Friday, February 8, 2013

The day the Muzak died

Perhaps you've heard--on Monday the Muzak corporation announced a name change. They are now going to be known as "Mood."

Oh, they're not going away. The concept of vaguely cool sounds that can be piped into restaurants, elevators, shopping malls, and God knows where else, is far too lucrative not to weather a simple name change. Muzak's genius was in being able to deliver the goods--the need was already there. You might be one of millions sampling their product right now.

You're not? Well, dial some up. And if you can't find any, I suppose you can hit some random button in the Pianonoise listening archive, turn the sound down so low you can barely hear it, and let it play in the background while you pay attention to something else, namely this blog. It's not a particularly good fit: there aren't any pieces on Pianonoise featuring xylophones and flutes, and most of the music was written before the middle of the last century which is where Muzak's mellow instrumental arrangements of mostly vocal tunes come in. Also, the Pianonoise webmaestro has a deplorable habit of posting recordings at different volumes, and which generally weren't really made for not paying attention to them, so they tend to get in the way of a good time, sometimes.

All of which really points to the fact that Muzak and I aren't really on the same course. My take on music is that it is generally better if you are actually paying attention to it. Artists tend to operate on that strange principle, that somehow it isn't just a commodity that you buy in bulk and throw away any unused portions.

That really is a minority position, however. Muzak's is the majority, and they've taken on at least a couple other characteristics of our modern society to boot, in a kind of mimicry that is good for business. We like things processed: Muzak delivers not so much music as music product. And we like bargains, fiscal and mental. Muzak's product is for the most part indescribably bland, and undemanding. This is good for capturing the inattention of as many people as possible.

I'm allowed to moralize on Fridays (this is the church music side of the blog) so I think I'll point out that there are a whole lot of other things people like to just have on in the background while they do whatever it is they are doing. People like to have background religion, for instance. Or background relationships. Or background work habits. Anything that doesn't appear to require much in the way of maintenance. This is the  majority stance, whether by choice, or by default, or because it is the best we know how. Anybody familiar with the 80/20 rule knows that most people in any group are pretty much along for the ride and expect those who are steering to keep the ship on course and not do anything too attention grabbing.

It doesn't really take that much imagination to see the church behaving the same way in many respects. For centuries, the language of the Mass was in a language most people couldn't understand if they tried, and the ritual, repetitive and soothing, was a reassuring background to the mass of worshipers. A few scholars could understand the words, and knew what the various costumes and props were for, but for most, it was just part of the pleasantly incomprehensible music of the faith. Which turns out to have been brilliant psychology. It is easier to rule over a mass of humanity if their brains aren't functioning too much. A few can't help it: you give them the leadership roles and hope they don't make a mess of things. And to the rest you preach peaceful submission, and confident slumber. Don't worry, we've got it covered.

Some have found it rather bland. But bland is a good way to avoid controversy. Nobody likes it too much, but there isn't that much to complain about, either. Something with personality will have adherents and detractors and be fought over; nobody cares to spend much hot breath over plain vanilla. So it is with many decisions we make in the modern Protestant church, musical and otherwise. We can't get people to agree on  green or gold or blue or red, so let's settle for a mushy gray or a middle-of-the-road brown.

And of course, when it comes to the instrumental music of the church, often the organist's responsibility, there are reams of admonitions to make sure that whatever the organist plays it won't be noticeable. Such unseemly displays of noticeableness detract from the worship of God, as if the messenger can only get in the way of the message unless his message is so bland you won't notice either of them. And so the favorite instrumental noise of the church is background music, good for elevating the mood, and not asking much of the rest of our being.

And then along comes the artist, more prophet than priest, with music that says "wake up! Look alive out there! Pay attention to the here and now! The kingdom of heaven is in your midst, not far away in the sweet bye and bye! And it's getting away! Go after it!"

Such a course is dangerous. It is like trying to wake up a slumbering bear. If you succeed...

But we are more likely to fail. The church, universal and local, has learned that it is safest to let those who want to sleep, sleep. And as a result, most of that troublesome artistic crowd has had to find work outside its walls. A mutual antipathy has built up over the last few centuries--Centuries of not really caring for each other.

Still, someone has to try it every so often, so from out in the world a cry goes up which the people of God ignore at their peril. It isn't fancy: sometimes it is no more than "pay attention! Look around!"

In the last act of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" the heroine, Emily, visiting her past after her death, realizes that she and her family were sleepwalking through a lot of life. She cries out, " are too wonderful....doesn't anybody notice?" To which the narrator answers "artists and poets, they do, sometimes..."

Sometimes. But for some reason the church often thinks of those messengers as the enemy.

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