Face the Muzak

by billy gard

Can anyone remember when you went into a grocery or department store, and the most characteristic sound was some familar song played in a “filtered” form? It might have Alone Again Naturally on Ronnie Aldrich's piano or Long and Winding Road featuring a trumpet in the Living Brass. This “filtered music” is usually called by its origionator, Muzak, or by its more generic name, “easy listening”. Back then, you could explore the sparsly inhabited FM frequencies and come upon actual radio stations that played this “elevator music” format. I wonder how many children may have tuned in to one of them at home and said “Let's play grocery store.”

People today use the term “easy listening” in a really global way, but its real meaning is quite specific. It is generally a rearrangement of a popular or traditional melody in an instrumentalized form with a consistant euphony suitable for background use, a style which today would probably be called “beautiful music”. The obvious father of easy listening, as a monolithic style, is Muzak. Most of its arrangments were its own (not from legendary instrumentalists), painstakingly orchestrated with its eventual use in mind, playing it in public spaces. For 14 minutes there would be music playing at increasing tempos to escort your energy level to a higher level, and then a 15th minute of silence. More recently though, instrumentals by recognized artists have been played over Muzak. I know because I have the records. Robin Williams, Montovani, Percy Faith, and the Living Strings are among the players.

Most recently the painstaking engineering of background music was abandoned altogether, and now they just play whatever the current top 40 is in the background, even though it isn't background music at all. The clear indication is that music is less paid attention to, because the owners of the public spaces figured that the freedom to play with different music styles is no longer theirs to excercise, because the rock music industry is asserting itself more strongly to the generation that is taking over. In fact, today even the choice to dispense with background music altogether is considered too experimental. You are supposed to do what anyone would do if they weren't thinking about the matter at all, which is to just turn on the radio to a typical FM top 40 station - or else substribe to a music feed that imitates the same.

What is the definition “easy listening” has assumed today? Essentially any music that is light enough to be played unoffensively in the background is now called easy listening. In fact nearly anything not fitting an obvious style such as acid rock, polka or bluegrass, will be called easy listening. Even top 40 will be called easy listening so long as it doesn't sound too fierce. If you go thru the “easy listening” section of a new record store, don't expect to see an array of “elevator music” renditions of popular songs, as the term suggests you should. The modern definition of the term is actually a generalized, watered down one. And the style it origionally referred to has quietly slipped out of public visibility.

Why has it? Because that's the way the record industry planned it. They know Muzak isn't the “Orwellian” music it is described to be. In fact it is criticized for the very fact that it isn't very moving. The true Orwellian music is rock, because its insistant thrashing sound dulls your ability to see and think straight. That way you are easier for thought police to work on.

The redefinition of easy listening is overtly evident to anyone who has kept track of the major overhaul that “easy listening” stations have made on their music. I am now hearing everyone from Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand to the likes of Carly Simon and even Abba. It sounds today as if a song has only to drop to number 41 on the chart to become “easy listening”.

To make a blunt observation, I don't know many people who even care to hear easy listening, so it doesn't surprise me a bit that people are not losing sleep over its demise. They really don't think the origional style even deserves a name. But I am only speaking to people who remember the music that was first called easy listening. The time has come to tell people to start referring to today's “easy listening” styles properly as light rock, adult contemporary, show tunes, lost classics, or golden oldies when that is what they actually mean. It is time to stop using the name of easy listening in vain.

There regrettably is no “Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Easy Listening”, because there aren't enough constituents. Returning to the purity of real easy listening is a lonely road. Just as with Christianity, you can tell you are successful in your attempts by people's attempts to shut you up. If an “easy listening” station in your town becomes a sensation throughout the listening area, you can take it from me - it is not easy listening. In fact when I collect easy listening records, I am specifically wary of any records entitled “The Best of..” Whatever would be considered “the best of” any easy listening arranger, are those selections which are the least easy-listeningey. Even Mantovani, the household name for easy listening, has a Bravo CD that is not easy listening any more than the National Anthem.

Easy listening in the strictest sense is the sort turned out by Muzak. Vocals of any sort were strictly forbidden. Arrangements were kept within strict parameters, not allowing for crude blemishes of “artistic expression” such as the winnying of trumpets or wailing of saxophones. The whole aim of these parameters was a consistently euphonic sound, which when done right has as much effect on the comfort of a building as air conditioning.

It is not insignificant that easy listening stations never used to identify artists. A certain anonymity characterizes an easy listening format, which may be an attempt to imitate Muzak. Since easy listening serves a different purpose from forground music, it should not be surprising that the presentation method is as different as the music style itself.

Can easy listening be vocalized? Yes. Even in the 70s when easy listening stations played the real thing, vocals were used. But these “vocals” consistantly took the form of ensembles, or if you please, “shadow choruses.” Such groups as the Norman Luboff Choir singing Our Day Will Come, or Sandpipers doing I'll Remember You consitute the pinnacle of vocalized easy listening. Voices shouldn't be featured a capella except for short durations of time. A one-voice to a part texture could be used, like on the order of the quietest lilts of the Manhatten Transfer, but such a liberty must be compensated for by greater strictness as to the music style. The light jazz style characterizing Manhatten Transfer arose from the big band era wherein easy listening had its roots.

The real problem in vocals begins when you feature a soloist. This is the single most identifiable mark of forground music. It is the most overlooked fact that we respond psychologically to the human voice in a totally different way than to any other musical medium. This is hard-wired into our very being. Failure to take this into account has been the slap in the face of hundreds of attempts at the easy listening format, and this great faux pas is probably what killed easy listening radio. This unique potency of the human voice is greatly alleviated by ensemblization of vocalists as suggested above. The principle is similar to Fester's principle: lying on a bed of nails isn't as painful as you may think, but lying on one nail is!

In a few cases a single voice was heard on legitimate easy listening formats. But the programmers at that time had a strong enough sense of what was easy listening to know exactly what they were doing. The Living Voices arrangement of All Alone am I featured a brief female soloist. The vocal line was of short duration, and sung with a certain “ghostliness” of tone which suggested she knew beforehand she was singing for an easy listening format. And the record jacket, by the way, never gives her name. Another good example is the soprano obligato used frequently by Kostelanetz. Sometimes whistling is effectively used.

The use of “legendary” soloist singers, such as Barbara Streisand, Doris Day or Neil Diamond, should never be included on an easy listening sound track. I bring special attention to this because the first encroachment into easy listening territory is usually some light jazz vocalist such as Frank Sinatra, whose arrangements would be picture-perfect easy listening without the solo voice. You may not see any difference worth belaboring between a soft orchestral arrangement of I'll Be Seeing You with Harry James on the trumpet and the same arrangement with Nat King Cole singing the melody ever so softly. How would it sound if after 10 strictly instrumental arrangements piped directly from Muzak a Sinatra vocal was snuck in? Argue all you want about the backup orchestra being true easy listening, but the ear itself still switches at once to forground mode the moment he tenderly croons his first word. The ear tends to lose its sensitivity to these intrusions, with the result that we don't notice the music “mix” is no longer setting a “mood” as pure easy listening does. This may be compared to mixing red and green paints. In the careful persuit of the elusive “reddish-green” color, all you get is a dirty black.

I should emphasize a point that is often overlooked by zealots for easy listening. You should never attempt to spend the entirety of your musical hours with easy listening. It is this very mistake that makes us try to make easy listening music so all-inclusive it can't set a mood anymore. Life is breath, in and out, and changing and shifting; working with all austerity, then playing with all zaniness; exherting yourself like a sleddog, then sleeping like a baby. And so it must be. Compare it with the illustration that colors mixed all together will result in a shade of gray, which is not a very colorful experience. But colors put side by side, each occupying its own space on the paper, can shimmer with soul-shaking vividness. You should listen to as many different kinds of music as you can, and yet listen to each style as if it were the only kind there is. This will remove the temptation to make any style of music too inclusive, and thus not a style anymore.

Then there is the matter of classical music. Anything strongly typed as classical music, such as by Bach or Mozart, is not appropriate to call easy listening. I may actually be saying this more for the sake of classical music, since there is a unique timeless purity in it. Although classical music is in fact highly suitable for background use, classical and easy listening are so removed from one another in time and in the harmonic language used by each that they are not an effective combination. I personally compare it to trying to combine the enjoyment of a tour of downtown Seattle with a hike in the alpine wilderness. It is worth pointing out here that easy listening is basically a kind of jazz music. It has its roots in the big band era. Certain “semi-classicals”, such as the Barcarolle, could be safely used. The Unchained Melody, Moulon Rouge, and even A Summer Place have certain classical qualities, but are well within the easy listening arena.

An easy listening lineup should take turns between small and large ensembles, between older and newer melodies. You should rotate the use of different featured solo instruments, the most suitable being the piano, trumpet, and guitar. Many other instruments have been effectively used such as an organ (on the order of Lenny Dee), vibraphone piano mixture, harmonica, sax, or flute. Rotate through the different featured ensembles as well, the most suitable being strings, soft brass, woodwinds with flutes dominant, and vocal choir as featured groups of instruments. There should be a minimum of three instrumentals between volcalized arrangements, particularly if there is a generous amount of playing time. One voice to a line textures should be even spread apart even further, and single voice seldom if ever used.

I never believed in attracting anyone to a cause by watering down the definition of the cause to include a greater number of people. The preservation of purity in easy listening is a condition for its survival, no matter how fanatic this may sound. If you hear anyone say “Oh yeah, I really dig easy listening. I heard one great arrangement in particular, some Neil Diamond singing September Morning.” You can be sure he does not dig easy listening. You cannot make more people like easy listening by using the term to refer to what more people like. To do that alienates the lovers of the real thing, leaving them with nowhere to turn. The audience that you draw with the true, correct style is the only audience you should be thinking about. Your job is not to try to add to the listenership. You actually cannot make more people like easy listening, but by just making the product please those that already do, there may be some people who, upon hearing it for once the way it should sound, realize they do like it.

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