Disruptive Muzak. It’s a deliberately worded album title if ever there was one, with an adjective defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “causing or tending to cause disruption” or “innovative and groundbreaking” prefacing the pleasant, inoffensive connotations of the Muzak Corporation’s eponymous product. There’s truth in this sentiment, though, as anyone who’s ever tried calling Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will know: the caller is directed to a piece of hold music in medias res, which continues for as long as it takes a human advisor to respond — occasionally, the music fades altogether, only for a different piece to take its place. The effect is, well, quite disruptive, not only in the sense that one’s day is interrupted with every passing minute of administrative purgatory, but also in that each recognizable piece of music is seemingly mashed through some kind of Stygian filter, heightening the already-prescient annoyance of having to make such a phone call.
Fittingly, the automated voice of HMRC’s helpline sets the first side of Disruptive Muzak in motion, akin to the beginning of an actual phone call to the government’s tax department itself. Sam Kidel (a.k.a. El Kid of Young Echo and Killing Sound) was motivated to create this record as a part of his research into Muzak, for which he found the prerequisite qualities to be “familiar, predictable and non-disruptive” in sound. What followed was a turning of the tables: his composition is expressly designed to undermine and oppose the traditional remit of Muzak. Compared to the company’s licensed playlists, Kidel’s piece is indeed disruptive, a far cry from the Top 40 and lite-indie that might be heard in a shopping mall. In isolation — it is presented as such on the record’s second side — the music has more in common with the austerity and sparseness of laptop music or ambient, transmogrifying from fairly neutral-sounding staccato strokes into elegiac, almost mournful eddies of synthetic piano and electronic processing.
But Kidel didn’t stop at merely crafting a counterpoint to corporate mood music. Disruptive Muzak is a conceptual gambit, the aforementioned turning of tables from a sonic perspective diffusing into Kidel’s overarching vision for the project; he played his piece to government offices (which, as he points out, all utilize Muzak in their hold queues) through their phone lines and recorded the various responses of the human and non-human agents who were subject to his experiment, pitting the results against the music. It all sounds a bit like an extravagant schoolboy prank, but the careful sequencing of the respondents makes for a very tidy accompaniment to the music — as the piece ebbs and flows, so too does the chorus of confused voices, dial tones, and Skype drop-out sounds.
That the responses mesh so well with the music only serves to intensify them further. HMRC’s automated bot is non-plussed by the opening movement, its algorithm unable to detect the purpose of the call. The real call center workers don’t fare much better, providing an endless litany of desperate “Hello?”s that are heard alongside Kidel’s piece. Some fruitlessly attempt to salvage a conversation, while others hang up almost immediately — there’s a tangible spectrum of reactions to the music, which makes for entertaining listening while knowingly observing the pressures of the job. To this end, the absence of a person on Kidel’s end completely subverts the role of a call center worker. They can’t control or direct the conversation, and are instead led by the music, unable to tell whether they have befallen poor call quality or if their time is simply being wasted (which, of course, it is). This lack of control could be viewed as a comeuppance of sorts — lest we forget that the targets are exclusively departments of government — nevertheless, it’s difficult not to feel a tinge of sympathy, especially in an occupation which already faces its own unique mental and physical distresses.
Two separate moments of Disruptive Muzak stood out to me in particular. In an extremely meta passage, a canned version of Vivaldi’s “Spring” can be heard against the backdrop; it’s undoubtedly the most self-reflexive of all of Kidel’s inclusions, and perhaps epitomizes a prevailing perception about Muzak — familiar sounds are repurposed as an irritation, a roadblock to progress. The other occurs at the very end of the piece, when Ian from the Department for Work and Pensions picks up: having waited for a few seconds, he chuckles and asserts, “you’re having a laugh,” before releasing the call. More than anything, he sounds pissed off, and uncomfortably so. Muzak has had a few storied histories in its time, what with vaporwave’s genesis and, to a lesser extent, Porcupine Tree’s chin-stroking anti-corporate anthem “Sound of Muzak.” You can count Disruptive Muzak as another worthy entry into the conversation about the ever-blurred Muzak/music distinction, one that manifests its titular disruption in ways both subtle and brazen.