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    Posts filed under || Sound

    Hildegard Westerkamp on Background Music

    written on April 23rd, 2016


    Yesterday, Hildegard Westerkamp shared this story on the Acoustic Ecology listserv, and I thought it might be worth sharing with a larger audience. Although I might not share Westerkamp’s views on the nature of listening (“But does anyone actually listen to the music  – or to the intent behind the music, for that matter?”), her letter is a poignant critique of muzak’s insidious power of anesthetization and distraction.

    Without further ado…


    Dear Colleagues and Friends,

    Today is Earth Day, a perfect day to share with you a letter I just wrote to the PlayNetwork after they approached me to use one of my compositions for background music purposes! Imagine Gently Penetrating beneath the sounding surfaces of another place  – that’s the piece they requested as a starter – at Starbucks!

    Here is the letter (The irony was just too enormous for me not to respond in this fashion!):

    It seems rather strange and ironic that I would be approached to add my music to the libraries of the background music market. My  compositions do not lend themselves at all to be heard as background music, and I will certainly not make it available. Thank you for the offer, but it goes absolutely against everything that I am trying to do as a composer.

    Background music insidiously distracts people from the real social, environmental and cultural issues in this world. The Muzak Corporation and all other leased music companies have been rather successful in creating obedient consumers (and workers) for decades now, who essentially and with deaf ears provide the huge profits that are being made through the creation of background music atmospheres. How is it, that millions of so-called listeners (or ‘impressions’, as you call them in your email below!) have been convinced that they cannot live without music during every day of their lives. But does anyone actually listen to the music  – or to the intent behind the music, for that matter? No, of course not. It has been the corporate intent all along, to create audiences who do not listen, who swallow any musical sound presented to them and thus enable the profit-making of the background music industry.

    In a world in which environmental and social issues are emerging everywhere, alert ears and minds are needed to notice and counteract these grave conditions. The ongoing efforts by the background music industry to ‘soothe’ its audiences into false comfort and numb ears and minds into a kind of haze of inattention, are outright irresponsible and rather sinister under these urgent circumstances in which our world currently finds itself.

    In your email below you say please consider the environment before printing this email. Equally, please consider the acoustic environment and the ears and mental sanity of your listeners, before continuing to devalue the real quality of music and the world’s acoustic environments. In that spirit, I will not contribute my music to PlayNetwork, and thus will not become part of a “brand that moves consumers” as it says so poignantly on your website. I also have not printed your email.

    I am pretty convinced that no one at PlayNetwork has actually listened to my music, and that this request does not come from an informed listener, but rather from the corporate context of collecting as many ‘tunes’ or ‘songs’ as possible for the purpose of making profit.

    With best regards,
    Hildegard Westerkamp


    || filed under: Academia, Music, Sound
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    Museum of Endangered Sounds

    written on February 3rd, 2016

    Museum of not-so-endangered soundsRecently, this website has been doing the rounds on sound and archive-related circuits. The Museum of Endangered Sounds was created in »January of 2012 as a way to preserve the sounds made famous by [Brendan Chilcutt’s] favorite old technologies and electronics equipment.«

    This blend of digital amnesia and our sonic past should be right up my alley, yet navigating the site I’m uncomfortably writhing in my chair. There is a playful and nostalgic element to this that I emphasise with. It’s fun going back to those – even at the time – terrible ICQ notifications or the operational noises of the ZX Spectrum computer. I can even enjoy the still very present sounds of my life, such as the turntable, film camera or cassette tape hiss. With fear of sounding like grumpy old man, I think there is something dangerous in this idosyncratic approach to preservation. This very narrowly curated selection of sounds does not a museum make.


    Just as James Scott will tell you that we need not worry about the preservation of Super Mario, many of the sounds collected by Chilcutt are in no way in danger of being lost. The Nokia ringtones, the Tetris soundtrack, the vinyl turntable and the Windows 95 startup sounds are not “advocate-less items” – we’re set on major OS startup sounds.

    And this is where The Museum of Endangered Sounds becomes trite or even harmful. It canonises our recent technological past in a mere 33 popular sounds. Since every inclusion to the archive is an exclusion of something else, projects like these instill a false sense of security that the past is “taken care of.” If you want to see endangered sounds look to Jason Scott and Archive.org’s work on netlabels and software emulation/collection, or Lori Emerson’s work on the Media Archaeology Lab.

    || filed under: Archives, Sound