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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #323
The New Muzak
David Gunn

Thirty and a third years ago, the Muzak Corporation was foundering. Although its name was so recognizable that it was defined in many American dictionaries -- "a trademark used for recorded background music transmitted by wire or radio, as to a place of business, on a subscription basis" -- the nature of its business was so often subject to ridicule and public scorn that its customer base was disappearing almost as fast as the memory of a just-played Muzak recording. But in 1971, a savvy advertising executive made two important marketing decisions: he changed the description in the promotional brochure from "background musical swill clearinghouse" to "audio architecture;" and he hired Igor Stravinsky to write and arrange a series of music tracks. While the relationship with Stravinsky lasted only six weeks -- several autobiographers blame his sudden death in April of that year on a severe allergic reaction to a weasel-on-a-bun from the Muzak cafeteria -- other tunesmiths, lured by ubiquitous performance opportunities to captive audiences, eagerly signed on, commencing a clandestine connection with contemporary composers that would forever alter the scope of its commercial craft.

Most listeners to Muzak recordings would be hard pressed to unravel the complex process involved in camouflaging contemporary compositional forms so as to make the music safe and friendly. Even the most extreme constructs -- stochasticism, pointillism, serialism, abstract expressionism, ventriloquism, rheumatism -- turn into harmless little, immediately forgettable ditties after undergoing muzakification. One celebrated challenge was John Cage's 4'33", which he wrote for an on-hold telephone line at the Quaker Oats Company. The piece features no generated sounds at all, instead relying on spontaneous audible responses from its audience. It was a conceptual composition, and one that didn't last long in the Muzak library. And while the company soon thereafter let Cage go, he and 4'33" eventually found new life and a new audience in the avant-garde concert scene.

Today, Saturday, Muzak, too, is finding new life and new audiences in diverse new fields. Its culinary services section, Foodzak, reduces the most difficult-to-prepare comestible to an inoffensive, edible paste. Give a bottle of 50-year old Scotch and a can of 100-year old Dom Pérignon to Boozak, the wine and spirits division, and you'll be rewarded with both tasting not unlike friendly tap water. Offensive to some but applauded by others, its religious bureau, Jewzak, abridged the Torah into a one-page big-print tract. And thanks to cross-fertilization from Foodzak engineers, the page is available in an inoffensive, edible paste format. MUzak, Muzak's adjunct at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, effectively distills an entire four-year baccalaureate program into a three-week elective course, also available in an edible paste configuration.

What does Muzak's future hold? Besides continuing its relationship with many of today's most unlikely composers -- whose names, if I mentioned them, you'd recognize in an instant -- plans are afoot to enter the popular sneaker market with Shoezak, the historical revisionism arena with Truezak, and to go head to head against tabloid journalists with a weekly two-sided, edible-paste publication called Newszak.

The number of one-time-or-another Muzak-employed composers who have had pieces played over Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar -- including but not limited to this 323rd episode -- might startle you. It certainly gives us the willies, and we don't even officially know who they are. Take the tune you're listening to right now. Can you be absolutely certain of the income-producing scruples of its composer? No matter how hard we listen for tell-tale signs of edible paste influence, we can't be positive. We can only be sure -- or so we've been led to believe -- of the chiefly zak-free repute of Kalvos.