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Triple Entendre: Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus

by Hervé Vanel
University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL, 2013
216 pp. Trade, $45.00
ISBN: 978-0252037993.

Reviewed by Brian Reffin Smith
Collège de ’Pataphysique

We love to place things along continua, forcing multi-dimensional phenomena onto a straight line that is probably compartmentalised into a mere handful of categories we can get a grip on. Nowhere more so than with the arts. In the case of music, whose categories seem designed for mystification, it's not easy, but we strain to do it. From John Cage's silence to the self-parody of heavy metal, from the wondrous Portsmouth Sinfonia to the UNESCO designated, intangible world heritage of Sardinian throat singing, we have ways of explaining why it is music, where it is along the line, and hence of course of commodifying it.

Then along comes a transgression. Worse, one that has been with us since the 1940s. No, not crooning, Muzak. From the Muzak Corporation. Shock! Horror! Degradation! Muzak was to music what Tracey Emin's bed is to the Daily Mail's art. What a relief, then, that John Cage added edgy, near-tangible heritage value to the very concept of it, by inventing Muzak-Plus. Phew! Muzak is, thus, able to be pinned to its reserved place - now we see it! - along a line starting - perhaps! Who knows! - with Erik Satie's "furniture music" and passing via Cage towards ambient music, iPad drone and just, like, 8 bit post-video-game wave-table looping madness!

The above is not only, I assert, true, but also useful, rich, and extremely interesting. One cannot repeat too often that the sideways mapping of discourse from one domain to another is deeply satisfying and illuminating, irredundant holism. And of course the ideas treated in this study could be couched in terms, say, of found text, Situationist strolling, seaside postcards or computer art.

Triple Entendre, by Hervé Vanel, is partly about a music designed not to be listened to but to enhance productivity, change, or reinforce moods, a trademarked instrument of social engineering. Not to be listened to, but always heard. You can blink, but you don't have earlids. [1]

The title is deserving of unraveling. In full, it is Triple Entendre: Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus. So three ways of hearing. Then, of course, there is the pun on ‘double entendre’, where one utterance can conceal another and you can have it both ways, if you know what I mean––except, as Vanel must know, ‘double entendre’ is a phrase not to be found in the French section of any dictionaire bilangue, but only in the English part, explaining to the somewhat mystified French that it means ‘double entente’, one more cordial false friend. So, a self-referentially triple entendre/entente/pun acting perhaps as a metaphor for what is to be found inside.

And what is inside is fascinating, well-written, and often quite funny, especially the appalling promotional material from Muzak, who, to give them their due, were entirely honest: "Muzak is . . . a management tool.” The text is an interdisciplinary analysis of doing and making, theorising and demystifying, not only the music but also the broader cultural, historical, economic and philosophical contexts and implications of its subject.

The book is centrally a study of Cage's Muzak-Plus, but this has to discuss Muzak, and its semantic links to Satie's musique d'ammeublement, described here as a "watermark" in Cage's work. And as always, in discussing one thing, the perhaps disgusting use of sound, mindlessly omni-present, to make people work harder and "reduce hidden payroll costs", we have also to attend to its opposite, participation in music. The sublime and ridiculous often go hand in hand towards some meta-level from which you can see or invent new stuff. Just what is the relationship, what are the differences and similarities between despicable Muzak and Cage's by now near-mainstream contribution? Along what lines do we judge them? Are we elitist snobs, indiscriminately omnivorous generalists (as deliberate political or self-comforting act?) or meta-theorists of everything? What are the equivalents of furniture music, Muzak and Muzak-Plus, in fields such as art, writing, TV or design? Are we dealing with art as life, or life as art, and is there a difference beyond one of intention? Is it revolution or utter stasis? Are we doing it, making it, stopping it or "in it"? Should we call a musicologist, or the police?

If you have any interest in the relation between what is and what is not (what is/not music, creativity, but much more than that), if the boundaries between theory and public practice are too rigid for you, or too fuzzy to see, or if you don't know much about music but know what you like, especially this latter, then you will greatly profit from reading this book, as your surprised and delighted reviewer did.


[1] R. Murray Schaffer makes this point in “Open Ears,” where he opens with the line, “We have no ear lids.” Acoustic Ecology, Melbourne, Australia, 2003. 

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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