Sam Kidel - Disruptive Muzak [The Death of Rave - 2016]
Sam Kidel is perhaps better known as a member of Bristolian abstract techno outfit Killing Sound, whose superb 2014 eponymous EP on Blackest Ever Black has sadly yet to be followed up. Outside of his duties with Killing Sound Kidel spent much of 2015 researching the notorious Muzak corporation, now rebranded as the suitably dystopic sounding Mood Media. As Kidel's sleeve notes emphasise, the corporation produces music to be deployed by companies towards clients, employees and the public at large to encourage co-operation and an upbeat attitude.
One key design feature of Muzak which Kidel highlights is its non-disruptive nature, something it shares with ambient music more generally. It's this characteristic which he hones in on to produce what is something of a détournement par excellence on the genre of Muzak and the agencies that deploy it. As the title of the record alludes to, Kidel's composition intentionally takes the timbre and pacing normally identified with Muzak but imbues it with a strange, uncanny and deeply melancholic sensibility, which rather than encouraging a sense of dysphoric submission, forces the listener the engage with the material and the experience of hearing it. But here's the real trick; after producing his anti-Muzak Kidel then called up various government agencies (mostly the DWP it would seem) that use real Muzak in their telephone systems and instead of talking with the operators played his own Muzak down the phone at them. The operator's reactions are incorporated into the record's main twenty minutes composition.
The results of this ingenious piece of mischief are not only a fine piece of ambient music in the best traditions of Eno, Budd and Biosphere but a subtle political action targeting the alienating experience of both dealing with the UK benefits system and working in a call centre. There is something very familiar about the procession of voices (in a wide variety of regional accents) we hear appearing on the line; the rushed reading of the opening script, the legalistic and de-empathising formalities of noting 'the recording of the call' or the hollow claim to be 'here to help'. But the real gold comes after the opening of each call when each telephone operator has to react to the strange tones coming down the line. It's as if something of that experience of alienation is reflected right back at the operator in a wonderfully aestheticized form. By means of disrupting the normal cycle of these exchanges what we the listener then get is a rare encapsulation of life at the sharp end of neo-liberal Britain. The endless cycle of coercive bureaucracy, the structures of which produce a stultifying melancholia of interpersonal exchange or performative excess. Let's be honest, it's the cheerful call centre workers that grate far more than the miserable ones. The latter at least seem to reflect the truth of the situation.
Disruptive Muzak is a playful and melodious composition that in spite of its use as a disruption comes together neatly as a series of vignettes that ebb and flow around each voice as it appears, recites its script then falls in stupefaction at the non-reply down the line. If anything Kidel could have made it a bit longer, perhaps then reflecting the lengths of time one is often tied up being passed from desk to desk during calls of this nature. He does offer up an opening to further work by including an instrumental or "DIY" version of the composition on the other side of the LP which his notes encourage the listener to use to make their own version. This is another fine conceptual nod recognising the universality of the experience his record is punking and offering it up as a collective weapon. Of course the instrumental version also gives us the opportunity to focus in on the lovely textures and lilting cadences of his music without the intrusion of the call centre workers. Ultimately it's a punchy and quite brilliant work which in its conceptualisation and performance marks Kidel out as one of the few young contemporary electronic artists to successfully engage his craft in a genuinely political fashion.