Music for Shopping Malls

Support Structure/Various artists (British Council/KwanYin Records, 2007)

Erik Satie was inspired to create his Musique d’ameublement (Furniture Music, 1917) after his enjoyment of a meal in a restaurant was ruined by loud music. His brainchild, a forerunner to ambient music, was conceived as a form of sonic gloss to an environment – background sound that would, as fellow composer Darius Milhaud put it, ‘vary like the furniture of the room in which it was played’. In 1920 Milhaud collaborated with Satie on the first performance of Musique d’ameublement, during the interval for a concert in Paris. The musicians sat in different corners of the theatre so as to diffuse the sound across the room, and a programme note instructed the audience to ignore Satie’s ritornellos. However, according to Milhaud, ‘as soon as the music started up, the audience began to stream back to their seats. It was no use for Satie to shout: “Go on talking! Walk about! Don’t listen!” They listened without speaking. The whole effect was spoilt […] Satie had not bargained for the charm of his own music.’

If taking the time to listen to ambient music attentively is much the same as Satie’s audience paying unwanted attention to his proto-Muzak, then the idea of appreciating it critically seems rather self-defeating. Yet in the case of Music For Shopping Malls (2007) such attentiveness reveals there is more to this project than its deadpan title suggests.

Music For Shopping Malls is a collaboration between art and architecture think-tank Support Structure (architect Celine Condorelli and artist/curator Gavin Wade) and Beijing-based architect Wang Hui. Commissioned by Ou Ning, Emily Campbell, Shumon Basar and Joshua Bolchover for the British Council exhibition ‘Get It Louder’, Support Structure worked with three musicians involved in China’s tiny but lively experimental music scene – 718, Yan Jun and Zafka – to create background music for malls in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. The tracks were released on KwanYin Records, an imprint of Sub Jam, an independent label started by Yan Jun in 2000. Accompanying the CD was a set of bespoke shopping bags, developed in collaboration with Wang Hui, and made to order in the malls.

Support Structure and their Chinese collaborators found common interests in both Satie and Muzak (musician 718 also works on film soundtracks outsourced from Europe to China). Satie was the project’s guiding spirit, and a set of diagrams devised by the Muzak Corporation – their trademark ‘stimulus progression charts’, designed to ensure optimum levels of worker productivity – were used as the basis for the five longer tracks that comprise the first half of the CD. Shimmering, gossamer clusters of notes hover around warm drones in ‘Music for Shopping Malls 1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’ by 718; an approach taken to more minimal extremes in Yan Jun’s oddly titled ‘4th Ring Shopping Killer’, its fuzzy analogue timbres reminiscent of early Aphex Twin recordings. Zafka, who has also worked on soundtracks for Chinese artist Cao Fei, contributes the more site-specific ‘A.L.S. (G.I.L. Soundtrack)’ – acronymsfor ‘A Lousy Summer’ and ‘Get It Louder’. Using samples recorded in the Beijing shopping mall, Zafka weaves threads of conversation and animal noises into a richly coloured tapestry of more insistent character than the album’s other tracks. The second half of the album comprises four short passages (including a snippet of Satie’s Musique d’ameublement) designed to be played as loops – these contrast Zafka’s samples with 718’s beautifully plangent and more straightforwardly musical approach. (Interestingly, 718 has also been developing an album of music for insomniacs.)

Music for Shopping Malls operates at a number of conceptual levels within its Chinese context, one of which is hinted at by the CD sleeve art work. Designed by Condorelli, it sports an elegant, half-finished dot-to-dot drawing of flowers and, on the CD itself, a drawing of a carp – a symbol of value in China. The acquisition of knowledge in China is traditionally predicated on learning through copying and performing rather than the Western-model of individual self-discovery. The dot-to-dot drawing – a commonplace in the West that doesn’t exist in China, as it would be considered too didactic – can be read as an analogue to the Muzak charts used in the creation of the tracks, a form of creativity that would be generally frowned on. The carp – also printed onto the Support Structure project bags – ascribes value not only to this approach but also to something essentially designed as background music; a way of looking at the overlooked that delicately positions Music for Shopping Malls between ambient self-effacement and gentle assertiveness.

Issue 113

First published in Issue 113

March 2008

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