Jake Tilson Studio textsbiographicalbibliography
the state rests its case against background music

An article originally for World Art magazine, Australia, as part of their OBSESSION series.

"I choose not to own a record collection"
John Cage, BBC TV documentary 1988

"Elevator Man Slays Eight in Yonkers"
New York Post 1977

Recorded music has its own schedule.

 ....Tilson looks up from his miniature potatoes hearing Hendrix, a momentary snatch from a long track, eight seconds played over documentary footage of Canal Street being projected onto the plastic laminated wall separating World Traveller from Club Class. In his head he is two hours into a seven hour flight and ten minutes into a twenty-three minute documentary, but hearing the dislocated Hendirx fragment all Tilson can now think of is the two minutes of missing music before the fragment and the twelve after. He also remembers the image on the LP cover resting on his studio shelf. A temporal imbalance occurs as the musical fragments in the documentary expand like cous cous in his brain. He is no longer watching the documentary.


"Good morning, Callhaven, how can I help you, technical support ? That line is busy do you wish to hold ? ..." Rachmaninov to Reich. Otis Elevators. "I'll have a Ushler kebab and a bottle of Buzbag please..." Hendrix to Prince. The Express Lift Company. "Whites courtesy phone for Mr Tilson...". Tokyo toilets.

Background music is a heavy, temporal blanket imposed on us to smother any life and live sounds of the moment. A sonic straight jacket sponsored by Sony and Warners. If John Cage found listening to a recording of live music an uninteresting and false experience surrounded by the beauty of his murmuring house try avoiding background music today ! The yin and yang of urban audio seem unbalanced.

Western sound engineers' treatment of BM favours the noise pollution of concourses, lobbies, aisles and open shopping areas. In Japan even our silent shopping interludes aren't overlooked for audio stimulation. Surround sound was installed in American supermarkets in the mid 1950's reaching European strasse and high streets during the early 1960's. British background music evolved from Music While You Work, broadcast into munitions factories by radio during the second world war. Continuous tape machines with auto reverse or endless tape loops provided several hours of music. Today you can still rent an eight-hour CD and playback machine from Philips featuring mood music in several grades.

"Elevator mood music" and "workplace functional music" interrupts the ebb and flow of our existence channelling us like Las Vegas travelators. Smoothing the way. A recorded piece of music plays in its own time frame -we observe. Live music meshes with the continuum we are living. Musicians sense acoustical shifts and audience temperature changes and act accordingly. Even an earthquake could leave a mood music CD player intact calming the ruins or trying to hasten imaginary commuters on fractured platforms.

Occasionally I'm a BM provider at dinner parties where I don't want to risk silence. Jazz at level 2 is a safe bet or Far Eastern ceremonial music from speakers in an adjacent room. Physical separateness from the audio source transforms it into "actual" background music by adding aerial perspective rather than just being quiet. If you want your friends to actually listen to some music make them a tape to take home. I once had a take away meal that had a light activated musical chip in the bag as on birthday cards. It played away whilst I ate my crispy duck and Singapore fried noodle.

Do musicians receive performing rights fees for elevators ? Are they given contractual choice over the juxtaposition of their work in shopping malls or documentaries on TV?

Walkmen can control some preference of background music. Moments of synchronisity can occur in loud bars or whilst on a telephone. A musical phrase slips between conversation and a passing truck creating a small dynamic moment. Standing below the vaulted ceiling on platform five whilst on hold to my service provider a station announcement is echoed by the Abba song I'm being fed from the Telecom handset.

The use of pre-existing music on television and film soundtracks rarely escapes temporal lunges, halts and breaks caused by dislocated music. Notable exceptions being Woody Allen, Dennis Potter, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. The reverse can be equally powerful, an exclusive musical score, Adolph Deutsch (The Apartment ), Bernard Herrmann (Taxi Driver) Henry Mancini (Touch of Evil). At least these musical scores though manipulative have purpose beyond being audio mayonnaise. A John William's swelling of strings might piss you off something rotten - but far worse is almost hearing the Rolling Stones squeaking from a flush mounted ceiling loudspeaker whilst walking between the chilled frozen yoghurt display and the fresh fruit aisle in Gristedes.

In order of aggrievence: telephones, lifts, airplanes, restaurants, shopping malls. This seems to suggest that proximity to the offending source is key. Degrees of audio claustrophobia .

Stamp it out. Join the campaign Pay the money. Make a choice. Engage.

What are my chances of never hearing Aida in a lift ever again or Strangers in the Night straining from a telephone handset , ... slim. Will I be in an empty restaurant alone and have a waiter turn the music on for me, ... without doubt.

What can be done without having to resort to the Yonkers solution ? Perhaps have business cards printed up on the Instant Image machine at Victoria Station. "Director of Public Heath and Safety," "Turn it OFF."

Luckily a negative obsession reveals an equivalent positive feeling. I'd rather feel positive.

After reading this you'll notice being put on hold with digitised music. You'll become wary when buying a tin of chopped tomatoes. A good friend will insist on playing you Deep Purple in Rock while serving Lasagne and between the third and sixth floors you'll hear twenty-two seconds of an opera you last heard when you were five. Then you'll slowly stop noticing background music - time is a great healer. But little sharp fragments of sound will send error codes through your synapses to your memory. A little bit of cut and paste. You'll wonder why it is that you find yourself either walking along a beach, sitting on a stone in a desert or choosing the coach to town from bay six because that particular coach doesn't play music.


Jake Tilson's audio artworks include: 1982 "Ground Zero Inc 24 Hour Service" (with John Grimaldi) a collage of New York radio and added synthesized sounds, 1993 "Gate 23" a dry signal recording of international departure lounge announcements at Gatwick Airport, "Foundsounds" fragments of audio cassette found on the roadside in eight cities accompanied by location recordings, 1995 "parisnew yorklondon" space recordings made in The Metropolitan Museum, Muse du Louvre and Tate Gallery, 1996 "Music from Afar" the sound of live music in the streets and subways recorded from a distance. "Hannahsleeps", "Hungerford Bridge." These works are available on CD and/or cassette from Atlas.
A book titled "The Music of Sound" by Jake Tilson is to be published in 1997 by UOA Press


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A practical solution to your local noise pollution hotspots. Restaurants, bars, malls, even a friendsí house.

Make a difference to the ambient sound of your neighbourhood.

Print out this PDF as often as you like, hand out violation tickets - take action yourself


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No rights reserved. Noise Violation Officer Kit TM may be re-printed, lent, resold or hired out. Noise Violation Officer Kit TM may be reproduced and stored in a retrieval system. It can be transmitted in any form and by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recorded or otherwise.

With special thanks to:
Cecilia Aguilar, Nigel Sherman
and Eastern Translations, London
commissioned for “Site of Sound: of architecture and the ear”
edited by Brandon LaBelle and Steve Roden.
Errant Bodies Press. LOS ANGELES.

London - 1996 - many thanks to World Art for reproduction of this article