Hildegard Westerkamp

“We’re all addicted to music anyways.”

Vicente Gutiérrez
Courtesy of Hildegard Westerkamp
Fall-Winter 2014-15

What early peculiar encounters led you to produce some of your sound works like His Master’s Voice and Cool Drool?

Cool Drool came as a direct result of working on my MA Thesis Listening and Soundmaking— A Study of Music-as-Environment. In that context I was researching the Muzak Corporation specifically and anything else to do with the leased-music industry in general. I came upon so much information, much of it astonishing and absurd, that I suddenly felt driven— in fact I could not help myself!— to create a satirical performance piece about the use of music in public places. Shortly after its completion I was asked by Vancouver New Music to present a composition in one of their concerts and I chose Cool Drool. It felt particularly inappropriate— in a pleasurable kind of way!— to make a new music audience listen to entire pieces of Muzak during this performance and create awareness of the growing proliferation of background music in our daily lives. That’s why the laughter on the recording of that performance is what it is— slightly aghast and disbelieving!

His Master’s Voice was created at a time when I had become uncomfortably aware of the proliferation of a male macho voice in the public sphere, both on the street as well as in the media. My initial title for the piece was in fact “Macho Voice.” The loud drunken street voices came from a part of town where the prostitutes were; audible aggressive weekend night voices, coming from hot rod cars, cruising down the strip.

As I was working on the piece, I was recording as many voices from FM and AM radio stations as I could. One can hear the various versions of such voices from the 1980s when the piece was composed, FM voices often sounding rather mellow and fatherly, less aggressive than AM voices, portraying, especially on the easy-listening stations of that time, an illusion of being a friend accompanying the listener throughout the day. Initially I had approached the piece as a satire, making fun of the macho voice. But the longer I worked on it the more I perceived a deeper sinister side in these voices which led me to include excerpts from Hitler’s and Goebbels’ voices, broadcast on German radio in the 1930s and 40s. Towards the end there is also the manic religious voice of Jim Jones, leader of the religious Jonestown settlement in Guyana and initiator of the subsequent Jonestown Massacre in 1978. So the piece developed into a more serious, knife-edge satire, with a deeply political slant, perhaps trying to point out where the relatively harmless, funny macho voice that we hear in the beginning of the piece, can lead to.

The voices are “accompanied” by two musical tracks. One is the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, which starts with high-pitched violin sounds and was put there in conjunction with the slick FM male voice. It felt slightly sacrilegious to include this music in the piece, but I could not help being reminded of how Muzak has used the string section of the orchestra to create a similar effect. The satirical musing behind all of this was: did Wagner’s music have an influence on how Muzak shaped the musical atmospheres in our public, commercial sphere?

The other musical track played throughout the piece and parallel to the Lohengrin overture was the drum machine— very much of its time, one of the early drum machines sounds— meant to connect to the AM macho voices. In other words, the two music tracks in my mind put “high” culture and “popular” culture parallel to each other in the same way AM and FM voices were represented as parallel to each other.

Listening to your survey of male voices, such as the drunk on the street or the male news anchor, you are also critiquing a shepherding quality in, and of, the male voice as well?

Yes, of course, this was at the base of the whole thing, that the male macho voice is all-pervasive, so much so that we barely notice it; as if we’ve internalized it as an inevitable presence in our daily lives. Nowadays one hears many more female voices in the media, but often there still is the low, sexy sounding male voice announcing the station or introducing the overall context. In the eighties, when I composed both pieces, there was a background music station here in Vancouver, CHQM, with just such a shepherding male voice, which can be heard in His Master’s Voice and also in the very beginning of Cool Drool. This voice sounds fatherly, protective and very slick and claims to comfort us in our homes and assures us to be our friend 24 hours a day. It’s totally ironic, of course, since he’s not there. He’s just a voice.

And when people hear something without seeing, it takes on that dimension of divinity…

That’s very true, it’s the disembodied voice. The radio at that time, and ever since it started, was a daily aural accompaniment in many people’s lives and tended to give a sense of comfort to the lonely person. Easy listening stations knew how to exploit that reality by inserting a human presence between songs in the form of a male voice that was supposed to sound warm and comforting. Of course, its disembodied character had the potential of conjuring up the illusion of a godly or divine presence in the lonely listener.



To ask you more about Cool Drool, Muzak had been around since the 1930s and you started this project in the 1980s. How did you engage Muzak, an entity that was around 50 years old by this time and not something “new.”

It really began on a personal level. I was astonished at my own reactions when I would hear Muzak in public places. It was especially embarrassing when particularly “schlocky” Muzak in a minor key would make me cry! You don’t cry to Muzak tunes, especially when you’re a grown woman and consider yourself an experienced and sophisticated listener! In Cool Drool this is handled in a satirical way but it was actually true, that I could not help crying in such a context if I was in a vulnerable or sad mood. This astonished me enough, plus I was in a period of therapy at the time, that I wanted to examine Muzak’s effects on us in more detail.

In my subsequent research I learnt much about the Muzak Corporation, its long history and its beginnings in 1934 in the weapons’ industry. It wasn’t until after WWII that Muzak was introduced into other work environments and particularly commercial ones. By the time I got to Cool Drool in the 80s, I was writing my Master’s thesis and experienced the work on this piece as a lot of fun and a relief from academic pressures.

In Cool Drool, I presented a linear historical development from quiet background music to the Walkman. Originally Muzak was a quiet presence in the environment and was intentionally designed “not to be listened to,” as Muzak stated in its own advertisements for its background music services. It meant to influence customers and workers on a subconscious level only, who were not supposed to listen to it and consequently would not notice that it may put them in the mood for buying more, working faster or lingering longer in a shop or restaurant. This was a manipulation by the corporation for the express purpose of profit making. We now know all of this, of course. But in its beginnings Muzak was in fact a very quiet background sound, so quiet that eventually in the eighties it was not only not listened to but its quiet manipulation did not work so well anymore. This was when foreground music entered commercial and business soundscapes and the Muzak Corporation, in order to stay in business and up-to-date, added its foreground music section. This meant a whole new approach: rather than transcribing familiar tunes into orchestral sound formats which characterized background music, now the original songs were purchased by the Muzak corporation or by other leased music companies directly from the musicians. So stores for example chose a particular style of music that suited their style of clothes and attracted a certain age group of customers. Foreground music was played back louder. It was more “in your face.”

Then the Sony Corporation brought the Walkman to market. For the first time ever people could listen to music privately on their headphones while moving through public spaces on their daily treks. Nowadays this has become standard practice: people select their own music as they go out and thus are accompanied by their chosen soundtrack for the day. In the ‘80s this was a totally new phenomenon. Many people now are convinced that they cannot work, study, eat or even sleep without music. This, what I would call an addiction to music, has crept up on us and the Muzak corporation has played its own insidious and powerful part in this development since its inception.

How did you get your hands on these materials for your research and use in Cool Drool? Muzak seems like an inconspicuous company.

Yes, indeed and that’s the source of its success. We did not hear it coming, literally. But in reality Muzak’s own research is the best research. It has done its homework, and that’s why the corporation has been                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              


Hildegard Westerkamp is a composer focusing on listening, environmental sound and acoustic ecology. She is a founding and board member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and until recently was editor-in-chief of its journal, Soundscape.


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