- Triple Entendre: Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus by Hervé Vanel
by Hervé Vanel, University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL, U.S.A., 2013. 216 pp. Trade. ISBN: 978-0-2520-3799-3.
We love to place things along continua, forcing multi-dimensional phenomena onto a straight line that is probably compartmentalized into a mere handful of categories we can get a grip on. Nowhere is this 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, but 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 of, say, 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 . The title is deserving of unraveling.
In full, the title of the book reads Triple Entendre: Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus; it offers three ways of hearing. Then, of course, there is the pun on “double entendre,” where one utterance can conceal another, and one can have it mean or be understood both ways, if you know what I mean. As Vanel must know, the phrase “double entendre” is not to be found in the French section of any dictionnaire bilingue, but only in the English sections, where it is explained to the somewhat mystified French that it means double entente, one more cordial false friend. So a close reading of the title reveals it [End Page 95] as a self-referential 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, theorizing 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 omnipresent, to make people work harder and “reduce hidden payroll costs,” we also have 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 and what are the differences and similarities between despicable Muzak and Cage’s by now...