by the culture industry, to invent (here as well) new forms. All this strangely coincided with and echoed muzak, which itself shook two of the pillars of the modern aesthetic by doing away with the notion of the author and replacing it with the logo, guaranteeing a certain repertoire of sounds, a catalogue of atmospheres which consign music to an ideal background, bringing down orchestral hierarchies, flattening the aural object via an operation limiting it to the purely decorative dimension. But is the only viable background music the kind of music that turns the world into a gigantic theme park? Is there nothing else beyond this inverted utopia that kills off the humanity of music?


At the two extremities of the muzak phenomenon, Satie and Brian Eno prove, disconcertingly enough, to have a lot in common. Both these musicians set out to overturn a musical system by drawing on technological developments (sound equipment), anthropological trends (the behaviour of listeners) and aesthetic realities (Romanticism was to Satie what muzak is to Eno). In spite of the obvious differences in time and place, the two men have a lot in common in terms of their thoughts about the place of music and of the answers they found to their questions concerning the way music comes into being and disappears. We may also note that both worked/work on the margins of high and low forms, between the avant-garde and pop; that both explore(d) the musical implications of the changes in listeners' behaviour patterns resulting from technological developments (the recording studio turned phonoscience into the full-fledged art of the producer/engineer); that both show(ed) a preference for reduction and lightness in their compositions, preferring modest pieces and miniatures, short and sometimes deceptive forms to the magnum opus. All this reflects a shared interest in the space of music, which itself implies an art of displacement comparable to a form of nomadism.

Finally, we may note that Eno's career began in a very singular anti-orchestral gesture, a cross between pop, improvised music and performance. This was The Portsmouth Sinfonia, which Eno joined soon after its formation by Gavin Bryars (who also studied with Cage). The strange thing about the Sinfonia is that it allows its members to choose which instruments they want to play. So, while some keep their habitual instruments, others swap and try out new ones, often playing them for the first time (Eno played clarinet). The goal of this superb adventure is not so much an aesthetic one, the negation of music (some of Portsmouth musicians can read and play music and do it for a living), as a political one, to negate the orchestra and its hierarchies - the social role of the conductor, the positioning of the different instruments, etc. - by calling into question its competencies and values through the necessarily approximate nature of their fidelity to the score, the work and its performance.


What are we to think of a form that, when slightly disrupted, produces exactly the opposite of the expected impression, in a version of the repertoire in which all dramaturgy is irremediably transformed into burlesque? This denial of the orchestral unit (which seems a necessary step for any musician who rejects the frontality of the system) goes hand in hand with a kind of fascination on Eno's part (and, come to think of it, on Satie's too) with weightlessness and diffuseness (on top of mobility, that of numerous collaborations and alliances with other musicians), applicable to both the musical and material economy. Against the orchestra with its fixed positions, and for the recording studio, the blind place where it is possible to invoke airplanes, overflown landscapes or ghosts (whether those of the orchestra, since it is now possible to reconstitute it fully from this particular, or of humans [4]). Eno often uses olfactive or pictorial metaphors (perfume, the creation of spaces) to describe his musical universe. While his music is written, it is above all sound (made with frequencies and tonalities [5]), and develops through forms of lethargy, fluidity and arrhythmia. These signal a new stage in phonoscience marked the fusion of the roles of composer, sound engineer and producer. Eno's ambient music, as a response to muzak and the modern aesthetic, is an open form in which chance plays an active role. By nature incomplete, it is written in anticipation of the circumstances where it will be heard, the circumstances that will complete it. It is as if Eno, knowing that any musical form involves the whole body (as a civilised, educated, programmed organism), and aware of the physiological dimensions of all music (since, however much we may try to stand back, we enter into it, as if captured and surrounded by the sound - a reality which explains why some reject it), had felt the need to create exits so that we can leave the music as we have entered it. Or, even more, as if he had created spaces for movement that leave us free to choose the position we occupy there. The culmination of the program laid out in the Musique d'ameublement, this inversion of perspectives and planes, is completed by the installation of the listener in the music as tenant or dweller (but not as captive, connoisseur or specialist, since the question of competence does not arise here).

By separating music from its organic bodies (musicians and instruments), Eno unites it with the chemical bodies of waves and acoustic undulation. Here things come apart and slip away. The geographical fable is only a fiction, it projects us into another place where we become multiple. It creates its own tribe of ghosts. The nature of listening changes. The listener's role is not prescribed. It is participative, but in the discreet mode. No adhesion is required because nothing is predetermined by a set space or time. The most singular aspect of Eno's ambient music is no doubt this adventure that is promised to the listener. As if the music necessarily had to disappear for the latter to assert himself; as if the hierarchy of bodies and actions, reflecting the social division of space, had necessarily to give way before the chemical distribution of forces, in the uncertain space/time of molecular division, in order for listening to become an experience of travel, a journey to be made rather than a map to be contemplated. In Eno's fable, the topos aspect necessarily engages a topological concern.

With the advent of the home studio and the development, then the proliferation of electronic instruments, this floating aesthetic of ambient music has now inspired many (more or less successful) followers, opening up fresh possibilities for aural architecture, all the way to the creation and development of a new discipline of music and sound: sound design.

(1) The two composers should not be taken as opposites. Rather, they formulated different aspects of the same development. The opening sought by Berlioz became a moment of closure, setting out to define the principles of orchestration and composition, whereas Satie pushed these new rules further by questioning both the musical moment (the unique object, the performance) and music itself (how it is played and heard). This continuity within rupture was a powerful motive force of modernity.
(2) Cage, who was the first person to argue for Satie as a composer of duration rather than harmony, had this eighteen-hour piece performed by twelve pianists who took turns. This was at the Pocket Theater, New York in 1963, some seventy years after the work's composition.
(3) Muzak© Corp. gave its name to the music it produced, and then to any kind of music of a similar nature. On this, see Joseph Lanza's Elevator Music.
(4) The titles of his albums - Discreet Music, Music For Airports, On Land, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, etc. - are pretty eloquent in this respect.
(5) See pages 353-357 of Brian Eno's diary for 1995, A Year (With Swollen Appendices) (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), where he offers a superb discussion of ambient music.