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Sam Kidel
Disruptive Muzak Tom Marsh , May 17th, 2016 14:04

When modern artists in the Tate-Modern-Tracy-Emin sense of the word try their hand at music, they’re not usually concerned about sounding nice. Case in point: in 1996, Russian graphic artist duo Komar and Melamine and composer Dave Soldier polled 500 visitors to New York’s Dia Foundation to find out what elements in songs they disliked the most. Their responses included cowboy music, bagpipes, accordions, opera, rap, children’s voices, tubas, drum machines, harps and advertising jingles.

You can guess where this is going. The artists and composer then assembled these disparate instruments and themes together into one song – the “most unwanted” song, in their words. It’s 22 minutes long, weird and awful, and the people who are listening to it sincerely, loving the bit where the Walmart endorsement kick ins, are probably few and far between.

Even when the artists attempted a most wanted song, using elements that visitors liked the most, the end result wasn’t intended as a smash hit so much as a demonstration of the vacuity of popular music (it sounded like Celine Dion). It’s also not a particularly good song, and that’s absolutely not the point - it’s an experiment.

Could the same be true of Sam Kidel’s Disruptive Muzak? The experimental electronic artist, pegged as one to watch for his forward-thinking tracks as part of Young Echo and Killing Sound under the moniker El Kid, and under his own name, has taken a giant leap into the realm of subversive audio art with this latest offering. It’s two versions of a 20-minute track consisting of his version of muzak – the ambient, bland music piped into your ear when you’re on hold. But, in a twist that suggests either a prank or artistic pretensions, the first version contains recordings of confused call centre workers being played the song down the phone.

As such, it’s very strange, as difficult at times as Komar and Melamid’s most unwanted song. The backing music is lovely, a series of pulses that wash over the listener, nicely straddling the line between muzak and something more intangible. But it’s the voices that are very much at the forefront of the recording. I’ve no doubt that it’ll take most listeners a long time to get used to the constant stream of call centre employees, if they can get accustomed to it at all. Again and again, bemused and frustrated workers sporting a variety of accents offer the same monologue; they tell the non-existent caller that they’ve connected; they ask how they can help; they say they have to terminate the call if they don’t get a response.

Their frequent "helloooes" do exactly what Kidel presumably intends - disrupt the music. Needless to say, this can make for a jarring listening experience. While vocal samples have been layered over electronic music to perfectly satisfying effect since My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, it’s incredibly difficult to tune out, or accept as a sonic accoutrement, a voice that sounds so bored or irritated. You sympathise with them, not least because I’m led to understand by those who work at call centres that the cardinal sin is hanging up, regardless of what’s going on on the line.

In a way, this harks back to Kidel's earlier work, SUPERMARKET!, a series of R&B homages in which vocals from the likes of Justin Timberlake and Destiny’s Child were dropped over his own very contrasting compositions. Like Disruptive Muzak it’s simultaneously straight and subversive, to be taken as music and as capital-A Art. The big difference this time round, of course, is that the voices aren't coming from Aaliyah and Ciara; they're coming from a confused northern woman repeatedly telling us that we’ve connected to the department of work and pensions.

So, a most unwanted song, pedalling experimentation over repeat playability? Not quite, because as music it’s still sporadically very rewarding, at its best when the voices are submerged beneath the waves of sound. There’s a beautiful segment when the backing really starts to fizz, as if the ambient pool has been disturbed and all the bubbles begin to burst at once. Over a series of pitch-bent pops, an automated voice asks repeatedly for a vocal prompt that, of course, never comes. “Is that right? Is that right?” it intones, sounding almost as desperate as the humans somehow. It’s truly bizarre, and wonderful.

Then there’s the second side, unadorned by voices. But even that can’t escape some artistic designs – this piece is intended to be a DIY version of side one, so you can make your own recordings using it. Whether hapless workers will be experiencing a deluge of "background music only" phone-ins remains to be seen.

There will be those that are disappointed that Kidel is plunging headlong into the wilfully abstract, leaving behind his danceable previous catalogue. But it's hard to fault him for being experimental when he’s testing ground that few other electronic musicians are willing to tread. While he’s not entirely alone out there - Arca, who sampled sheep for his Sheep mixtape and with his music composed for MOMA has one foot in the art world, is an obvious point of reference - he’s unquestionably pushing the envelope.

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