Friday, September 05, 2008

Decoder: The Sound of Muzak

Another classic article from the zine vaults, again incredibly not already online. 'Decoder: the sound of muzak' by Tom Vague was first printed in Zig-Zag in Feburary 1985 and then reprinted in his own Vague zine (May 1985). This article had a big impact on me, not so much in terms of the film it describes, but in introducing to me the notion of music as a form of control.

As far as the Concise Oxford Dictionary is concerned it doesn't exist. As far as the majority of people are concerned it doesn't exist. As far as the Muzak Corporation is concerned that's just fine. Muzak Corp is the only company in the world that doesn't advertise it's product to the public. In fact they don't even want it widely known that Muzak is a product. They're quite happy for it to be known as harmless background music.

That's not to say that the people who create and use Muzak don't think highly of it; 'Muzak is more than music. It's an environment,' is the catchphrase used in the Muzak manual. And that's not boastful hard-sell either, that's factual information. 'Muzak is scientifically-engineered sound,' continues the manual, 'The sound of Muzak is subtle and musical. But it is not music which is meant to entertain. Because music is art. But Muzak is science. So it does not require a conscious listening effort. Yet it has an enormous effect on those who hear it ... Muzak is programmed to motivate office and industrial workers, relax restaurant patrons and medical patients, make shopping more pleasant and less hurried ... The entire process is known as Muzak Stimulus Progression ... It provides an overall feeling of forward movement, can mitigate stress and produce beneficial psychological changes.'

However, not everyone is in a state of stimulated, blissful ignorance of Muzak's supposedly beneficial psychological effects. Beneficial to whom and who decides what is beneficial, you may well ask. Hamburg journalist/director, Klaus Maeck did so, at great length. Eventually turning his obsession with Muzak and the harm it does into the new German underground movie, 'Decoder’.

Klaus used to run Hamburg's 'Rip-Off' Records and as a journalist covered the likes of Einsturzende Neubauten, Abwarts, Xmal Deutschland, Malaria and Psychic TV. He had previously documented the likes of the aforementioned on Super-8 and gained some recognition as a Punk film maker, because in his words, "Nobody else was doing it in Hamburg." After the collapse of 'Rip-Off' and disillusionment with journalism, Klaus began to concentrate on his idea of making a film about Muzak. Over a couple of years he researched the phenomena and compiled the 'Decoder Handbook'; to support the film with information about Muzak and related subjects; like Cut-ups, Infra-sound, Dream machines, cassette-piracy and frogs. (Still don't see how that last one fits in.)

His research entailed visiting Muzak control offices - In every main city in Germany - Hamburg, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Munich - there is one office for this purpose - And he got to interview one of the directors, but found himself responding in a peculiar way; "I sat there talking with him and I really felt something. When I arrived there I wanted to ask him some quite provocative questions. After one hour I was really calm and talking with him very gently. He explained to me, really he told me and I really believed him, that Muzak is good in hospitals. Instead of having valium, you hear some Muzak and you're really calm before an operation.

"I think that's the good thing about Muzak." Klaus concedes, "To be used in that way instead of chemicals, pills and so on. But that's the only good thing about it. You can manipulate the brain with it. Mainly it’s negative, but it could have some good effects. I still can't believe, this director told me they use the same Muzak in hospitals, supermarkets, fast­food chains, offices, factories. I cannot believe that, because in supermarkets its purpose is to make you comfortable to buy more. In offices it's to make the working atmosphere more relaxed to increase efficiency. But he told me it's the same. And there is only one tape reel running in this office, going by telephone cable to all the different places. You don't get anything on tape or record. It's just through cable.

"It's built up on the human bio-rhythm, on the normal daily rhythm people have; like you start work at 8, so around 11 they make the Muzak more exciting because you're thinking about lunchbreak. Then in the afternoon it’s calm because you've just had a break. Then at 3 they make the Muzak more exciting again. The tape runs and runs all day, endless. You can't decide for yourself which Muzak you want to hear. They decide in the office. Even if you turn it off you're still in that rhythm. I think it's pretty dangerous. You never know when Muzak is on the radio - many major groups arrange their music using Muzak techniques. You never can be sure."

And so using the basic theme of Muzak; the damage it can cause, how to deal with it and ultimately decode it, scriptwriting began for 'Decoder’. At this stage Klaus brought in Muscha, a young film maker from Düsseldorf, who had the experience necessary to direct the proposed one and a half hour film. And together with Volker Schaefer and Trini Trimpop, they set about building a plot around three central characters: The main protagonist, a young noise-freak, played by Mufti of Neubauten/Abwarts fame, sets out to decode the hidden information of Muzak. But Mufti's quest doesn't interest his girlfriend, who works in a sleazy sex show on Hamburg's Reeperbahn. She's played by another familiar figure from the German underground, Christiane F, who in the film is obsessed with frogs. In real life of course it’s something else.

As Mufti and Christiane's relationship breaks down, a sub­ plot develops around Jager, the Muzak Corporation hitman, who's being blackmailed back to work to bring an end to Mufti’s decoding. During Jager's frequent social jaunts down the Reeperbahn, he begins to show more interest in Christiane than Mufti does. But he doesn't discover the connection until the end, when he decides, too late, to finish the job in his own interest.

The Jager role is played by the only pro-actor in 'Decoder', Bill Rice, the star of another nocturnal delight 'Subway Riders', and a well known face on the New York theatre scene. In fact his desperately appealing, sad face was why he got the part. "He's not famous but he had such a good face we just had to have him," enthuses Klaus.

Finally the Austrian-American director of photography, Johanna Heer was recruited to the team, and shooting began in sterile computer centres, even more sterile hamburger joints and, as a contrast, glaringly Iit peep-shows and underground sound-labs. At times I found it a bit hard to follow the sub-titles and I was watching it in the morning, the wrong time of day to watch it according to Klaus, but I thought the story did well to unravel itself from the various ongoing sub-plots and themes. And the use of colour and tone carries the film through; each central character is Iit in different fluorescent shades between neon and argon, which often explode into 'architectures of fire’.

However the soundtrack (available on 'Some Bizarre') is probably its most endearing feature. Regular Zig-Zag readers may already be familiar with 'Decoder' because of Dave Ball's work on it, which he said something about in the March issue. Various Psychic Tellys, Collapsing New Buildings and Some Bizarros did their bit to add to the general ambience. And I even found myself liking Marc Almond's 'Sleazy City' in the peep-show sequences. Their soundtrack is cut with FM news broadcasts and the scientifically programmed art-product of industrial psychologists, musicologists and marketing engineers. There's a war on, as Klaus outlines;

"I think Muzak or music in general can be used to manipulate the brain, in any way· for relaxing, or getting you excited. And they work with it. They do it. And I think you, we, whoever can do it also in a different way, like Mufti does in the film; he does the opposite. He develops Anti-Muzak for his own purposes, to provoke in the end street riots; first to make people puke instead of feeling relaxed in the burger place. I'm still convinced, even if it sounds funny, that you really can do it. If you have 3 or 4 people with tape recorders on the streets you can provoke something like that. You get manipulated all the time by the media. So why shouldn't we use the same techniques for our purpose, to try to break that down. I think that's okay, necessary even."

There's a war on. An information war: 'Decoder' credits its two major influences in this field with cameo roles of their own design: Genesis P.Orridge appears as an anti-pope sort of figure, leading an underground resistance movement - I think all the people in 'Decoder' parody themselves to a certain extent, but Gen's parody is the funniest. In one scene Mufti stumbles into his bunker, where he becomes a not entirely willing participant in a nihilistic noise ritual. Gen's main line to Mufti before he's sent packing is; "Information is like a bank, and we have to rob this bank."

Rob a Bank. Storm the Reality Studio and Retake the Universe: Ironically the development of functional music and subliminal techniques owes a great deal to Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Advertisers and god knows who else have been using their Cut-up technique to manipulate people ever since Burroughs first applied it to his literary works. He used it to seemingly rearrange a text at random to create new words and watch the future flood out. But it can of course be used for more down to earth motives, such as profit and greed.

Burroughs also wrote a book called 'The Revised Boy Scout Manual', which gave instructions on how to use his techniques on the streets. It was planned for this to be incorporated into 'Decoder', with tape-terrorists/pirates using cut-up tapes to provoke a riot in the final scene. But when the 'Decoder' crew arrived in Berlin to shoot footage of the anti­-Reagan riots, they were astounded to find the cassette-pirates already there. Ghetto blasters had been set up in open windows and helicopter and gunfire noises were being played in the streets. Hundreds of tape recorders were confiscated as a result.

As an acknowledgement of the debt the film owes him, Burroughs himself crops up in Mufti's dream sequences; first leading Christiane across a field in Jarmanesque ambience. The second time handing Mufti a broken tape recorder on Mufti's TV - this was shot when Burroughs was staying in Tottenham Court Road for 'The Final Academy' in 1982 – Ain’t nothing here now but the recordings. So hit it! Pause it! Record it and play! C-30! C-60! C-90! GO!

Here's a section from the film Decoder (1984), featuring Genesis P.Orridge. His speech seems quite prophetic now of the internet age, just on the horizon at the time of the film: "Information is like a bank. Some of us are rich, some of us are poor with information. All of us can be rich. Our job, your job is to rob the bank"

See also: Sonic Attack

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. A great article, and from a relatively mainstream magazine like Zig Zag! Ah the eighties probably weren't as bad as I remember them.