Skip to Content

Reviews & Articles

Muzak, Ambient Music, John Cage and No Silence
at 5:39pm on 18th March 2016

1.-4. Installation views of John Cage's Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, presented by M+ in the Cattle Depot, Tokwawan, Hong Kong.

5. Cover of David Bowie's Low album, 1977.

All photos: John Batten


The death of David Bowie saw an outpouring of sadness and such comments as: “Bowie showed us that we could be ourselves…” - frequently quoted in the press. This seems a little overstated; surely The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan – equally major musicians - were models for generations of young people. Or Michael Jackson, Lou Reed and even the stunning Grace Jones (an autobiography just published) and whose outrageous fashion and cross-sexuality was so influential in the 1980s?

David Bowie and his main collaborator Brian Eno released two seminal albums in 1977, Low and Heroes. These albums were highly influenced by the electronica and sampling of German bands Neu!, Can and Harmonia. A year later, Brian Eno extended this interest by releasing Ambient 1 (Music for Airports), his first ‘ambient’ or minimalist music production. The inspiration for this album’s quiet, repetitive harmonics was the original Muzak, the ‘piped’, schmaltzy, much-derided elevator music heard in 1970s American shopping malls, supermarkets and airports.

Eno wanted to replicate something similar to Muzak’s ‘background’ noise, but with composed music of greater depth and a particular musical ambience. Music for Airports was the first of his many experiments with musical ambience and the encasing of ‘spaces’ with music that was subliminal in its intentional – it was there, but almost unnoticeable.

Sound changes the atmosphere of any space. It is the most overlooked aspect of any newly built environment. Only in dedicated music spaces, like concert halls, are acoustics considered – and then mostly it is a technical approach to ensure the space gives clarity for the music performed.

Glenn Frey of The Eagles died a few days after Bowie. The ‘Californian’ sound of The Eagles epitomized the American West Coast and an era - and I found it unbearable to listen to. My distaste for Hotel California was so strong that I would almost immediately leave any bar playing it on their sound system. In the old days, a jukebox would provide the music – drop a coin in and it was your choice, not the bar proprietor! 

Silence is rare in bars, restaurants and most public spaces. Silence filled by advertising announcements in a supermarket or TV on the MTR or too-loud music in a café. Schmaltzy Muzak has been replaced by noise. Noise. Now, in cafés I ask it to be turned down – and, I ride in Car 4, the MTR’s ‘quiet’ carriage.

Recently, a rare playing of John Cage’s Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience was mounted by M+ in the Cattle Depot in Tokwawan. Comprising speakers mounted in the high ceilings of this beautiful former colonial abattoir – it was perfect noise, an ambient spoken and musical installation with seating. It calmed the day and brought alive the architecture.

This article was originally published in Perspective architectural magazine, March 2016.


Search by Writer: